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The Doctrine of Merit stated, and the Impossibility of Man’s meriting of God asserted, in
ON JOB XXII. 2.
PREACHED AT WESTMINSTER-ABBEY,
DECEMBER 5, 1697.
Can a man be profitable to God?
IT is a matter of no small moment certainly for a man to be rightly informed upon what terms and conditions he is to transact with God, and God with him, in the great business of his salvation. For by knowing upon what terms he must obtain eternal happiness hereafter, he will know also upon what grounds he is to hope for and expect it here; and so be able to govern both his actions and expectations according to the nature of the thing he is in pursuit of; lest otherwise he should chance to fail of the prize he runs for, by mistaking the way he should run in.
St. Paul, as plainly as words can express a thing, tells us, that eternal life is the gift of God; and consequently to be expected by us only as such: nay, he asserts it to be a gift in the very same verse in 232which he affirms death to be as due to a sinner, as wages are to a workman, Romans vi. 23. Than which words nothing certainly can be more full and conclusive, that salvation proceeds wholly upon free-gift, though damnation upon strict desert.
Nevertheless, such is the extreme folly, or rather sottishness of man’s corrupt nature, that this does by no means satisfy him. For though indeed he would fain be happy, yet fain would he also thank none for it but himself. And though he finds, that not only his duty, but his necessity brings him every day upon his knees to Almighty God for the very bread he eats; yet when he comes to deal with him about spirituals, (things of infinitely greater value,) he ap pears and acts, not as a suppliant, but as a merchant; not as one who comes to be relieved, but to traffick. For something he would receive of God, and some thing he would give him; and nothing will content this insolent, yet impotent creature, unless he may seem to buy the very thing he begs. Such being the pride and baseness of some spirits, that where they receive a benefit too big for them to requite, they will even deny the kindness, and disown the obligation.
Now this great self-delusion, so prevalent upon most minds, is the thing here encountered in the text. The words of which (by an usual way of speech) under an interrogation couching a positive assertion, are a declaration of the impossibility of man’s being profitable to God, or (which is all one) of his meriting of God; according to the true, proper, and strict sense of merit. Nor does this interrogative way of expression import only a bare negation of the thing, as in itself impossible, but also 233a manifest, undeniable evidence of the said impossibility; as if it had been said, that nothing can be more plainly impossible, than for a man to be profitable to God; for God to receive any advantage by man’s righteousness; or to gain any thing by his making his ways perfect: and consequently, that nothing can be more absurd, and contrary to all sense and reason, than for a man to entertain and cherish so irrational a conceit, or to affirm so gross a paradox.
And that no other thing is here meant by a man’s being profitable to God, but his meriting of God, will appear from a true state and account of the nature of merit; which we may not improperly define, a right to receive some good upon the score of some good done, together with an equivalence or parity of worth between the good to be received and the good done. So that although according to the common division of justice into commutative and distributive, that which is called commutative be employed only about the strict value of things, according to an arithmetical proportion, (as the schools speak,) which admits of no degrees; and the other species of justice, called distributive, (as consisting in the distribution of rewards and punishments,) admits of some latitude and degrees in the dispensation of it; yet, in truth, even this distribution itself must so far follow the rules of commutation, that the good to be dispensed by way of reward, ought in justice to be equivalent to the work or action which it is designed as a compensation of; so as by no means to sink below it, or fall short of the full value of it. From all which (upon a just estimate of the matter) it follows, 234that, in true philosophy, merit is nothing else but an instance or exemplification of that noted saying or maxim, that one benefaction or good turn requires another; and imports neither more nor less than a man’s claim or title to receive as much good from another as he had done for him.
Thus much therefore being premised, as an explication of the drift or design of the words, (the words themselves being too plain and easy to need any further exposition,) we shall observe and draw from them these four particulars.
First, Something supposed or implied in them, viz. That men are naturally very prone to entertain an opinion or persuasion, that they are able to merit of God, or be profitable to him.
Secondly, Something expressed, namely, That such an opinion or persuasion is utterly false and absurd; and that it is impossible for man to merit of God, or to be profitable to him.
Thirdly, Something inferred from both the former, to wit, That the forementioned opinion or persuasion is the very source or foundation of two of the great est corruptions that have infested the Christian church and religion. And,
Fourthly and lastly, Something objected against the particulars discoursed of, which I shall endeavour to answer and remove; and so conclude this discourse.
Of each of which in their order: and,
First, for the first of them. The thing supposed or implied in the words, namely, That men are naturally very prone to entertain an opinion or persuasion, that they are able to merit of God, or be profitable to him.235
The truth of which will appear from these two considerations.
