Sadly, I don’t have enough time to write the planned article on the Catholic practice of selling Indulgences today. Life, I was reminded, has a sneaky way of overturning even the best laid plans.
So today allow me to offer just a few cursory thoughts on the matter, just to keep you thinking about Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and the importance of the Protestant Reformation. His challenges to Roman Catholicism (contrary to accusations that his chronic constipation turned him into a malcontent) arose from a genuine concern that the system of Indulgences capitalized on the fears of illiterate laity for the purpose of filling Rome’s coffers.
It’s not unlike Pentecostal/Charismatic preachers on TBN sending “anointed prayer cloths” to little old ladies in exchange for “sacrificial offerings.” Alas, because most people highly respect the Roman Catholic Church, few recognize the similarities between the two systems.
But the sale of Indulgences depends on the doctrine of Purgatory, a superstition that Scripture never teaches (we’ll address the supposed proof-texts for Purgatory at a later time). The desire to reduce time in Purgatory motivated fearful parishioners to purchase Indulgences as a type of clemency for either themselves or departed loved ones, financing Rome’s various expenditures.
Both Purgatory and Indulgences deny the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work on the cross. While giving lip-service to the doctrine of atonement, these dogmas insist that we bear responsibility in cooperating with the Lord in achieving our salvation. This synergistic approach to salvation, of course, completely contradicts everything the apostle Paul taught in Galatians. As we look more closely at Purgatory and Indulgences, we’ll see how they shift the focus from the Lord Jesus Christ to us.
I’m delving back into Church History, wanting to understand how the doctrine of Purgatory and its attendant practice of selling Indulgences originated. Sure, we can understand the Reformation without that background. But having more historical context will help us see how those Reformers separated Biblical teaching from man-made tradition.
21st Century evangelicals once again embrace man-made traditions in place of Scripture. Furthermore, we look to human effort to augment Christ’s work on the cross. We may utilize other doctrines and practices, but essentially we repeat the same basic error. Studying the Reformation can help us guard against that sort of mistake.