People assume (as I once did) that since Martin Luther (1483–1546) first protested the abuse of indulgences, in 1517, that Rome must have been shamed into ending the practice. She was not. The sale of indulgences continues. In section 1471, the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses revealing language. The benefit of indulgences is available “under certain conditions through the action of the church.” It cites Paul VI’s Indulgentarium Doctrina (1967). Notably, the catechism criticizes past abuses but does not forbid their sale. This is because canon 28 of the Council of Constance (1414–18) set the conditions for the sale of indulgences:

Can. 27. And whether he believes that by reason of this sort of grant those who visit the church and those contribute to them can gain indulgences of this kind.

Can. 28 Likewise, whether he believes that, for a just and holy reason, the pope can grant indulgences for the remission of sins to all Christians who are truly contrite and have confessed, especially to those who make pilgrimages to the holy places and to those contributing to them. (Emphasis added)

This was part of the basis of Johann Tetzel’s practice of selling indulgences to Germans. This is whence comes the marvelous slogan “When the coin in the coffer clinks, the soul from purgatory springs.” The sale of indulgences did not end in the sixteenth century. In 2000, which Rome declared a Jubilee year, a writer in the National Catholic Register wrote:

By the time of Luther, it had become common to grant indulgences in exchange for financial donations to various charitable causes, including large building projects such as churches and cathedrals. The upheaval of the Reformation helped bring about a re-evaluation of the administration of indulgences, but the Church never condemned the principle behind indulgences. On the contrary, almsgiving continues to be encouraged to this day. One of the good things to come out of that turbulent period was the Church taking steps to ensure that the focus of giving alms returned to the interior disposition of penitents. (Emphasis added)

Almsgiving is a financial contribution to the church. The “Apostolic Penitentiary” on “The Gift of the Indulgence,” issued by Cardinal William Wakefield Baum in 2000, explained that one of the ways one can obtain a full indulgence is by “a significant contribution [of] works of a religious or social nature.”

Rome is still at it. In November 2021, Catholic News Service reported, “The Vatican has decided to grant Catholics who visit a cemetery to pray for the dead on any day in the month of November a plenary indulgence.”1 According to CNS, Rome typically offers a “plenary indulgence” to those who pray during the week of All Souls Day (November 1–8). They have extended the indulgence because of COVID-19.

What is an indulgence? It is part of a system of piety and salvation that developed in the medieval church whereby a Christian was supposed to confess his sins and to be assigned acts of penance. Failure to fulfill these assignments was said to bring with it temporal (in this life and in purgatory) punishments. This is still Roman dogma. Indulgences are said to be remissions of these penalties.

An indulgence is part of a system of piety and salvation that developed in the medieval church whereby a Christian was supposed to confess his sins and to be assigned acts of penance.

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.

  1. Francesca Pollio, “How to Get a Plenary Indulgence Any Day This November 2021,” Catholic News Services, November 2, 2021.

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