Indulgences for the Millennium

Indulgences for the Millennium
Alan Howe Chief Researcher with the Christian Research Network
01 November, 1998 7 min read

On 29 November 1998, Pope John Paul II issued a papal bull entitled Incarnationis Mysterium, or The Mystery of the Incarnation, bearing the subtitle Bull of Indiction of the Great Jubilee of the Year 2000. A bull is an official edict, so called because it has affixed to it the pontiff’s official seal (Latin bulla).

Many of the pope’s official pronouncements pass with little comment from Evangelicals. But this bull has attracted attention. Why? Because the document, designed chiefly to advertise Rome’s millennium celebrations, promotes traditional Roman Catholic teaching on indulgences.

This has provoked an outcry from many, who recognise not merely a return to medieval superstition, but a continuing hostility to the gospel itself, the central concern of the sixteenth-century Reformation.

Indulgences and the Reformation

So, what is an indulgence? Briefly, it means the remission of temporal (as opposed to eternal) punishment for sin in exchange for certain good works.

Indulgences can be plenary, remitting all the punishment due, or partial, remitting only a portion of it. In other words, Roman Catholics, having been granted forgiveness of sin and release from eternal punishment through the sacrament of penance, still face temporal punishment, either in this world or in purgatory. Only indulgences, officially issued by Rome, can save them from this fate.

Rome claims she can issue indulgences because she has access to a stored-up treasury of merits, gained by the saints throughout history. Remission of temporal punishment may thus be granted by applying some of these surplus merits to eligible sinners. To receive an indulgence, it is usually necessary to do penance and some form of pious work.

Martin Luther

Commodity for sale

In the early sixteenth century, Martin Luther (then a Roman Catholic monk) came to realise that, instead of salvation being a free gift to be received through faith alone, as described in the Bible, the church had made it a commodity for sale.

In his day, indulgences were printed certificates of pardon which could be bought with money. The proceeds went to ease the debts of the Archbishop of Mainz and to help pay for the splendid new basilica of St Peter’s in Rome! In other words, indulgences were a piously-worded means of extorting money!

The particular object of Luther’s wrath was Johann Tetzel, a Dominican who sold indulgences to the refrain: ‘As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs’. In response, on 31 October 1517, Luther nailed his famous Ninety-five theses to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg.

This document, intended for public debate, was actually entitled Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences. The Reformation can truly be said to have begun through its publication and widespread dissemination.

The benefits of Christ

So why, apart from the financial exploitation involved, did Luther so object to these indulgences? Fundamentally, he argued that they denied the reality and power of the gospel. Almost worse, Rome was also deceiving sinners with a false hope.

By contrast, biblical Christianity taught that any person who is truly repentant and believes in Christ receives free remission from both the guilt of sin and its punishment. He is in Christ and partakes of his righteousness. Nothing else can save a soul.

Luther himself was a man of his time. In 1517 he was not challenging the biblical basis for the ‘sacrament of penance’, denying the doctrine of purgatory, or proposing the abolition of indulgences. What he was doing, however, was to re-assert basic evangelical principles. The logical outworking of this in succeeding years would inevitably lead to the clearing-away of Rome’s doctrinal accretions.

Ever since, all true Evangelicals have asserted the doctrine of justification by faith alone as central to the Christian gospel (Romans 3:21-5:11; Galatians 2:1-3:14). Through his perfect life and sacrificial death, the Lord Jesus Christ has atoned for all sin, guilt and punishment. Repentant sinners, therefore, receive a salvation which is already complete, and simply needs to be received through faith.

Rome and indulgences today

The power that Rome claimed over the salvation of souls, both living and dead, was decisively challenged by the Reformation. Unfortunately, although the abuses that so enraged Luther were cleared away in the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation, Rome herself has never repudiated the basic teaching which underpins such practices.

At bottom, this is because she has never retracted her denial of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone. This denial was officially declared at the Council of Trent (1545-63). Thus, even though certificates of pardon may not be on sale in 1999, salvation is still a commodity made available by the church to the faithful.

Indeed, one only needs to consult the 1992 Catechism of the Catholic Church to realise that Rome has not moved one inch from her profoundly anti-evangelical stance in relation to indulgences.

