While to most North Americans 31 October is Halloween, it is also Reformation Day. It was on 31 October 1517 when Luther nailed his ninety-fivetheses; the act that triggered Reformation. What Luther harshly criticized is indulgences or to be precise the sale of indulgences to raise money. Today most Catholics hardly talk about indulgences; some might even think it is no longer part of Catholic teaching – but it is part of Catholic teaching. We look first at the official definition of indulgences:
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
Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1471
Indulgences are neither permits to indulge in sin nor forgiveness of past, present and future sins – they are remission of (temporal) punishment of (venial) sin that was already forgiven. They are not salvation for sale either as some Protestants and “Bible only” Christians may rhetorically say.
Just like purgatory the reason why Catholic Church teaches indulgences is the concept of punishment for our sins. Catholics understand that sins, after being forgiven by God, still carry punishments. This is something that all Protestants and “Bible only” Christians will find hard to swallow. The reason is they are so accustomed to their (courtroom style) forensic justification; God is the judge while we are debtor or criminal. If Christ already paid our debt or penalty of our sins, once we believe in Him, why are we still to be punished for our sins? Does it make what Christ did on the cross not sufficient? Catholics, who use Family analogy in Justification, should find no problem with punishments. God is our father and we are His children who became His through faith in Christ (Ephesians 1:5). Any child in a family, who misbehaved is still punished even after he said sorry and was already forgiven by his parents. This punishment is not meant to torture them but to discipline them for their own good. Scripture says that God chastises His sons (Hebrews 12:6). The same Greek word for chastise is used in Matthew 10:17, Matthew 20:19 and Acts 22:25, translated as to whip or to scourge (a form of punishment). We do suffer under punishment but it is for our own good. Does punishment mean we nullify what Christ did on the cross?
Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church,
Colossians 1:24 (RSV)
Note first the phrase “what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions”. The Greek word translated as “lacking” is “husterema”, which means absence or wanting. In the New Testament the word also appears in Luke 21:4 (translated as poverty in RSV and NIV, as penury in KJV), 1 Corinthians 16:17, 2 Corinthians 8:14, 9:12, 11:9, Philippians 2:30 and 1 Thessalonians 3:10. Second, Paul clearly indicated he completed what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions.
Does the Bible support the belief that God still punish us even after He forgives our sin? When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, they rebelled (Numbers 14). Later they repented and God forgave them (verse 20) but He still punish them by asking them to wander in the desert for forty years until those over twenty years died save Joshua and Caleb (verses 29-30). David committed adultery with Bethsheba and had her husband murdered (2 Samuel 11). He repented and was forgiven (2 Samuel 12:13) but God still punished him through the death of his first child with Bethsheba (verse 14). In the New Testament Zachaeus told Jesus that he would pay back those he had wronged four times and gave half of his wealth to the poor. As tax collector he might overcharge some; he still had to make restitution even after he repented and felt sorry for what he did.
Catholics differentiates between eternal and temporal punishments. Through (Sacrament of) Baptism original sin, all sins and their punishments are forgiven. The inclination to sin remains in us and makes us sin again, mortally and venially. Eternal punishment is the outcome of mortal sin, which is cancelled through sacrament of penance. Venial sin, on the other hand, leads to temporal punishment, which we undergo in our life and/or in purgatory. Indulgences are means for Catholics to dispose this temporal punishment during their life and they can also offer indulgences for the departed in purgatory. The Catholic Church grants indulgences by the virtue of the power Christ gave her to bind and to loose on earth and in heaven (Matthew 16:19, 18:18). To gain from indulgences for oneself or for others a Catholic must be in the state of Grace (i.e. have all mortal sins forgiven). He/she must perform with contrite heart certain acts as prescribed by the Church (for the detail, refer to Handbook of Indulgences, New York Catholic book Publishing). Just for few examples: there are indulgences that can be gained through praying, Scripture reading and adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Due to the abuse in Reformation era, indulgences gained through involvement of money were abolished. There is nothing wrong with giving money to God and/or for charity – it is rewarded by God (Matthew 6:3-4, 19:21). The abuse crept in when raising fund for the Church was used to grant indulgences. Despite of the abuse, indulgences remain one of the Catholic teachings to this day that the faithful must believe. Keep in mid that Catholics believe the Elect will still go to heaven without performing (or somebody else performs for them) any indulgences.