Indulgences and plenary indulgences are concepts within the Catholic Church related to the forgiveness of sins. An indulgence is a remission of the temporal punishment for sins that have been forgiven. A plenary indulgence is a full remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. These concepts are based on the Catholic belief in purgatory and the role of the Church in forgiving sins. However, they are controversial and rejected by Protestants as unbiblical. This article will examine 9000 words on indulgences and plenary indulgences and evaluate whether they align with Scripture.
In Catholic teaching, sin has two consequences – eternal punishment and temporal punishment. Eternal punishment refers to hell, the eternal separation from God due to unrepented mortal sins. Temporal punishment refers to the suffering caused by sin in this life and the purification needed after death before entering heaven. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC 1471), “The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance.”
Indulgences relate to the temporal punishment due to sins. Even after sins are forgiven through the sacrament of Penance, or Confession, some punishment remains. An indulgence is said to remove all or part of this punishment. The Catechism (CCC 1471) states, “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 prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.”
Indulgences are granted for certain acts of devotion, penance, charity and prayer. Examples include reading Scripture, praying the rosary, adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, pilgrimages, wearing a scapular and doing charitable works (CCC 1471-1473). By performing these acts, Catholics can gain partial indulgences that remit some of the temporal punishment. The Church has the authority to grant indulgences because of its power to “bind and loose” given by Christ (Matthew 16:19, 18:18).
The Catechism explains that indulgences rely on the “treasury of the Church” which consists of “the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God” and “the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine riches which the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints have before God” (CCC 1476-1477). When granted an indulgence, a person receives from the treasury “the remission of temporal punishments due for sins” (CCC 1478).
So in summary, an indulgence does not forgive the guilt of sin, but remits some or all of the temporal punishment a sinner would suffer because of the sin. By performing certain pious acts, Catholics believe they can reduce this punishment through the merits of Christ and the saints applied to them by the Church.
Understanding Plenary Indulgences
A plenary indulgence is a full remission of all temporal punishment due to sin. The Catechism defines it as “the remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is rightly disposed gains under certain defined conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies authoritatively the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints” (CCC 1471).
There are particular conditions for gaining a plenary indulgence. From the Catechism (CCC 1471):
- The faithful must have the interior disposition of complete detachment from sin, even venial sin.
- They must sacramentally confess their sins.
- They must receive the Holy Eucharist.
- They must pray for the Pope’s intentions.
In addition, the faithful must perform an indulgenced work or prayer, such as reading Scripture, praying the rosary in a church, making the Way of the Cross, etc. Commonly, plenary indulgences are attached to participating in jubilees, pilgrimages, Crusades or other special events.
Only one plenary indulgence can be gained per day. But multiple partial indulgences can accumulate to remit all temporal punishment. Plenary indulgences can also be applied to souls in purgatory. The Church encourages Catholics to obtain indulgences frequently, especially at the hour of death (CCC 1498).
The plenary indulgence is meant to achieve the complete purification of sins and punishment that allows the faithful to enter directly into heaven. By fulfilling the requirements, Catholics believe they can eliminate all consequences of past sins through the Church’s treasury of merit.
Origins of Indulgence Doctrine
Although indulgences developed over many centuries, they became an official part of Catholic teaching in the late Middle Ages. In the early Church, repentant sinners underwent long, difficult public penances before being reconciled. As Christianity spread, there was a need to shorten the penance while still expressing contrition. The idea of replacing lengthy penances with prayer, charity and pilgrimages developed. Indulgences were first granted for participation in the Crusades in the 11th century. The specific teachings on indulgences emerged from the theology of Saints Anselm and Thomas Aquinas on redeeming sin.
In the 16th century, abuses led Martin Luther to protest indulgences. The Pope was granting indulgences to raise funds to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica. Johann Tetzel’s promotion of indulgences with the couplet “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs” scandalized Luther. In 1517, his Ninety-Five Theses criticized indulgences. This led to the Protestant Reformation and the Council of Trent clarifying Catholic doctrine on indulgences.
Today, indulgences are incorporated into the Code of Canon Law (992-997) and Catechism of the Catholic Church (1471-1479) as part of Catholic doctrine. They continue to be granted for certain prayers, pilgrimages and charitable acts.
Support for Indulgences in the Bible
The Catholic Church bases indulgences on its biblical authority to “bind and loose” and the role of the Church as the minister of Christ’s redemption. However, indulgences themselves are not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. Catholic theologians find support in verses about God’s mercy, forgiveness, punishment for sin, the Treasury of Merit, and power given to the Church.
God’s Mercy and Forgiveness
Catholics argue God’s mercy allows for the remission of punishment beyond what sinners deserve. Bible verses about God’s overflowing mercy and forgiveness of sins support this idea (Psalm 103:8-12; Romans 5:20-21; 2 Corinthians 5:19). Christ’s sacrifice provides superabundant redemption.
Punishment for Sin
The Bible refers to punishment or consequences remaining for sin even after repentance. Passages mention chastisement (Hebrews 12:5-11), judgment (1 Corinthians 11:32), justice (Revelation 15:4), and redeeming the time (Ephesians 5:16). This evidence suggests temporal penalties continue after forgiveness.
Treasury of Merit
The Treasury of Merit relies on the idea that Christ and the saints built up more merit than needed for their own salvation. Their redemptive work is shared with believers, especially through the Eucharist (John 6:56, 1 Corinthians 12:12-27). Bible verses about sharing spiritual gifts and bearing one another’s burdens support this concept (Romans 12:4-8; Galatians 6:2).
Power of the Church
Catholics believe Christ gave his Church authority to administer redemption, including indulgences. Key biblical support comes from Christ giving the apostles the power to “bind and loose” (Matthew 16:19, 18:18) along with the keys to the kingdom (Matthew 16:19). This represents the power to open heaven through indulgences.
