No Merit Before God

“There is no merit before God. Nor should there be merit before Him. True community does not count the merits of its members. Merit is a concept rooted in sin, and well disposed of”. 

I posted part of the above quote as my Facebook status a few Sundays ago. This is the trouble I cause when my wife is called to substitute in Primary.

The status and the responses resulted in a response by Eric Nielsen at Small and Simple.

I wanted to follow up on the idea of merit.

This quote is from the 1942 senior thesis of the philosopher John Rawls. It is a theology thesis. His original career plan had been to go into the clergy. Over the next four years, while serving in World War II, he would lose his faith and turn to secular moral philosophy. I am grateful for that turn. His thesis, along with some related essays has recently been published by Harvard University Press.

The thesis is still a senior thesis and no necessarily a great work of theology or philosophy. Yet, it fascinates me because it shows the theological roots of what will later become one of the greatest works in secular moral and political philosophy…A Theory of Justice.

I have long found similarities between Rawls’ treatment of desert (whether deserve and therefore have moral claim on social status) and Hugh Nibley’s view that the lunch is always free because we are not responsible for having lunch…God is. Nibley condemned the dominance of Social Darwinism in our thought and Rawls did the same thing.

For Rawls, the problem mostly arises when we view ourselves as having merit.

“The human person, once perceiving that the Revelation of the Word is a condemnation of the self, casts away all thoughts of his own merit . . . . The more he examines his life, the more he looks into himself with complete honesty, the more clearly he perceives that what he has is a gift. Suppose he was an upright man in the eyes of society, then he will now say to himself: “So you were an educated man, yes, but who paid for your education; so you were a good man and upright, yes, but who taught you your good manners and so provided you with good fortune that you did not need to steal; so you were a man of a loving disposition and not like the hard-hearted, yes, but who raised you in a good family, who showed you care and affection when you were young so that you would grow up to appreciate kindness – must you not admit that what you have, you have received? Then be thankful and cease your boasting”.”

Let’s compare this take on merit with that expresses by Lehi in 2 Nephi Chapter 2:

8. Wherefore, how great the importance to make these things known unto the inhabitants of the earth, that they may know that there is no flesh that can dwell in the presence of God, save it be through the merits, and mercy, and grace of the Holy Messiah, who layeth down his life according to the flesh, and taketh it again by the power of the Spirit, that he may bring to pass the resurrection of the dead, being the first that should rise.
While we may need to take upon ourselves certain covenants and ordinances, none of this leads to us having merit unto salvation. It is only through the merits of Jesus Christ.

Yet, we want to be deemed with merit ourselves. I must be doing better than others. I am working so hard. I must, therefore, be a more valiant servant.

Now, many are doing good. Many of you are the most loving people I know of. However, we all must rely on His merits for salvation. To recognize this is an important step. The humility which comes from recognizing our nothingness also allows us to follow Him.

Some people equate the nothingness of man with the idea that humans are evil. We can be, that is for sure. But we are naturally good. Yet, we live in a world that entices us to be carnal and greedy. Let us reject that world and seek after Him who is good.

17 Replies to “No Merit Before God”

  1. Does merit require a comparison to someone else? Because to me that is not merit but is pride. Yes, everything we have is a gift, but why do we receive that gift? Because we have worth or merit as a divine child of God. The trick though, is to view your own merit based on your own capacities and without reference to the capacities or achievements of others. There is a difference between humility and self-loathing.

    We do not receive salvation based on merit, true, but exaltation is dependent partly on the actions that we take. To remove all concept of merit is to reify the false works/faith debate that has plagued Christianity for decades.

    While structural components are important philosophically and religiously, and greatly shape the array of choices one can perceive as available to make, and influence the perceived rationality of each choice, Rawls is basically removing any role for the actor in determining her outcomes. Such a deterministic philosophy is incompatible with the gospel.

  2. While doctrinally we do not, culturally I think some do believe in a type of treasury of merits. The concept of salvation in the Catholic Church relies partly on merits… the merits of Christ or the saints. The saints got their merit (that the church dispenses) by good works beyond what they required thus building an excess of “satisfaction” for sin. In a sense a treasury of merits.

    This concept of “after all we can do” implies we can accumulate some portion of the merit required for salvation. It is further reinforced by our effort to distinguish ourselves from other Christians who appear to believe that we can or need to do nothing worthy of salvation.

    Maybe it comes from all the things we do and then later teach in the church. “Scouting is the activity arm of the Aaronic Priesthood.” Well, I was an Eagle Scout. I got “merit” badges. I earned a palm for merit badges I earned beyond what was required. Parenthetically, palms were given to Christians to show that they had made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to receive indulgences (merits of Christ). I got shiny disks to glue on my pennant for every Article of Faith I memorized. I got medals for fulfilling On My Honor and Duty to God requirements. I was taught that 90% of those who earn their Eagle Scout award will go on a mission. I advanced through the three youth levels of the Aaronic priesthood alongside my peers. Young women earn their young women’s recognition and like the boys are taught the sequence, baptism, youth advancement, temple covenants, temple marriage, family.

