Maturity, Not Merit

“What we have received from Jesus is not a collection of ‘merits,’ but rather His maturity.”

James B. Jordan writes:

The problem with the “covenant of works” notion lies in the fact that it is linked up with merit theology. There is no merit theology in the Bible. Merit theology is a hangover of medieval Roman Catholicism.

The problem with much “active and passive” talk is that it is part of the same erroneous scheme: Jesus’ “active obedience” earned merits that are then given to me, merits that Adam was supposed to earn. Such “merits” are some kind of “works,” and though this is not said, what is implied are something like Herculean labors, something beyond merely remaining faithful.

But that’s not what happened. Jesus simply remained faithful. He did not do any heroic works — there is no heroism in the gospel anywhere; only faithfulness. In a large sense, all of Jesus’ “work” was “passive.” He did not “go beyond” mere faithful obedience to the Law. But as a result of doing just that and no more, He matured into full adulthood. Notice that He was proclaimed king when He arrived at Jerusalem, was tried as a king, was robed as a king, and was crucified as a king. Contrary to Presbyterian theology, Jesus did not die primarily as a priest but as Melchizedek, as a king. That is, as an adult.

Or, better, as the One who was on the brink of becoming king, as the anointed Prince. Passing through death on the tree and then being resurrected in a transfigured state, Jesus became fully King and Adult.

Jesus resisted Satan in the wilderness. That’s what Adam failed to do. From that point on, for three plus years, He matured in faith, beyond the point where Adam failed. He matured to the point of being ready for adult responsibilities. Through his death, he became fully mature and was given dominion over ALL nations, over the wider world into which Adam had been prematurely cast.

That is the point of Galatians 3-4. Formerly we were children, but now in union with Jesus Christ we have become adults. What we have received from Jesus is not a collection of “merits,” but rather His maturity.

A fuller discussion of this theme of maturation can be found in James B. Jordan, From Bread to Wine: Toward a More Biblical Liturgical Theology, available for $15.00 from Biblical Horizons:

See also: Dying He Shall Die

ART: In the Garden of Eden, Kathryn Brimblecombe-Fox

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7 Responses to “Maturity, Not Merit”

  • Joe Hyink Says:

    So Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was to achieve maturity? The “merit” idea seems to be present in sin –> guilt –> death (Rom. 6:23). Isn’t that what the cross addresses?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Hi Joe

    Thanks for commenting. Jesus’ death fulfilled the pattern of substitution begun in the atoning animals who “covered” Adam and Eve (the word atonement means covering). The question here concerns works as the means of justification, that is, forward movement on the road, not filling in the potholes. If Adam had obeyed, it would not mean he had earned greater authority but that he had grown, been enlarged, to shoulder such government. We see the same process in all the patriarchs, especially Joseph. Continued faithfulness, despite betrayal and hardship, meant that wisdom developed and he could be exalted in one fell swoop to rule the world — and call His brothers to the table. So works are only ever the evidence of faith, even in the life of Jesus.

    All good government is a dealing in some kind of death. Adam was supposed to crush and kill the serpent. And it would still have been a perfect world. Solomon’s first act as king was to exile or execute his father’s enemies. Jesus did the same thing in AD30-70. The “death of death,” under the government of a better Adam, will bring about a perfect world. So I guess the point of atonement is substitution and then a conferring of the “wisdom” that has been attained by Christ on our behalf. Christ called the apostles to die, and they were exalted. Now He calls us to die, and how much we die demonstrates our faith. I believe the Lord’s table is a public demonstration of this. We examine our hearts and die under the Law. But we leave the building resurrected.

    The key to all this is that faith is relational, resulting in works. But works without faith are not relational. In essence, God gave Adam one law. Adam whined and asked “why?” And God said, “Because I am your father.” So Jesus could tell the Pharisees who their real father was. They didn’t know God at all, and they didn’t love Him.

