Immanuel Kant writes: “God’s justice is usually divided into justitiam remunerativam et punitivam, according as God punishes evil and rewards good. But the rewards God bestows on us proceed not from his justice but from his benevolence. For if they came to us from justice then there would be no premia gratuita, but rather we would have to possess some right to demand them, and God would have to be bound to give them to us. Justice gives nothing gratuitously; it gives to each only the merited reward. But even if we unceasingly observe all moral laws, we can never do more than is our duty; hence we can never expect rewards from God’s justice.” [Immanuel Kant, Lectures on the Philosophical Doctrine of Religion, 28: 1085, quoted from Religion and Rational Theology, translated and edited by Allen Wood and George di Giovanni (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 417].
Immanuel Kant has been accused of holding that we merit God’s grace by our actions because we choose to adhere to the moral law and hence by choosing to adhere to the moral law we thereby make ourselves worthy of happiness. In this point of view, that happiness would be a gift from God, and he gives it when we merit it from having chosen the moral law as the incentive for our actions. But this would reverse the very idea of God’s grace being freely given from his sovereignty, since this kind of position would mean that God is constrained to reward us for our good choices and hence, that is merited happiness, not unmerited grace. Kant would be in direct conflict with the Christian concept of grace if this were his position. However as the quote above shows, this is not Kant’s position. Kant has a position that is consistent with the doctrine of unmerited grace that St. Paul and the Gospels articulate.
In this quote above Kant distinguishes between remunerative justice and punitive justice. Remunerative justice regards positive rewards for just actions whereas punitive justice has to do with punishments for unjust actions. Kant is saying that God definitely punishes unjust actions and we merit punishment by our unjust actions, but that God does not reward just actions. God’s justice is not the source of reward but of punishment. The source of God’s reward is in his benevolence. There is a great difference between God’s justice and his benevolence. God’s benevolence is freely given to all and is not based on merit. As Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Matthew 5:44-45). God gives his benevolence universally to all people. He gives rain to both the just and the unjust. He doesn’t just give rain to the just, but also to the unjust. So merit has nothing to do with God’s benevolence. His benevolence extends to all people. He gives good things even when we don’t deserve it.
As Kant would put it – God wills the happiness of human beings universally, and does not favor some people over other people by virtue of having merited it. It is the universality of God’s will that characterizes his benevolence. And it is also unmerited benevolence since it is given whether one deserves it or not. God universally wills that all people be saved and that all people be happy. We do not deserve this by our moral decision-making according to Kant because our morality is motivated by duty. We are to choose the moral law as the incentive for our actions not because we are trying to please God but because it is our duty to do so. We are under the moral law and it requires of us that we conform our maxims to the universality of the moral law. To expect a reward for this is precisely to be moral out of self-love, which is an evil motive. Hence we are to be moral for the sake of being moral and by virtue of that pure motive we become worthy of happiness. But being worthy of happiness does not mean that we thereby acquire a right to be happy. Happiness is not a reward but a free gift of grace.
Hence, we can conclude that Kant does not hold that we make a demand on God by our moral action and then grace is no longer grace. Rather, in our decision to make our maxims conform to the universality of the moral law we become worthy of happiness which is a gift of God and always was a gift of God’s benevolence and good will toward human beings.