Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Merit of Christ
how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?
Hebrews 9:14 NKJV
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 in what Christ’s intercession for us consists. Today we examine on what Basis our Lord is enabled to make this intercession.
One of the main concerns of the Protestant Reformation was the concept of merit. Although they did not use the terms of Covenant Theology, the Medieval theologians understood that man was in a relationship with God whereby he must render to Him perfect obedience in order to have all of the blessings involved in eternal life. Man as God’s image, as a rational, moral being must satisfy all of the inherent obligations that having such blessed status entails. If he hoped to attain to God’s promised reward for obedience he must be holy as God is holy and perfect as God is perfect. On the other hand if man sinned and transgressed against God’s perfect being by violating one of His holy commandments, he would need to make satisfaction for the offense and insult that his iniquity would bring to God were it left unpunished. This satisfaction needed to meet the standard of God’s moral perfection in order for God to again allow the sinner back into His presence and enjoy the blessings of perfect obedience.
The problem the Medieval theologians wrestled with was how can sinners fulfill the demands of God’s holiness by perfect obedience to earn His rewards, and make full satisfaction for moral failings to avoid His punishments? Their answer, which is clearly taught in Scripture, was by the grace of God given through the gospel of Jesus Christ. However, not all teaching on the way in which that grace comes to believing sinners was sound. Distorting Scripture’s clear teaching on human depravity and divine grace, some Medievals held that even though Christ fully accomplished what was required for man’s salvation on the cross, sinners still needed to cooperate with that grace in order for God to give it to them. Thus, they taught that God initially gives believers grace (in baptism for example), but the believer must then cooperate with that grace in order to earn greater grace. The word they used for “earn” was “merit.”
The doctrine of human merit ran like this: God requires believers to give alms to the poor and show kindness and generosity. If you kept this commandment perfectly you would not accrue a sin debt, yet neither would you earn any merit for all you did was your duty. However, if you gave ALL that you possessed to the poor, then you did MORE than your duty and this extra over-and-above-the-call-of-duty work went into your account as merit. Again, God commands Christians to be chaste outside of marriage. If a Christian never committed fornication, adultery, or any other sexual sin but was fully faithful to his spouse, he would owe God no satisfaction for sin in his sex life. Yet once again having only done his duty he would have achieved no merit. However, if a Christian went beyond obedience to the commandment by avoiding marriage altogether in a vow of chastity, they taught that extra goodness would go to his account as merit.
Eventually this view set forth Mary, the apostles, martyrs, and all of the “Saints” – those Christians who achieved more merit in their lives than they needed for themselves – as intercessors who could be called upon in prayer to help Christians achieve the merit they needed to get into heaven. In particular these saintly ones could be sought to go to Christ to intercede on behalf of the petitioner. The Reformers answered that such doctrine insulted the sole mediation of Christ and idolized the works of man. Christ is more merciful than any mere man. To think you need someone to turn Christ to you in mercy as it were, insults the Lord of mercy. Also, no man has the merit to intercede with God on behalf of sinners except Jesus Christ. Nothing but His blood and righteousness can satisfy the holiness of God on our behalf. In sinful man, as Luther taught, there is no such thing as merit. But in Christ, in His perfect life and atoning death, there is more than enough merit for all those—no matter how vile; if they come to Him in real faith—no matter how small! Christ’s mediation alone can quiet the conscience of convicted sinners and give peace!