    We do see this exact pattern all through the Bible. Obedience brings greater authority, and disobedience means we lose even what we have — because we can’t be trusted with it as stewards.

    It also shows the heart of God. The law gives form to life but the end of it is always relational, fellowship. Jesus’ obedience gave us the Spirit, and all of the riches of His “judicially mature” Adamic mind.

    Rambling now, but I hope that helps.

    This has some bearing on our “sanctification.” Seems to me that spiritual growth is first and foremost a developing “judicial maturity.” More and more we see evil for what it is (especially in ourselves) and it repels us. And the way in which we “judge” (assess) sin has a direct bearing on the preciousness of Christ to us. We judge Him to be more and more righteous, and this transforms us into His image. The Spirit opens our eyes to behold Him in His legal and merciful beauty, and that changes us. Like Adam, our eyes are opened, but we are clothed, covered.

    The “glorious future” is when we are “gods,” that is, elohim, judges, perfect physical images AND ethical (legal) representatives of the Father.

  • Joe Hyink Says:


    Thanks for the speedy reply. It’s all very helpful. Yet some things are still unclear to me. Certainly, the death of Jesus is all about substitution. That all makes sense.

    Yet, the original post seems to imply that even apart from sin (Jesus was sinless, after all), men would have died in order to achieve greater maturity. Am I reading too much into this?

    It also seems, according to the post, that Jesus would have been incarnate and maybe even would have died even apart from sin. The post shows that Jesus died, at least in part, to achieve HIS OWN maturity. The substitution idea is certainly here, but then, where does sin enter the equation?

    Does that make sense, or am I reading this wrong?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Ah. I believe Jesus, like Joseph, went through various stages of maturity. We see him vindicated as God’s son from among his siblings when he remains in the temple aged 12. Then again at his baptism, he vindicated as the blameless one from among the repentant sons of Israel (chosen as the “beloved” like David). That begins his ministry. The transfiguration ends his preaching ministry and he is now vindicated as God’s son over, and by, Moses and Elijah (who some believe were the two men at the ascension). The resurrection was yet another “investiture” or enrobing, and of course the final one is the ascension.

    Jordan believes the human life span would have been around 1000 years, after which a “deep sleep” death and gathering to God would have taken place. So Adam’s deep sleep on behalf of Eve prefigured the future.

    This is basically what we see in “Abraham’s bosom,” where the saints had to wait until the righteous one entered before they could ascend to be with him and rule with him on thrones. Ruling with God as “the righteousness of God” is the final vindication of maturity. One submitted to the sword (as a mediator) and is then able to be trusted with it — like a knighthood.


  • Mike Bull Says:

    One further comment – Jordan also speculates that silver hair is a good thing, a sign of judicial maturity, and that Adam’s hair would have gone “white as wool” as he matured. So Jesus in Revelation has a hoary head, the hair of a righteous judge. And it isn’t a wig.

  • Joe Hyink Says:

    This is good stuff, Mike, and it makes a lot of sense. But still my hang up is about the presence of sin in the equation. If Adam would have “died” and Jesus presumably would have “died” (as a substitute) apart from sin, should we then continue to think of Jesus’ death as the payment of a penalty, especially with the idea of merit that that language implies? Or did sin forceably add the additional dimension of sacrifice?

  • Mike Bull Says:

    Perhaps it comes down to the difference between mercy and grace. Mercy pays the debt and grace gives an inheritance. Adam’s obedience would have brought the fulfilment of the promise as a gift. Jesus’ obedience was to pay Adam’s debt as Covenant Head and allow the gift of the inheritance.

    Adam was to be the “firstfruits” in heaven. In a number of visions of the heavenly Temple, the Table of Facebread is missing. Corresponding that to the four faces of the cherubim, it is the face of the Man. It was the place set for Adam in heaven to complete the Temple. So perhaps this “good death” was more like Enoch or Elijah – a transfiguration and ascension. The body would not see corruption.