Reviviscence of Merit

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The question of the reviviscence of merit is really a question of the extent of God's forgiveness of sinners. Does God restore to a repentant sinner all the merit that had been acquired during previous years of faithful service or not? It is a question of condign merits, not of congruous, which may be likened to a gratuity given in consideration of service. Does God's mercy extend so far as to restore previously acquired merits, which had been lost through mortal sin? The question depends entirely upon the free will of God. How extensive is His forgiveness?

Restoration of Merit. The restoration of past merits together with the forgiveness of mortal sin has always been the unanimous and certain teaching of theologians.

A positive argument in favor of reviviscence is found in the Council of Trent (Enchiridion symbolorum, 1545,1582), which declared that supernatural good works, performed in the state of grace, lead the just person who dies in the state of grace to eternal life. There is no requirement that sanctifying grace be never lost in the meanwhile.

Again there is the teaching of Pius XI, in his apostolic letter of May 29, 1924, The Infinite Mercy of God, which announced the Holy Year of 1925. In it he teaches: "For all who by doing penance carry out the salutary commands of the Apostolic See, during the great jubilee, regain and receive entirely the abundance of merits and gifts that they had lost by sin " (Enchiridion symbolorum, 3670). This statement is certainly not restricted to the occasion of the jubilee.

The revival of merit thus seems to be well established by the Church. It does not regard God, offended by sin, as bearing any grudge against or being ungenerous to repentant sinners. But it is difficult to find any specific teaching on this precise point in Scripture. Ez 18.21 and 33.12, Gal 3.4, and Heb 6.910 are sometimes cited. But the words of Ezechiel are not about the recovery of merit lost by sin; the passages in Galatians and Hebrews refer to merit formerly acquired, but it is not clear that they refer to believing sinners. The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15.1132), and various texts of the Fathers, speak of the restoration of goods lost by sin but not clearly of goods acquired by personal merit. It seems that, as often happens, Scripture and the Fathers have left no clear evidence; this evidence must come instead from other sources.

Evidently the question of the revival of merit depends on the free will of God; it can therefore be settled only by an authentic interpreter of that, such as the Church, clarifying the attitude of God toward forgiven sinners as He has revealed it. But once this has been done theological reason can show the reasonableness of the revival of merit. This was accomplished by St. Thomas (Summa theologiae 3a, 89.5), who developed the idea that merit lost by sin can revive, for the only obstacle to its revival is removed by repentance. The works that gave rise to it have passed, but they remain in the acceptance of God. Man's subsequent sin does not efface this acceptability but only impedes its execution for as long as the impediment to the revival of merit remains.

Measure of Restoration. The question of the measure of the restoration of merits, whether they be restored in whole or only in part, is a disputed one. Three opinions, which have been diversely described, are current among theologians and may be stated as follows. The first opinion holds that a sinner, newly justified, does not receive any essential reward beyond what is due to his disposition when repentant, but that the reward is now due both to his conversion and to his previous merit. The second opinion holds that merits revive not in their original fullness but only in a degree proportionate to one's disposition at the time of repentance. This proportion is computed differently by different theologians. The third opinion asserts that merits revive in their totality, so that a penitent, dying immediately after repentance, receives not only the reward proportionate to the actual disposition at the time of repentance but also all that was due in the past in previous states of grace.

When these three opinions are compared with one another, it seems that the first practically does away with the act of reviviscence, the second preserves it, but arbitrarily restricts it, while the third really does honor to the generosity of God and the completeness of His forgiveness. Such seems to be the generosity of a forgiving God.

See Also: good works; imputation of justice and merit; salutary acts.

Bibliography: b. beraza, De gratia Christi (2d ed. Bilbao 1929). c. boyer, Tractatus de sacramento paenitentiae (Rome 1942). s. gonzÁlez, Sacrae theologiae summa, ed. fathers of the society of jesus, professors of the theological faculties in spain, 4 v. Biblioteca de autores cristianos (Madrid 1945) 3.3:347352. l. lercher, Institutiones theologiae dogmaticae (5th ed. Barcelona 1951).

[f. l. sheerin]