    We are taught that everything is being recorded in the book of life, and “cleanliness is next to godliness”, and “if ye keep the commandments you will prosper in the land.” So, if we have lots of kids, have a big house with a perfect yard, look like Molly and Melvin Mormon, all your kids go on missions and marry in the temple then we are more righteous and more favored by God. Then we have a positive balance on the ledger sheet in the book of life; we have enough “merits” and this is “all we can do” after which we then look around for this thing called grace (2n 25:23).

    I may be a little cynical here and by no means does everyone think this way but I think our culture overshadows our doctrine sometimes and this culture can drive our programs. And, without serious contemplation, we can come to have a very strong testimony in our culture. It is our doctrine that will sustain us. Our culture brings richness to our life and greatly aids us in following our doctrine but it is not as unchanging or reliable. The two can be often confused in subtle ways.

    Inevitably in life we all face our nothingness. We re-cage our spiritual gyros and assess the damage our self-dishonesty has piled up.

    My question is how do we teach our kids the right way to have self-worth (usually by helping them do difficult things) without also teaching them their worth comes from their works. All at the same time while I am trying to unwind my own self-dishonesty and keep the conversion process rolling ahead. I don’t want my kids to get wound up with untenable beliefs (such as trying to build their own treasury of merits) that needs to be unknotted as they mature. I suppose it comes the art of consistently responding to the highs and lows of life each day in a productive way. Shedding our mortal persona and “Acting” in our divine character.

  3. Geoff – I always thought it was Matthew Mormon, not Melvin.

    Seriously though, I think it’s possible to reject the concept of a treasury of merits cultural definition of merit (which is definitely not doctrinal) without entirely removing the concept of merit from the gospel.

  4. Nice post Chris.

    But there does seem to me to be something of a contradiction involved. Is not the acts of rejecting to world, seeking after Him, recognizing our ‘nothingness’, being thankful and ceasing boasting themselves the stuff of merit? Some might disagree with what type of merit one must show, but unless we are ready to say that all will be saved, or that God simply picks who will be saved arbitrarily, then we must assume some relative merit between those saved and those not saved.

    I see no way around this.

  5. I think this is the natural result of a theology that makes works a precondition of accessing grace, rather than works being a consequence of grace.

    I also think it is interesting to think about the LDS teaching that our place in this life is determined by our valiance in the pre-existence. This has been abandoned as respects blacks, but the Saturday’s Warrior teaching that the current generation was reserved for this time, is the most faithful generation, etc…that cannot help breed a mentality of some entitlement and superiority can it. Try squaring that up with Rawls’ “original position” thought exercise. Why should I care if someone else is born in poor circumstances, they have earned it.

  6. There is no question that the “upright man” spoken of does not deserve all the merit for his standing. He does deserve part of it, however, if he has any free will or moral responsibility to speak of.

    The idea that he deserves none of it is the doctrine of total depravity, one of the five points of Calvinism. Calvinism strictly maintains that people deserve absolutely no credit whatsoever for any good thing, a conclusion derived from the proposition that everything that happens – good, bad, and ugly – happens according to divine decree.

    Similarly, we claim the we are ultimately of the same species as our Heavenly Father. If so, and we add up all the purported merit of our own and it adds up to nothing, how is it that the merit of our Father in Heaven’s actions add up to something?

    So we might well claim that either we have no real similarity with God – he being the font and origin of all grace and we dark spots on a dark night, or that there is no such thing as grace, and God himself deserves no merit for anything he has done.

    Or perhaps, just perhaps, there is a little spark within us that we have responsibility for all our own.

  7. The phrase “no merit” is important in Aaron’s teaching of the Lamanite king in Alma 22. I wonder if the embrace of this idea is part of the reason the converted Lamanites were so firm in their faith.

    By the way, did you see last week’s paper in Science, which reported the first reasonable estimate of the number of earth sized planets in the observable universe — 1X10^(21). Check out the Wikipedia article that says that the observable universe is only the part of the physical universe that is in principle viewable given the big bang and the speed of light. Who can tell how much bigger the real physical universe is?

    If only one in a million of these planets are inhabited, there are 1X10^(15) planets in the observable universe. Each of those would have billions of spirits on average participating in the goals of those creations, each of which is probably unique, given the kinds of processes that seem to be at work on our planet. Living in the “depths of humility” is the only intellectually honest response in response to such a universe and the God that created it. “No merit” and “nothingness” are not meant to drag me down, but to help me remember that if I am the numerator, the denominator including God and his creation is so large that “no merit” and “nothingness” are the best way to approximate my power and relative importance.

  8. This quotation from Rawles reminds me of Adam Miller’s presentation at the Mormon Theology Seminar on Alma 32. He presentation is on the necessity of humility; i.e. that we, of necessity, do not merit anything and that it is the revelation of God which both confirms but also supplements that necessity (via the manifestation of God’s love and benevolence) with an offer of redemption. Thus the work of offering a broken heart is essential to this negotiation of necessity and this redemptive supplement.

