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Joe Darcy wrote:

Hi, guys —

I'm on the web site you advertise on, the Christian Post, debating with a person and they wrote this response:

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church — Second edition, 1994, 1997

Article II Grace and Justification

Section III Merit — page 487, paragraph 2010 states:

2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life.

Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.

My friend is claiming that the Catechism is saying something contrary to what the Scriptures teach. Look at the passages he quotes and what he says:

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Romans 3:28

But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.

Romans 4:5

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Galatians 2:16

For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 6:23

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 2:8-9

The Scriptures teach that salvation is a gift, we cannot earn a gift.

Again the Bible teaches that there is no merit to be earned or gained by our works.

These two views are polar opposites.

  • Can you, as Catholic apologists, help me out with this one?

Thanks!

Joe

  { Why does our Catechism contradict the Scriptures on justification, righteousness, and merit? }

Eric replied:

Hi Joe,

You said:
My friend is claiming that the Catechism is saying something contrary to what the Scriptures teach. Look at the  passages he quotes and what he says:

Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.

Romans 3:28

The key to this is understanding that when Paul speaks of works, he is referring in shorthand to the term works of Law, which itself is specific technical term referring to the Mosaic law, including circumcision, that all Jews were bound to.  Note that Paul's argument centers around circumcision, and he's talking to those who argue that Gentile converts must submit to the Jewish law to be saved.

The Judaizers justify themselves by claiming to be children of Abraham.  They claimed that they are justified by circumcision — i.e., works of Law, that is, a euphemism for the Mosaic ceremonial law.

Paul refutes them by pointing out the case of Abraham (Genesis 15:6), where it says,

Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it him as righteousness.

  • Why does Paul quote this? 
  • To show that Abram was justified as soon as he had a born-again experience? 
  • To show that Abram was made righteous from the first moment he believed?  <No!> 

Romans 4:9-11 states:

"We have been saying that Abraham's faith was credited to him as righteousness.  Under what circumstances was it credited?  Was it after he was circumcised, or before?  It was not after, but before! And he had received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised." 

Paul is refuting the Jews who claim to be justified by circumcision by pointing out that Abraham was justified by faith before he was circumcised, thus refuting them from the example of the very person whom they appeal to.

But note something else: Abraham's justification comes in the middle of his walk with God, not at the beginning.  Abram is called by God in 12:1.  Abram obeys. Paul tells us he had faith (Hebrews 11:8)

Now your friend will want to argue that we are justified as soon as we first put our trust in God but from the beginning, Abram trusts in God's promise — he took all his possessions, uprooted his family and life and country, and set out for the land of Canaan.

But the LORD did not yet justify Abraham.

Abraham builds an altar at Shechem, then between Bethel and Ai.  Then there was a famine in the land where God had sent him.  Later, God repeats his promise to Abram, and asks him to walk the length and breadth of the land (verse 17). Abram obeyed, and did what the Lord asked.

But the LORD did not yet justify Abraham.

Then Abram offered a tenth of all he owned to the king of Salem, a figure of Christ.

But the LORD did not yet justify Abraham.

Then God made his covenant with Abraham, promising him a son, and then Abram was justified, and later circumcised.

Abraham, then, was not justified when he first believed, but only after he had been obedient, after he had not merely given lip service to God, but had literally been walking with God for a long time:

  • giving up his country
  • moving his family
  • offering sacrifice to God, and
  • everything else.

Thus it is clear that Paul's point is that Abraham was justified before he was circumcised, against his opponents who believed that they were justified by circumcision.  Paul's point is not that everyone who believes, is justified as soon as they believe, for that is clearly not true if we examine the life of Abraham.

So the point of Romans is not that we can't be justified by the deeds we do. St. James
(in verse 2:24 of his epistle) makes it clear that we can be.  The point is we aren't justified by the ceremonial laws of the Mosaic covenant.  Read the whole book of Romans for context, don't just focus in on one passage or another.  Galatians is another good book to read. Also check out:

for good treatments of this subject. 

He also has some interesting articles on justification here:

There is a whole tape series on this which is just phenomenal by Dr. Scott Hahn on Romans, available here. (Romanism in Romans)

As for the topic of merit, the New Testament is replete with examples of merit we can earn. 

Look up the word reward in a concordance such as the one on Biblegateway.com and you'll see many examples of ways we can gain reward (which is, in essence, merit). 

A good primer on merit is:

Hope this helps,

Eric Ewanco

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