The spark that lit the reformation fire in 16th century Europe was the continuing theological debate over indulgences.
What Are Indulgences?
The Roman catholic system of theology is based around the supposed duel nature of punishment- eternal and temporal. The eternal punishment due for sin is washed away at baptism, but sinners are still subject to the temporal consequences of sin – either in this life or after it in purgatory. The Pope has the special power to offer remission of this temporal guilt by offering grace for acts of special religious significance – taking pilgrimages, visiting relics, and performing other special acts of devotion. The belief is that saints of old merited far more positive merit with God that demanded for their salvation. This abundance of merit is treasured up in heaven, available to be dispensed by the Pope as a reward for special acts of obedience.
Abuses of Indulgences in the 1500s
By the time of the reformation, these special dispensations of grace were used significantly pad the church’s treasury. For more on this see Happy Reformation Day.
The manner in which these practices were abused had been debated for over a hundred years at the time of Luther, but had reached it’s fever pitch by the early 1500s. A Papal Bull released in 1520 by Pope Leo X against Martin Luther’s stand against these abuses stated, in part:
that the Roman pontiff, vicar of Christ on earth, can, for reasonable causes, by the powers of the keys, grant to the faithful, whether in this life or in Purgatory, indulgences, out of the superabundance of the merits of Christ, and of the saints (expressly called a treasure); and that those who have truly obtained these indulgences are released from so much of the temporal punishment due for their actual sins to the divine justice as is equivalent to the indulgence granted and obtained”.
A Modern Definition
The modern Roman Church defines indulgenes in it’s Catechism as follows:
An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.
To most Bible believers this issue might seem like some Middle Age superstition that has no relevance to our time. The fact of the matter is, however, that the practices of indulgences is alive and well. See, for example, the following article from the Washington Post on how the Pope of Rome offers indulgences to those participating in the recent World Youth Day in Brazil.
See also, Catholic News Service (CNS) article: Vatican announces indulgences for World Youth Day
A Few Brief Objections
As a Protestant, some of my objections to this superstition are as follows:
- It makes salvation partly of the grace of God and party of human works, which is impossible (Rom 11:6)
- It makes the grace and merit of Christ insufficient to fully save (2 Cor 12:9)
- It teaches that men can be more righteous than the righteousness of God demands (Rom 3:10-19)
- It puts man in a position to cooperate with and merit the grace of God
- It makes a human institution the dispenser of the grace of God
- Purgatory is unknown to the Scriptures and the early church
- It creates an unbiblical category of believers called saints (all God’s elect are saints
- It makes the saints of God as sub-mediators between God and men, whereas Christ is the only mediator between God and men (Heb 9:15)