First, That it is natural for them to place too high a value both upon themselves and their own performances. And that this is so, is evident from that universal experience, which proves it no less natural to them to bear a more than ordinary love to themselves; and all love, we know, is founded in, and results from, a proportionable esteem of the object loved: so that, look in what degree any man loves himself, in the same degree it will follow, that he must esteem himself too. Upon which account it is, that every man will be sure to set his own price upon what he is, and what he does, whether the world will come up to it or no; as it seldom does.
That speech of St. Peter to our Saviour is very remarkable, in Matt. xix. 27. Master, says he, we have forsook all, and followed thee; what shall we have therefore? In which words he seems to be upon equal terms with his Lord, and to expect no more of him, as he thought, but what he strictly had deserved from him; and all this from a conceit that he had done an act so exceedingly meritorious, that it must even nonplus his Master’s bounty to quit scores with him by a just requital. Nay, so far had the same proud ferment got into the minds of all the disciples, that neither could their own low condition, nor the constant sermons of that great example of self-denial and humility, whom they daily conversed with, nor, lastly, the correctives of a peculiar grace, totally clear and cure them of it. And therefore no wonder if a principle so deeply rooted in nature works with the whole power of nature; and, considering also the corruption of nature, as little 236wonder is it, if it runs out with an extravagance equal to its power, making the minds of men even drunk with a false intoxicating conceit of their own worth and abilities. From whence it is, that as man is, of all creatures in the world, both the most desirous and the most unable to advance himself; so, through pride and indigence, (qualities which usually concur in beggars,) none is so unwilling to own the benefactions he lives by, and has no claim to, as this weak and worthless self-admirer, who has nothing to be admired in him, but that he can, upon such terms, admire himself. For, Naked came I into the world, and naked shall I go out again, ought to be the motto of every man when born, the history of his life, and his epitaph when dead: his emptiness and self-consciousness together, cannot but make him feel in himself (which is the surest way of knowing) that he has indeed nothing, and yet he bears himself as if he could command all things; at the same time low in condition, and yet lofty in opinion; boasting and yet depending; nay, boasting against Him, whom he depends upon. Which certainly is the foulest solecism in behaviour, and two of the worst qualities that can be in conjunction. But,
Secondly, A second consideration, from whence we infer this proneness in men to think themselves able to merit of God, or to be profitable to him, is their natural aptness to form and measure their apprehensions of the supreme Lord of all things, by what they apprehend and observe of the princes and potentates of this world, with reference to such as are under their dominion. And this is certainly a very prevailing fallacy, and steals too easily upon men’s minds, as being founded in the unhappy predominance 237of sense over reason; which, in the present condition of man’s nature, does but too frequently and fatally take place. For men naturally have but faint notions of things spiritual, and such as incur not into their senses; but their eyes, their ears, and their hands are too often made by them the rule of their faith, but almost always the reason of their practice. And therefore no marvel, if they blunder in their notions about God; a being so vastly above the apprehensions of sense; while they conceive no otherwise of him at best, but as some great king or prince, ruling with a worldly majesty and grandeur over such puny mortals as themselves: whereupon, as they frame to themselves no other idea of him, but such as they borrow from the royal estate of an earthly sovereign, so they conceive also of their own relation to him, and dependance upon him, just as they do of that which passes between such a sovereign and his subjects; and consequently, since they find that there is no prince upon earth so absolute, but that he stands in as much need of his subjects for many things, as they do or can stand in need of him for his government and protection; (by reason whereof there must needs follow a reciprocal exchange of offices, and a mutual supply of wants between them, rendering both parties equally necessary to one another:) I say, from these misapplied premises, the low, gross, undistinguishing reason of the generality of mankind presently infers, that the creature also may, on some accounts, be as beneficial to his Creator, as such a subject is to his prince; and that there may be the like circulation of good turns between them; they being, as they think, within their compass, as really useful to God, as God 238for his part is beneficial to them; which is the true notion of merit, or of being profitable to God. A conceit that sticks so close to human nature, that neither philosophy nor religion can wholly remove it: and yet if we consider the limited right which the greatest prince upon earth has over his meanest slave, and that absolute, boundless, paramount right, which God has over the very same things and persons, which such princes avow a claim to, and by virtue of which transcendent right something is God’s which can never be theirs; and even what is theirs is still by a much higher title his: I say, if we consider this, the absurdity and inconsequence of all such discourses about the relation between God and man, as are taken from what we see and observe between man and man, as governing and governed, is hereby more than sufficiently proved; and yet as absurd, as fallacious, and inconsequent as this way of discoursing is, it is one of the chief foundations of the doctrine of merit, and consequently of the religion of too great a part of the world: a religion tending only to defraud men of their true Saviour, by persuading them that they may be their own. And thus much for the first particular, the thing supposed in the words, to wit, That men are naturally very prone to persuade themselves, that they are able to merit of God, or be profitable to him.
