I finished Luther's Bondage of the Will a bit ago, but revisited this passage, in light of the ongoing Federal Vision controversy, of which, more later:

"There is a deeper reason why the doctrine of merit, in all its shapes and forms, must be rejected. The idea of a meritorious act is an idea of an independent act which is in no way necessitated by God for man or performed by God in man, but is carried out by man acting in some sense apart from God. And there is no such action as this in God's universe.... the fact that it is God who works all man's works in him means that human action can never be independent of God in the sense required for it to acquire merit..." (page 51)

Now, Luther is rejecting here the idea of sinful man meriting favor with God, which most Protestants reject along with him (though too many would see faith in Christ as wholly our own doing, meriting salvation from God).

But I am wondering if Luther's thought can also be applied to Jesus Christ's obedience. It seems to me, to speak of Jesus meriting the Father's favor introduces a separation between the two that violates the Trinitarian reality of deep unity and love. I'm not saying Jesus didn't offer a perfect, innocent, blameless life as a sacrifice to pay for our sins. God imputes the active obedience (righteousness) of Christ to our account. But is it helpful to define that as something Christ merited from the Father, like their relationship was all business and contract? I don't think so, especially when we affirm that it takes faith to be truly obedient, and faith and merit are nigh unto mutually exclusive. If we emphasize a meritorious righteous obedience given us, we start to lose a faithful obedience given us, which we truly need before God.


  1. Steve,

    You'll have to explain why you think faith and merit are "nigh unto mutually exclusive". I believe this is an assertion that needs to be proven, and it hasn't been so far.

    The interaction within the Trinity that we call the covenant of redemption does not need to be devoid of love and faith in order to also be a legal agreement. And in that sense, it is all business. If we affirm that it was nothing more than Trinitatian love and faith that was expressed in what Jesus did for us, and that there was nothing "paid" and "earned" in His sacrifice, then we end up denying the reality of God's justice which needed to be fulfilled and His wrath that needed to be propitiated.

    Love and wrath are not mutually exclusive in God. Neither are faith and justice. We do damage to the concept of God's wrath and justice by pitting faith and love against merit in Christ's work.

  2. Thanks Conrad, this is a good word for me to hear.

    If you merit something with God, He owes you something. We can't do this with our works, or with our faith, as God gives us that, too.

    But did Jesus merit something with the Father? Was the Father up there watching, waiting to see Jesus do right, before imputing righteousness to Him and His believers?

    How does that jive with the Father saying at the Son's baptism, /before/ His ministry: "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well-pleased"? One objection I have to merit is that it implies Jesus didn't have God's favor from the start. If you have to merit/earn favor, you didn't have it before. But I think Jesus did (Luke 2:52).

    The basis for all this is God's initiating the terms of a covenant of grace with His Son and with all to be found in Him. The basis is not a contract founded on merit. The covenant can partially be described this way, but that is not its basis. Its basis is the sure Word of a personal God (Hebrews 6:13-20). There were no contracts signed, just words spoken (Psalm 2:7-9), hands shaken and His hands pierced.

    If Jesus merited righteousness by His obedience, then the Son could have sued the Father, had the latter breached the contract. But this (and the very concept of merit) supposes a greater authority than either. And there isn't one. We are led to this blasphemous thought, not by my personal impiety, but by the merit/contract understanding of things.

    I agree Jesus paid a debt we owed, but he already had it in the bank when He left the ivory palaces and entered the world of woe. He didn't accumulate increasing merit until He had enough obedience at 33, so He could die and pay it off then. That's the kind of thought I want to avoid with merit language.

    Faith exclusive of merit? Sure. Faith is reliance and dependence. "Have mercy on me, a sinner." Merit, as Luther points out in the quote, is just deserts based on independence: "All these things I have kept from my youth."

    A lot depends on definition of merit, I suppose...

    I think we can trust God to keep His covenant, in which He remembers, honors, and imputes Christ's righteousness (God-pleasing obedience) to us because He imputed our guilt to Jesus on the cross. In a sense, you can blend merit and faith there, if you are defining merit carefully...