Whether One can Merit Eternal Life without Grace
We proceed to the second article thus:
1. It seems that one can merit eternal life without grace. It was said in the preceding article that a man merits from God that to which he is divinely ordained. Now it is of the very nature of man that he is ordained to blessedness as his end, which is indeed the reason why he naturally seeks to be blessed. A man can therefore merit blessedness, which is eternal life, by his own natural powers and without grace.
2. Again, a work is the more meritorious the less it is incumbent upon one, and a good work is the less incumbent if it is done by him who has received the fewer benefits. Now a man who has only his own natural good has received less from God than one who has received gifts of grace in addition. His work is therefore the more meritorious in God's sight. Hence if one who has grace can in any wise merit eternal life, much more can one who is without grace.
3. Again, the mercy and liberality of God are infinitely greater than the mercy and liberality of man. Now one man can merit something from another, even though he has never had his grace. Much more, then, does it seem that a man without grace can merit eternal life from God.
On the other hand: the apostle says (Rom.6:23): |the gift of God is eternal life.|
I answer: there are two states of man without grace, as we said in Q.109, Art.2. One is the state of pure nature, such as was in Adam before his sin. The other is the state of corrupt nature, such as is in ourselves before restoration through grace. If we are speaking of man in the first of these states, there is one reason why he cannot merit eternal life by his natural powers alone, and that is that his merit depends on a divine preordination. No action of anything whatsoever is divinely ordained to that which exceeds what is commensurate with the power which is its principle of action. It is indeed an ordinance of divine providence that nothing shall act beyond its own power. Now eternal life is a good which exceeds what is commensurate with created nature, since it transcends both natural knowledge and natural desire, according to I Cor.2:9: |Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man. . . .| No created nature, therefore, can suffice as the principle of an action which merits eternal life, unless there is added to it a supernatural gift, which we call grace. But if we are speaking of man as he exists in sin, there is a second reason why this is so, namely, the impediment of sin. Sin is an offence against God which excludes us from eternal life, as we said in Q.71, Art.6, and Q.113, Art.2. Hence no one who lives in sin can merit eternal life unless he is first reconciled to God by the remission of sin. Now sin is remitted by grace, since the sinner merits not life but death, according to Rom.6:23: |the wages of sin is death.|
On the first point: God has ordained that human nature shall attain the end of eternal life by the help of grace, not by its own power. Its own action can merit eternal life by the help of grace.
On the second point: a man without grace cannot have it in him to perform a work equal to that which proceeds from grace, since action is the more perfect the more perfect is its principle. This reasoning would be valid, however, if such works were equal in each case.
On the third point: the first reason to which we have referred relates to God and to man in dissimilar ways. For it is from God, and not from man, that a man has every power of welldoing which he possesses. He cannot therefore merit anything from God except by means of God's gift. The apostle expresses this pointedly when he says: |who hath first given to him, and it shall be recompensed unto him again?| (Rom.11:35). The second reason, on the other hand, which is concerned with the impediment of sin, relates to man and to God in a similar way, since one man cannot merit anything even from another man whom he has offended, unless he first makes retribution, and is reconciled to him.