The Pope, Indulgences, and Jesus Christ

The Pope, Indulgences, and Jesus Christ

Tom Ascol

Reformation Background

The year was 1517. The place was the European region of Saxony. Excitement ran high in the small village of Juterbock, located near the more urban University town of Wittenberg.

A Dominican Monk by the name of Johann Tetzel entered the village as an ambassador of Pope Leo X, the head of the Roman Catholic Church. This was Tetzel’s latest stop on a tour of selling “indulgences” for the Pope. An indulgence is a certificate which by papal authority promises the removal of punishment and suffering for sin.[1] Leo authorized the selling of them to help raise money to pay for the completion of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Since the middle ages the Roman Catholic Church has taught that while God alone can forgive the guilt of sin, He has left it to the church to forgive the temporal punishments which sin deserves. God removes the guilt and eternal punishment of the Christian’s sins, but it is the responsibility of the church–and more specifically, the Pope–to remove the “temporal punishments” which those sins deserve. This is accomplished through an elaborate system of penance, purgatory and indulgence.

Here is how the system works. When you sin, the Roman Catholic Church requires you to make confession to a priest, who then absolves you of your guilt and requires of you acts of penance. These acts of penance may include saying certain prayers a certain number of times or performing specific deeds of charity. The acts of penance are designed as a way for the performer to make temporal payment for his sins. If penance is not performed perfectly or completely–and this is rarely the case–then the penitent’s temporal punishments build up over his lifetime.

Since it is impossible for a person to enter into heaven, the very presence of God, with any of his or her sins unpaid for, some method of purging sin from the penitent was needed. Adopted as an article of faith at the Council of Florence in 1439, the doctrine of purgatory fit the bill perfectly. More than a type of “step-down-unit” between earth and heaven, purgatory is a terrible place of suffering where those who do not sufficiently pay for their sins in this life (through perfectly performed works of penance) can spend however much time is necessary being “purged” of their sins after death. This post-mortem temporal punishment is necessary so that one day (and it may take twenty years, one hundred years, one million years, or even fifty billion years; no one knows!) the penitent dead will be made fit for heaven.

Fortunately, the Roman Catholic Church has a “treasury of merit” which holds the possibility of mitigating some or all of a believer’s purgatorial sufferings. This treasury consists of the “over-and-above” good works that were done by Christ and unusually faithful men and women throughout history. The saints who performed works of “supererogation” (ie. more than they themselves needed to get out of purgatory and into heaven) have deposited their extra merit into this treasury. The Pope can disburse this accumulated merit as he determines to whom he determines. An indulgence, granted by the Pope, draws on this extra merit in order to reduce the number of years which the recipient must spend in purgatory before he is released to heaven.

The treasury of merit works something like a huge bank account held in trust, with the Pope being the sole trustee. If you owe a $10,000 debt and fulfill the application process, the Pope has the authority to draw on this account and grant to you enough money to pay your debt. Thus, based on the merits of others your sins are indulged and you can escape at least some of the punishments of purgatory.

Indulgences come in two kinds. A partial indulgence removes part of the penalty of your sin. For example, in the early sixteenth century the Pope declared that any faithful church member who visited the Castle Church in Wittenberg on All Saint’s Day, went to confession, and viewed the more than 5000 relics which were on deposit there would be granted indulgences which reduced the amount of time necessary in Purgatory by 1,902,202 years and 270 days.[2] In recent years Rome has become less willing to stipulate the exact number of years which will be discounted in purgatory for partial indulgences. But, for one facing an indeterminate amount of time in torment, something is better than nothing.

It is not, however, better than everything. The second kind of indulgence is a plenary, or full, one. This indulgence removes all of the temporal penalty from sin and therefore all of the time which is required in purgatory. With a plenary indulgence, nothing is left to chance. The recipient goes to heaven. He goes straight to heaven. He does not pass through purgatory.

This background makes more understandable the commotion and excitement which was caused by Tetzel when he entered into the town of Juterbock–especially since the indulgences which he came to sell were not mere partial ones but the plenary kind. Those who purchased his wares were guaranteed to skip purgatory altogether. Furthermore, these indulgences could be applied not only to the purchaser, but also for any dear, departed loved one who up to that point had been suffering the punishments of purgatory.

Tetzel was quite a showman and salesman. And he did all that he could to persuade his hearers to purchase indulgences. Part of his speech played upon the affections of his hearers toward their departed loved ones.

Indulgences have benefit not only for the living but for the dead. Priest, noble, merchant, wife, youth, young girl, do you not hear your parents and your other friends who are dead, and who cry from the bottom of the fiery inferno, “We are suffering horrible torments! An insignificant offering would deliver us; you can give it, and you will not.”?[3]

He even made up a little rhyme which went something like this: “As soon as the coin into the coffer rings, another soul into Heaven springs.”

