The Roman Catholic Church teaches a concept called the “treasury of merit.” The treasury of merit, in simplest of terms, is a heavenly bank account of good works that have been accumulated over time by Christ, martyrs, and saints when their good works have gone above and beyond what their good works required (i.e., supererogation). In theory, if a “good work” represents walking an old lady across the street, and if I walk five old ladies across the street, the four “extra” walks above and beyond what is required is deposited into the treasury of merit. Merits from the treasury, then, are distributed to people through a system the Roman Catholic Church has devised when people (living or dead) need an extra number of merits to enter heaven.
As a Protestant, what I have just described to you I reject on the grounds that the teaching of the treasury of merit is not found in the Bible alone. But is there a sliver of truth to the treasury of merit? Do Protestants believe in a treasury of merit?
If words are nuanced and explained, in a way, Protestants believe in a treasury of merit. And now that I have your attention, let me say that how a Protestant understands any kind of treasury of merit is completely different than how a Roman Catholic understands a treasury of merit in at least two important ways.
First, merits have been earned, not by saints or martyrs, but by Christ Jesus alone. By His perfect life of obedience on earth, Jesus earned an infinite number of merits (Romans 5:19). As the Second Person of the Trinity, while on earth, Christ earned a complete righteous standing because of His perfect life. Theologians refer to this perfect life as Christ’s “active obedience.”
Second, and maybe more importantly, merits are not distributed through the exchange of money, prayers, or pilgrimages, but are graciously and completely given when the Holy Spirit regenerates a heart to repent and believe the good news of the gospel. At that moment when a person repents and believes, the person is declared righteous through faith alone (Romans 5:1). In that moment, God imputes to believers all the merits (or righteousness) of the perfect Son of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Merits, the merits of Jesus Christ, are graciously given as a gift, once and for all time, for those who believe. Christians, therefore, no longer lack any merits to enter heaven.
The point of this article is not to redefine the word “treasury of merit.” The word and concept of the treasury of merit has been defined in history, particularly as it was hammered out in the sixteenth century. Rather, the point of this article is to exult in the perfect and sufficient righteousness of Christ that is given as a gift by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.
This Reformation Day let us stand with the sixteenth century Puritan, William Perkins (1558-1602), who once said: “Christ alone is our full and perfect gain, and therefore in Him there is an all-sufficient treasury of the church (Colossians 2:10). As for the merits of martyrs and saints, they bring no advantage to the people of God, but are indeed matter for the dunghill.”