Can Humans Merit Before God? (2 of 2)
April 21, 2015
Westminster Seminary California Professor, David VanDrunen, critiques Norman Shepherd for rejecting Adamic merit:
"It is not difficult to see how such a view, if taken seriously, makes belief in Christ's active, imputed obedience impossible. If image bearers do not merit anything before God, then the true image bearer, Christ, did not merit anything before God, and his perfect obedience can hardly be reckoned ours as the basis for our justification" (CJPM, 51).
But Professor VanDrunen does not define "merit". He seems to make the argument that because Christ, the true image bearer, merited before God, Adam, as an image-bearer, also could have merited before God. In his quote there appears to be a one-to-one correlation between the merit of Christ and the merit of Adam. This is questionable ground, in my view. He needs to define merit, otherwise we are left guessing, at best, what he means. Is he departing from what the Reformed scholastics meant by merit or agreeing with them?
There are important Christological reasons why Christ could merit, but Adam could not. If our understanding of what constitutes a meritorious work follows the Reformed scholastics, then the answer is quite simple: the dignity of Christ's person (as theanthropos) explains why he, and he alone, could merit before God.
In this post I want to explain how we may speak of God being gracious to Christ while at the same time arguing for the merit of Christ.
The Father upheld his Son, his servant, by bestowing upon him the Holy Spirit to enable him to perform the work given to him (Isa. 42:1), which flows from the terms of the eternal covenant of redemption.
In Luke's gospel we read of Christ: "And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor (charis) of God was upon him... And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor (chariti) with God and man" (Lk. 2:40, 52).
Luke speaks of Jesus increasing in chariti (from the Greek, charis). Does this mean "favor" as many English translations suggest? Or should we translate the Greek as "grace"? A number of translations render "charis" in Luke 2:40 as grace (e.g., NIV, NASB, KJV). We do not need to get too picky about which word is used, provided we understand that divine grace is not merely God's goodness to the elect in the era of redemptive history. Nor is grace simply offered to those who have sinned.
Divine grace is a perfection of God's nature, and thus a characteristic of how he relates to finite creatures, even apart from sin. In the garden, the grace of God was upon Adam; in the "wilderness," the grace of God is upon his Son, the second Adam. God's graciousness may be summarized simply as what he is in and of himself. As Psalm 145:8-9 makes clear: "The LORD is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The LORD is good to all, and his mercy is over all that he has made."
God may be "gracious" to Jesus - not as though he sinned - because God is gracious to his creatures. How much more to his beloved Son? God showed favor to his favorite Son. Christ's human nature was sanctified and filled with graces (Gal. 5:22). "For let the natural faculties of the soul, mind, will, and affections, be created pure, innocent, undefiled, - as they cannot be otherwise created immediately by God, - yet there is not enough to enable any rational creature to live to God; much less was it all that was in Jesus Christ" (John Owen, Works, 3:168-69). Thus Bavinck: "If humans in general cannot have communion with God except by the Holy Spirit, then this applies even more powerfully to Christ's human nature" (RD, 3:292).
How, then, is it possible that Christ could merit salvation for the elect if he was sustained by the Father through the Spirit (i.e., received grace)?
First, concerning Maccovius's point that the work must proceed from one's own powers for it to be properly meritorious, we may say that the Sprit is still the Spirit of the Son. So while the Son voluntarily submitted to the will of the Father, to be upheld by the Father, the divine nature which operated upon Christ mediately through the Spirit was still, ontologically speaking, Christ's Spirit (i.e., "own powers"). Hence, Christ's work (obedience) proceeds from his own power, even if it was mediated through the Spirit.
Second, Anselm argued that Christ, as a rational being, owed obedience to God. But to make satisfaction on behalf of sinners, Christ had to go beyond a life of obedience - he had to die. As the God-man, Christ's death was therefore supererogatory - a death above God's requirement of him. His death is superabundant to make satisfaction for sins. Gataker and Vines, for example, used Anselm's argument to reject the imputation of the active obedience of Christ. Christ's death was supererogatory and therefore his death merited eternal life. In other words, Gataker and Vines argued Anselm's point that Christ's obedience is required, but his death is not required; ergo: only the merits of Christ's death are imputed to believers, that is, his "passive" obedience.
Goodwin resisted this line of argument. Goodwin argued that the Assembly must grant the assumption of the Anselmians that Christ, in his humanity, was obliged to fulfill the law. However, for Goodwin, Christ, as the God-man, had a unique dignity and so was not obliged to keep the law in the same way a creature is, especially since his law-keeping was voluntary. Daniel Featley also held that Christ's hypostatical union meant that he was freed from the obligation of the law. True, Christ had a human nature, but he was not a human person. The dignity of the person, which in the case of Christ is infinite, alters his relationship to the law. As a result, Goodwin and Featley argued that since Christ was not obliged to obey the law but did so anyway, he must have been doing so on behalf of his people.
Goodwin and Featley's position may be summed up that "whatsoever is debitum is not meritum." That is to say, Christ's obedience to the law was not an ontological necessity as the "Anselmians" (i.e. those who rejected the IAOC) maintained, but rather a functional necessity by virtue of Christ's pretemporal agreement with the Father to fulfill the law on behalf of sinners.
Opus indebitum ["a non-indebted work"] is maintained this way for Christ. In other words, Adam did not come freely, hence his obedience was "indebted," unlike Christ's, which was not indebted. Therefore the parallel breaks down at that point concerning merit between the two Adams.
As William Perkins argues, protecting the uniqueness of Christ as the one who alone can merit has certain implications for imputation:
"And the true merit whereby we looked to attain the favor of God, and life everlasting, is to be found in the person of Christ alone: who is the storehouse of all our merits: whose prerogative it is, to be the person alone in whom God is well pleased. God's favor is of infinite dignity, and no creature is able to do a work that may countervail the favor of God, save Christ alone: who by reason of the dignity of his person, being not a mere man but God-man, or Man-God, he can do such works as are of endless dignity ever way answerable to the favor of God: and therefore sufficient to merit the same for us. And though a merit or meritorious work agree only to the person of Christ, yet is it made our by imputation. For as his righteousness is made ours, so are his merits depending thereon: but his righteousness is made ours by imputation.... Hence arises another point, namely, that as Christ's righteousness is made ours really [secundum veritatem] by imputation to make us righteous: so we by the merit of his righteousness imputed to merit and deserve life everlasting. And this is our doctrine."
Merit must be something that is not owed: Christ freely came to obey in our place, hence it was not owed. Adam did not freely make the decision to place himself under the law of the covenant of works.
Merit should proceed from the powers of the one who deserves it: Christ relied upon his Father's grace - the grace of the Holy Spirit - but, ontologically speaking, the will and essence of God are one, and therefore Christ's merit proceeded "from the powers of the one who deserves it." Adam was upheld by the Spirit in the Garden, but it was not his Spirit.
The rewards given to Christ for his meritorious obedience were of use to him because of the glory that would come to his name. God is jealous for his glory, so when Christ merited glory there was no threat of God sharing his glory.
Finally, the rewards given to Christ are proportionate to the work he performed. Adam's reward would have been far greater, assuming we say that Adam would have been granted heavenly life, than what he "worked for".
Professor VanDrunen and I both want to argue for the doctrine of the imputation of Christ's righteousness. I do not think, however, that holding to Adamic merit is the way to go about such a noble endeavor. My concern is the dignity of Christ, who alone can merit.
Updated. No tag line anymore.