Can a man do meritorious works before regeneration (i.e. being justified)?

Can a man do meritorious works before regeneration (i.e. being justified)?

Some Protestants say that man can do nothing good in God’s eyes.  Ever.  They claim that man is “totally depraved” and therefore, his works are like filthy rags in God’s eyes. If you don’t believe me, here’s an example:

All we assign to man is that, by his impurity he pollutes and contaminates the very works which were good. The most perfect thing which proceeds from man is always polluted by some stain. (Calvin, Institutes of Christian Religion)

Thus we sin even when we do good, unless God through Christ covers this imperfection and does not impute it to us. (Luther’s works, Vol 25).

Some Catholics, although they would disagree with these statements, say something similar.  They will say something like:

The Catholic Church teaches that good works done before regeneration, have no merit in God’s eyes.

Are these statements true?  You be the judge.

The documents of the Council of Trent contain the infallible Teaching of the Catholic Church.

In the Council of Trent, Session 6, Canon 7, the Council says:

Canon 7.

If anyone says that all works done before justification, in whatever manner they may be done, are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God; that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins, let him be anathema.

Let’s break that down.

If anyone says that all works done before justification,

Anybody who says that works doen before Baptism

in whatever manner they may be done,

Whether they be good or bad

are truly sins, or merit the hatred of God;

are all against God’s law and deserve His punishment

that the more earnestly one strives to dispose himself for grace, the more grievously he sins,

or if anyone says that the more an unregenerate man tries to do good, the more he does evil

let him be anathema.

Let that man who says these things be condemned.

Let me explain.

Before justification means before Baptism.  And it is in Baptism that we are regenerated.  Therefore, the context here is the man who has not yet been regenerated.

This canon, then, condemns the idea that one who is not baptized can only do evil in the eyes of God.    If we flip that around then, it means that the unbaptized can do good and meritorious works in the eyes of God.

That is the Council of Trent, there is no higher authority for a Catholic.  But, there is another authority which is very highly regarded in the Catholic Church.  It is that of St. Thomas Aquinas, who is called the Angelic Doctor of the Catholic Church.

What does he say?

Summa Theologica > First Part of the Second Part > Question 21

Article 4. Whether a human action is meritorious or demeritorious before God, according as it is good or evil?

A human action, as stated above (Article 3), acquires merit or demerit, through being ordained to someone else, either by reason of himself, or by reason of the community: and in each way, our actions, good and evil, acquire merit or demerit, in the sight of God. On the part of God Himself, inasmuch as He is man’s last end; and it is our duty to refer all our actions to the last end, as stated above (Question 19, Article 10). Consequently, whoever does an evil deed, not referable to God, does not give God the honor due to Him as our last end. On the part of the whole community of the universe, because in every community, he who governs the community, cares, first of all, for the common good; wherefore it is his business to award retribution for such things as are done well or ill in the community. Now God is the governor and ruler of the whole universe, as stated in the I, 103, 5: and especially of rational creatures. Consequently it is evident that human actions acquire merit or demerit in reference to Him: else it would follow that human actions are no business of God’s.

What does it all mean?

I know, St. Thomas’ writings are difficult to understand.  But let’s  unpack that:

A human action, as stated above (Article 3), acquires merit or demerit, through being ordained to someone else, either by reason of himself, or by reason of the community:

1st, he says that all human actions have merit or demerit with regard to someone else.  In other words, you might do something that your mom or dad or you club, might like or dislike.  People around you, then, judge the merit of your actions.

our actions, good and evil, acquire merit or demerit, in the sight of God.  On the part of God Himself, inasmuch as He is man’s last end; and it is our duty to refer all our actions to the last end,

2nd, he focuses on God.  And he says that our actions are also judged by God.  Why?  Because all men are made in His image and are made for Him.  He is the “last end” of men.  In other words, God wills that all men be saved and judges their actions in accordance with that criteria in mind.

Consequently, whoever does an evil deed, not referable to God, does not give God the honor due to Him as our last end. On the part of the whole community of the universe, because in every community, he who governs the community, cares, first of all, for the common good; 

3rd, then he says, that all man’s actions are God’s business.  Because all our actions either move us in God’s direction or away.  They are either meritorious or demeritorious in His eyes.

wherefore it is his business to award retribution for such things as are done well or ill in the community. Now God is the governor and ruler of the whole universe, as stated in the I, 103, 5: and especially of rational creatures. Consequently it is evident that human actions acquire merit or demerit in reference to Him:

4th, he concludes with this.  If men’s actions are not judged by God, then that would mean that man is God’s superior and can tell God to stay out of His business.  But that is wrong.  Everything that man does is God’s business.  God is sovereign over the entire world.

wherefore it is his business to award retribution for such things as are done well or ill in the community. Now God is the governor and ruler of the whole universe, as stated in the I, 103, 5: and especially of rational creatures. Consequently it is evident that human actions acquire merit or demerit in reference to Him: else it would follow that human actions are no business of God’s.

Let me explain:

St. Thomas is saying that all men’s actions are God’s business.  It doesn’t matter if they are regenerated or not.  It doesn’t matter if they are pagan or Christian.  All human actions are God’s business and He judges them as to whether they are meritorious or not.

Let’s play a game.  What do you think, merit or demerit?

A non-believer, who has never been baptized, murders his parents.  Merit or demerit in the eyes of God?

A Christian who has been baptized and church goer, murders his parents.  Merit or demerit in the eyes of God?

A non-believer, who has never been baptized, helps a little old lady across the street.  Merit or demerit in the eyes of God?

A non-believer, who has never been baptized, feeds the hungry, helps the poor, heals the sick and helps orphans and widows in their afflictions.  Merit or demerit in the eyes of God?

Have you ever read the Scripture which says:

Matthew 21:31…. Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.

Conclusion

God is the Judge of all men’s actions.  Whether they are baptized or not.  Whether they are regenerated or not.

Acts 10:34…. God shows no partiality, 35 but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.

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