This Parchment, written in Italian and Latin certifies a letter of indulgence. The English translation reads: Most Holy Father, Della Mora Antonietta, humbly prostrate at the feet of Your Holiness, begs the Apostolic Blessing and a Plenary Indulgence at the hour of death, even if incapable to confess or receive Holy Communion, if she is penitent and invokes, with mouth or heart, the Most Holy Name of Jesus.
The issue of letters of indulgence was a very common practice in the Catholic Church just before the Reformation. After confessing or doing other godly work, the faithful received a decree exempting them from punishment for their sins. Letters of indulgence were bought en masse on certain occasions. As such, Pope Nicholas V. issued a ‘complete indulgence’ in 1451 and used the money he collected for these to finance the war against the Turks. By selling letters of indulgence for charitable acts en masse, the Catholic Church partially financed the building of the new St. Peter’s Basilica, the foundation stone of which was laid in 1506. Furthermore, the local sovereign and the preacher issuing the indulgence also profited from the sale. It was more than anything else this questionable practice of absolution, which was far removed from God and yet permitted by Catholic Church law, that prompted Luther to write his 95 theses. These brought in radical reforms, of the Catholic Church later banned trading in indulgences and threatened those who dealt in them with ex-communication from 1570 onwards.
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, (promulgated for the Catholic Church by Pope John Paul II in 1992, which sums up, in book form, the beliefs of the Catholic faithful.) an indulgence is “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sin whose guilt has already been forgiven. A properly disposed member of the Christian faithful can obtain an indulgence under prescribed conditions through the help of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”.
An indulgence is partial if it removes part of the temporal punishment due to sin, or plenaryif it removes all punishment.
Understanding the Catholic definitions is very important in understanding this issue: Eternal Punishment: “the penalty for unrepented mortal sin, separating the sinner from communion with God for all eternity; the condemnation of the unrepentant sinner to hell.” Temporal Punishment: “purification of the unhealthy attachment to creatures, which is a consequence of sin that perdures even after death. We must be purified either during our earthly life through prayer and a conversion which comes from fervent charity, or after death in purgatory.” Purgatory: “a state of final purification after death and before entrance into heaven for those who died in God’s friendship, but were only imperfectly purified; a final cleansing of human imperfection before one is able to enter the joy of heaven.”
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that sin has a double consequence. For a member of the Catholic Church, committing a mortal sin causes “eternal punishment,” involving eternal separation from God and suffering in hell. (The Catholic Church also teaches that under normal circumstances those who have not been baptized by either the Roman Catholic Church or another church teaching baptismal regeneration are also condemned to hell because the stain of original sin remains upon their souls.) Venial (minor) sin, in contrast, does not cause “eternal punishment” but does cause “temporal punishment.” Roman Catholic teachings sometimes refer to these “temporal punishments” given by God as a means of purifying His children (either in this life or in Purgatory). But the Roman Catholic Church also sees venial sins as creating a debt to God’s justice that must be atoned for in a way that is distinct from Christ’s atonement for eternal punishment. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that because of the unity of the Body of Christ (the Communion of the Saints, including living believers, believers in heaven, Roman Catholic saints in heaven, Christ, Mary, and the imperfect believers in Purgatory), it is possible for the merit generated by the good works, prayers, almsgiving, sufferings, etc., of one or more of these members of the Body to be applied to the temporal debt of another. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the combined merit of Christ, the saints, and godly believers is stored in a place referred to as the Treasury of Merit (it is also sometimes called the Treasury of Satisfaction, the Church’s Treasury, or the Thesaurus Ecclesiae). And through apostolic succession from Peter, it is the Roman Catholic Church alone that has the authority to withdraw merit from this treasury and dispense it to believers in this life or in Purgatory to atone for some or all of their venial sin. This it does through the granting of Catholic indulgences.
Again, indulgences pertain only to temporal, not eternal, punishment and can only be distributed through a Roman Catholic Church leader to someone who is either in Purgatory or is still living and whose soul is in the state of sanctifying grace (i.e., he/she would go to Purgatory, not hell, if he/she were to die at that moment). An indulgence can be obtained through a good deed done, a Mass being offered on behalf of someone, prayer, abstinence, giving to the poor, or some other meritorious act performed in accordance with requirements set by a Pope or bishop having jurisdiction over that individual. The offering of a Mass for someone is seen as one of the most effective means of reducing the temporal punishment of that person in Purgatory. A partial indulgence will reduce the temporal punishment a person has. A plenary indulgence will remove all temporal punishment.
Is the concept of Catholic indulgences biblical?
Various Roman Catholic Church doctrines are derived from tradition rather than from Scripture. And as the Roman Catholic Church sees their tradition as consistent with Scripture and equal to Scripture in authority, this is not an issue with them. But to most other Christian groups, the Bible alone is the source of authority and is more than sufficient in supplying Christians with all the resources they need to know and serve Christ as God intended (2 Timothy 3:15–17; Acts 20:32). But because the Roman Catholic Church states that its doctrines are not contradictory to Scripture and accepts Scripture as part of its authority, it is appropriate for both groups to ask, “Are indulgences biblical?”
An examination of the passages the Roman Catholic Church uses to support such doctrines as temporal punishment, vicarious atonement by fellow believers and saints, along with Purgatory illustrates the Catholic reliance on tradition above and beyond Scripture. Other doctrines, such as the Treasury of Merit, the “pristine and unfathomable merit of Mary,” the “superabundant merit of the saints,” and the existence of indulgences, are foreign to Scripture altogether! A consistent and contextual interpretation of Scripture will neither support the teaching of indulgences nor the doctrines it is built upon.
