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Medieval Catholic theology distinguished between bonitas (the ethical value of human acts) and dignitas (the religious value of those same acts). Merit in this sense has to do with the dignity or religious significance of human acts rather than with their goodness or inherent moral value. A merit is an act which is rewarded by God because it has met certain conditions, only one of which is inherent moral goodness. What those conditions are differ from theologian to theologian, though a representative list would include such items as the use of free will, the assistance of actual or habitual grace, and the promise of God to reward such an act. The exegetical basis for the promise of God to reward works done in His name and for His glory includes such texts as Exodus 23:20- 22; Deuteronomy 5:28-33; Matthew 5:3-12; 6:4, 19ff.; 7:21.

The Scholastic doctors distinguished between meritum de condigno, a good work which God is obligated to reward because of His own promise, and a meritum de congruo, which God is not obliged to reward because it does not meet the usual conditions, but which, nevertheless, it is fitting that God reward in view of His own liberality and merciful goodness. While Franciscan theologians admitted the possibility of merita de congruo for someone still in a state of sin, they restricted merita de condigno to works performed in a state of grace. Thomas Aquinas,* on the other hand, denied the possibility of merit, though not of moral goodness, prior to entry into a state of grace, while radical Augustinian theologians such as Gregory of Rimini* denied to the sinner the possibility of both. Protestant theology rejected the doctrine of merit, though in certain forms of Reformed, Anglican, and Free Church theology the notion of reward was not consistently excluded.