I proceed now to the
Second particular, in which we have something expressed, namely, That such a persuasion is utterly false and absurd, and that it is impossible for men to merit of God, or be profitable to him. And this I shall evince by shewing the several ingredients of merit, and the conditions necessary to render an action 239meritorious. Such as are these four that follow; as,
First, That an action be not due; that is to say, it must not be such as a man stands obliged to the doing of, but such as he is free either to do, or not to do, without being chargeable with the guilt of any sinful omission in case he does it not. It being no ill account given of merit by Spanhemius,55 Dub. Evang. parte iii. pag. 782. the elder, that it is opus bonum indebitum fuciens praemium, debitum ex indebito. For otherwise, if that which is due may also merit, then, by paying what I owe, I may make my creditors my debtors; and every payment would not only clear, but also transfer the debt.
Besides, that in all the benefactions passing from Almighty God upon such as serve him the best they can, there could be no such thing as liberality; which can never take place but where something is given, which the receiver cannot challenge: nay, very hardly could there be any such thing as gift. For if there be first a claim, then, in strictness of speech, it is not so properly gift as payment. Yea, so vast would be the comprehension of justice, that it would scarce leave any object for favour. But God’s grace and bounty being so prevented by merit, would be spectators rather than actors in the whole work of man’s salvation. Nor would our obedience to God’s positive precepts only, but also to his negative, sometimes strike in for their share of merit and claim to a reward. And any one who could plead such a negative righteousness, might come and demand a recompence of God for not drinking or whoring, swearing or blaspheming; just as the Pharisee did, for not being as the very dregs of sinners; 240and so vouch himself meritorious, forsooth, for being a degree or two short of scandalous. Moreover, amongst men, it would pass for an obligation between neighbours, that one of them did not rob or murder the other; and a sufficient plea for preferment before kings and governors, not to have deserved the gibbet and the halter; which is a poor plea indeed, when to have deserved them proves oftentimes a better. In short, upon these terms, he, who is not the very worst of villains, must commence presently a person of a peculiar worth; and bare indemnity will be too low a privilege for the merit of not being a clamorous, overgrown malefactor.
But now, that all that any man alive is capable of doing, is but an indispensable homage to God, and not a free oblation; and that also such an homage, as makes his obligation to what he does much earlier than his doing of it, will appear both from the law of nature, and that of God’s positive command: of each of which a word or two, and
First, for the law of nature. There is nothing that nature proclaims with a louder and more intelligible voice, than that he who gives a being, and afterwards preserves and supports it, has an indefeasible claim to whatsoever the said being, so given and supported by him, either is, or has, or can possibly do. But this is a point which I must be more particular upon, and thereby lay a foundation for what I shall argue, a fortiori, concerning God him self, from what is to be observed amongst men. Now the right which one man has to the actions of another, is generally derived from one or both of these two great originals, production or possession. The first of which gives a parent right over the actions 241of his child; and the other gives a master a title to whatsoever can be done by his servant: which two are certainly the principal and most undoubted rights that take place in the world. And both of them are eminently and transcendently in God, as he stands related to men: and,
First, for production. By the purest and most en tire communication of being, God did not only produce, but create man. He gave him an existence out of nothing, and while he was yet but a mere idea or possibility in the mind of his eternal Maker. That one expression of the Psalmist, It is he who hath made us, and not we ourselves, being both a full account, and an irrefragable demonstration of his absolute sovereignty over our persons, and in contestable claim to all our services: nor is this the utmost measure of our obligation to him, but as he first drew us out of nothing and non-existence, so he ever since keeps us from relapsing into it; his power brought us forth, and his providence maintains us. And thus has this poor impotent creature been perpetually hanging upon the bounty of his great Creator, and by a daily preservation of his precarious being, stands obliged to him under the growing renewed title of a continual creation. But this is not all. There is yet,
Secondly, another title; whereby one person obtains a right to all that another can do; and that is possession. A title, every whit as transcendently in God as the former; as being founded in, and resulting from, his forementioned prerogative of a Creator. Nothing being more unquestionable, than that the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof; as the Psalmist declares, Psalm xxiv. 1. 212He is the sole proprietor and grand landlord of the universe. And moreover, as all things were made by him, so they were made for him also; He made all things for himself, says the wisest of men, Prov. xvi. 4. He is the original efficient by which, and the great and last end for which, they are; for by him they begun, and in him they terminate: after which two essential relations borne by God to man on the one side, and obliging man to God on the other, can there be any thing that is good, either in the being or actions of the latter, which can be called perfectly his own? any thing which is not entirely due to God, and that by a complication of the most binding and indispensable titles? And if so, how and where can there be any room for such a thing as merit?
