What’s Wrong With Merit-Based Soteriology?

The above question was brought up in Epistles class today, and I’ve been thinking about it since. We were talking about Paul’s seeming rejection of ‘Jewish merit-based soteriology’ in favor of the more traditionally-interpreted Christian view of sola gratia, grace-based soteriology.

It seems, and has always seemed to me, to be a false dichotomy. First of all, the Bible, Jesus, etc., seem very concerned with how we behave. When Jesus sums up the law, he basically says love god and love your neighbor. The focus he comes back to again and again is that faith bears fruit or it is not faith.

In our post-Reformation context, faith has come to mean cognitivie assent, which is not only unfortunate but is very un-scriptural – odd for a movement that claimed sola scriptura as fundamental to its work. It has also, of course, functioned in the long history of Christian anti-Semitism, enabling one to characterize Judaism as a works-based religion and Christianity as a grace-based religion when both religions seem very clearly to involve both works and grace.

Now, one response might be that it is God in us that enables us to respond to God’s grace by doing good works. Sice we lack God-meters, this response comes down to semantics for me really. If you are desperate to make sure that human beings have no agency in your theology, you can certainly make this claim, but there is no reason one must accept this, either from Scripture or from experience. I mean, many the Pslams for example are all about seeking God, and its hard to picture a Biblical story of someone saying “God, thank you for seeking yourself through me.” The story of Israel and the early Church seems to be one of human beings seeking God and God seeking human beings, not only one or the other. Does God reach farther than human beings can? That’s a lot easier to say than saying that human beings cannot reach at all.

So, I don’t know if this will start some discussion, but I was curious. What do you see as wrong about merit-based soteriology, especially when it is complimentary to a grace-based soteriology?

4 thoughts on “What’s Wrong With Merit-Based Soteriology?

  1. Hmm. In a nutshell I’d say the problem with merit-based soteriology is the proposition that we do good works <>in order to be loved by God.<> Doing good works is obviously a good thing. But if I’m just doing them so that I’ll be good enough for God to love me, I am in trouble. Not only do I inject a whole lot of anxiety into my faith (because how do I know if I’m really good enough for God?), but I corrupt the motivation for good works–I’m doing them for my own benefit, not someone else’s–which means I’m using someone else as a prop for my own salvation. And then it becomes not a good work at all, but a selfish work, so I’m back in a deeper pit than the one in which I started.I think part of the “false dichotomy” you address can be resolved by affirming good works as a fine Christian <>response<> to the sweet goodness of God and the draw of love toward our neighbors. Just not as a way to get God to love us. God loves us already.


  2. the question then, i think, is “is there a difference between god loving you and being saved?” is there something significant about salvation that goes beyond god loving you? if we affirm that god loves everyone, then everyone is saved – easy universalism. but, then the question comes up – what does christ have to do with this salvation? presumably, god loved us already…for me, saying that good works are a proof of salvation or a response to god’s love is another way of saying that good works are part of our salvation – they are intrinsic to it, that it is not in fact grace alone but grace and works functioning together.


  3. another way to look at this is – god loves us graciously, but the question remains – do we love god? if we do, we demonstrate this through our attempts at being like christ in loving our neighbors as ourselves.


  4. The problem with a merit-based soteriology is that it can very easily lead to a false righteousness – that is, self-righteousness. I do not pretend to know the mystery of salvation, but it is surely more than simply doing good (though I do not think that it is less). Milton had something to say on the matter that seems pertinent:“When I consider how my light is spent,Ere half my days, in this dark world and wide,And that one Talent which is death to hide,Lodg’d with me useless, though my Soul more bentTo serve therewith my Maker, and presentMy true account, lest he returning chide;“Doth God exact day-labor, light denied,”I fondly ask; But patience to preventThat murmur, soon replies, “God doth not needEither man’s work or his own gifts; who bestBear his mild yoke, they serve him best; his StateIs Kingly. Thousands at his bidding speedAnd post o’er Land and Ocean without rest:They also serve who only stand and wait.”


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