ICYMI: Indulgences Are Still A Thing In Rome (And The Reformation Still Matters)

The Reformation was a complex event, which happened for many reasons but the triggering event on which many have focused over the centuries was Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses (1517). Though provocative, the theses were not themselves all that radical. Luther’s discovery of the basics of the Reformation theology was still in process. He himself identified 1519 as the turning point, after he had lectured through Galatians, Hebrews, and the Psalms (again). Indeed, upon looking back at 1517 he said that he was still a “right roaring Papist” when he wrote the Ninety-Five Theses.

Long before Luther complained, however, the church had been selling indulgences. What are they? A system of piety and salvation that had developed in the medieval church, a Christian was supposed to confess his sins and to be assigned acts of penance. Failure to fulfill these assignments brought with it temporal (in this life and in purgatory) punishments. Indulgences were, in effect, remissions of these penalties. By the early 16th century Rome was selling indulgences as way to raise funds.

One might think that, after the Reformation and certainly in the wake of the modernization of the church following Vatican II (1962–65),Rome abandoned the sale of indulgences. Should one think that, however, one would be wrong. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic Rome announced “special indulgences” on March 20, 2020.

This is a “plenary” [complete] indulgence granted to two classes of Roman Catholics, those afflicted with Covd-19, and thus unable to perform their ordinary religious duties and to Roman Catholic healthcare workers. Rome says:

The Plenary Indulgence is granted to the faithful suffering from Coronavirus, who are subject to quarantine by order of the health authority in hospitals or in their own homes if, with a spirit detached from any sin, they unite spiritually through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the Holy Rosary, to the pious practice of the Way of the Cross or other forms of devotion, or if at least they will recite the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and a pious invocation to the Blessed Virgin Mary, offering this trial in a spirit of faith in God and charity towards their brothers and sisters, with the will to fulfil the usual conditions (sacramental confession, Eucharistic communion and prayer according to the Holy Father’s intentions), as soon as possible.

Note the conditions of receiving a plenary indulgence (a complete deliverance from purgatory): “a spirit detached from any sin” and a “spiritual” union, through the media to the celebration of Holy Mass, the recitation of the rosary, a “spiritual” union to the “pious practice” of the way of the cross, the saying of the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, or invocation of the Virgin Mary.


Health care workers, family members and all those who, following the example of the Good Samaritan, exposing themselves to the risk of contagion, care for the sick of Coronavirus according to the words of the divine Redeemer: “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (Jn 15: 13), will obtain the same gift of the Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions.


This Apostolic Penitentiary also willingly grants a Plenary Indulgence under the same conditions on the occasion of the current world epidemic, also to those faithful who offer a visit to the Blessed Sacrament, or Eucharistic adoration, or reading the Holy Scriptures for at least half an hour, or the recitation of the Holy Rosary, or the pious exercise of the Way of the Cross, or the recitation of the Chaplet of Divine Mercy, to implore from Almighty God the end of the epidemic, relief for those who are afflicted and eternal salvation for those whom the Lord has called to Himself.

For those who are ill and unable to receive what used to be known as “last rites,” (extreme unction) the church grants indulgence on condition that “they are duly disposed and have recited a few prayers during their lifetime (in this case the Church makes up for the three usual conditions required). For the attainment of this indulgence the use of the crucifix or the cross is recommended (cf. Enchiridion indulgentiarum, no.12).”

At the end of the announcement Rome adds language familiar to any regular coupon shopper: “The present Decree is valid notwithstanding any provision to the contrary.“

We might be thankful that, in this instance, Rome is not openly selling indulgences, though she still does that (see the resources below), but the naked use of “conditions” to be met for the reception of this “gift” tells us all that we need to know about what she means by “gift.”

These are conditions that the Christians is supposed to meet by grace and cooperation with grace. In the Roman system, as in the Remonstrant/Arminian system, and as in too many so-called “evangelical” systems, as in the Federal Vision theology and in other sub-Christian doctrines, grace is said merely to make it possible for the Christian to do his part. Salvation, in this case deliverance from purgatory, is not merely of grace but of “grace and…”. It really matters not what follows the conjunction. Whatever follows annuls grace. How so? The Apostle Paul explains: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:8–9; ESV; emphasis added).