The civil law tells us, that servants have not properly a jus, a right or title, to any thing, by virtue whereof they can implead or bring an action against their lord, upon any account whatsoever; every such servant, as the law here speaks of, being not only his master’s vassal, but also part of his possessions. And this right our Saviour himself owns, and sets forth to us by an elegant parable, couching under it as strong an argument, Luke xvii. 7, 8, 9. Which of you, saith he, having a servant plowing or feeding cattle, will say unto him by and by, when he is come from the field, Go and sit down to meat? And will not rather say unto him, Make ready wherewith I may sup, and gird thyself, and serve me, till I have eaten and drunken; and afterward thou shalt eat and drink? Doth he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded him? I trow not. Where we see upon what terms of right even 243the most diligent and faithful servant stands with his master; who, after he had been toiling all day in his master’s business, dressing and manuring his grounds, and watering them with the drops of his brow, comes home at length hungry and tired, (where, if he could find no reward for his hard service, yet one would think, that he might at least expect a discharge from any further work, and receive the present refreshments of his natural food,) yet even then his master renews his employment, delays his repast, and commands him to serve and attend him at his table, and with weary limbs and an empty stomach to expect a dismission at his pleasure; and all this, without so much as any thanks for his pains. In which neither is the master unjust, nor the servant injured: for he did no more than what his condition obliged him to; he did but his duty; and duty certainly neither is nor can be meritorious. Thus, I say, stands the case amongst men according to the difference of their respective conditions in this world. And if so, must not the same obligation, as it passes between God and man, rise as much higher, as the condition of a creature founds an obligation incomparably greater than that of a bare servant possibly can? And therefore, since man stands bound to God under both these titles, to wit, of production and possession, how can there be a greater paradox, than for such a contemptible, forlorn piece of living dirt to claim any thing upon the stock of merit from him, who is both his master and his maker too? No, the very best of men, upon the very best of their services, have no other plea before God but prayer; they may indeed beg an alms, but must not think to stand upon their terms. But,244
Secondly, Not only the law of nature, and the reason of the thing itself, (as we have sufficiently shewn,) excludes a man from all plea of merit; but also that further obligation lying upon him and all his services from the positive law and command of God, equally cuts him off from the same: the known voice of that law being, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve, Matt. iv. 10. And then for the measure and extent of that service, it is to be with all the heart, and all the strength, and all the soul, Mark xii. 30. Which one comprehensive injunction, grasping in it all that human nature is able to do, and by consequence bringing all that can be done by man within the compass and verge of duty, has left no vacancy or possibility for merit to take place, till it be proved, that a man may actually do more than with all his heart, and all his strength, and all his soul, he is able to do: than which it is impossible even for common sense to conceive any thing more senseless and contradictious. And so I proceed to the
Second condition required to render an action meritorious; and that is, That it should really add to, and better the state of the person of whom it is to merit. The reason of which is, because all merit (as we have shewn before) consists properly in a right to receive some benefit, on the account of some benefit first done: the natural order of things requiring, that where a considerable advantage has been received, something of the like nature should be returned. For that otherwise, if one part of the world should be always upon the receiving hand, and never upon the restoring, that part would be a kind of monstrous dead weight upon the other, and all that 245was good and useful to mankind would, by an enormous disparity, lean wholly on one side.
But, to bring the forementioned condition of merit home to our present purpose, and thereby to shew how far God is capable of receiving from man, and man of giving to God, it may not be amiss briefly to represent to ourselves what God is, and what man is; and, by consequence, how the case of giving and receiving must stand on God’s part, and how on man’s. And here, in the
1st place, God offers himself to our consideration as a being infinitely perfect, infinitely happy, and self-sufficient; depending upon no supply or revenue from abroad, but (as I may so express it) retreating wholly into himself, and there living for ever upon the inexhaustible stock of his own essential fulness; and as a fountain owes not its streams to any poor, adventitious infusions from without, but to the internal, unfailing plenties of its own springs; so this mighty, all-comprehending being, which we call God, needs no other happiness, but to contemplate upon that which he actually is, and ever was, and shall be possessed of. From all which it follows, that the divine nature and beatitude can no more admit of any addition to it, than we can add degrees to infinity, new measures to immensity, and further improvements to a boundless, absolute, unimprovable perfection: for such a being is the great God, who is one of the parties whom we are now discoursing of. Nevertheless, to carry the case a little further; supposing for the present, that the divine nature and felicity were capable of some further addition and increase, let us, in the
2nd place, cast our eye upon the other party concerned, 246and consider, whether man be a being fit and able to make this addition; man, I say, that poor, slight, inconsiderable nothing; or at best a pitiful something, beholden to every one of the elements, as well as compounded of them, and living as an eleemosynary upon a perpetual contribution from all and every part of the creation; this creature clothing him, another feeding him, a third curing him when sick, and a fourth comforting and refreshing him when well. In a word, he subsists by the joint alms of heaven and earth, and stands at the mercy of every thing in nature, which is able either to help or hurt him.
