A question that we often hear from Calvinists is, "What is the difference between those that come to faith, and those that don't?" The context is the question of merit. Is faith meritorious? The question is intended to serve as a test for this, and if the answer is faith, than faith is meritorious. However, I think this is the wrong question. This question merely tests to see if faith is a condition, which is something that all Arminians admit. The real question is, are all conditions meritorious?
What does it mean for something to be meritorious anyway? This is really where we should start. Let us consider something which is obviously meritorious. When I work certain hours of my job, I earn of paycheck. Thus this work is meritorious for me. Because I have earned this paycheck, my boss is obligated to give the paycheck to me. I would consider this to be a good definition of something meritorious then: something which obligates the giver to give me something (such as honor, praise, or reward). If I merited it, then I deserve it, and if I deserve it, then something wrong has happened if I am not given it.
Let us compare this to the idea of condition. A condition is something necessary requirement for some action. Again, we can look at a paycheck. If I want to have the paycheck, then I need to do the work. Therefore, the work is a condition for the paycheck.
We can think of it this way: a merit places a requirement upon the giver, while a condition is a requirement for the receiver. In business relationships, it is normal for things to be defined by obligation. Very rarely does anyone enter into a business relationships without wanting to get something while giving up as little as possible. Therefore, business contracts often define the obligations of both parties. Therefore, they discuss both what is meritorious and what is conditioned. But are all relationships that way? For this question, we need to go outside the arena of business and into a family home.
Getting A Cookie
Let's say two boys walk up to you and ask you for a cookie. Boy A says, "May I please have a cookie?" while Boy B says, "I want a cookie!" Afterwards, you give a cookie to Boy A. Why? This would be to answer the Calvinist question, "Why did Boy A receive the cookie, but Boy B did not?" The simple answer is that Boy A was polite. This demonstrates that politeness was a condition that the boys had to meet in order for them to convince you to give them a cookie.
Now, did Boy A earn the cookie? No, and I think this is obvious. After all, you have not done anything wrong if he didn't give a cookie to either boy. There is nothing about saying "please" which obligates you to give the cookie to Boy A. Now, it is certainly true that many children, while they are learning politeness, have trouble with this distinction. They know that saying please is necessary for them to get a cookie. But they often think that it merits them the cookie as well, which it doesn't. As a parent, I feel no requirement to give my son everything he asks for merely because he is polite. In fact, it would be irresponsible for me to do so.
So from this example, we can ask two questions. Question 1: "Why did Boy A receive a cookie and Boy B did not?" The answer to this question deals with conditionality. What was the condition that Boy A met that Boy B did not. Question 2: "Did you have to give Boy A a cookie?" The answer to this question deals with merit. If the answer is yes, then Boy A earned the cookie. If the answer is no, then Boy A did not.
Answering The Real Question
So let us ask these same two questions of salvation. "Why are the elect saved, and the reprobate damned? Why the difference?" Answer: the elect had faith. This demonstrates that faith is a condition of election/salvation. However, "Because I have faith, does God have to save me?" No. I could have all of the faith in the world and if God does not apply Christ's atonement to me, I would be condemned, and I would still deserve it. My faith does not obligate God.
This also means that my faith does not guarantee my salvation either. Then why am I confident that I am saved? Because God promised. It is grounded in His character, not my actions or condition. He promised to save the faithful. He did not have to though, and that is the point.