Thursday, July 22, 2010

Boasting of the Merits of Works

For the past few days, we have been reading about our works. At this point, we have covered the main issue, but now we are getting to go deeper into the problems of certain aspects of works-based theologies. Calvin reminds us of what we previously read, "If righteousness is supported by works, in God's sight it must entirely collapse; and it is confined solely to God's mercy, solely to communion with Christ, and therefore solely to faith." Once again he states, "no man is justified by works unless, having been raised to the highest peak of perfection, he cannot be accused even of the least transgression." He then asks the question that even though works do not count toward salvation, should they at least earn some favor with God?

He opens the next section complaining about how the word "merit" has been applied to the works of men "over against God's judgment". He then uses a number of quotes from Augustine, Chrysostom, and Bernard. Two of the quotes from Augustine are as follows: "Let human merits, which perished through Adam, here keep silence, and let God's grace reign through Jesus Christ." Then, "The saints attribute nothing to their merits; they will attribute all to thy mercy alone, O God." The tail end of a quote from Bernard reads, "For merit, it suffices to know that merits do not suffice."

There is no value in good works by themselves. We could run around all day performing good works and would gain us nothing. Our good works are full of uncleanness. However, "There is no doubt that whatever is praiseworthy in works is God's grace; there is not a drop that we ought by rights to ascribe to ourselves." They are only "good" works because God has made them good.

The Sophists, in trying to prove that we can perform good works on our own, claimed that the phrase "merit toward God" is found in Scripture. The first passage is from Ecclesiasticus 16:15, "All mercy shall make a place for every man according to the merit of his works, and according to the wisdom of his sojournment." First, we must note that this is not a canonical book, but it is a book from the Apocrypha. Secondly, this translation (and the translation Calvin used) came from a Latin copy of the text, not the original Greek. Calvin then translates the Greek as really being, "He will make room for every work of mercy; man shall find according to his works." The other passage the Sophists used was Hebrews 13:16, "But do not forget to do good and to share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased." Calvin's argument against their interpretation is this, "There is no reason why, in The Letter to the Hebrews, they should try to ensnare us in one little word when in the Greek words of the apostle nothing else in meant than that such sacrifices are pleasing and acceptable to God."

Our good works are not for naught because we have a loving and generous Father.  Calvin writes, "Yet because he examines our works according to his tenderness, not his supreme right, he therefore accepts them as if they were perfectly pure; and for that reason, although unmerited, they are rewarded with infinite benefits, both of the present life and also of the life to come."  Works do not in any way justify us or bring salvation to us - that is God's mercy.  However, it is pleasing to God when we do perform good works even though they are stained with sin.  Calvin concludes with a final reminder about God's mercy, "Whatever, therefore, is now given to the godly as an aid to salvation, even blessedness itself, is purely God's beneficence."  

Tomorrow's reading: 3.15.5-3.15.8

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