Tetzel was quite effective in convincing multitudes of people to give large sums of money to purchase these indulgences.

Martin Luther, who was a Priest and Professor of Bible at the nearby University of Wittenberg, spoke out strongly against Tetzel and his indulgence selling. Such practice, Luther argued, was tantamount to selling the forgiveness of sins for money and was therefore a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

He was so indignant that he posted on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg 95 theses against indulgences, calling for a public debate of the issue.

Thesis #32 said, “Those who believe that, through indulgence letters, they are made sure of their own salvation, will be eternally damned along with their teachers.” He wrote further in thesis #36, “Every Christian who is truly repentant has a right to full remission of penalty and guilt, even without letters of indulgence.”

Who was right, Luther or Tetzel? Who has understood the biblical teaching of forgiveness and salvation from sin more accurately–Luther, or the Roman Catholic Church?

These are crucial questions, and not just for historical purposes. What is at stake is the very heart of God’s message of salvation. How can sinners be made right with God? How can we become fit to enter His presence in Heaven? What has Jesus Christ accomplished for us, and what is still left for us to accomplish for ourselves? These questions have eternal significance!

Recent Papal Bull

The importance of it was driven home afresh in the latter part of 1998. On November 29, Pope John Paul II, since 1978 the head of the Roman Catholic Church, issued an official declaration, called a papal bull, entitled, Incarnationis Mysterium. In this bull the Pope declares the year 2000 as the “Great Jubilee Year,” and calls for a year-long celebration to mark the beginning of Christianity’s third millennium.

At the very heart of this jubilee celebration is a renewed emphasis on indulgences. Calling it a “precious gift” to the world, the Pope decreed that, beginning on Christmas Eve 1999 and continuing until January 6, 2001, “all the faithful, … make abundant use of … the indulgence.”[4]

The “Jubilee indulgence” which the Pope is offering is a plenary, (that is, full) indulgence. It purportedly has power to remove completely the penalty of all of your sins & enable you to by-pass purgatory altogether. You can earn one full indulgence a day, benefiting not only yourself but also any of your departed loved ones who are presently suffering in purgatory.

This indulgence can be earned by pilgrimages to Rome or Jerusalem, performing acts of service to others, making donations to the poor, or even by abstaining for only one day from “unnecessary consumption,” including smoking, drinking alcohol or sexual relations.[5]

Salvation in the Bible

How should we respond to this? Pope John Paul II has done many commendable things in his tenure as head of the Roman Catholic Church. He has been an ardent defender of the unborn and an outspoken advocate for human rights. He ought to be applauded for his stand on these and many other issues. Nevertheless, despite his commendable qualities, one must not diminish the fact that what he teaches and what evangelicals teach (or at least, have historically taught) cannot both be right!

“Catholic-bashing” has no place in a Christian’s life and it is not my intent to engage in such activity. Nor is it my desire to take cheap theological “pot-shots” at the Pope. Incarnationis Mysterium, however, demands to be exposed for the soul-damning document which it is.

In Romans 5:8-11 the Apostle Paul sets forth the absolute completeness of that salvation which Christ has secured for sinners by His death.

But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.

A glass prism held over white paper in sunlight reveals that white light actually consists of every color of the rainbow. The various shades have always been there, but it takes a prism to manifest them clearly.

In a similar way the death of Jesus serves as a prism for the love of God. In the cross the multifaceted brilliance of divine love shines most clearly. The crucifixion reveals the nature and depth of God’s love for sinners. From the cross flow all of the blessings of our comprehensive salvation. Paul refers to three of these blessings in the above text. Collectively, they demonstrate the completeness of salvation and, consequently, the offensiveness of the Pope’s recent bull.


The first blessing is justification. To be justified means to be declared righteous in God’s sight. As the Shorter Catechism puts it, “Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners effectually called to Jesus Christ, wherein He pardons all their sins, and accepts them as righteous in His sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to them, and received by faith alone.”

Justification is a legal term, borrowed from the courtroom. It describes the status which a believer has before God as Judge. God accepts Christ as a substitute in behalf all who trust in Him. The perfect life which Christ lived and the atoning death which He died are credited to the account of believers. God imputes Christ’s righteousness to them. Thus, as Paul says, we are “justified by His blood.”

A believer can never be more justified than he is at the moment that he first believes. He can neither add to nor detract from his justification, no matter how many good works he performs. He can increase in grace and holiness, but a Christian can never increase in justification. He is once and forever forgiven, accepted by God for the sake of Jesus Christ. The law of God can never again condemn the person who is in Christ Jesus by faith.


Another blessing which Paul mentions is reconciliation. To be reconciled to God is to be restored to a peaceful relationship with Him. Sin made us His enemies. Christ has made us His friends. When a believer is granted peace with God it means that the hostilities between them have been put aside. Nothing can be added to this. The fact that God reconciled us while were His enemies gives us assurance that “we shall be saved by His life.” Nothing more is needed. Christ, by His life and His death, has secured everything that is necessary for our salvation.

