Meriting by Good Works in the State of Grace

Catholic Candle note: We should study the Catholic Faith our whole life.  Part of this duty is to understand more fully the truths of the Faith we already learned as children.  Thus, for example, concerning the question “Who is God?”, we know from our First Communion Catechism that “God is the Supreme Being Who made all things.”  During our life, we should learn more about God, as best we can, little-by-little, using the opportunities we have.

The article below is an aid to help us to “peer a little more deeply” into a few related truths of the Faith which we already learned in our catechism as children.  The article below is merely one more step in the journey of learning our Faith better.

By our Catholic Faith, we know that without Sanctifying Grace, we cannot merit anything from God.[1]  We know that everyone who is without Sanctifying Grace is postured as God’s enemy.  Thus, it is not surprising that a person without grace cannot merit since how could God’s enemies ever merit from Him while remaining His enemies and remaining in mortal sin – with their wills turned against Him?  

Even a little unbaptized baby who is incapable of actual sin[2], nonetheless has no grace or charity and so is not a friend of God.  Sanctifying grace changes a person from being God’s enemy into being His friend.[3]

In the present article, we will look at how someone can merit a reward from God in some way (called “condignly”), when he is already in the state of Sanctifying Grace.

What is merit?

To “merit” means “to be worthy of, or entitled, or liable to earn”.[4]

Merit is a right to a reward.   For example, let us suppose a man discovers a plot to kill and overthrow the king of his country.  The man informs the king.  This deed deserves praise and reward, and might have not only saved the king himself, but also the whole kingdom.  Thus, the king – if he is a just man – might say to the man, “Well done!  You have merited a reward and my gratitude.”  In that case, the man merited a natural reward from a mere man (viz., the king).

Below, we first examine two objections to the idea that we can merit anything from God.  After that, we explain the truth and answer those objections.

Objection #1: It seems that we cannot merit from God because everything good we do for God is merely doing what we are obliged to do.

But how can we merit from God?  He owns us, including all of our time and energy and everything we have.  He is entitled to whatever we have as a matter of justice.  We always owe Him everything.  So, when we give Him what is due to Him, i.e., pay our debts to Him, how can we merit anything by doing that?  In a similar way, we would not think that a store check-out clerk would deserve praise or a reward because he returned to us the change due when we pay for our groceries.  That clerk is only giving us what he owes to us in justice.

Here is one way that Our Lord shows that everything we owe to God is our debt to Him:

When you have done all these things that are commanded you, say: We are unprofitable servants; we have done that which we ought to do.[5]

For this reason, it seems that even a person in the state of Sanctifying Grace cannot merit since we cannot do anything for God beyond what we already owe and we cannot do anything worthy of a reward.

Objection #2: It seems that we cannot merit from God because God does not need anything we can do for Him and so we cannot benefit Him.

Further, merit seems to pertain to good services performed, which are needed by the recipient or which benefit the person receiving those services.  Hence, in the example above, the king was benefited by the man who uncovered the seditious men’s plot to kill the king.

But God is almighty.  He can do anything He wants to do.  He needs no one’s help.  It seems that, because God does not need anything we can give Him, there is nothing we can do to benefit God and so we deserve no reward.  The psalmist shows that God needs nothing we have, using these words:

I have said to the Lord, thou art my God, for thou hast no need of my goods.

Psalm, 15:2.

This is a second reason why it seems that a person cannot merit even in the state of Sanctifying Grace since there is nothing that he can do which can benefit God and thereby merit a reward.

Solution: We can merit a reward from God condignly.

Our Catholic Faith teaches us that we can indeed merit from God in some way.  For example, God told the prophet Jeremias:

Thus saith the Lord: Let thy voice cease from weeping, and thy eyes from tears: for there is a reward for thy work, saith the Lord: and they shall return out of the land of the enemy.

Jeremias, 31:16 (emphasis added).

St. Thomas Aquinas, greatest Doctor of the Catholic Church, teaches us that:

A person in the state of grace can merit from God condignly.[6]

The word “condign” means “appropriate”.[7]  Thus, to merit condignly is to merit in some way because it is appropriate to do so.  