And is this now the person who is to oblige his Maker? to indent and drive bargains with the Almighty? Those, I am sure, who in their several ages have been reputed most eminent for their knowledge of God and of themselves too, used to speak at much another rate concerning both. My goodness, says David, extendeth not to thee, Psalm xvi. 2. And again, If thou be righteous, says Elihu to Job, what givest thou him? or what does he receive at thy hands? Job xxxv. 7. So that St. Paul might well make that challenge, without expecting ever to see it answered, in Rom. xi. 35. Who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed to him again? For let man but first prove the debt, and the Almighty will be sure to pay it. But most fully of all does our Saviour himself determine this point in that remarkable conclusion of the forecited parable in Luke xvii. 10. where he instructs his disciples, after they had done all that was commanded them, to acknowledge themselves unprofitable servants; that is to say, such as God, upon no account whatsoever, 247was or could be at all the better for. And a clearer text certainly, and more direct and home against all pretence of merit, neither law nor gospel can afford.
Nevertheless it must be confessed, that some have found out such an exposition of it, as, if admitted, renders it of no force at all against this doctrine of merit. For first, they absolutely cashier the literal, express sense of the words, and in the room of it introduce a figure called by the Greeks μείωσις, which, to diminish or degrade a thing, expresses it in terms representing it much less than indeed it is; as when we say a thing is smaller than an atom, less than nothing, and the like; such words are not to be under stood literally, but import only, that the thing spoken of is very inconsiderable. Accordingly, when Christ bids his disciples, after their best and most exact performances, acknowledge themselves unprofitable servants, we are not, say these expositors, to conclude from hence, that really they were so, but that Christ only read them a lecture of humility and self-abasement towards God, in speaking but meanly and lowly of their own piety, how differently soever it might deserve to be valued, according to the strict estimate of the thing itself. So that by all this, it seems, our Saviour was only teaching those about him how to pass compliments upon Almighty God. Their professing of themselves unprofitable servants amounting to no more than if they had told him, they were his humble servants; the meaning of which words, (if they have any meaning at all,) the fashion able custom of genteel lying will much better account for, than the language of scripture (the word of truth) is able to do. But in the mean time, what an 248insufferable perversion of the written word is it, to affix such a sense to any text of it, as this forced exposition here does! which manifestly turns a most devout confession to Almighty God into a piece of courtship; a principal truth into a mere trope or figure; and, in a word, one of the highest duties of a Christian into a false, fulsome, and, at best, an empty expression. And so I pass to the
Third condition required to render an action meritorious; and that is, That there be an equal proportion of value between the action and the reward. This being evident from the foundation already laid by us; to wit, That the nature of merit consists properly in exchange; and that, we know, must proceed according to a parity of worth on both sides; commutation being most properly between things equivalent. But now the prize we run for in all our religious performances, is no less a thing than life eternal, and a beatific enjoyment of God himself for ever; and can any man, not quite abandoned by his reason, imagine a few, weak, broken actions, a competent price for heaven and immortality? and fit to be laid in the balance with an exceeding and eternal weight of glory? Is there any thing in dust and ashes that can deserve to dwell with God, and to converse with angels? Or can we, who live by sense and act by sense do any thing worthy of those joys which not only exceed our senses, but also transcend our intellectuals? Can we do beyond what we can think, and deserve beyond what we can do? For let us rate our best and most exact services according to the strict rules of morality, and what man is able to carry so steady an hand in any religious performance, as to observe all those conditions that are 249absolutely necessary to answer the full measures of the law? No, this is such a pitch of acting as the present strength of nature must not pretend to. And if not, how can an action, short of complete morality, set up for meritorious?
The Papists, we know, in their disputes upon this subject, distinguish merit into that which is de condigno, which merits a reward upon terms of justice, and by reason of the inherent worth and value of the work done; and that on the other side to be de congruo, which, though it cannot claim a reward upon those terms, and from the precise worth and value of the work itself, yet is such, that God would not act suitably and congruously to the equity and goodness of his nature, if he should not reward it. These two sorts of merit, I say, they hold, but are not yet agreed which of the two they should state the merit of their good works upon. For some boldly assert, that they merit the, former way; to wit, by their own inherent worth and value; and some, that they merit only the latter way, that is, by being such as the equity and goodness of God cannot but reward; and lastly, others (as particularly Bellarmine) hold, that they merit both ways; to wit, partly by condignity, and partly by congruity.
In answer to which, without disputing any thing against their merit of condignity, (since it more than sufficiently confutes itself,) I utterly deny the whole foundation of their merit de congruo, as to any obligation on God’s part to reward our religious services upon the score of equity; since upon that account God can be under no obligation to do any thing: forasmuch as there is no such thing as equity in God, distinct from his justice and mercy; and the exercise of his mercy must on all hands needs be granted 250to be free; how much soever that of his justice may, by some, be thought otherwise.