Indulgences and Purgatory
The Roman Catholic Church cites a few passages for their scriptural support of Purgatory. In addition to a passage from the apocryphal 2 Maccabees, 1 Corinthians 3:10–15; Matthew 5:26; and Matthew 12:32 are also given as scriptural support. “Verily I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost farthing” Matthew 5:26, this is part of a parable on the issue of forgiveness.
Matthew 12:32 is addressing the issue of blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. “And whosoever speaketh a word against the Son of man, it shall be forgiven him: but whosoever speaketh against the Holy Ghost, it shall not be forgiven him, neither in this world, neither in the world to come.” Matthew 12:32
Neither passage focuses upon what happens after death nor gives a clear teaching of what takes place after death. It is a principle of hermeneutics (the study of how to rightly interpret Scripture) that one should interpret “unclear” passages that merely touch on an issue by passages that focus on that issue or are clear about that issue. To interpret these verses as teaching that there is a place of further atoning and purifying in Purgatory after death, flies in the face of many clear statements in the Bible that there are only two places that one will end up in after death: either in paradise prior to the death of Christ, or today, in heaven with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8; Philippians 1:21–23; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18) or in hell in torment (Luke 16:23–24; Revelation. 20:10–15). The Bible does not say that after death comes “further purification”; it says, “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment” (Hebrews 9:28).
Death seals fate, you cannot change your view after death nor can any effort by the living once a person is dead effect the standing or judgment of the dead.
“He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” Revelation 22:11–12
Indulgences and Penance
Catholics speak of “doing penance” for their sins. At the end of confession to a priest, the confessor is given certain things to do (such as certain prayers to pray) that are a part of “doing penance.” Part of the purpose of this penance is to bring about a returning of one’s disposition away from sin and back toward God. But another purpose mentioned repeatedly in Roman Catholic literature is that of paying or atoning for one’s sins. This is not the same as making restitution to those hurt by one’s sin, but rather involves making a payment toward the temporal punishment to satisfy God’s justice. This latter purpose is closely tied to the idea of indulgences and is not mentioned in Scripture. The Bible does speak of repentance, referring to a “change of mind about one’s sin that results in a change in behavior.” John the Baptist’s ministry and teaching is summarized in Luke 3:3–18. He told those that were baptized by him (their baptism being a sign of their repentance) to show by their deeds that their repentance was real. But never is there the message of “you must pay or atone for your sins by doing some good deed or by abstinence,” or by anything else. By this call to good works, John was essentially saying, “Show me your repentance is genuine by your works” (cf. James 2:18). But again, the idea of “doing penance” as an atoning for our sins or a repaying of a temporal debt to God’s justice is never mentioned in Scripture!
“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” Ephesians 2:8–9
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians 2:16, (Romans 5:14–19)
Catholic Indulgences and the Treasury of Merit
The doctrine of the “Treasury of the Church” was first officially expressed in 1343 by Pope Clement VI. He describes this treasury as not only consisting of the merits of Christ’s atonement but also “the merits (atonements) of Mary, the Mother of God, and of all the chosen, from the greatest to the least of the just, contribute to the increase of the treasure from which the Church draws in order to secure remission of temporal punishment.”
The Bible never once refers to anything like the “Treasury of Merit,” and never is there the thought that atonement can be made by one believer for the sake of another’s sin. Paul expresses that, if it were possible, he would sincerely be willing to be accursed, if that would mean the redemption of his fellow Israelites in Romans 9 and 10. But that is not possible because Paul and the other writers of Scripture state that, for a believer, the just Judge was satisfied when Jesus the Christ became the atonement (propitiation) for our sins and that apart from Him there is no atonement (Isaiah 53:6; Romans 5:10–11; 2 Corinthians 5:21; 1 John 2:2; Hebrews 10:1–18).
Catholic Indulgences and Temporal punishment
The Catholic Catechism speaks of temporal punishment as being a purification process. But elsewhere, throughout Roman Catholic official teachings, it speaks of it as a spiritual debt that needs to be atoned for, either by the individual who sinned or by someone else vicariously. Again, the Roman Catholic Church distinguishes between eternal punishment for “major” sin and temporal punishment for “minor” sin.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that there is a forensic or “legal” nature to temporal punishment; i.e., that it involves the need to satisfy the justice of a just Judge and that if that justice is not satisfied by atonement in this life, it must be atoned for in the next in Purgatory. It is that forensic or “payment to satisfy justice” aspect that is unscriptural. Scripture does teach that one’s sins can be forgiven in the eternal sense (with the sinner no longer being condemned to hell) or even in an earthly sense (in not having the penalty laid down by the Mosaic Law inflicted upon the sinner, 2 Samuel 12:13). Sin changes things in this life and how God interacts with us in this life. It has to for a number of reasons given in Scripture:
God either imposes earthly consequences or allows the natural consequences as a result of sin, but in no passage does it say that these consequences are imposed so that His temporal justice may be satisfied!
Having discussed the lack of scriptural support for some of the foundational doctrines necessary for the existence of indulgences, it must also be stated that there is not a single scriptural example of, or teaching about, an apostle or church leader doling out an “indulgence” to a fellow believer. Not one! From its foundation to its summit, the whole structure of the doctrine of indulgences is unfounded biblically.
The apostle Paul saw many converted to Christ because they compared his teachings to Scripture (Acts 17:10–12), so those who read this summary would read the inerrant and infallible Word of God for themselves and simply ask, “Are the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church with respect to indulgences and purgatory found in the biblical text? Do indulgences, confession and purgatory ‘fit’ both the immediate context of any given passage and the context of the New Testament as a whole? All those who claim the name of Christ would turn to the simplicity of trusting Christ alone and desire to live for Him out of gratitude for all He has done for them (Romans 3–12).