When the Apostle Paul speaks of grace, he does not add prior (antecedent) conditions to the reception of it. This is because, in the biblical conception, recovered in the Reformation, grace is scandalously free. It does not save those who do their part, who meet the prescribed conditions but those who cannot. Grace does work within recipients a new desire to obey because of grace, and in union with Christ but not in order to be saved. In the Roman system, our works—the meeting of conditions, however meager they may be, is still works—but because we have been saved.

This is because, as Paul says, grace is one thing and our doing, works, is another:

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

Rome, of course, evades the force of God’s Word in these places by re-defining works as signifying keeping the Old Testament ceremonial law. There is a cadre of clever New Testament scholars who have dug up this medieval chestnut and presented it as though it were some breakthrough. It is not new nor is true.

Paul’s great point is to juxtapose our doing with what Christ has done for us. Grace does not come to those who do their part. Grace does not depend upon those who do their part. The very meaning of grace is that it is free, earned for us by Christ, and given freely to helpless sinners. Understand that the system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace existed in Paul’s day and he rejected it. We reject it still.

Perhaps you noticed Rome’s appeal to the Parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37)? This use of Scripture was also traditional in the Middle Ages. The parable became the explanation for the way of salvation in the Medieval period and remains so in the Roman communion.

This is an abuse of the text. It reveals the confusion that reigned in the medieval church (and in Rome today) of the law and the gospel. In context, we are meant to see our Lord preaching the law to the lawyer, who “put him to the test” (v. 25), demanding to know of Christ the conditions of salvation. He asked for what, in the Reformed tradition, is known as a covenant of works. So our Lord asked him a question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (v. 26). The lawyer proceeded to summarize the moral law. Jesus replied, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live” (v. 28). Immediately, however, the lawyer did as lawyers do. He tried to negotiate a better deal. He tries, implicitly, to re-define “neighbor” (as lawyers do) to make it possible for him to obey the law sufficiently. It is in this context that Jesus gave the parable.

Our Lord’s intent was not to prescribe for his followers the conditions they must meet in cooperation with grace unto salvation. His intent was to put the lawyer in his place. Do not ignore the last two verses of the passage:

Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:36-37; ESV)

Jesus did not let the lawyer off the hook, as it were. He preached the law, “do this and live” all the way through. He did not set up a system of salvation by grace and cooperation with grace. We are not the injured man on the side of the road who only needs a bit of salve (the medicinal, sacramental ministry of the church) with which we must cooperate sufficiently to be saved. Our Lord patiently explained to the wily lawyer who was his neighbor in order to prosecute him, to teach him the greatness of his sin and misery

To be sure, Christians, those graciously, freely, sovereignly saved from divine judgment grace divine favor, through the divine gift of faith (resting, receiving, trusting in Christ and in his finished work for sinners) do endeavor to love their neighbors but only because Christ first loved us. The Apostle John wrote this very thing:

In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another (1 John 4:10-11; ESV).

Rome has it that we are saved because we loved God. Jesus and his Apostles, however, have it, that we love because we were loved first. We love in response. Yes, be a Good Samaritan but only because Christ saved wicked, helpless, Samaritans like you and me and by his free favor, gives new life not to the wounded but to the dead (Eph 2:1–4).

Our Lord Jesus will see his people through this trial and every other trial not by plenary indulgences but by his plenary grace and mercy, which he freely gives to all who ask, not upon our fulfillment of imaginary conditions but freely. He did not obey and die to make salvation possible for those who do their part but to accomplish it and to give it freely as a conquering king gives free gifts to those in his train.


    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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One comment

  1. This is great article contrasting two completely different paradigms. The Roman church, and all other types of legalism, use the law as a way for us to do our part do that we might put God into our debt. If we do such and such, God must do what we want. The paradigm that the Reformers rediscovered was a radically different use of the law, as love. Love as the fulfilling of the law in Romans 13: 8-13. God is love, and the law shows us His character 1John 4: 7-21. Therefore the purpose of God’s plan of redemption is the regeneration of a people, who would reflect God’s character, with the mind of Christ, a people who would ultimately be motivated to fulfill the law as an expression of love to God and neighbor for all that God, in Christ has done. In contrast the legalist tries to use the law, as a means of doing our part, to get what we want by obligating God!

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