“With all power and signs and lying wonders” 2 Thessalonians 2:

“You don’t hear about indulgences anymore, at least not in Catholic circles. If it could be said that at one time they were over emphasized, it’s surely true that today they’re under-emphasized.” According to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, there is a two-step process to justification, forgiveness and expiation by suffering. “The first thing to note is that forgiveness of a sin is separate from punishment for the sin. Through sacramental confession we obtain forgiveness, but we aren’t let off the hook as far as punishment goes.” [1]

The forgiveness of sin removes the threat of “eternal punishment” in the fires of hell, but the forgiven one must still undergo the cleansing process of “temporal punishment” before they can be admitted into heaven. “This punishment may come either in this life, in the form of various sufferings, or in the next life, in purgatory. What we don’t get rid of here we suffer there.” After death the un-forgiven are destined for “eternal punishment” in hell. The forgiven are on their way to heaven, but must first do penance (from Latin “poena” meaning “punishment”) in purgatory until the debt of “temporal punishment” has been paid, unless of course, they have suffered sufficiently in this life.

Purgatory itself is not clearly defined. One church writer says: “The Church has said little about Purgatory, other than that it does exist. But whether it is a physical place or a state or what happens there is unclear.”[2] Earlier church writers and artists had a clearer concept of it as a place of fiery torment.

Naturally, no one wants to spend too long suffering in purgatory, so this is where indulgences come in! They are a means of offsetting the debt of punishments incurred through sin, with merits earned by pious works. It’s like ‘time-off ’ for good behaviour. “Indulgences are two kinds: partial and plenary. A partial indulgence removes part of the temporal punishment due for sins. A plenary indulgence removes all of it.”

Origins of indulgences

The history of teaching on indulgences can be traced back to 1095 when Pope Urban II granted the remission of all penance to the Crusaders, provided they confessed their sins. The Crusaders were promised immediate salvation if they were to die in the performance of a good deed, such as the “liberating” of Jerusalem from the Muslims. Later this offer was extended to those who provided financial support for the crusades.

We should note that the church is very keen to say what indulgences are not: “It is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power. It is not the forgiveness of the guilt of sin; it supposes that the sin has already been forgiven”. Such clarification is required as some teachers of old, whose opinions are now discredited by the church, tended to “overstate” the efficacy of indulgences.

The arithmetic of forgiveness

Sins are said to incur a debt of punishments. This  debt, which must be paid off before admission into heaven, can be expiated by suffering, or offset by virtues and penances. There are those whose merits and sufferings have in fact exceeded any debt of punishments, and they remain in credit at the end  of their lives. From the 1200’s on, the Church has  taught that it has a treasury of merits provided by  the righteous, which can be used to cover the debts  of punishments incurred by sinners. “Since the satisfaction of Christ is infinite, it constitutes an inexhaustible fund which is more than sufficient to cover the indebtedness contracted by sin. Besides, there are the satisfactory works of the Blessed Virgin Mary undiminished by any penalty due to  sin, and the virtues, penances, and sufferings of the saints vastly exceeding any temporal punishment  which these servants of God might have incurred. These are added to the treasury of the Church as a secondary deposit, not independent of, but rather acquired through, the merits of Christ.”

What an abhorrent teaching! This teaching is even further astray from the truth than the Judaiser’s  belief in achieving righteousness by works.

Pope Clement VI published the Bull  “Unigenitus” in 1343, where he declared: “Upon the altar of the Cross, Christ shed of His blood not  merely a drop, though this would have sufficed, by  reason of the union with the Word, to redeem the  whole human race, but a copious torrent. . . thereby  laying up an infinite treasure for mankind. This  treasure He neither wrapped up in a napkin nor hid in a field, but entrusted to Blessed Peter, the key-bearer, and his successors, that they might, for just and reasonable causes, distribute it to the faithful in full or in partial remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.” [3]

So the Pope, claiming to be the successor of Peter, is the one who holds the keys given to him, which keys provide access to the treasury that holds the deposit of merits and virtues gained by the righteous. The Church, therefore, has the authority to dispense these indulgences to those who fulfil the requirements she has defined, thereby providing a reduction in “temporal punishment” and time spent in purgatory. “In his apostolic constitution on indulgences, Pope Paul VI said: “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 defined conditions through the Church’s help when, as a minister of redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina 1).[4]

John Tetzel and Martin Luther

The subject of indulgences came to prominence  in the lead up to the Reformation. Indeed they were a catalyst for it. It was the obvious heresy, corruption and exploitation by the church in  the matter of the selling of indulgences that led  Martin Luther, in 1517, to write a letter of protest  to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz, and later to nail  his “95 Theses” to the door of the Castle Church  in Wittenburg. This marked the beginning of  the Protestant Reformation. Luther vehemently  objected to the work and teaching of John Tetzel, vendor of indulgences, who operated under the  authority of Archbishop Albert. Tetzel was on a  mission to raise funds, ostensibly for the building  of Saint Peter’s Basillica, although it is said that at  least half the money went to paying for the debt  Albert had incurred in gaining his Archbishopric.  With a papal Bull of Indulgence carried on a velvet  cushion, Tetzel and his procession entered the  towns of Germany, appealing for the locals to buy  indulgences for themselves, but especially for the  souls of their loved ones who were languishing in purgatory. “You are able to release them,” implored  Tetzel, “for as soon as the coin in the coffer rings,  the soul from purgatory springs.”[5]

Tetzel must never have read or considered Psalm 49:7–9 (esv). “Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice”.