Though the subjective dimensions of reconciliation are immense for the believer (he is thereby able to love, enjoy and hope in God, etc.), in this passage the Apostle stresses the objective dimension of the blessing. Reconciliation is God’s work. It is a fact. Christ’s death has accomplished it. God gives it to believers. Through Christ, believers “receive the reconciliation.”


The third blessing is not mentioned by name, but Paul very succinctly describes it when he says that “we shall be saved from wrath through Him” (v. 9). Contrary to those who try to reduce the biblical conception of wrath to an impersonal force which is independent of God, the Scripture is clear that what is being “revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,” is “the wrath of God” (Romans 1:18). All of us by nature are objects of it (Ephesians 2:3). This wrath, which will culminate on the great day of His wrath (Revelation 6:17), is precisely that from which the death of Christ has saved us.

This is the blessing of propitiation. God set forth Jesus “to be a propitiation by His blood” (Romans 3:25). That is, God gave His only begotten Son, so that by means of His death, divine, holy wrath could be averted from sinners. Because of Christ, believers “shall be saved from wrath.” This is an unconditional certainty. Sin and its consequences have been fully and finally dealt with by the death of Christ.

Note carefully Paul’s reasoning here. Just as Christians have been justified by Christ’s blood in that He died for us when were sinners, how much more, now that we are reconciled to God, shall we be saved from His wrath! On what basis? Jesus Christ, whose life and death in our behalf has completely saved us. Believers will never be required to suffer the penalty which their sins deserve, because Jesus has already once and for all paid the price.

Can there be any question regarding the comprehensive nature of this salvation? It is complete! God has left nothing to chance. Those who trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior have nothing to fear in this life or in the life to come because all of their sins have been completely punished on the cross. There is nothing else that could ever be done and therefore nothing else that could ever be required which could in any way add to the salvation which God has provided in Jesus Christ.

Rome vs. the Bible

This is radically different from the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. In his recent bull, Pope John Paul has stated,

“Reconciliation with God does not mean that there are no enduring consequences of sin from which we must be purified. It is precisely in this context that the indulgence becomes important, since it is an expression of the ‘total gift of the mercy of God.’ With the indulgence, the repentant sinner receives a remission of the temporal punishment due for the sins already forgiven as regards the fault.”[6]

But Paul teaches that the salvation which God provides in Jesus Christ includes being saved from His wrath–which is the only proper penalty which sin incurs. By His death, Jesus has once and forever paid this penalty.

How cruel to tell people that even though God has forgiven their sins they nevertheless must somehow pay for them through acts of penance by securing an indulgence from the church. Such teaching damns naive people to a life of doubt and fear. It drains the work of Jesus Christ of its glory and power.

The gospel is great news for those who have no hope in themselves–who are willing to trust Christ and Christ alone; to depend on His finished work on the cross and nothing more. But it is bad news for those who trust in indulgences or any religious organization which promises to remove the penalty of sin. There is only one salvation available to sinners and it is all of grace. And the only way which it may be received is through faith–trusting Christ, not trusting the church, the pastor, the Pope or a special letter of indulgence. Salvation is all of grace.

The Pope, Indulgences and Jesus Christ

Pope John Paul is no Johann Tetzel. The Pope, I believe, is a man of integrity. Tetzel was a shyster. But they stand united in their confidence in indulgences. While John Paul’s recent pronouncement might have caught some evangelicals off guard, it should not have. The Roman Catholic Church has not changed its views on this subject in over 400 years.

When the controversy over indulgences erupted in the 16th century the Roman Catholic Church was compelled to respond. They did so in an official way at the Council of Trent. That council decreed that the use of indulgences was both right and good. Furthermore, by that council, the Catholic Church “condemns with anathema those who either assert that they are useless; or who deny that there is in the Church the power of granting them” (Session 25, Dec. 4).

In other words, the Roman Catholic Church officially curses–condemns to hell–those who deny the power and legitimacy of indulgences. I willingly stand under Rome’s anathema: indulgences are useless and the Church of Rome has no power to grant them. They are worse than useless, for those who trust in them thereby deny Jesus Christ and consign themselves to hell.

Those who trust Jesus Christ are completely saved by Him and thus have no need of any supposed indulgence by the Pope. The treasury of merit is a myth. Purgatory is imaginary. Works of supererogation are nonexistent. No mere mortal has ever been good enough for God, much less better than necessary so that he has merits left over which can be given to others.

Those who know these things must preach Christ with boldness and conviction in the face of error and confusion. Salvation is by grace alone, received through faith alone, which looks to Christ alone and thus redounds to the glory of God alone. In Christ, we have everything that we need–for this life and the life to come.