One day someone asked Martin Luther whether godly persons should expect merit for their good works that result from their justification. Luther answered that even the justified were still sinners, who pray for forgiveness and live under grace. While God promises rewards to those who do good works, no works earn any merit. Luther explained:
In short, the article of justification by Christ solves everything. If Christ merits it, we merit nothing. In Christ there are gifts, not merits. Likewise, since capital and substantial righteousness is nothing, how much less will accidental righteousness count in God’s sight? Substantial righteousness is the righteousness of faith, but accidental righteousness is gifts, not merits. God crowns nothing but his own gifts, as Augustine said. (Luther’s Works 54: 329) [Emphasis Added]
In Luther’s estimation, the gift of faith in Christ formed the substance of faith, but even the outward actions derived from faith were gifts. He described how Augustine of Hippo demonstrated that merit rests completely on God’s grace and not on human will or activity.
Augustine (d.430) influenced Western Christian theology more than any writer except for Holy Scripture. He lived during the tumultuous era of Germanic invasions. In fact, he died as the Vandals approached Hippo in North Africa. While Dr. Luther did criticize Augustine’s teaching at times, Luther always emphasized Augustine’s influence on his own (re)discovery of the Gospel and grace. Augustine taught clearly that salvation and eternal life were gifts which God bestowed by grace through faith in Christ. When others inquired as to the role of merit in salvation, Augustine explained that grace by its very nature cannot be obtained by meriting anything. Rather, it is God’s grace that grants faith and any merit associated with the good works resulting from faith. Augustine stated concisely: “If, then, your good merits are God’s gifts, God does not crown your merits as your merits, but as His own gifts.” (Augustine, On Grace and Free Will 6. 15., NPNF 5: 450.)