Having established a presumption of guilt through their “plumb line and pendulum” analogy, the authors move on to Part 2: Redefining Merit: The Klinean Paradigm Shift (Chs. 5–8). It is in this section that we come to the heart of their case against Klinean republication. Their main argument can be stated succinctly: in his zeal to maintain the clarity of the law-gospel contrast against the errors of Shepherd, Kline overreacted and defined merit in a novel way that departed from the Reformed tradition.
Before we can understand Kline’s novel definition of merit, we must understand how the Reformed tradition defined merit. In the view of the authors of MM, the traditional definition can be seen at least by implication in the Westminster Confession and the Canons of Dort, and more explicitly in Francis Turretin’s five conditions for “true merit” (MM 55-57). Drawing on these sources, the authors of MM boil merit down to the following definition: for a work to be truly meritorious it must be (1) absolutely perfect and (2) performed by one who is ontologically equal with God (MM 43, 106).
Of course, this means that the only true merit is the merit of Christ. If Adam had not sinned, even his obedience would not have qualified as true merit, since he would have met the first condition (perfect obedience) but not the second (ontological equality with God). Therefore, the MM authors argue, we must distinguish between “improper or covenant merit” and “proper or strict merit.” Adam would have been capable of the first, but not the second. Only Christ’s obedience qualifies as strict merit.
Contrary to this traditional understanding of merit (with its two types, covenant merit vs. strict merit), Kline reacted against Shepherd and came up with a novel definition of merit. The authors claim that the core element in Kline’s redefinition of merit is the notion that God is at liberty to define any obedient act as meritorious by his mere will or word, without requiring perfection and without ontological considerations. “Merit is whatever God says it is” (MM 67).
This new definition of merit was originally developed by Kline in reference to the question whether Adam before the Fall could have merited the reward of eschatological advancement. That is a serious enough of a departure from the Reformed tradition. But having redefined merit as whatever God says it is, Kline (they claim) took things a step further. He applied this novel definition of merit, originally developed in reference to debate whether Adam could merit eschatological advancement in the pre-Fall covenant of works, to the post-Fall situation. If merit is whatever God says it is, and the work need not even be perfect, then sinners can merit blessings from God according to Kline. This is the reason Kline could speak of Noah, Abraham, and Israel meriting temporal blessings, even though they were sinners.
The central error of Klinean republication has now been pinpointed in the minds of the authors of MM. Kline’s “redefinition of merit . . . is central and foundational to the doctrine of republication” (MM 59). “By removing all ontological considerations, this redefinition of merit permits what the traditional view has rejected, namely, the possibility of any type of meritorious accomplishment by fallen man” (MM 77). This is Kline’s fundamental error in the minds of the authors of MM.
In his fifth-century debate with the heretic Pelagius, Augustine long ago refuted the idea that sinners could possibly do anything to merit God’s blessing. Kline has aligned himself with Pelagius and against Augustine. Positing even the possibility of post-Fall merit is a violation of baseline Augustinian and Reformed orthodoxy. Klinean republication has now been shown guilty of gross unorthodoxy, since it affirms that a group of fallen, sinful humans (the Israelites) could merit temporal blessings from God.