In the beginning of his epistle, Paul expressed his amazement at how quickly the Galatians had departed from the true gospel and embraced a “different” gospel that was no gospel at all. However, the seductive voice of legalism has been powerful from the beginning. Works-righteousness schemes have supplanted the gospel in every age of church history. We think of Pelagianism in the fourth century, Socinianism in the sixteenth century, and Liberalism and Finneyism in the nineteenth century, to name just a few.
But none of these movements has been so complex and systematic in its embrace of a legalistic view of justification as has the Roman Catholic Church. Rome, by adding works to faith and merit to grace as prerequisites for justification, has rekindled the flames of the Galatian heresy.
Though Rome, against pure Pelagianism, insists that grace is necessary for justification, it denies that grace alone justifies. Though it teaches that faith is necessary as the initiation, the foundation, and the root of justification, it denies that we are justified by faith alone. It adds works to faith as a requirement for justification. For God to declare us just, we must be inherently just, according to Rome.
Rome adds merit to grace in two distinct ways. First, there is “congruous merit” (meritum de congruo), merit a person acquires by performing works of satisfaction within the context of the sacrament of penance. These works, done with the aid of grace, make it “congruous” or “fitting” for God to justify the person.
Second, there are works of supererogation. These works are above and beyond the call of duty, thus, they yield excess merit. Rome says that when saints achieve more merit than they need to gain entrance into heaven, the excess is deposited into the “Treasury of Merit.” Rome calls this the “spiritual goods of the communion of saints.”
Out of this treasury the church may dispense merit to those who lack it in sufficient quantity. This is done through “indulgences.” The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines an indulgence as follows: “A remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the church—which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”