Merit and the General Judgment
James McCarthy

According to the Roman Catholic Church, whenever a person who is in a state of grace does a good work, he earns a reward. The right to a reward is called merit.

Merit accumulates during a person’s life. If the Catholic commits a mortal sin, however, all merit is forfeited. But should the Catholic repent and receive the sacrament of penance, lost merit is once again restored. Merited reward takes three forms in Roman Catholicism: an increase of grace, eternal life, and an increase of glory in heaven.

When a Catholic does a good work, the Church teaches that he immediately receives the reward of an increase of grace. This grace further justifies the Catholic. He becomes holier and more pleasing to God. This is the first kind of merited reward in Catholicism.

The Church also teaches that upon death each person must face God in the particular judgment. If God determines that the individual has died in the state of grace, the person obtains "the joy of heaven, as God’s eternal reward for the good works accomplished with the grace of Christ." The Council of Trent stated:

To those who work well right to the end and keep their trust in God, eternal life should be held out, both as a grace promised in his mercy through Jesus Christ to the children of God, and as a reward to be faithfully bestowed, on the promise of God himself, for their good works and merits. (Council of Trent)

Vatican II stated:

Since we know neither the day nor the hour, we should follow the advice of the Lord and watch constantly so that, when the single course of our earthly life is completed, we may merit to enter with him into the marriage feast and be numbered among the blessed. . . . (Second Vatican Council)

Thirdly, the Church teaches that merited reward also results in an increase of the degree of glory that an individual enjoys in heaven. God does not decide this reward until the end of the world. Christ will return to earth. The dead will rise with immortal bodies, and God will release all who are still suffering in purgatory. Then there will be a second evaluation of each person’s life. This is the universal or general judgment. According to Roman Catholic theology, Jesus described the general judgment in the Gospel of Matthew:

But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. And all the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. (Matthew 25:31-32)

The general judgment is the public proclamation of the results of the particular judgment and the determination of a person’s total reward. It occurs at the end of the world so that the complete effect of each person’s life upon all of society and history can be calculated and duly rewarded.

If the person died in a state of grace, Christ will reward the individual in proportion to his good works. This will decide the degree of his glory in heaven.

Similarly, if the person died without grace in his soul, Christ will decide the degree of his punishment in hell.

Eternal Life Is a Free Gift, not a Merited Reward

Here we will focus on the second form of merited reward, eternal life, a Roman Catholic teaching that stands in direct contradiction to the Bible. For though the Bible teaches that God will reward faithful stewards in heaven, it never says that He will reward them with heaven.

Eternal life is not a reward, but the unmerited gift of God. Jesus, speaking of His sheep, said, "I give eternal life to them" (John 10:28). He promised, "I will give to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life without cost" (Revelation 21:6, see also: John 4:14; 6:40; 6:47; 17:2; Romans 5:17; 6:23).

Nevertheless, the Roman Catholic Church insists that eternal life is a merited reward earned by doing good. Just as a Catholic can earn an increase of grace and an increase of glory, he can earn eternal life. The Church denounces anyone who teaches otherwise:

If anyone says that the good deeds of a justified person are the gifts of God, in the sense that they are not also the good merits of the one justified; or that the justified person, by the good deeds done by him through the grace of God and the merits of Jesus Christ (of whom he is a living member), does not truly merit an increase in grace, eternal life, and (so long as he dies in grace) the obtaining of his own eternal life, and even an increase of glory: let him be anathema. (Council of Trent)

When the Council states here that Catholics can truly merit eternal life, it means that there is an equality between the work performed and the reward received. Aquinas explains this relationship saying that, by the mercy of God, good works which proceed from the grace of the Holy Spirit merit everlasting life condignly. According to Aquinas, eternal life is "granted in accordance with a fair judgment."

Roman Catholic theologians contrast condign, or well-deserved merit, with congruous merit. This latter kind of merit applies to cases in which the reward "results from a certain graciousness in the light of God’s liberality."

Eternal life, according to the Church, is a truly merited reward. It is merited condignly, not congruously. It is not a free gift which God graciously gives apart from anything man has done to earn it. It is the result of a fair judgment.

