In March 2020, Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, Major Penitentiary, declared,
The Plenary Indulgence is granted to the faithful suffering from Coronavirus, who are subject to quarantine by order of the health authority in hospitals or in their own homes if, with a spirit detached from any sin, they unite spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters, with the will to fulfill the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions), as soon as possible.
The conditions of receiving this Plenary Indulgence from purgatory are “a spirit detached from any sin,” “join[ing] spiritually through the media in the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary,” the “pious exercise of the Way of the Cross,” “or if they will at least recite the [Apostles’] Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary.”
John Calvin called the Roman system of indulgences a “Satanic mockery” intended to lead people away from Christ. It has had that effect. Any system that has Christians satisfying for their own sins denies Christ. As we say in the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession, either Christ is the Savior or He is no Savior at all.
The issues that prompted the Reformation remain live issues. The Roman communion still confesses justification by grace and cooperation with grace, including the purchasing of indulgences. The Reformation objection that making good works instrumental in our justification is a denial of Christ still holds. This is why the sola—the “alone”—in sola fide and sola gratia remains so important. Justification is not by faith and grace plus something else; it is by grace alone (sola gratia) through faith alone (sola fide).
Your Romanist friends believe that in the Mass, the priest is propitiating (turning away) God’s wrath by extending or participating in the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Rome confesses that God graciously initiates salvation but that we must do our part to complete it. In Rome, Christ is not the Savior and the Mediator. He is a Savior and a Mediator. According to Rome, insofar as you are freely cooperating with grace unto justification and salvation, you too are a savior and the Blessed Virgin and the saints are also mediators. Rome’s gospel is no gospel because to say, in effect, “I have begun the process but the rest is up to you, in cooperation with grace” is not good news. To locate the ground of justification (i.e., the legal basis) in oneself and not in Christ is not good news.
The controversy over penance and purgatory was always symbolic of a corruption greater than the financial scandal of Tetzel’s abuses. The major scandal was the injury to the gospel that the Roman system of salvation represented. In contrast to the Roman system, the good news is that Jesus obeyed in the place of sinners and that He did it all; that He really justifies those who are not, in themselves, sanctified or righteous; and that His righteousness is credited to us and our sins are imputed to Him. It is the wonderful exchange of which some Christian (Polycarp?) wrote to Diognetus in around AD 150 and that Luther recovered. We strive to become sanctified not in order to be justified but because we have been justified. Rome rejected that truth in the Reformation and she rejects it today.
Editor’s Note: This article was first published on The Heidelblog: Recovering the Reformed Confession. © R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.