So what does the papal bull Incarnationis Mysterium have to say on the subject? In reality, all it does is reiterate traditional Roman Catholic teaching in the context of the planned millennium celebrations.


The bull consists of fourteen paragraphs (of which 9 and 10 outline traditional Roman teaching on indulgences) and an appendix Conditions for Gaining the Jubilee Indulgence. The latter is signed by Cardinal William Baum, of the Apostolic Penitentiary in Rome, and defines the specific conditions for the granting of such benefits in the millennium year.

Paragraph 9 leaves us in no doubt as to Rome’s position. ‘With the indulgence, the repentant sinner receives a remission of the temporal punishment due for the sins already forgiven as regards the fault’. Paragraph 10 confirms Roman teaching on purgatory and the availability, through the church, of the ‘treasury of merits’.

Finally, the appendix sets out conditions for the issue of the Jubilee Indulgence (in other words, the various good works needed now to benefit from the good works of the saints in the past!).

St Peter’s basilica

Among these are attendance at private confession and receipt of absolution; participation in the eucharist; making a pilgrimage to one of four basilicas in Rome or to one of two basilicas in Jerusalem or to any appointed local cathedral or shrine (and taking part in some appointed act of pious devotion there); abstaining from smoking or drinking; fasting; donating money to the poor or to any suitable organisation; and simply doing something to benefit the local community.

So, for the year 2000, Rome restates what she has officially taught since Trent. This is indeed the false gospel of salvation by good works, long rejected by all Bible-believing Christians.


The teaching on indulgences in Incarnationis Mysterium is a grave offence to Christ, and a complete denial of biblical teaching on salvation. It will keep the Catholic faithful in bondage to Rome and confirm them in a false hope. It is, in short, the road to hell for many.

It should also be a cause for weeping over the lost eternity of thousands upon thousands of Roman Catholics, and the compromise of Protestant church leaders who tolerate such errors. This papal bull ought to put an end to all ecumenical endeavour involving Rome but, sadly, it will not.

Liberal Protestants, who make common cause with Rome because they share many of her modernist teachings, will surely be embarrassed to find that Rome looks back to Trent as well as forwards from Vatican II! Just as Rome appeared to have abandoned her interest in musty old doctrines, like justification, in favour of inclusivism where all men are really anonymous Christians, she dusts down a hoary old teaching like this!

Sincerity alone?

Nevertheless, for liberal Protestants as well as for liberal Roman Catholics, salvation by ‘sincerity alone’ can still be common ground for unity. They will be glad to read, therefore, in paragraph 6 of the papal bull, that ‘followers of other religions’ as well as ‘those far from faith in God’ are to be invited to the Jubilee celebrations ‘as brothers and sisters in the one human family’.

The bull reminds everyone that Rome still embraces traditional anti-gospel doctrines, however much they contradict her modernist teachings. By rights, this ought finally to put an end to Rome’s dialogue with professing Evangelicals. But again, it probably will not.

A large number of ‘Evangelical’ leaders in the USA, representing a broad spectrum of Arminians, Dis-pensationalists, Pente-costals, Charismatics and Reformed believers, recently endorsed a statement called The Gospel of Jesus Christ: An Evangelical Celebration (Christianity Today, 14 June 1999).

This appears to be a perfectly good statement of evangelical teaching and includes a clear affirmation of justification by faith alone. However (and here is the crunch issue) some of the signatories have already been involved in the two Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements which equally clearly compromise the gospel.

Does truth matter?

So, does truth really matter, or is this just window-dressing? One hopes it is the former, but it may prove otherwise. When, for example, Canadian ‘Evangelical’ theologian Clark Pinnock asks, ‘When will it be time to call off the schism?’ (Flame of Love, 1996, p. 237), all true Evangelicals should respond, ‘Never!’ But some (who should know better) appear to believe that the gap between Rome and Evangelicalism can be bridged, and that the real divide is between conservatives and liberals on both sides.

The papal bull proves that this is not the case. The battle-lines drawn up at the Reformation must be held at all costs. The gospel is at stake now as it was then! Let us not allow either Roman liberalism or Roman traditionalism to seduce us from biblical truth!

Chief Researcher with the Christian Research Network
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