1. By now it should be clear why life in this age has a more than instrumental relationship to everlasting life. In this life, Christians engage in human actions which are intrinsically meaningful because of the human goods in which the actions enable them to share. The prime instance is the act of faith, by which Christians determine themselves to friendship with God and cooperate in forming God’s human family in Jesus.
2. Secondarily, but not just instrumentally, Christians in this life engage in the actions which make up the life of faith and so work out their unique Christian identities. They do this by carrying out their personal vocations, which in unique and complementary ways articulate and enrich their personal shares in the life of the whole Lord Jesus. In living their human lives in him, Christians collectively contribute to his human completion. Jesus gathers up and restores all things to the Father; thus all the human goods which are served in Christian life, including those considered secular, contribute to fulfillment in Jesus.
3. There is a further implication of the fact that the enduring share in divine life and bodily resurrection life now enjoyed by Christians is based on their human acts of living faith, sacramental participation, and faithful Christian living in general. Such actions are not merely instrumental. For example, the act of faith by which charity is accepted is intrinsically necessary to the reception of this gift, and the eating of Jesus’ flesh in the Eucharist is intrinsically necessary to sharing in his resurrection life. Thus, even in the aspects of union with Jesus which transcend the existential domain, Christians accept and maintain their solidarity with him by human acts in this life, and this solidarity as a whole is to endure and mature.
4. Furthermore, the actions by which Christians cooperate in redemption with Jesus, and so with the Father and Spirit, are themselves permanently meaningful human actions done for the good of religion. Just as Jesus’ doing of the Father’s will is sacrifice, so life in Jesus is living sacrifice, offered to God as the response possible for human beings in this sinful age. God’s response to this sacrifice is certain because he is faithful. This relationship of gift and response is not merely instrumental, as if human action could mechanically elicit God’s re-creative work. Nevertheless, the discontinuity of re-creation is wholly unlike the effortless and inevitable continuity of maturation which the syntheses of liberalized Christianity envisage.
5. The reality called “merit” lies in this intrinsic relationship between human sacrifice and divine re-creative work. Merit is not control over God or a claim upon him apart from his mercy. To merit is instead to do one’s part in friendship with God; he will respond by keeping his promises (see S.t., 1–2, q. 114, aa. 1–4). God’s re-creative work is a free gift on his part, not something which our work compels him to do; and yet we truly merit this work of God’s mercy by the sacrifice of our lives in union with Jesus’ sacrifice.24
6. As several previous chapters have explained, the point of the Incarnation, of the sacraments, and of the moral life of Christians as a whole is that God wishes to ennoble creatures by allowing them to share as much as possible in his work (see S.c.g., 3, 69). Now the ultimate significance of this aspect of God’s saving work is clear. Since the fulfillment of all things in Jesus includes human selves, self-determined by free choices, and a communion of selves constituted by choices which are communion constituting, Christian life in this world is intrinsically necessary to the fullness of Jesus in its created aspects. That is why creatures are not beatified without the toil of existence, the overcoming of evil, the work of redemption. Even God cannot create Jesus’ life, which is to last forever, without Jesus’ living of his life. The same is true of our Christian lives. The heavenly kingdom is built by Jesus in the life of his Church on earth.
Vatican II teaches that the secular calling of Christians is to dedicate themselves to the earthly service of others and in this way make ready the stuff of the heavenly kingdom (see GS 38; LG 44). Because this present world is deformed by sin and its consequences, it must give way to the new heavens and new earth; for this reason, historical progress is distinct from, and must not be confused with, the growth of the kingdom (see GS 39). Nevertheless, not only charity but the human acts which are its fruits will endure. Nor may these acts be imagined to survive in some disincarnate form. In the Christian cultivation of this world, there “grows the body of a new human family, a body which even now is able to give some kind of foreshadowing of the new age” (GS 39).
This last conception seems strange. However, the physical environment transformed by human work into a world of culture truly is the body of the human community, which is shared in common by the bodily individuals who communicate in it. Consider, for instance, the way a home bodies out its family or the soil those who live immediately by cultivating it. Hence, Christian hope for resurrection, which is not individualistic, must affirm that “after we have obeyed the Lord, and in his Spirit nurtured on earth the values of human dignity, brotherhood and freedom, and indeed all the good fruits of our nature and enterprise, we will find them again, but freed of stain, burnished and transfigured” (GS 39).
Hence, we ought not to imagine that the fulfillment for which we hope is a spiritual heaven far from human concerns and this material world. Christian hope, like that of secular humanists, is for heaven on earth; the new Jerusalem comes “down out of heaven from God” (Rv 21.2). The difference is that fulfillment in Jesus will be in “a new heaven and a new earth” (Rv 21.1), transformed by God’s re-creative act. The good fruits of our nature and work—including our bodily nature and the work of our hands—will not be left behind, but recovered cleansed of the damage our sin inflicts upon them.
24. A brief summary of the essential doctrine on merit: Michael Schmaus, Dogma, vol. 6, Justification and the Last Things (Kansas City: Sheed and Ward, 1977), 138–45.