Amongst men, I confess, there is such an obligation as that of equity; and the reason is, because men stand obliged by a superior law to exercise mercy as well as justice; which God does not: and therefore, though there may be such a thing as a meritum de congruo between man and man, yet between God and man (since God is under no obligation to shew mercy, where his own word has not first obliged him) no such merit can take place.
But, besides, this is not the point, whether or no it be congruous to the goodness of God, for him to reward such or such actions: for there be many thousands of things and actions very congruous for God to do, which yet by his nature he is not obliged to do, nor ever will do; so that the bare congruity of any thing or action to the divine nature lays no obligation upon God to do it at all. But the point lies here; to wit, whether it be so congruous to God to reward the obedience and good actions of men, that it is incongruous to his nature not to do it; and this I utterly deny. For if it were incongruous to his nature not to reward them, it would be necessary for him to reward them; and then indeed merit must upon equal necessity take place. But if God be not bound to reward every act, which it may be suitable or congruous for him to reward, (as we have shewn that he is not,) then meritum de congruo is but merit equivocally so called; and the forementioned division of merit is not a division of a genus into two several species, but only a distribution of an equivocal term into its several significations; and consequently to give the name of merit with respect to God, to that which is so only de congruo, 251is a mere trifling about words, without any regard had to the sense of them. Nor let any one here object the frequent use of the terms mereri and meritum by the fathers and other ancient church-writers; for they use them not in a sense importing claim upon the score of strict justice, but only as they signify the actual obtainment of any thing from God upon the stock of free promise, by coming up to the conditions of it: which by no means reaches that sense of the word which we have been hitherto disputing against. In short therefore the question stands thus: Does this meritum de congruo, from the nature of the thing itself, oblige God to reward it, or does it not? If it does, then I am sure that merit of condignity does the same, and can do no more; and so the distinction between them is but verbal, and superfluous. But if, on the other hand, it does not oblige God, then I affirm that it is not so much as merit; for where there is no obligation on one side, there can be no merit on the other. To which we may add this further consideration, that the asserting of such a merit of congruity is altogether as arrogant, as to assert that of condignity; forasmuch as it equally binds God, and brings him under as great a necessity of rewarding, as the other can; and that, not by reason of his own free word and promise obliging him to it, (of which more anon,) but because of a certain worth and value inherent in the work itself; which makes it incongruous, and consequently impossible, for God not to reward it; since it must needs be impossible for him to do any thing incongruous to himself or to any of his attributes.
From all which it follows, that the third condition required to make an action meritorious, is here failing also. Which is, That the excellency of the work 252be commensurate to the value of the reward. And so I am come at length to the
Fourth and last condition or ingredient of merit. And that is, That he who does a work whereby he would merit of another, does it solely by his own strength, and not by the strength or power of him from whom he is to merit. The reason of which is, because otherwise the work would not be entirely a man’s own. And where there is no property, there can be no exchange; all exchange being the alienation of one property or title for another. And I have all along shewn, that the nature of merit is founded in commutation.
But now, how great an hand, or rather what a total influence, God has in all our actions, that known maxim, jointly received both by heathens and Christians, sufficiently demonstrates; namely, that in him we live, and move, and have our being. And so intimately and inseparably does this influence join itself with all the motions of the creature, that it puzzles the deepest and most acute philosophers to distinguish between the actions of second causes and the concurrence of the first, so as to rescue them from a downright identity. Accordingly, in Philip. ii. 13. the apostle tells us, that it is God who worketh in us not only to do, but also to will, according to his good pleasure. And if, in every good inclination, as well as action, God be the worker, we must needs be the recipient subjects of what is wrought: and to be recipient certainly is not meritorious.
In all the actions of men, though we naturally fix our eye only upon some visible agent, yet still there is a secret, invisible spring, which is the first mover of, and conveys an activity to, every power and faculty 253both of soul and body, though it be discerned by neither. Upon which account it is, that St. Austin says, “that in all that God does for us, he only crowns his own works in us;” the same hand still enabling us to do, which shall hereafter reward us for what we have done. And if, according to these terms, and those words also of the spouse to the same purpose, Cantic. i. 4. Draw me, and I will follow thee; our coming to God be from nothing else but from his drawing us to himself, how can we merit of him by our following him, or coming to him? For can any one oblige me by a present bought with my own money? or by giving me that which I first gave him? And yet the case here is much the same. For as apt as we are to flatter our selves, and to think and speak big upon this subject, yet in truth, by all that we do or can do, we do but return God something of his own. Much like the rivers, which come rolling with a mighty noise, and pour themselves into the sea: and yet as high as they swell, and as loud as they roar, they only restore the sea her own waters; that which flows into her in one place, having been first drawn from her in another. In a word, can the earth repay the heavens for their influences, and the clouds for that verdure and fertility which they bestow upon it? or can dirt and dunghills requite the sun and the light for shining upon them? No certainly; and yet what poor shadows and faint representations are these of that infinitely greater inability even of the noblest of God’s creatures to present him with any thing which they were not first beholden to him for! It is clear therefore, that since man, in all his duties and services, never had any thing of his own to set up with, but has trafficked all along upon a borrowed stock, 254the fourth and last condition required to make his performances meritorious utterly fails him.