Romans 2:6-8

To substantiate its claim that eternal life is a merited reward, the Roman Catholic Church cites Paul’s letter to the Romans:

[God] . . . will render to every man according to his deeds: to those who by perseverance in doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, eternal life; but to those who are selfishly ambitious and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, wrath and indignation. (Romans 2:6-8)

The Roman Catholic Church interprets this passage to say that if a person dies with sanctifying grace in his soul, he deserves to go to heaven because of his good deeds:

. . . it must be believed that nothing more is needed for the justified to be considered to have fully satisfied God’s law, according to this state of life, by the deeds they have wrought in him and to have truly deserved to gain eternal life in their time (provided they die in a state of grace). (Council of Trent)

The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that what every man and woman truly deserves is eternal punishment. The good news of Jesus Christ, however, is that God is willing to graciously give those who trust Christ eternal life, a gift that no one deserves! In order that these two truths would not be confused, the Holy Spirit included both of them in one verse:

For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 6:23)

With such a clear statement here that eternal life is a free gift, Romans 2:6-8 cannot possibly be interpreted as teaching the direct opposite—that eternal life is a merited reward. A closer look at Romans 2:6-8 reveals the source of the Church’s misinterpretation.

In Romans 2:6-8, Paul is addressing the kind of person who considers himself morally superior to others in character and conduct. This moralist, however, is himself practicing the very sins he condemns in others. Paul warns this hypocrite that he will not escape the judgment of God. A day is coming when God "will render to every man according to His deeds" (Romans 2:6). Those who do good—the biblical evidence of new life (John 15:8)—will receive honor and eternal life. Those who do evil—the biblical evidence of an unregenerated heart (1 John 3:7-10)—will receive wrath and indignation.

Note that Paul does not say that God will render to every man honor or wrath because of his deeds. That would make good works the cause of eternal life, as taught in Roman Catholicism. Rather, Paul says that God will render judgment according to how a man has lived. This means that there will be a relationship of correspondence between how a person lives and the outcome of his judgment. Those who practice good—evidence of true spiritual life—will receive good from the Lord. Those who practice evil—such as the hypocritical moralist Paul is addressing—will receive wrath and indignation.

Roman Catholicism, on the other hand, teaches that God gives eternal life to people because of their good works, to those who deserve it:

It is a universally accepted dogma of the Catholic Church that man, in union with the grace of the Holy Spirit must merit heaven by his good works. . . . we can actually merit heaven as our reward. . . . Heaven must be fought for; we have to earn heaven. (Dogmatic Theology for the Laity)

Adapted from The Gospel According to Rome (Harvest House Publishers: Eugene, 1995).

i. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 2010, 2011, 2016.
ii. See A. Tanquerey, A Manual of Dogmatic Theology (New York, NY: Desclee Company, 1959), vol. 2, pp. 321-322.
iii. Council of Trent, session 6, "Decree on Justification," canon 32.
iv. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1021, 1022.
v. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1821.
vi. Council of Trent, session 6, "Decree on Justification, "chapter 16.
vii. Catechism of the Catholic Church, paragraph 1036.
viii. Second Vatican Council, "Dogmatic Constitution of the Church," no. 48.
ix. A full explanation of the events recorded in Matthew 25:31-46 and how they fit into biblical end-time prophecy is beyond the scope of this article. It can be said, however, that doctrinal sections of the Bible should be used to interpret prophetic events, not vice versa. The Roman Catholic Church uses Matthew 25:31-46, a prophetic event, to deduce its doctrine of salvation. The result is the Church’s doctrine of salvation based upon faith and works.
x. Council of Trent, session 6, "Decree on Justification," canon 32.
xi. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Pt. 1-11, Q. 114, Art. 3.
xii. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Pt. 1011, Q. 114, Art. 3.
xiii. A. Tanquerey, A Manual of Dogmatic Theology (New York, NY: Desclee Company, 1959), vol. 2, p. 174.
xiv. Council of Trent, session 6, "Decree on Justification" chapter 16.
xv. Matthias Premm, Dogmatic Theology for the Laity (Rockford, IL: Tan Books, 1967), p. 262.

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