  9. I will get caught up here throughout the day.

    It is Peter Priesthood.

    EmmaNadine is right to say that this is more about pride. These quotes are within the context of his discusion of the sin of pride.

    I spoke with an Apostle from the Community of Christ while at Sunstone. She commented that a major difference between them and the LDS is that they do not focus so much on the after life, but more on formiing communities of peace here on earth. This stuck out to me. I think Rawls was not so much trying to address liberal theology, but he was trying to develop a religious social ethic. It is not so much about what will bring us to heaven, but, instead, what will bring about Christian commmmunity here.

    This clearly is outside mainstream LDS thought, but I think that such an interpretation of the Book of Mormon is possible.

  10. By attributing the problem to culture and not doctrine, one should at least be aware that it is partly a top-down problem, or at least a problem reinforced by the top:

    “Let us make our homes sanctuaries of righteousness, places of prayer, and abodes of love that we might merit the blessings that can come only from our Heavenly Father… How might we merit this promise [spoken of in Ezekiel 36]? What will qualify us to receive this blessing?” – Thomas S Monson, “To Learn, to Do, to Be”, October 2008 Conference (cf. “To Learn, To Do, To Be,” Ensign, May 1992, 47)

    “Each of us has been sent to earth by our Heavenly Father to merit eternal life” – Robert D. Hales, “Personal Revelation: The Teachings and Examples of the Prophets”, October 2007 General Conference

    “Time is a most precious asset. Would you consider investing more of your time in the things of eternity in order to merit the constant companionship of the Holy Ghost and to benefit more fully from His influence?” – Keith K. Hilbig, “Quench Not the Spirit Which Quickens the Inner Man”, October 2007 General Conference.

    “Thus, brothers and sisters, along with the great and free gift of the universal and personal resurrection there is also the personal possibility of meriting eternal life.” – Neal A. Maxwell, “Apply the Atoning Blood of Christ” Ensign, Nov 1997, 22; message from October 1997 General Conference

  11. Chris H., I suspect that Miller, and I know I do, would argue that we are redeemed through our communities here and therefore those two ideas (redemption in the after-life & redeemed, or Christian, communities here) are indissociable. Moreover, I would have situated Liberal theology within the context of a reduced concern for the after-life and the development of a religious social ethic.

  12. Chris, I think you’re on to a great point. The idea of merit can open us to be overcome in pride.

    Some have noted that there are doctrinal teachings concerning merit, such as premortal influence on our station in this life, or the teaching of grace being accessed after “all we can do”. I don’t feel there’s a contradiction between these and avoiding a doctrine of merit. Rawls does not seem to be discounting that there are such a thing as good works, but rather, that we cannot claim honor for these works. We are in debt, and ever will be. I do not think it’s a matter of action, but rather focus.

    True, we have been “held back” for this day. True, we must act in faith in order to receive the grace which comes through Christ. But to pretend that we didn’t need any help along the way, and to suppose we’re better than others because of it, is preposterous.

    Does that make any sense?

  13. Many of your posts gave me a new thought.

    What if I set aside the sloppy definition of merit as an accumulation of good works totaling some score justifying salvation. And, instead, define it as a binary state of either willfully trying to be like God or willfully denying God regardless of how much we accomplish in this life. Direction vs distance.

    This would sync with (Matthew #6): “works being a consequence of grace” meaning that we don’t work to qualify for grace but work as a consequence of already being granted grace (or talents) and willfully trying to develop vs hiding our talents.

    Also with (Aaron S. #11)’s Maxwell quote “the personal possibility of meriting eternal life.” In this sense merit is being used as a verb implying the definition of deserving eternal life. We deserve it if we are trying, never being concerned with the quantity of our works. This breeds comparison with others, and pride as EmmaNadine said.

    I can have merit when I feel justified by my willful efforts toward God. I don’t have merit but pride if count and compare my efforts and feel a pseudo-justification.

    Aren’t my merits Christ’s merits because I was baptized, I took his name and became a joint heir in Him?

  14. I am wondering about the assertion that we are “naturally good.” Does this mean from childhood, birth, or as moral responsibility increases through interaction with others, or something else?

    Last week an acquaintance used the “keep commandments/prosper in the land” BoM motif to prove a point in a prosperity gospel type way. This would seem to say that our actions influence God’s blessings, a pretty common LDS view, I reckon, which seems shot through with merit. How do you account for scriptures like this in your anti-meritism?

    I haven’t read Rawls, but from this post I agree with another comment above which says it seems “Rawls is basically removing any role for the actor in determining her outcomes.” I like the call to recognize the role of circumstances and others in our own moral development in life. The rags-to-riches narrative seems to make it more possible to blame the needy for their own predicament without due regard for the structures in which they already found themselves. Is there a middle road between all them and all me? This seems to be a question about Nature/Nurture/Agency.

    Also, interested in a response to Geoff’s # 14.

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