Salvation is by Christ Alone
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. Ephesians 2:8-9NKJV
Question 55 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “How doth Christ make intercession?” It gives the answer, “Christ maketh intercession, by his appearing in our nature continually before the Father in heaven, in the merit of his obedience and sacrifice on earth, declaring his will to have it applied to all believers; answering all accusations against them, and procuring for them quiet of conscience, notwithstanding daily failings, access with boldness to the throne of grace, and acceptance of their persons and services.” Last time we looked at how only Christ can intercede for sinners on the basis of His perfect righteousness. Today we examine more closely how Jesus alone has merit before God.
As we saw last time, the church of Luther’s day allowed for Christians to merit rewards from almighty God. There were many qualifications and conditions that they needed to fulfill in order to merit these rewards, but with the help of divine grace – upon which the believer needed to depend throughout his working – he could, according to the church, earn merit in the sight of God by his works. This merit would be his as he cooperated with God’s grace infused into him in the sacraments. In earning this merit the believer had to have faith. Likewise, as he did a good work his heart had to be right. That is, he had to do the work for the right reasons, loving God and loving his fellow man and wanting to see God glorified in His work. He could not hypocritically go through the motions and hope to earn any merit. Finally, he had to truly be relying on God’s grace and not on his own righteousness as he did his work. All of these things were said to be necessary, according to the Medieval church, for a good work to be truly meritorious.
Yet, even with all of these nods to grace and to faith and to the righteousness of Christ, in the end, the believer freely cooperating with the grace of God, earned merit by his good works. Even here this merit from a converted Christian’s works was distinguished from the merit Christ earned. Jesus was said to have earned “condign merit.” Condign merit was defined by Rome to have real claim on the commensurate reward according to strict justice. In other words it would be wrong for God not to give the full amount of merit deserved by the quality of the work Jesus accomplished. Because everything the believer has is already from God he could not earn this kind of merit with his good works. What the believer could earn was called “congruous merit” or sometimes even “quasi-merit.” According to the Catholic encyclopedia, congruous merit is inherently inadequate to receive its recompense but it does claim a reward on the ground of equity. In other words it is fitting for God to give this kind of merit a reward but not by strict justice, it depends upon His kindness and generosity.
Furthermore, according to Rome there were many saints who earned more than enough merit for their own righteousness and justification. Because whatever a person merited for himself could be applied by God to others. This extra merit was said to be held in a treasury, a treasury of merit, to which the Pope of Rome had the keys. The indulgence controversy that sparked the Protestant Reformation was over letters of pardon which could be purchased by Christians in order to apply this extra merit to their own lack of righteousness. Tyndale, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and other godly men and women rightly rejected this whole unbiblical system of fallen human beings meriting and earning ultimately their justification before God. They taught that salvation is by grace alone, meaning not a grace you cooperated with in order to earn more grace, but a grace totally purchased and freely given by Christ to all those who believe in Him. It is not earned by any kind of merit on our part. It is not increased by any kind of satisfaction by our works. Anyone honestly examining even his best works must admit with Scripture that apart from God’s gracious acceptance of them in Christ, they are filthy rags in the sight of God (Isa. 64:6). Our works can never earn anything from God. All of the rewards we will receive in heaven for our works are rewards of grace. All of our salvation is entirely a gift: the gift of God purchased by His Son and given to His elect when He causes them to be born again and brings them to faith and repentance. God justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5). God’s righteousness comes to the sinner from faith to faith. For the righteous ones (real Christians) do no live by their works, they live by faith (Rom. 1:16-17). For salvation is by grace alone.