Grace, the Two Covenants, and Merit

Rick Phillips

Mark Jones' posts (here and here) regarding grace as pertains to the covenants of works and grace raise some perennial questions in covenant theology.  As I read Mark, a number of concerns come to my mind, which I offer in a spirit of cordial discussion.  I would highlight three immediate concerns, together with a fourth point of appreciation:

First, it seems helpful to note the distinction between the wide variety of scholars in the Reformed tradition on the one hand and the confessional heritage of our Reformed churches on the other.  This is a point often made by R. Scott Clark with which I strongly agree.  The Reformed tradition spans 500 years and every continent on the globe.  It is no surprise, then, that a wide variety of views under virtually every doctrinal heading can be traced to some learned Reformed author.  This does not, however, make all these views legitimately Reformed.  For the authentic and authoritative Reformed tradition we must turn to the confessional statements of the Reformed churches.   Now, I find it interesting and edifying to learn from scholars like Mark Jones who mine the debates and discussions of various Reformed scholars from our past.  We can learn a great deal from these past conversations.  Yet when discussing and debating these matters, it remains helpful and necessary pointedly to observe the boundaries set down by our confessions.  In short, then, a view is not authentically Reformed merely when some Reformed authority presents it but only when it conforms to the standards of our Reformed churches.

Second, this confessional procedure becomes especially helpful when considering the matters of merit and grace before the Fall.  My own view is that if we use the term "grace" to describe God's condescension and goodness prior to the Fall, we sow confusion into our doctrine of salvation by grace alone.   Biblically and confessionally, "grace" refers to God's unmerited favor in a post-lapsarian situation.   God's grace is extended towards sinners who not only fail to merit his favor but who positively merit his wrath by virtue of their guilt and corruption.  Now,  I do appreciate the desire to acknowledge something more than mere nature in God's pre-fall dealings with Adam.  God bestowed positive blessings on his creatures in the Garden and any obedience that Adam might have offered to God resulted not from virtues and powers that had their origin in Adam but that derived from the gift of God.  Nonetheless, to assign the term "grace" to these pre-fall dealings is to change the definition of our term "grace" so that it ceases to refer clearly to God's unmerited provision for the salvation of sinners.  If Adam's obedience under the covenant of works would have been by grace, then what does it mean that my salvation as a sinner is also by grace?  Does this structure not join together what both the Bible and our confessions have intentionally separated and stridently contrasted?  How much more is this true when we assign the term "grace" to God the Father's provision to his sinless Son in performing the work of our salvation?  (In response to Mark's thoughtful comments about God's grace towards Christ, I would note that the Bible's use of a word, such as charis, does not always line up with our theological use of that same term, so that a mere appeal to Luke 2:40 cannot be conclusive in constructing our doctrine.  I would further note that while graciousness is an attribute of God, this does not exactly line up with our confessional meaning of that grace by which sinners are saved.  It is precisely because of the challenge in making these distinctions that our confessions are so helpful.)

By use of "grace" in a pre-sin or no-sin scenario, we not only blur concepts that ought to be carefully distinguished but we leave the Christian with no term to clearly identify God's post-sin dealings in saving his people.  In other words, when we expand the term "grace" to include God's pre-fall dealings, we are left with no term that specifically identifies God's post-fall dealings.  And when a concept no longer has a term, that concept is sure to suffer and ultimately die.  The last thing Reformed Christians should ever want is for God's saving grace towards sinners to suffer such a fate.  I do not think for a second that Mark Jones desires to damage our doctrine of sola gratia - no doubt, he seeks to enrich it - but I do think that this remains the likely effect of expanding the term "grace" to include God's pre-Fall dealings with Adam. 

Third, it is often noted that our confessions do not specify every point of agreement in such as way as to remove all legitimate discussion.  What they do is erect a fence and boundaries within which we may safely differ and discuss.  This is why the clear commitment in our confessional tradition to the two-covenant scheme, in which the covenants of works and grace are categorically distinguished and contrasted is so important to theological discussions of merit and grace.  The two covenant scheme of the Westminster Standards has been absolutely essential in combatting the Neonomianism of both Norman Shepherd and the Federal Vision, not to mention Roman Catholicism.  There are, of course, matters in which the two covenants are similar (they are both covenants sovereignly administered by God, for instance).  But the nature of these covenants and the way of salvation offered in them must be clearly and consistently contrasted if we are to avoid arriving at a doctrine of salvation that is markedly in contrast with our Standards and which therefore is something other than Reformed (not to mention biblical).

Fourth, it is along these very lines that I found Mark Jones' discussion of merit so helpful.  The followers of Meredith Kline, with whom Mark is debating, have a particular understanding of covenantal merit that differs from other schemes of merit in the history of theology.  Here, Mark seems to occupy the high ground when we note how our Standards use this well-debated term.  Westminster Larger Catechism 55 states that Christ intercedes for us "in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth."  So we may speak of Christ's merit on our behalf as our mediator.  But when it comes to the merit on the creature's part before God, the Confession speaks in exclusively negative terms.  WCF 7:1 says that while man owed obedience to God, "yet they could never have any fruition of him as their blessedness and reward, but by some voluntary condescension on God's part."  Thus, as Wes White has commented, "man's enjoyment of God is not a matter of inherent right or merit but of condescension on God's part."  Notice that this exclusion of human merit pertains to pre-Fall Adam as well as to post-Fall sinful humans.  I do realize that Kline's view of covenantal merit seeks to place the concept within the "voluntary condescension on God's part" that is spoken of in that paragraph.  I would note, however, that just as the Confession isolates "grace" to a strictly post-Fall scenario, so also does the Confession restrict merit to the person and work of Christ alone.  For the sake of clarity and confessional fidelity, it would seem helpful and necessary for us to conform our theological terminology to the confessional pattern in the matter of "merit" just as in the matter of "grace."