Can Humans Merit Before God? (1 of 2)

Some recent defenders of justification by faith have appealed to the concept of Adamic merit because of what they perceive to be the obvious parallels between Adam and Christ. Christ merited as the second Adam, ergo...

How do we understand the theological concept of merit between humans and God? Could Adam merit anything before God in the Garden? Understanding the first question will help us to answer the second question. 

According to Johannes Maccovius, for something to be meritorious, four things are required:

1. It must be something that is not owed.
2. It should proceed from the powers of the one who deserves it.
3. It must be of use to him of whom someone thinks that he deserves something.
4. The reward must not be greater than the merit.

The Westminster divine, Obadiah Sedgwick, in Bowels of Tender Mercy (pp. 460-61), similarly suggests that merit:

1.    Must be opus indebitum ["a non-indebted work"]--for he who does do no more than he ought to do, or suffers what he deserves to suffer, merits nothing by his doing, or by his suffering.

2.    Must be opus perfectum ["a perfect work"]--against which no exception can be taken--nothing is meritorious which is short and faulty.

3.    Must be opus infinitum ["an infinite work"]--a work of infinite value and worth, which cannot only stand before justice, but plead also with it and challenge it for the dignity of what is done or suffered (see also William Perkins or Ursinus, who claims that our good works, which are necessary and to be done for rewards, cannot even merit temporal blessings).

In his discussion on the Westminster Shorter Catechism, James Fisher makes the point, basically echoed by all of his contemporaries and predecessors, that there was no proportion between Adam's obedience and the life promised (whatever that "life" was). Adam could not, therefore, merit eternal life. Why? "Because perfect obedience was no more than what he was bound unto, by virtue of his natural dependence on God..." (Fisher). Anthony Burgess acknowledges that although Adam was in a covenant of works he "could not merit that happiness which God would bestow upon him." God's grace to man is "an infinite good, and all that is done by us is finite." 

Adam's obedience was made possible not because he obeyed simply in his own strength, but also because he had assisting grace from God. William Ames argues that Adam persisted in the garden by grace and that "grace was not taken from him before he had sinned." Ames was not alone in making this point. The acts were Adam's, but that does not mean that he did not receive power from God (hence: the act/power distinction).

George Downame, in his treatise on justification, and in a section where he is opposing Papist theologians, claims that God is not a debtor to any, including Adam: "For [God] covenants Non de debito sed de gratuito, not for rendering a due debt, but for freely bestowing his own free gift, not according to debt, but according to grace."

The original covenant made with Adam was gracious, even though it was also a covenant of works/life (so Ursinus). Reformed theologians in the seventeenth century generally did not see works as opposed to grace in God's covenantal dealings with Adam and Eve. This point seems to be rejected by some today when the bilateral structure of redemptive history is brought up.

Patrick Gillespie, in The Ark of the Testament Opened (1681), spends a good deal of time highlighting the similarities and differences between the covenants of works and of grace. He first considers a number of similarities between the two before moving to a discussion of their differences. In both, God was the efficient cause; that is, he is the author of both covenants. In both, the moving cause is the grace of God. Some Puritans (e.g., Francis Roberts) were not altogether keen on the use of "works" and "grace" as the principal designations of these two covenants for the simple reason that "there was very much of Grace and Favor in both." Personally, I don't have a problem with the two-covenant schema described as a covenant of works and a covenant of grace, but we shouldn't assume that the covenant of works was devoid of grace, even thought it was not the grace of mercy through Christ that we experience.

Patrick Gillespie, like all of the Reformed orthodox of that era, admits that in the covenant of works the condition was obedience and the reward resulted from works; yet, "even that Covenant was thus far a Covenant of Grace (emphasis mine)." Not only did God's grace provide the motive for the establishment of the covenant in Eden, but God also "freely endued man with all the habits of Grace in perfection" (cf. Ames above). Moreover, the promised reward was gracious because Adam's obedience could not merit anything from God.

Francis Roberts argues that God's entering into the covenant of works with Adam was an "act of divine grace and favor, not of debt." God could have dealt only in terms of "command," requiring duty from Adam without a reward. However, God's condescending to Adam and entering into a covenant with him was "mere grace," according to Roberts. In connection with this, he insists that Adam could not merit any reward. Even if Adam had rendered perfect obedience, he would still have "been an unprofitable servant, having done nothing but what was duty." In fact, Roberts suggests that if God's dealings with Adam in the covenant of works were an "Act of Divine Grace," then God's covenant of grace was an act of "superabounding and transcendent grace."

If Sinai is a republication of the covenant of works because there is a "works principle" concerning the retention of the land on a corporate level, we may also say, "in some sense," that it is also a republication of a gracious covenant of works! How many advocates for republication are willing to say that Sinai is a republication of a gracious covenant of works? Again, this is not to deny the bilateral structure of redemptive history (CoW and CoG), but to suggest that the details of each covenant administration need to be clearly set forth. (I personally hold to material republication, not formal republication).

This is why I was a little surprised to read Bryan Estelle claim that the works-principle in the old covenant functioned in such a way as to provide the "meritorious grounds for Israel's continuance in the land?" (Estelle, TLNF, 136) (emphasis mine). What does he mean by "meritorious grounds" and how can fallen sinners merit anything, even corporately in relation to temporal blessings? I suspect Professor Estelle might have a different conception of merit than what I have highlighted above from our classical Reformed theologians. 

Calvin Beisner and R. Fowler White have argued that Adam could indeed merit in the Garden of Eden: "One the one hand, there was the principle of personal merit according to which the reward of everlasting life was promised and would be rendered to Adam as merited by his obedience...On the other hand, there was the principle of representative merit according to which the reward of everlasting life would be rendered to Adam's posterity as vicariously merited for them by Adam's obedience and unilaterally imputed to them..." (p. 151).

In the essay they also happen to claim their views reflect "classical" covenant theology. 

The concept of ex pacto merit emerges later on in the seventeenth century, but not at the expense of affirming that there was grace in the Garden (the writers say as much). Those who want to affirm "ex pacto merit" should, if they wish to maintain general agreement with the Reformed orthodox of the seventeenth century, also be comfortable with (and perhaps insist upon) pre-Fall grace. If grace is defined simply as God's favor in the place of demerit, then it doesn't make much sense to speak of God showing grace to Adam in Eden. But that definition of grace is, I believe, wrong-headed because Christ received God's grace.

Christ was, unlike Adam, able to merit before God; but Christ was also endowed with the habits of grace in order to keep the terms of the covenant. In other words, in order to keep the Adam-Christ parallels, we must not actually abandon the concept of grace given to them both, but actually affirm it. It has been a peculiar oddity that some assume that the parallels between the two Adams means that Adam could not have received the grace of God because Christ did not. But this view is based on the fatal assumption that God was not gracious to Christ in any sense. 

David VanDrunen, in criticizing Norman Shepherd's rejection of merit in the Garden of Eden, makes the following claim:

"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). 

This paragraph by Professor VanDrunen will give me an opportunity in the next post to examine more carefully - I trust, in an irenic tone - some of his claims from a historical and biblical perspective. 

But it is interesting to me that some recent defences of justification seem to approach the topic somewhat differently than what I find in the Early Modern era when it comes to merit and the Edenic context for Adam's obedience. 

(updated) Pastor Mark Jones would like to thank all of the "amateur" theologians who have helped him understand these things better.