What About Merit?
Merit. This is a common buzzword, often used, but with its true implications sometimes left obscure. How does an understanding of merit practically impact the life of the last generation Christian?
Let’s start with the basics. On this cursed planet, among this sinful race, there is not a single person who has ever lived a life without sinning. Jesus is the only one who has ever done such a thing. The Bible undeniably teaches that “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Since the “wages of sin” is eternal death (Romans 6:23), then all deserve eternal death. Interestingly, this verse goes on to talk about a gift: “… but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” What we deserve is seen alongside what we don’t deserve. Wage is contrasted with gift.
If someone hires me to help them move some furniture, and I faithfully work really hard for twelve straight hours, it would, at the end of the day, be very reasonable for me to expect fair payment. I would merit, or deserve, the money. This money would not be a gift, but a wage, something I had earned.
We do not deserve life, but only death, and we would not be able to annul our deserved death even by a life of perfect obedience from this point forward.1 This is why “we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law” (Romans 3:27, margin). A gift, however, is offered us: the free gift of eternal life. Not any deed of the law, but the death of Christ atones for our past sins. This free gift we do not deserve, and indeed never will.
It is here that we begin to run into a problem. If nothing I do helps me deserve salvation in any way, then what is the point of obeying? This is a valid question. In answering it, let’s take an approach that is admittedly nonstandard, and ask the unfallen beings why they obey God. Is their obedience meritorious? Do they deserve life? Of what value is the obedience that God requires of them?
God has always been the sustainer of life. God, and no other, possesses life in Himself; He alone has immortality (1 Timothy 6:16). He has never been obligated to give life to anything, but has nevertheless graciously created the holy angels and unfallen beings, and even those that would eventually rebel against Him such as Lucifer and his followers, Adam, Eve, and all of us.
He continually and actively upholds all life in the universe with His power (Colossians 1:17). “In Him we live, and move, and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Even the planets progressing in their circuits around the sun do not move on their own; the divine hand directs them.
All of these things that our God provides stem from His perfectly unselfish love. He loves to give. Life itself is a gift. The fact that life is a gift, however, immediately precludes the possibility of merit, for if unfallen beings were to ever begin deserving the life they possess, their life would cease to be a gift, and would instead be something they purchased.
Yet even though their life is devoid of merit, their life is contingent upon conditions. If they remain obedient to the eternal law of God, they retain the gift of immortality. However, it has always been that if they transgress the law, eternal life will cease to be theirs, and they will instead begin to deserve, merit, eternal death. Life is a gift if the law is obeyed; death is deserved if the law is disobeyed.
This conditionality is required for a safe universe, for if there were no conditions to eternal life it would be possible for sin to be immortalized. Satan hoped this very thing would happen just after Adam and Eve fell, but God intervened, commissioning an angel to guard the Tree of Life (Genesis 3:24).
The requirements for Adam and Eve were simple. As long as they obeyed God and did not eat the forbidden fruit, they would live. But they disobeyed, and God’s justice demanded eternal death. We have all followed suit; we have all sinned, and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), and we all deserve eternal death. “As Adam lost the gift of life and immortality by his disobedience, so all born of Adam forfeit this gift.”2
If we have established the premise that unfallen beings do not perform meritorious obedience, then how shall we merit anything by our obedience? At the same time, if obedience is absolutely required for unfallen beings, how, in God’s justice, shall anything but the same obedience be required of us?
Perfect obedience to the law of God, even perfect obedience rendered by the power of the Holy Spirit, is not meritorious. The only time it was meritorious was in the life of Jesus. He demonstrated that the law is a fair requirement even for fallen man (Philippians 2:5-11). For us, there is to obedience only value, never merit. “Obedience to God is of more value to you than gold or silver.”3 “We cannot overestimate the value of simple faith and unquestioning obedience. It is by following in the path of obedience in simple faith that the character obtains perfection. Adam was required to render strict obedience to God’s commandments, and no lower standard is presented to those who desire salvation in 1895 [or 2005, 2006, 2013, etc.]. Christ has promised us sufficient power to reach this high standard.”4
The reason God requires obedience is so that we can more perfectly represent His character. Obedience isn’t an arbitrary requirement; it is a fulfilling of God’s desire to live His love through us.
This becomes even clearer when we realize that even unfallen beings are filled with the Holy Spirit. “From eternal ages it was God’s purpose that every created being, from the bright and holy seraph to man, should be a temple for the indwelling of the Creator.”5 Astonishing thought! So much more than legal declarations, God’s healing plan of salvation is designed to restore in us what was lost by sin. This is what Peter means in his first epistle when he says “Grace and peace be multiplied unto you through the knowledge of God, and of Jesus our Lord, according as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue: whereby are given unto us exceeding great and precious promises: that by these ye might be partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Peter 1:2-4).