And thus I have distinctly gone over the several conditions of merit. As first, That the meritorious act be not due. Secondly, That it really add to, and better the condition of, him from whom it merits. Thirdly, That there be a parity of value between the work and the reward. And fourthly and lastly, That it be done by the sole strength of him who merits, and not by the help and strength of him from whom he merits. These four, I say, are the essential ingredients and indispensable conditions of merit. And yet not one of them all agrees to the very best of man’s actions with reference to Almighty God. Nevertheless, in despite of all these deplorable impotences, we see what a towering principle of pride works in the hearts of men, and how mightily it makes them affect to be their own saviours, and even while they live upon God, to depend upon themselves: to be poor and proud being the truest character of man ever since the pride of our first parents threw us into this forlorn condition. And thus I have finished the second and main particular proposed from these words, and expressed in them; namely, That it is impossible for men, by their best services, to merit of God, or be profitable to him. I proceed now to the
Third particular, which exhibits to us something by way of inference from the two former; to wit, That this persuasion of man’s being able to merit of God, is the source and foundation of two of the greatest corruptions of religion that have infested the Christian church; and those are Pelagianism and Popery. And,
First for Pelagianism. It chiefly springs from, 255and is resolvable into, this one point, namely, that a man contributes something of his own, which he had not from God, towards his own salvation: and that, not a bare something only, but such a something also, as is the principal and most effectual cause of his salvation. Forasmuch as that which he receives from God (according to Pelagius) is only a power to will and to do; which a man may very well have, and carry to hell with him, as those who go to hell no doubt do. But that which obtains heaven, and actually saves a man, is the right use of that power, and the free determination of his will; which (as the same Pelagius teaches) a man has wholly from him self, and accordingly may wholly thank himself for. So that in answer to that question of the apostle, 1 Cor. iv. 7. Quis te discrevit? Who made made to differ from another? and that, as to the grand discrimination of saint and reprobate? the Pelagian must reply, if he will speak pertinently and consistently with himself, “Why, I made myself to differ, by using the powers which God gave me, as I should do; which my neighbour did not: and for that reason I go to heaven, and he to hell; and as he can blame none but himself for the one, so I am beholden to none but myself for the other.” This, I say, is the main of the Pelagian divinity, though much more compendiously delivered in that known but lewd aphorism of theirs, A Deo habemus quod sumus homines, a nobis autem ipsis quod sumus justi. To which we may add another of their principles, to wit, that if a man does all that naturally he can do, (still understanding hereby the present state of nature,) God is bound in justice to supply whatsoever more shall be necessary to salvation. Which premises, if they do not directly and unavoidably infer 256in man a power of meriting of God, the world is yet to seek, what the nature and notion of merit is. Accordingly, both Gelasius and St. Austin, in setting down the points wherein the Catholic church differed from the Pelagians, assign this for one of the chief, that the Pelagians held gratiam Dei secundum hominum merita conferri. And the truth is, upon their principles a man may even merit the incarnation of Christ: for if there be no saving grace without it, and a man may do that which shall oblige God in justice to vouchsafe him such grace, (as with no small self-contradiction these men use to speak,) then, let them qualify and soften the matter with what words they please, I affirm, that, upon these terms, a man really merits his salvation, and, by consequence, all that is or can be necessary thereunto.
