The growing controversy between Martin Luther and the Roman Catholic Church in 1517 centered on the abuse of the church’s sale of indulgences. What exactly are indulgences? What did the indulgence buyer receive? Are indulgences still sold by the Catholic Church today?
Indulgences were then, and are now, part of the sacrament of penance within the Roman Catholic Church. While there were many unbiblical practices observed by the church in the 16th century, the practice and abuse of indulgences were the focal point of Martin Luther’s ire.
Indulgences are the payment of a gift to the church in order for the payer to avoid the temporal consequences of their sin. By paying an amount of money, the church leader or priest would remove the temporal consequence the individual could face because of a sinful act on their part. Consequently, the more that was paid the more effects of sin could be avoided.
The indulgence could be applied not only to the living and also to the dead in purgatory. One pastor explains, “Notice that the definition says that it (the indulgence) can also be applied to the dead because, after all, purgatory itself is seen as temporal penalty for sin. Although most people at death are too good to go to hell, they nonetheless are not good enough to go to heaven. Therefore, in the fires of purgatory, their sins are purged and they are made ready for heaven.”
Indulgences remain a most important sacrament in the Catholic Church today. While only God can forgive sin according to Catholic theology, the church continues to teach that an indulgence can cancel the temporal penalty the sinner may incur.
Nowhere in the Scriptures do we find a teaching of, or a validation for, indulgences. Rather, the Bible teaches the avoidance of sin altogether, even its appearance (I Thessalonians 5:22). Believers are to confess their sins to God (I John 1:9) in order to have intimate fellowship with God restored. However, even though sin can be forgiven, its consequences may remain. Avoidance of sinful behavior on the part of the believer is the key, not the purchase of an indulgence.
The increasing sale of indulgences were to become the focal point of Ninety-Five Thesis or criticisms Martin Luther would write and post about the 16th century Romans Catholic Church. His thoughts would ignite the fires of Reformation.
The passionate pursuit for biblical truth spurring Martin Luther should also spur ourselves to ever remain committed to the Scriptures alone as our final and supreme authority.
Soli deo Gloria!