What are the three types of Merit?

Question
The Catholic Church has three different types as supernatural merit. Can you identify and briefly explain them?
Answer
A discussion on "merit" can be confusing for Catholic and Protestant alike. Catholics maintain that distinct definitions important here. We agree. So, lets look at their definitions.

According to New Advent, by "merit (meritum) in general is understood that property of a good work which entitles the doer to receive a reward (proemium, merces) from him in whose service the work is done." In the Catholic system of salvation, they refer to three different types of supernatural merit: (1) congruent; (2) condign; and (3) strict. To assist our understanding the table below will attempt to briefly differentiate between the Catholic's three types of merit:

Type of
Merit
Brief Definition
Modern-Day Example
Congruent Occurs with respect to God when a person
under the influence of actual grace does an
action which pleases God, but which he has
not promised to reward.
I have a lot of books in my hand. Someone
kindly holds the door of the library open for me.
While it would be fitting that I return the favor at
a latter time, I have not promised to do so, nor
am I strictly bound to do so.
Condign Occurs when God has promised to reward an
action or work; due to a person for some good he
has done. The fundamental basis is God's promise,
not the intrinsic value of the human act. God's
reward always immeasurably exceeds the intrinsic
value of our merits.
I mow your front yard. The normal reward for
such work would be $25.00 but instead I'm
rewarded $25,000,000.00.
Strict Occurs when someone gives to God something
of equal intrinsic value to the reward he has promised
to give. The value of one's actions are equal to the
reward given.
A paycheck for the work you have done for the
week. A certain amount of work for a certain amount
of pay.

The Catholic Church correctly teaches that only Christ is capable of meriting in the strict sense - mere man cannot (Catholic Catechism, 2007). However, in Catholic theology, in order to remain in a state of grace, Catholics are taught to perform works which merit salvation. "Merit" in Roman Catholic theology means something deserved by virtue of fulfilling a certain condition, or by virtue of performing an act. These saving works are said to be "condign merit" (a cooperation with grace); where God has bound himself to reward the person for work that he accomplishes with the help of the Holy Spirit. However, even though Catholics insist that God's rewards always immeasurably exceed the intrinsic value of their own merits, isn't this still a work for which they are being rewarded? Even congruent merit enlists God in a man-made covenant of works, in which the Catholic depends upon God's just and loving nature to react in like-kind; God is more just and loving than mere man, so he will open the library door for me at a later time. "But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace" (Rom 11:6).

Even calling them "works of grace" still emphasizes that salvation is by grace + works. Catholics simply confuse the works of sanctification and misapply them to justification. But, biblically we are saved "unto" good works, not "by" them (Eph 2:8-10; Tit 3:5; cf. Jas 2:18, 20, 24). See "Calvin: No Salvation without Sanctification!" below.

In Reformed Theology, we biblically reject any notion that we, the sinner, contribute any kind of merit in our justification. Our so-called "treasury of merit" is as filthy rags (Isa 64:6). They are less than worthless in regards to our justification. Adam's fig-leaf works contributed absolutely nothing to the salvation of Eve and himself; they simply were a display of their new found fear (Gen 3:7, 10). In salvation, the first couple were passive, while God was active. Their salvation was by grace alone; (1) God alone made a blood sacrifice for Adam and Eve; (2) God alone made garments for Adam and Eve; and (3) God alone clothed Adam and Eve (Gen 3:21; cf. John 1:29; 1 Pet 1:2, 19-20). Christ actively and willingly went to Calvary to make his priestly blood sacrifice for his people (John 10:11, 15, 17, 18) and actively made their righteous garments (cf. 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:21) and clothes them (Isa 61:10; cf. Psa 35:9; 132:9, 16; Luke 15:22).

Christ's obedience in and of itself is completely whole and perfect. It needs nothing added to it. His merit, his obedience and suffering righteousness, is imputed to the believer. Christ's work(s) alone justify the elect. So, the ground of our acceptance in God's righteousness is wholly outside of us. Justification by faith alone forever shuts out our boasting of contributing to our own salvation in any form; with any kind of our own merit, whether it be congruent, condign, or strict. Only after the justification of the saint is complete, does Christ work in them to do the works he has saved the believer "unto" (Gal 2:20; Phil 2:12-13; cf. Rom 13:14; Eph 4:24; Phil 1:6; Col 3:9-10).

The Scriptures clearly teach that justification (our right standing with God) is by faith alone and not by any works that we, the sinner, can or have done (Rom 5:12-19). As Paul writes:

Romans 3:20 Therefore no one will be justified in His sight by works of the Law. For the Law merely brings awareness of sin.

Romans 3:28 For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Romans 4:1-5 What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness." Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.

Romans 9:16 So then, it does not depend on man's desire or effort, but on God's mercy.

As John wrote, "But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13).

Related Topics:

Calvin: No Salvation without Sanctification!
Is Purgatory Biblical?
What is the Perpetual Virginity of Mary?
What is the Immaculate Conception?
Praying the Rosary?
Catholics and Justification?
The Catholic Bible?
Apocrypha Accounts?
Transubstantiation vs. Consubstantiation vs. Memorialism vs Reformed?
Hahn's Hersey: The Four Cups?
Pre-Apostolic Succession ???
Is Catholic Penance Biblical?
Can Catholics be Saved?
Are all Protestants going to Hell (Catholic Dogma)?
Was Peter the First Pope?
Who is the One True Church?
Do you agree with what the Roman Catholic teaches?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).