So in summary, Catholic theologians infer biblical justification for indulgences based on principles of God’s mercy, punishment due to sins, the communion of saints sharing merit, and the Church’s authority to “bind and loose.” However, indulgences themselves are not directly mentioned in Scripture.
Criticisms of Indulgences from Protestants and Evangelicals
While Catholics see indulgences as consistent with the Bible, Protestants and Evangelicals have rejected them as completely unbiblical. The main criticisms are:
- No biblical basis – Nowhere does the Bible mention indulgences or the ability to reduce punishment for sin through pious actions.
- Undermines assurance of salvation – Indulgences conflict with assurance of the full, finished work of Christ and free forgiveness of sins by faith in the Gospel.
- Adds to Christ’s work – Indulgences suggest believers must pay penalties Christ did not fully pay on the cross, undercutting His atonement.
- Salvation by works – Obtaining indulgences seems like earning salvation, contrary to justification by faith apart from works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
- No evidence of purgatory – Indulgences presume purification in purgatory, which Evangelicals reject as unbiblical.
- Treasury of Merit unbiblical – Sharing surplus merit between believers has no scriptural basis and denies Christ’s unique atonement.
- Undermines priesthood of believers – The Church grants indulgences as spiritually superior “mediator” when all believers are called priests with direct access to God (1 Peter 2:5).
In summary, Protestants see indulgences as an obstacle to the free gift of grace in the Gospel rather than a biblical doctrine. The concepts behind indulgences, like purgatory and treasury of merit, are rejected as completely unbiblical.
Key Differences in the Catholic and Protestant Views of Forgiveness
The Catholic and Protestant views differ fundamentally on how forgiveness works. Catholics see forgiveness as a process while Protestants see it as an event. Here are some key differences:
- Justification – Catholics believe justification is a lifelong process. Protestants believe justification occurs at a point when a sinner has faith in Christ.
- Punishment for sins – Catholics divide consequences of sin into eternal and temporal punishment. Protestants believe all punishment was borne by Christ on the cross.
- Sacraments and penance – In Catholicism, priests administer forgiveness through sacraments like confession. Protestants believe forgiveness is directly from Christ through faith.
- Assurance – Catholics seek ongoing forgiveness through penance. Protestants believe in full assurance of forgiveness in Christ.
- Sins after conversion – Catholics must confess post-baptismal sins. Protestants emphasize all sins were covered on the cross.
These different views lead to contrasting practices. Catholics perform penances and seek indulgences for temporal punishment. Evangelical Protestants stress assurance in Christ’s complete atonement, sole mediation, and once-for-all justification.
Areas of Potential Common Ground Between Catholics and Protestants
Despite the significant differences, there are some areas of potential common ground between Catholics and Protestants on forgiveness:
- Grace is a free gift and only comes through Christ’s sacrifice, not human effort.
- Forgiveness brings freedom from guilt and a transformed life – both instantaneously and progressively.
- God’s love exceeds any punishment sinners deserve.
- The consequences of sin are serious and not to be taken lightly.
- God disciplines those He loves and this can involve suffering.
- Christians are joined together in Christ’s body and should help bear each other’s burdens.
Building on these shared Biblical truths could lead to greater unity and understanding between Catholics and Protestants. Both affirm God’s free forgiveness in Christ. Catholics emphasize cooperating with this grace, while Protestants stress resting in it through faith. Finding connections around God’s overflowing mercy despite different views on how it is applied could help reconcile the differences between traditions.
Practical Implications for Catholics
For Catholics who believe indulgences are effective, some implications include:
- Be motivated to obtain indulgences frequently, especially plenary indulgences attached to events like Jubilee Years.
- Carefully fulfill the conditions for gaining indulgences such as sacramental confession, Mass attendance, praying for the Pope’s intentions, etc.
- Value opportunities to earn indulgences for yourself and apply them to souls in purgatory.
- Perform spiritual exercises like reading Scripture, praying the Rosary, adoring the Eucharist, and doing penance and charity with the motivation of reducing temporal punishment.
- Entrust your dying loved ones to gain a plenary indulgence through the Apostolic Pardon at their hour of death.
In summary, belief in indulgences should instill in Catholics an incentive for Mass attendance, regular confession, prayers for the Pope, and performing pious acts. These practices aim to limit purification needed both in this life and purgatory.
Practical Implications for Protestants
For Protestants who reject indulgences as unbiblical, implications include:
- Rely fully on Christ’s finished work and the Gospel for forgiveness and relationship with God, not acts of penance.
- Experience assurance of salvation by God’s grace, not dependent on earthly works.
- Allow struggles and discipline to draw you closer to God, not atone for sin’s punishment.
- Give generously and serve others out of love, not a sense of earning merit.
- Build confidence to approach God directly without earthly mediators.
- Find security in justification by faith alone apart from indulgences or sacraments.
- Entrust dying believers fully to Christ’s mercy, not purification in purgatory.
In summary, rejection of indulgences frees Protestants to rest entirely in Christ’s sufficient atonement. Assurance, generosity, and direct access to God flow from full confidence in God’s free gift of grace in the Gospel.
Indulgences and plenary indulgences are controversial concepts unique to Catholicism. They offer remission of temporal punishment for already forgiven sins through the Church’s treasury of merit. While Catholics see biblical support for indulgences in principles like God’s mercy and the Church’s authority, Protestants critique them as completely unbiblical and undermining Christ’s sufficient atonement. The doctrines reflect very different views on justification and how forgiveness is applied. Catholics are motivated to obtain indulgences, while Protestants find assurance in grace alone through faith. Despite these divides, mutual understanding could be advanced by affirming together that God’s love is greater than any punishment sinners deserve.