Thus we have two important things that we must understand if our Christianity is to be successful. First, we must understand that our obedience can never be meritorious. Second, we must understand that obedience is absolutely necessary, and that the function of this obedience is to allow Christ to live through us.
We really have only two options on the first point: we either believe that obedience is in some way meritorious, or we don’t. Let’s here examine the practical aspects of this.
Suppose I believe that my obedience to God’s law, even the obedience that I believe the Holy Spirit is working through me, causes me to deserve salvation in at least some way. Naturally, I would then, at least in some way, trust in my obedience for salvation. Two possibilities would then face me.
Either I would feel that I had been successful in keeping the law and believe I deserved salvation, or else I would look at my life, see its shortcomings, and become overwhelmed. The first scenario is not a hard one to be found in, especially when we begin to see how far God has been leading us out of the depths of rebellion. With this belief espoused, I would see that others were not complying with the law quite as well as I, and come to the logical conclusion that I deserved salvation more than they. O, how quickly would pride’s head be raised, and self be exalted! But Christ’s way is not pride. “Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3).
Yes, Jesus can make us perfect, but nobody who is perfect will feel like they are perfect. “The nearer we come to Jesus, and the more clearly we discern the purity of His character, the more clearly shall we see the exceeding sinfulness of sin, and the less shall we feel like exalting ourselves. There will be a continual reaching out of the soul after God, a continual, earnest, heartbreaking confession of sin and humbling of the heart before Him. At every advance step in our Christian experience our repentance will deepen.”6
Mistakes happen, however, and if we think our obedience merits anything, hard is the landing if we don’t feel sinless. Not that we can be saved in rebellion, but if we must feel we have fully and permanently attained before we can have hope of salvation, we will never have hope, and therefore never have salvation, because it is difficult to persuade ourselves that we have fully attained when we have just buckled under to temptation. Don’t misunderstand; part of the salvation process is what Jesus does in us, but we are to come to Jesus as we are and allow Him to take us step by step, trusting in His ability to change us, taking our walk moment by moment, for it is not character maturity that is a requirement for salvation, but rather character surrender. Because this is so, the brokenhearted, repentant sinner can come to Jesus, be given a clean heart, and have the immediate assurance that he has a place in Paradise. Thus it is written in the scriptures, “For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). You can go to Jesus today, reach out to Him by a living faith, and be given a knowledge that you have eternal life (1 John 5:13).
Now suppose that, instead of thinking my obedience was meritorious, I believe that my obedience gains me no credit whatsoever toward my salvation. Many believe this and take the road leading to antinomianism, the idea that the law is no longer binding. Others believe this and take another road, believing that the law is indeed binding, but that our salvation is not conditional upon it. This option, by the way, is the most common doctrine of merit and obedience currently presented within the Seventh-day Adventist Church. But still another road is available to us, a road affirming that the law is eternally binding, that our salvation is conditional upon it, and that we are to fulfill its requirements in loving cooperation with God’s healing plan by the enabling power of the Holy Spirit.
No merit, but much value. No pride, but much devotion. No automatic action. No meaninglessness. No nonsense. The Bible presents obedience as a union with the divine. Lost in sin we were separated from God, but through Jesus Christ we are restored. He counts His character in place of our past, and reforms our lives for the present and future. Far from meriting anything by cooperating with Him, we realize the depths of God’s love for us, the perfect joy and happiness that He wants for us, and willingly choose to cast our lot on His side, gratefully accepting His offer of healing, fully and wholeheartedly giving ourselves over to Him in perfect submission.
The relationship between merit and obedience is rather nicely summed up by this statement: “While we are to be in harmony with God’s law, we are not saved by the works of the law, yet we cannot be saved without obedience. The law is the standard by which character is measured. But we cannot possibly keep the commandments of God without the regenerating grace of Christ. Jesus alone can cleanse us from all sin. He does not save us by law, neither will he save us in disobedience to law.”7
Wonderful! How compassionate a Savior! We are continually dependent upon Him for that life which He never tires of providing! Let us look to Jesus, choosing to cooperate with Him fully, and He will send us the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. Don’t let hope wait until you feel you are perfect. Go to Jesus now, and He will lead you to heights of character. In time, as the Stonemason works with your character, taking away the rough edges and pressing it close to the polishing wheel, He will be able to hold it up to the light and see a perfect reflection of Himself.8 Trust Jesus to ultimately be able to present you faultless before the Father’s throne, a part of the last generation that follows the Lamb wherever He goes (Revelation 14:4).
- Ellen G. White, General Conference Bulletin, March 5, 1895.
- ________, Signs of the Times, June 17, 1897.
- ________, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 8, p. 95.
- ________, Manuscript Releases, vol. 14, p. 20.
- ________, The Desire of Ages, p. 161. See the whole paragraph.
- ________, The Acts of the Apostles, p. 561.
- ________, Signs of the Times, July 21, 1890.
- ________, Review and Herald, March 7, 1912.