On the Relationship Between Merit and Grace

A Thomistic Understanding of the Catechism of the Catholic Church

There is often much confusion between the relationship of merit and grace and how it plays a part in our lives from a soteriological perspective. This confusion, from both non-Catholics and on behalf of some Catholics themselves, has led to a general belief that Catholic theology places a larger emphasis on merit than on God’s grace likening it to Semi-Pelagianism. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (hereafter CCC) provides clarification on much of this misunderstanding. I will seek to use the teaching of the Church through the CCC as a foundation for the necessary distinctions between the two, and then use the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas to provide a further exposition of this teaching. In the absolute sense, it is certainly possible to perform meritorious acts by virtue of our natural powers. However, I will seek to illustrate the need to consider the cause or origin of these powers. This will then lead to necessary distinctions between the natural and the supernatural in order to properly understand the relationship between merit and grace and Aquinas’ position of grace perfecting nature.

Let us first turn to the CCC’s definition of grace of which draws directly from scripture. “Grace is favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.”1

In light of this definition, it is clear that grace is supernatural insofar as it is wholly contingent on God’s operation as opposed to any natural action by the human person. There are different forms in which God offers his grace to us, and each operates in a different way. Generally speaking, there are two functions of grace in our lives—sanctifying grace and actual grace. Sanctifying grace, is a habitual grace, or a gift, of a permanent disposition toward living for God.2 This grace which is bestowed on us in baptism, gives us the ability to respond to God’s love in order to participate in supernatural virtue. Without sanctifying grace, we could not possibly partake in the divine nature as this would necessitate a level of transcendence over the limits of our human nature. The other mode by which God helps us is through actual grace. Actual grace is the grace which refers to God’s interventions, beginning at conversion and continuing up to the fulfillment of God’s call to holiness, with our ultimate end being united with God in the beatific vision.3 Therefore, it is actual grace that brings us back to a state of sanctifying grace. Sanctifying grace is a permanent disposition; it is not a permanent state. That is, while we are permanently configured to choose God through the sanctifying grace of baptism, we can fall from this state of grace through sin. Thus, it is God’s ongoing intervention that is required for us to move from a state of sin into a state of grace.

With this very basic understanding of grace under our belt, we can now turn to an understanding of what it means when we discuss merit. Merit, by definition, refers to something that is earned—a reward that someone is given in return for their work.4 Now just as with grace, there are also two distinct forms of merit, condign merit and congruous merit. Condign merit is the right to a reward.5 This type of merit is similar to how we would normally think of merit in our day-to-day interactions with society. In the majority of the work we do, aside from charitable works, we would consider merit as the right to be paid in recompense for the work completed. In terms of salvation, it is very much different because we are speaking of eternal life with God. In this sense, we cannot possibly have a right to eternity with God since there is no equality between God and man. From God, we are owed nothing, yet God has given us a promise of salvation if we have a true faith in him.6 This means that condignly speaking, it is through the merits of Christ by which we are able to become participants in the divine nature as adopted children of God.7

While man cannot merit salvation condignly, he can merit congruously. In condign merit, we see it is a right to reward, while in congruous merit, it is more of a claim. In other words, as human beings, we can merit salvation insofar as we act in harmony with God’s grace by choosing to cooperate with his grace. Thus, the distinction lies in that the condign merits of Christ allow us to become partakers of his Goodness, while our congruous merits have a character of merit insofar as they are concerned with freely willed operations on part of the agent, that is harmonious with the divinely ordained operations of our nature.8 With this, we can then arrive at the fact that when we choose to do good things, we merit salvation only in the sense that we are freely participating in God’s gratuitous gift of allowing us to partake in his nature of goodness, which consequently allows us the ability to choose things that are good and, thereby, perform good works in and by God’s grace.

In reality, it then becomes clear that while there is a certain level of merit on the part of man in his cooperation with divine grace, grace itself is always at play in any form of human merit. One cannot do anything good without God. In other words, any good action by man presupposes grace. We can be reaffirmed in this through Christ’s words in Jn 6:44, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” According to the philosophical principle agere sequitur esse – activity follows being, we can see that one cannot merit anything without first being turned to God, so it follows that we cannot be turned to God without grace. This is ultimately what the Church means when she states in the CCC, “The fatherly action of God is first on his own initiative, and then follows man’s free acting through his collaboration, so that the merit of good works is to be attributed in the first place to the grace of God, then to the faithful.”9 Our merit is always secondary to God since our meritorious actions are not possible without God allowing us to cooperate with him.

Since merit, in and of itself, is only possible with grace, then it becomes important to make another key distinction from what Aquinas calls gratia operans—operating grace, and gratia cooperans—cooperating grace. I think that this distinction further clarifies the way in which we merit as human persons, and while also showing that grace is the principle driving force behind any meritorious actions on our part whatsoever. Operating grace is the grace that operates “in regard to an effect which the will of God brings about in us.”10 Cooperating grace is in regard to an effect that God’s will does not produce alone, but with the cooperation of the agent.11 It can be said then, that operative grace is such that the will is moved by God to provide the inclination to do good, without any discursive deliberation on our part. But in cooperative grace, there is a deliberation involved by which we freely choose to cooperate with God’s grace.12 Therefore, in cooperative grace, we are, in a sense, accepting the gift that he extends to us as our loving Father.

