This week the Vatican released a statement saying all non-Roman Catholic churches are “not proper Churches” and that those outside of Rome are of a compromised sort (that’s you, you Reformed rascal). The 16-page statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith decrees that Rome is “the one true Church of Christ.” The implication is this: If your church does not bow to the authority of the Pope, it is unfaithful. These divisive statements have whipped the ecumenical community into a froth (though Christianity Today denies the obvious implications).
The biblically discerning (like Al Mohler) are not shocked at these most recent statements. In fact, these conclusions are quite consistent with historical and contemporary Roman Catholic dogma.
Christopher Catherwood, in his new and excellent book Church History: A crash course for the curious (Crossway: 2007) warns us that Rome has not changed. “Theologically, from a biblical point of view, nothing really changed since the key Catholic doctrines to which Protestants have objected since the Reformation did not change” (p. 198). He also shows that false doctrine in Rome is increasingly prominent in the twentieth century. On the false idea that Mary is ‘the mother of God’ he writes, “Mariolatry in the Catholic Church has in fact evolved over centuries, and one can argue that it was not until the twentieth century that much of the false teachings about her became the official dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, as comparatively recently as 1950” (p. 81).
So I should not have been as surprised today when I found myself looking at the website of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia offering indulgences. Indulgences?! I thought indulgences died in the Reformation. After a little research, I was sadly reminded that indulgences were promoted and defended by John Paul II, continue in his successor and — the more closely I looked — are interwoven into statements by Beckwith in his recent move out of Evangelicalism into Catholicism. To my surprise, indulgences flourish in 2007 as they did in 1517.
No doubt embarrassed by Johann Tetzel, Rome is quick to say indulgences are not for sale. At least not for money. But they still come at a cost. The Archdiocese has set the sticker price as follows:
“A Plenary Indulgence is granted by participating in any event, pilgrimage, or visit under these conditions: one must go to Confession, receive Holy Communion, and pray for the intentions of the Holy Father, either on the day of the event or within several days before or after it. The Plenary Indulgence may be obtained by the faithful for themselves or may be applied to the dead by way of suffrage.”
The seeker must perform these conditions at one of the following events:
“Pilgrimage to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. on April 28, 2007; Special Youth Event and Mass at Saint Charles Borromeo Seminary on September 29, 2007; Bicentennial celebrations taking place in the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul or in some sacred place within the boundaries of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia presided over by the Cardinal Archbishop, or his designee; A pilgrimage to the Cathedral Basilica, the Shrine of Saint John Neumann, or the Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel, which includes a solemn communal celebration; The closing Mass of the Bicentennial Year to be held at Villanova Pavilion on April 13, 2008.”
Indulgences are never free.
So what is the purpose of the indulgences? “An indulgence is the remission before God of the temporal punishment due sins already forgiven as far as their guilt is concerned, which the follower of Christ with the proper dispositions and under certain determined conditions acquires through the intervention of the Church which, as minister of the Redemption, authoritatively dispenses and applies the treasury of the satisfaction won by Christ and the saints” (Indulgentiarum Doctrina). To put it in seasonal terms, it will help shorten the purgatorial sunburn.
This admission is obviously blasphemous: Christ’s Atonement applied to the sinner is insufficient. Certain wages for sin remain, and the redeemed are bound under God’s temporal wrath.
Before we go too far, we must stop and learn about the human heart. Even as believers we tend to consider the negative things that happen in life as a result of God’s anger towards us, rather than the discipline of a loving Father. All things work together for our good because the painful experiences of life are not temporal judgments from God, but the purging of sin. He prunes us to bear more fruit and we bear more fruit to experience more of Christ’s joy (John 15). If we are covered in the Blood of Jesus Christ, we are free forever from God’s judgment (both eternal and temporal judgments).
Secondly, indulgences speak to our natural pursuit of self-righteousness. We want to earn the appeasement of God’s judgment, which is to say we want to earn God’s favor. Indulgences hold out this false hope to sinners. The fact is that God’s elect are united to Christ and there is no more divine favor and righteousness necessary before God. There is no such ‘thing’ as grace that can be awarded or won or added to the Christian life. All we have is Christ, and all of Christ is ours (see Sinclair Ferguson post earlier). “Indeed, I count everything [all self-righteousness] as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3:8).
John Calvin wrote that those who believe God’s grace and deliverance from judgment is distributed by church authorities, “are fit to be treated by drugs for insanity rather than to be argued with” (Institutes, 3.5.1). The insanity abounds to this day.
Remember the old Martin Luther movie? Luther becomes furious when he sees a poor woman with a crippled child on her back going to pay what little money she has for a Tetzel indulgence. Little has changed. Sinners in 2007 who are crippled and poor and naked before their Holy God are walking to a shrine to pay the fee of homage, thinking that earning grace through an indulgence from Rome is their means of escaping God’s temporal wrath for their sin (or the sin of someone now in purgatory). At best, this practice is a manipulation of the weak sinful heart, and at worst an outright blasphemy towards the work of Christ (no matter how superficially connected to the Cross it appears).
In Christ we have freedom from eternal and temporal judgments. In Luke 23 we are told, “One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ 40 But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? 41 And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ 42 And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ 43 And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.’”
There is all-sufficient grace in the Cross to completely cover the most vile of sinners. Without question, there are temporal consequences to sin (like being crucified for a due crime). But for the repentant sinner who trusts in Jesus Christ alone, there is no self-righteousness, no religious acts or pilgrimages or indulgences — only union into Christ! — that frees sinners from their due guilt! “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”
Indulgences undermine the Gospel. Calvin succinctly writes, “Obviously, either the gospel of God or indulgences must be false. Paul testifies that Christ is offered to us through the gospel, with every abundance of heavenly benefits, with all his merits, all his righteousness, wisdom, and grace, without exception” (3.5.5).
As the evidence continues to reveal, Rome – at the very epicenter of its public dogma – was relatively unaffected by the Reformation. This Gospel-distorting reality must never escape the notice of the Cross-centered. In contending against the heresies of the new perspectives, we cannot (and dare not) turn our backs to the heresies of the ancient perspectives still alive today.
Related: Many helpful articles by James White on Catholicism and his books of special note are The Roman Catholic Controversy and The God Who Justifies. Also an excellent sermon by John Piper on justification in Catholicism in light of God’s judgement.