Embarrassed by the reaction to his activities, the Church sent Tetzel off to a monastery where a year later he died. However the ‘damage’ had been done and the authority and teachings of the Church came under much scrutiny and questioning, a result that we can thank our God for.

The church has since tried to rewrite history. They claim that “One never could ‘buy’ indulgences. The financial scandal surrounding indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms—indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences.” 6 A very different take on the facts!

However the Church did see the need to  react to “prior abuses”: “The Council of Trent  instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting  indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, ‘in 1567  Pope Pius V cancelled all grants of indulgences  involving any fees or other financial transactions’  (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the  Church’s seriousness about removing abuses from  indulgences.”[6]. One might ask, then, were they  “alms”, or an “abuse”? If truly “alms” as claimed  above, then why the need to bring in “severe  reforms” because of “prior abuses”? Or is the giving of alms an abuse?

While the Church wishes to distance itself from the “abuses” which occurred in the times when indulgences were “over-emphasised”, they are still a fundamental part of Church teaching.

“Those who claim that indulgences are no longer part of Church teaching have the admirable desire to distance themselves from abuses that occurred around the time of the Protestant Reformation…”

Definition of indulgences

The “Enchiridion of Indulgences”[7], produced in 1968,  defines the current list of 70 pious works (various  prayers, deeds, pilgrimages, etc.) and the three  constant and necessary prerequisites: “Sacramental  Confession”, “Communion” and “Prayer for the  intention of the Holy Father”, by which one might  gain either partial or plenary indulgences. For  example:

  1. Hidden God (Adoro te devote) –- hymn, partial indulgence.
  2. We have come (Adsumus) –- prayer, partial indulgence.
  3. Visit to the Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome. A plenary indulgence to those who devoutly visit one of the Patriarchal Basilicas in Rome and  recite one Our Father and the Creed,
  4. On the titular feast of the Basilica;
  5. On any Holy Day of Obligation;
  6. Once a year on any other day of one’s choice. (Remember, the three constants are also required to obtain any plenary indulgence.)
  7. papal blessing. a plenary indulgence is granted to those who “piously and devoutly” receive, even by radio, the Blessing of the Pope when  imparted to Rome and the world (Urbi et  Orbi). (3 constants.)
  8. Visit to a Cemetery. Only applicable to the souls in Purgatory when one devoutly visits and prays for the departed. A plenary  indulgence is bestowed for this work each  day between November 1 and November 8.
  9. Reading of sacred scripture. While a partial indulgence is granted to those who read from Sacred Scripture with the veneration which  the divine word is due, a plenary indulgence  is granted to those who read for at least one  half of an hour.

The “Apostolic blessing at the hour of death”, which is performed by a priest over the dying, also provides a plenary indulgence to the departing soul, thereby opening “the gates of paradise” for them and providing a bypass of purgatory.

Are indulgences biblical

In a rather intriguing statement the Church claims biblical authority for the doctrine on indulgences: “The pious use of indulgences dates back into the early days of the Church, and the principles underlying indulgences extend back into the Bible itself. Catholics who are uncomfortable with indulgences do not realize how biblical they are. The principles behind indulgences are as clear in Scripture as those behind more familiar doctrines, such as the Trinity.” 3 Enough said, we might say!

One of the principal justifications of this doctrine is the example of David, who suffered for sin after receiving forgiveness. Can this be used to support the false doctrine? Paul, in fact, uses the example of David to prove the very opposite. He cites David as a prime example of justification through faith and goes on to say: “Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.” (Romans 4:6–7) David is justified without works, and without indulgences! It’s also interesting that the Church should use David’s salvation as a basis for their teaching, as he clearly has not obtained the salvation offered by them. “David is not ascended into the heavens…” (Acts 2:34).

Luther on faith and works

Luther saw the epistle of James as a challenge to his refutation of the papacy’s error on the subject of indulgences. Taking an extreme position in reaction to the Church’s teaching of salvation by works, Luther taught that salvation was by “faith alone” and considered James’ writings “an epistle of straw”. James never came close to giving an argument that could be used to support the doctrine of indulgences or salvation by works. While James instructs us that “faith without works is dead” (a statement repeated three times in James 2), he is not saying that works are the means of expiating our debt to God. Rather, his point is that works are a way of showing faith and obedience to God, never as an expiation for our sins. He cites the examples of Abraham and Rahab to show that their “works” demonstrated faith and obedience. They were not paying off debts for disobedience.

We can rejoice with David in our knowledge of the merciful and forgiving God whom we worship. “The LORD is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy. He will not always chide: neither will he keep his anger for ever. He hath not dealt with us after our sins; nor rewarded us according to our iniquities. For as the heaven is highabove the earth, so great is his mercy toward them that fear him. As far as the east is from the west, so far hath he removed our transgressions from us” (Psa 103:8–12)

[1] “Catholic Online” website, Introduction to Indulgences,


[2] “Catholic Answers” website, Jan Wakelin,


[3] “Catholic Answers” website, Primer on Indulgences


[4] “New Advent” website, Catholic Encyclopaedia,

Indulgences, http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07783a.



[5] University of Missouri-Kansas City, School of Law

website, Questions & Answers Concerning Indulgences,



[6] Catholic Answers website, Myths About Indulgences


[7] “Catholic Online” website , The Enchiridion of

Indulgences http://www.catholic.org/clife/prayers/