In the mean time, throughout all this Pelagian scheme, we have not so much as one word of man’s natural impotency to spiritual things, (though inculcated and wrote in both Testaments with a sun beam,) nor consequently of the necessity of some powerful divine energy to bend, incline, and effectually draw man’s will to such objects as it naturally resists and is averse to: not a word, I say, of this, or any thing like it; (for those men used to explode and deny it all, as their modern offspring amongst us also do;) and yet this passed for sound and good divinity in the church in St. Austin’s time; and within less than an hundred years since, in our church too, till Pelagianism and Socinianism, deism, tritheism, atheism, and a spirit of innovation, the root of all, and worse than all, broke in upon us, and by false schemes and models countenanced and encouraged, have given quite a new face to things; 257though a new face is certainly the worst and most unbecoming that can be set upon an old religion But,
Secondly, To proceed to another sort of men famous for corrupting Christianity more ways than one; to wit, those of the church of Rome. We shall find, that this doctrine of man’s being able to merit of God is one of the chief foundations of Popery also: even the great Diana, which some of the most experienced craftsmen in the world do with so much zeal sacrifice to and make shrines for; and by so doing get their living, and that a very plentiful and splendid one too; as knowing full well, that without it the grandeur of their church (which is all their religion) would quickly fall to the ground. For if there be no merit of good works, then no supererogation; and if no supererogation, no indulgences; and if no indulgences, then it is to be feared that the silver smith’s trade will run low, and the credit of the pontifical bank begin to fail. So that the very marrow, the life and spirit of Popery lies in a stiff adherence to this doctrine: the grand question still insisted upon by these merchants being, Quid dabitis? and the great commodity set to sale by them being merit. For can any one think, that the Pope and his cardinals, and the rest of their ecclesiastical grandees, care a rush whether the will of man be free, or no, (as the Jesuits state the freedom of it on the one side, and Dominicans and Jansenists on the other,) or that they at all concern themselves about justification and free grace, but only as the artificial stating of such points may sometimes serve them in their spiritual traffick, and now and then help them to turn the penny. No; they value not their schools any 258further than they furnish their markets; nor regard any gospel but that of cardinal Palavicini; which professedly owns it for the main design of Christianity, to make men as rich, as great, and as happy as they can be in this world. And the grand instrument to compass all this by is the doctrine of merit. For how else could it be, that so many in that communion should be able to satisfy themselves in doing so much less than they know they are required to do for the saving of their souls, but that they are taught to believe, that there are some again in the world who do a great deal more than they are bound to do, and so may very well keep their neighbour’s lamp from going out, by having oil enough both to supply their own, and a comfortable overplus besides, to lend, or (which is much better) to sell, in such a case. In a word, take away the foundation, and the house must fall; and, in like manner, beat down merit, and down goes Popery too. And so at length (that I may not trespass upon your patience too much) I descend to the
Fourth and last particular, proposed at first from the words; which was, to remove an objection naturally apt to issue from the foregoing particulars. The objection is obvious, and the answer to it needs not be long. It proceeds thus.
If the doctrine hitherto advanced be true, can there be a greater discouragement to men in their Christian course, than to consider, that all their obedience, all their duties and choicest performances, are nothing worth in the sight of God? and that they themselves, after they have done their best, their utmost, and their very all in his service, are still, for all that, useless and unprofitable, and such as can 259plead no recompence at all at his hands? This, you will say, is very hard; but to it I answer,
First, That it neither ought nor uses to be any discouragement to a beggar (as we all are in respect of Almighty God) to continue asking an alms, and doing all that he can to obtain it, though he knows he can do nothing to claim it. But,
Secondly, I deny, that our disavowing this doctrine of merit cuts us off from all plea to a recompence for our Christian obedience at the hands of God. It cuts us off indeed from all plea to it upon the score of condignity and strict justice: but then should we not, on the other side, consider, whether God’s justice be the only thing that can oblige him in his transactings with men? For does not his, veracity and his promise oblige him as much as his justice can? And has he not positively promised to reward our sincere obedience? Which promise, though his mere grace and goodness induced him to make, yet his essential truth stands obliged to see performed. For though some have ventured so far as to declare God under no obligation to inflict the eternal torments of hell (how peremptorily soever threatened by him) upon men dying in their sins; yet I suppose none will be so hardy, or rather shameless, as to affirm it free for God to perform or not perform his promise; the obligation of which being so absolute and unalterable, I do here further affirm, that, upon the truest and most assured principles of practical reason, there is as strong and as enforcing a motive from the immutable truth of God’s promise, to raise men to the highest and most heroic acts of a Christian life, as if every such single act could by its own intrinsic worth merit a glorious eternity. For, to speak the 260real truth and nature of things, that which excites endeavour, and sets obedience on work, is not properly a belief or persuasion of the merit of our works, but the assurance of our reward. And can we have a greater assurance of this, than that truth itself, which cannot break its word, has promised it? For the most high and holy One (as we have shewn, and may with reverence speak) has pawned his word, his name, and his honour, to reward the stead fast, finally persevering obedience of every one within the covenant of grace, notwithstanding its legal imperfection.
And therefore, though we have all the reason in the world to blush at the worthless emptiness of our best duties, and to be ashamed of the poorness and shortness of our most complete actions, and, in a word, to think as meanly of them, and of ourselves for them, as God himself does, yet still let us build both our practice and our comfort upon this one conclusion, as upon a rock; that though, after we have done all, we are still unprofitable servants, yet because we have done all, God has engaged himself to be a gracious master.
To whom therefore be rendered and ascribed, as is most due, all praise, might, majesty, and dominion, both now and for evermore. Amen.261
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