Digital Indulgences

pope-francisThe UK Guardian reported yesterday that Rome has reached a new low in reaching out to the Romanist equivalent of low-information voters. Low-sanctity penitents perhaps? Rome is now offering plenary indulgences to Romanists who follow Pope Francis’ tweets from Catholic Youth Day in Rio beginning July 22. This offer is a concession to those who cannot afford to fly to Rio. According to the Guardian, the Vatican says, “…you must be following the events live. It is not as if you can get an indulgence by chatting on the internet.”

What are “indulgences”? you ask. Roman canon law (church order) defines them thus:

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.

There is more on the history of indulgences here.

The very existence of indulgences depends on the prior notion that the church has power to assign acts of penance. The great difficulty with this notion is that the Apostle Peter did not say, “do penance” but “repent” (Acts 2:38). Rome, however, teaches confession, contrition, and satisfaction. Penance is not the same as the biblical doctrine of “repentance,” i.e., the acknowledging of sin for what it is, turning from it, and turning to Christ in faith. No, an act of penance (i.e, an act of satisfaction) is said by Rome to have “propitiatory” value. Worse, according to John Paul II, one’s whole life must be an act of penance. By “propitiatory” Rome is claiming that our acts have the power to turn away divine wrath and to bring acceptance with God.

Ordinarily, Romanists don’t complete all their acts of penance. In that case they are piling up years in purgatory, i.e., temporal punishments.

A “plenary indulgence” is a complete release of all the “temporal punishments” accumulated to date. It’s an opportunity to start over and, in this instance, all one has to do is to follow every one of the Holy Father’s tweets from Rio. Order to take advantage of this one-time only offer (call now before midnight! Don’t wait. The clock is running. Operators are standing by.

There’s a catch, however. There’s always a catch. The devoted reader of the papal tweets must also be “truly penitent and contrite.” Rome says that their doctrine of acceptance with God is a doctrine of grace. Like all falsehoods, that’s partly true but it’s partly false and the falsehood corrupts the whole thing.

if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace (Rom 11:6).


a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified (Gal 2;16; ESV).

According to Rome, grace is works and works are grace. Rome, the NPP, and the FV teach that “the works of the law” refers to keeping the Mosaic laws. Nonsense. Paul makes it clear in Rom 11:6 that regarding acceptance with God grace and works are competing principles. When Paul says “works of the law” here he’s referring to a competing principle. That’s why he goes to faith. His turn to faith would not be the proper contrast to the Mosaic laws but it is the antithesis to acceptance with God by our own doing.

Rome seeks to combine grace and works for acceptance with God. Thus, you must follow Papal tweets perfectly and with true penitence and contrition. That condition, that’s law. The truth is that you’re not capable of meeting these conditions. Your penitence and contrition are never going to be good enough. They’re never going to be perfect. They’re always going to be corrupted by sin. Thus, Rome has to cheat. She knows that, if you’re honest, you’ll be discouraged so she has a backup plan, congruent merit, a scheme whereby God is said to treat your best efforts as if they are perfect.

Do you see how far down the Romanist Rabbit hole you’ve already gone? Jesus’ perfect obedience is completely out of sight and now we’re negotiating as to the quality of your penitence and contrition and then when that fails she invents a scheme whereby God credits perfection to your best efforts.

Or you could simply trust Christ’s finished work. Remember, he said, “It is finished.” Unlike Rome, he did not say, “I’ve done my part, now go do yours.”

More from the HB (here, here, here, here, and here is what Calvin said) on indulgences.

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  1. I am so happy to be freed from my former legalism by Reformed (gospel-centered!) theologians! Thank you, Scott!!

  2. Whenever the beauty of St. Peter’s Basilica is mentioned I can only think of how it was funded by fleecing the poor and ignorant through the sale of indulgences. I suppose in that sense Protestant charlatans (some TV preacher/manipulators) and the RCC are on the same page.

  3. “…. according to John Paul II, one’s whole life must be an act of penance…”

    Hmmmm … turned around another way this sounds a lot like the evangelical’s admonition to “live the Gospel.” Now I’m beginning to better understand why all of the recent attraction to Rome.

  4. Really… could Rome possibly make a greater distortion of the forgiveness of sins that comes by grace through faith in Christ alone than what was already on the table – the selling of indulgences in the 16th century? Apparently. Now, those who wish to indulge themselves in Roman indulgences need not climb steps, travel thousands of miles, or cough up cash out of meager savings! To receive the love that comes from Rome the masses need only follow the Roman tweet!

    I just want to stop and thank you, baby. How tweet it is…

  5. Prof Scott, does Rome teach that we must complete our acts of penance before God accepts us and justifies us? Your article here gives that impression when it states that Rome adds grace and works for acceptance with God. Are you referring to acts of penance there or something else?

    • Vincent,

      Yes and no. Indirectly yes. Acts of penance or acts of contrition are necessary to satisfy the demands of justice. When those are not completed in this life then they must be completed in purgatory, the intermediate state.

      There is another ambiguity in the Roman doctrine of justification that is the sometime explicit and sometime implicit doctrine of congruent merit.

      What is clear is that, according to Rome, God accepts those who are fully, intrinsically sanctified. That state is reached only after all the satisfactions and pains have been paid.

  6. I read somewhere that in purgatory man does not grow in sanctification or merit, because that kind of growth is only limited to life.

  7. Oh. My. Gosh. Well, maybe we should just “indulge” them in their infantility? [/sarcasm]

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