[K:NWTS 25/1 (May 2010) 24-25]

Classic Orthodox Calvinists on the Notion of Any Human Merit

“We condemn therefore those which teach that for the worthiness of their works there is due unto them either remission of sins, or eternal life, or any other good gift. For though we should perfectly fulfill the commandments of God, yet we should be but unprofitable servants (Luke 17:10).”[1]

“Eternal life therefore is indeed prepared and given unto them who testify their repentance by the true fruits thereof, which are sometimes put off and deferred unto the last moment of a man’s life, whereof we have a singular example in that poor thief crucified with Jesus Christ . . . but I add that this is not that by their works they have satisfied for their sins either in whole or in part, or that they deserve by the value of desert of them in any sort or manner whatsoever any blessing temporal or spiritual: but only because that good works being the testimony and effects inseparably following of faith, and that faith witnessing before God according to the covenant of the Gospel, That whosoever shall believe in the Son shall be saved.”[2]

“VI. Do Our Good Works Merit Any Thing in the Sight of God? . . . [W]hen we say that we obtain rewards from God by our own good works, men immediately conclude that our good works must merit something at the hands of God. We must know, therefore, that our good works are necessary, and that they are also to be done for the rewards which are consequent thereon; but that they are, nevertheless, not meritorious, by which we mean that they deserve nothing from God, not even the smallest particle of spiritual or temporal blessings.[3]


[1] Jerome Zanchius (1516-1590) was an ardent Italian Calvinist who itinerated throughout Protestant Europe in the 16th century. He published De religione christianae fides in 1585. It was translated into English in 1599 under the title Confession of the Christian Religion (variant: The Whole Body of Christian Religion). The quotation above is from chapter 21.9 (“Of Good Works”). “Any other good gift” refers to even temporal rewards on the alleged meritorious ground of human works—an impossibility in sinners, as Zanchius notes from our Lord’s infallible statement in Luke 17.

[2] Theodore Beza (1519-1605) was the illustrious successor to John Calvin in Geneva on the latter’s death in 1564. The quotation above is found in Master Bezaes Sermons upon the Three First Chapters of the Canticle of Canticles (1587) 130. The word “whatsoever” excludes any and all suggestion of works from a sinner forming the meritorious ground of reward “temporal or spiritual”.

[3] Zacharias Ursinus (1534-1583) was one of the authors of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563) and a leader of the Calvinistic Reformation in that city. Our quotation above is from his authoritative commentary on that document: The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (1956) 485 (Question 91). Notice his absolute disclaimer: “not even the smallest particle of spiritual or temporal blessings” are “meritorious”—“they are . . . not meritorious”. No sinner, in any era of the history of redemption, is able to merit earthly (temporal) blessings or heavenly (spiritual) blessings.