However, meriting is not merely receiving something as a gift.  As shown above, meriting is in some way having a right – that is, a claim in justice – to receive something.  St. Thomas teaches that “condign merit rests on justice”.[8]

St. Paul shows that our meriting from God is a matter of justice in some way.  St. Paul calls salvation a matter of justice given to the elect by the just Judge.  Here are his words:

As to the rest, there is laid up for me a crown of justice, which the Lord, the just Judge, will render to me in that day.

2 Timothy, 4:8.

From the above considerations, we know that people really are able to merit a reward from God as a matter of justice, even though everything we have already belongs to God.  

Replies to the Objections

The first objection (above) asks how God can owe us anything since everything we have, we already owe to God.  The answer is that God owes a debt to those in the state of grace because He promised to give a reward to His friends, in exchange for particular conduct on their part.  

That conduct, in itself, does not merit from God (and does not make God our Debtor) because God is already entitled to everything His creatures have.  Even more so, that conduct does not merit the extremely great rewards that God gives to the elect.  However, the rewards God gives are condign, i.e., are appropriate, and are a matter of justice because God promised the rewards and it is appropriate for God to keep His promises.

We see many examples of God’s condign promises.  For example, Our Lord promised:

Blessed are ye when they shall revile you, and persecute you, and speak all that is evil against you, untruly, for my sake: Be glad and rejoice, for your reward is very great in heaven.[9]

Here is another of very many examples of God’s promises to us:

And you shall be hated by all men for My Name's sake: but he that shall persevere unto the end, he shall be saved.[10]

Thus, those in the state of Sanctifying Grace can merit condignly.  This is the reason why St. Paul calls salvation a “crown of justice”.  2 Timothy, 4:8.

Examining the second objection (above), we see that even though God has no need of anything man can give Him [see, Psalm, 15:2], nonetheless, God owes the reward because He promised it.[11] 

This is like a rich man who wants to benefit his nephew and enable his nephew to get a good education.  Suppose the rich man promises his nephew that if the nephew would wash the uncle’s car, he would pay the nephew’s school tuition.  If that nephew then washed the uncle’s car, the uncle would be obliged in justice to fulfill his promise even though the payment of the tuition was much greater than the usual value of a car wash.  That nephew could be said to merit the tuition payment condignly.  


No one can merit unless he is in the state of Sanctifying Grace.  Even then, he merits only condignly, i.e., because God promises the reward, not because we benefit God by making Him better off or happier than He otherwise would be.  However, because of God’s promises, the rewards God gives to those in the state of Sanctifying Grace are given to them as a matter of justice.

[1]          For an explanation of this, read this article:

[2]          Here is how St. Thomas Aquinas teaches this truth, following and quoting St. Augustine: “whosoever has not charity is wicked, because ‘this gift alone of the Holy Ghost distinguishes the children of the kingdom from the children of perdition’”.  Summa, IIa IIae, Q.178, a.2, Sed contra, quoting St. Augustine’s treatise, De Trinitate, bk.15, ch.18.

As the psalmist teaches: “I was conceived in iniquities; and in sins did my mother conceive me.”  Psalm, 50:7.  St. Paul teaches that, because of Original Sin, we are all “by nature children of wrath”.  Ephesians, 2:3.  

[3]          For an explanation of this, read this article:

[4] (definition of the transitive verb, “merit”).

[5]          St. Luke’s Gospel, 17:10.

[6]          Summa, Ia IIae, Q.114, a.6, respondeo, (emphasis added).

[8]          Summa, Ia IIae, Q.114, a.6, ad 2.

[9]          St. Matthew 10: 11-12 (emphasis added).

[10]          St. Matthew 10:22 (emphasis added).

[11]            It is true that the just man gives glory to God by his good works.  That is a blessing and a consolation to the just man – viz., that he can give God this glory.  However, God does not need anything or anyone.  If that man became evil, he would still manifest God’s glory – this time by manifesting God’s justice through God punishing that man.