Let us turn now to St. Thomas’ idea of grace perfecting nature to get a fuller understanding of the distinctions between the natural and the supernatural with regard to merit and grace. St. Thomas says:

“For even though by his nature man is inclined to his ultimate end, he cannot reach it by nature but only by grace, and this owing to the loftiness of that end.”13

Given what we know so far, we can begin to extract from this statement. The concept of our nature being inclined to an ultimate end is reminiscent of the Augustinian notion of being created for God and lacking true fulfillment until we obtain union with him. But even further, Aquinas demonstrates that since the end is a supernatural one, it cannot be possible to reach by natural powers alone. Thus, grace is necessary so that we can become perfected so as to achieve our supernatural end which alone is fully satisfying. Grace then, actualizes man’s natural capacity for God so that he is able to achieve his proper end in the visio divinae essentiae. God created us for him, but because of the infirmity of our nature as a consequence of the Fall, we need continual assistance from God in order that he can remedy our disordered tendencies. Through grace, our nature is strengthened.

With regard to our nature alone, as I mentioned earlier, we can perform meritorious acts through our natural powers. A good example of this would be in the cardinal virtues which themselves are natural habits. But this does not imply that it is entirely divorced from God’s work since our ability to perform good natural acts, presupposes God’s work as the Author of nature and as First Mover. In our nature, we are created with a disposition to do good things naturally by way of our intellect and will insofar as we are acting in accordance with human reason. Our ability to do this is a result of being created in the imago Dei. In performing naturally virtuous acts on our own, we are then able to develop natural habits which will increase our ability to exercise the supernatural virtues in the form of cooperating with God’s grace in elevating our nature to attain a supernatural end.

Given what we know about merit, actions done from a purely natural state, do not fall under what we would consider as meritorious from a soteriological perspective given that we cannot, even congruously, merit participation in the divine nature or eternal life. Again, this is because in order to do so, we would need to be elevated to the supernatural through grace. Thus, a truly meritorious act is made such by virtue of it being done in grace. Grace, as a gratuitous call for us to participate in the divine nature, is distinct from God’s operation as First Mover in all of creation, even though it presupposes his action by virtue of the natural operation that he authored. This is such insofar as it does not require any additional favor from God to perfect our nature. Therefore, there is a sense in which we merit naturally inasmuch as we are acting in accordance with our nature. But it is not meritorious in a salvific way since acting naturally cannot, in itself, raise us to a level that is supernatural.

This brings us to one final thought about the major distinction between natural and supernatural actions. In performing a good action, there are two aspects to it being truly meritorious—first, as the substance of the act; and secondly, the mode of being.14 Taking this into consideration, a person who is in a state of sin, can most certainly still perform a good act by their natural powers; however, it is not meritorious of salvation since their mode of being is corrupt and separated from charity which, in itself, is supernatural. Thus, we can once again conclude that any meritorious act of a salvific nature can only be done by and through God’s grace. While we can develop good habits naturally, our nature, in and of itself, excludes the beatific vision. Therefore, it is necessary that external intervention is added to internal change, i.e., moving from a state of sin to a state of grace, as God is Actus Purus and responsible for the internal change moving us from potency to act—moved away from a state in which we are deprived of charity, into a state in which we are lacking no longer.15 In which case, due to our damaged nature, we must receive actual grace to help us maintain this state of sanctifying grace.

In summation, we can confidently conclude that there is a level of human initiative that is required so that we can cooperate with God’s grace. However, in order to even cooperate with his grace, we would have to be turned toward God by sanctifying grace which properly disposes us to him. Then from here, this potency to act must be moved by God through actual grace, both operative and cooperative.16 This movement by God, actualizes the potency established by sanctifying grace in such a way that we passively receive his operative grace, and actively cooperate with his grace, thereby congruously meriting salvation, made possible only by the condign merits of Christ.

For Further Reading

Catechism of the Catholic Church. 2nd ed. Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000.

Garrigou-Lagrange, Reginald O.P. Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012.

Lonergan, Bernard. Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. University of Toronto Press, 2000.

The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006.

Thomas Aquinas. Summa theologiae. trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Second and Revised Edition, 1920, New Advent.

Thomas Aquinas. De Veritate. trans. Robert W. Schmidt S.J., Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1953, Dominican House of Studies.

Thomas Aquinas. De Trinitate. trans. E.D. Buckner, 2010, The Logic Museum.

Wawrykow, Joseph. On the Purpose of ‘Merit’ in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas. Medieval Philosophy and Theology. 2:97-116, 1992.

  1. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed. (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 1996. (Hereafter cited as “CCC.”)
  2. CCC, 2000.
  3. CCC, 2000.
  4. CCC, 2006.
  5. Paul J. Glenn, Tour of the Summa (Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1978), 183.
  6. John 3:16. I emphasize “true” faith because we are not saved by the simple fact that we believe he exists, but that we have a true faith which is followed by good works as the fruit of the spirit.
  7. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 114, a. 3.
  8. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 114, a. 1.
  9. CCC, 2008.
  10. Thomas Aquinas, De Veritate, q. 27, a. 5, ad. 1.
  11. De Veritate, q. 27, a. 5, ad 1.
  12. Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, Reality: A Synthesis of Thomistic Thought, (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2012), 256.
  13. Thomas Aquinas, Super Boethium De Trinitate, VI, q. 6, a. 4, ad. 5. (The Logic Museum, 2010).
  14. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 109, a. 4.
  15. Lonergan, Bernard. Grace and Freedom: Operative Grace in the Thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. (University of Toronto Press, 2000), 46.
  16. Wawrykow, Joseph, On the Purpose of ‘Merit’ in the Theology of Thomas Aquinas (Medieval Philosophy and Theology, 1992). 105.
Paul Chutikorn About Paul Chutikorn

Paul Chutikorn lives in the Diocese of Baker and writes on various topics pertaining to the theology and philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. He is a husband, father of 6, and serves as Vice President of the Theological Institute of St. Thomas Aquinas (Thomisticum), as well as Director of Faith Formation at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Klamath Falls, Oregon. He is currently pursuing his studies in both Theology and Philosophy at Holy Apostles College and Seminary.