Most students of the 16th century Protestant Reformation know that the practice of indulgences was a major issue that divided Protestant evangelicals and Roman Catholics. In Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses the subject of indulgences was a major topic of concern. In the Counter-Reformation the Catholic Church purged itself of many of the crass excesses that were related to the use of indulgences. But it did not remove the practice altogether.

In the spirit of healthy ecumenical dialog I offer that it would be best if this unscriptural development were purged altogether. I think it lacks biblical basis and solid, unambiguous patristic support. Some may be surprised to know that the Church still issues indulgences, especially papal indulgences, to this day.

One excellent Catholic source defines indulgences in this way:

The remittance of temporal punishment due to sin which sorrow has already been expressed and forgiveness received. This canceling of punishment comes from the treasury of Christ’s infinite merits and the saints’ participation in his passion and glory. In the early church the intercession of those awaiting martyrdom could reduce severe penance imposed on repentant sinners. In the sixteenth century the scandalous misuse of indulgences helped to trigger the Reformation. The right to grant indulgences is in principle reserved to the Holy See. Unlike partial indulgences, plenary indulgences are held to remove the whole idea of punishment, if the full conditions for their reception are met. Both kinds may be applied to the dead in purgatory. In his apostolic constitution Indulgentiarum Doctrina: A Concise Dictionary of Theology, Pope Paul VI restricted plenary indulgences and emphasized the need for personal conversion of the heart (Gerald O’Collins and Edward G. Farrugia, (A Concise Dictionary of Theology, New York: Paulist Press, 2000). 

The fact that Paul VI "restricted" indulgences and stressed "personal conversion of the heart" was a huge step in the right direction. But the added problem in this theological matter is the use of the term merit in association with the practice of indulgences. Used variously in Catholic history the term merit, so far as I can tell, appeared first in the writings of Tertullian (A. D. 160-220). There are two kinds of merit in Catholic theology; condign (based on a strict claim to justice) and congruent (where good actions result in merit being added). The argument for this doctrinal development is based on the biblical teaching that God rewards good deeds and punishes evil ones (cf. Exodus 23:20–22; Matthew 5:3–12; 6:4; 19:21; 25:31–46; 1 Corinthians 3:8; Revelation 22:12). While this claim is true the concept of added "merit" introduces a category that is foreign to grace and can only result in confusion, as it has for many Catholics for centuries.

Let me illustrate. The Catholic Church makes it clear that initial justification and final salvation is by grace alone. But when this idea of "merit" is added to the mix the human mind almost always goes for merit contributing something to one’s salvation regardless of all the limitations officially stated. This, I submit, is why far too many Catholics do not hear the gospel of grace as clearly as they ought to hear it. One can say, "They do not understand the teaching of the Church." I agree, to a point, but the teaching of the Church helps to create the confusion in my estimation. Serious ecumenical discussion still must be devoted to this topic.

Though indulgences and merit were not the primary issue in the Reformation they were extremely important. Rome has improved the practice in its official developments since the sixteenth century but she retains the language and the theology of merit nonetheless. The Orthodox Church, on the other hand, does teach its communicants to address the saints in prayer and does intercede for them. But the “treasury of merit” is not a part of their tradition. A longer article could show how this thinking evolved in the West into the highly developed tradition that Rome still retains parts of to this day. One can hope that someday this might be dropped altogether. I believe it would be a development to celebrate, not triumphalistically but graciously.

Because this theology is still believed and practiced the following news came from the Vatican last week.

Benedict XVI is now offering a plenary indulgence for those who participate in Sydney’s World Youth Day this month and a partial indulgence for those who support it with their prayers.

The conditions for the indulgences were made public in a statement Saturday signed by Cardinal James Francis Stafford and Bishop Gianfranco Girotti, respectively penitentiary major and regent of the Apostolic Penitentiary.

Benedict XVI will grant a plenary indulgence to faithful who "gather at Sydney, Australia, in the spirit of pilgrimage" to participate in celebrations for the 23rd World Youth Day, and partial indulgence to "all those who, wherever they are, will pray for the spiritual goals of this meeting and for its happy outcome," the decree said.

"Indeed, young people gathered around the Vicar of Christ will participate in the sacred functions and above all have recourse to the sacraments of reconciliation and the Eucharist," it added. "In the sacraments received with a sincere and humble heart, they will earnestly desire to strengthen themselves in the Spirit, and, confirmed by the chrism of salvation, will openly witness the faith before others even to the ends of the earth. May God grant that the very presence of the Supreme Pontiff among the young people gathered in Sydney express and render it such."

The typical conditions for indulgences must also be fulfilled.

The decree explained: "The plenary indulgence is granted to the faithful who will devotedly participate at some sacred function or pious exercise taking place during the 23rd World Youth Day, including its solemn conclusion, so that, having received the sacrament of reconciliation and being truly repentant, they receive holy Communion and devoutly pray according to the intentions of His Holiness.

"The partial indulgence is granted to the faithful, wherever they are during the above-mentioned meeting, if, at least with a contrite spirit, they will raise their prayer to God the Holy Spirit, so that young people are drawn to charity and given the strength to proclaim the Gospel with their life.

"So that all the faithful may more easily obtain these heavenly gifts, priests who have received legitimate approval to hear sacramental confessions, should welcome them with a ready and generous spirit and suggest public prayers to the faithful, for the success of the same World Youth Day."

I have no problem with offering confession to people, though I do not think a priest has a "special authority" to forgive them. Confession to a human person, or persons, is a biblical teaching. And it is clear early Christians took confession quite seriously whereas modern evangelicals do not.

I also have no problem with telling people that God promises a blessing to those who are contrite and broken and who will confess their sin humbly and honestly.

I further have no problem with telling people that God rewards those who do the right and punishes those who do evil.

So what is the problem? An elaborate and post-apostolic development arose in the West that is still retained in the West. In time Martin Luther saw this as a profound problem and I believe he was right in this concern. This development has the terrible tendency to turn the eyes and hearts of the devoted away from Christ alone to the system of the Church and its treasury of merit. Such language, and more importantly such practice is not evangelical or biblical.

In the words of a wonderful hymn "My faith has found a resting place, not in device or creed . . .it is enough that Jesus died and that he died for me." I am a confessional and creedal Christian but human devices and creeds are not the place to put one’s faith. I trust Jesus alone, his blood and his righteousness alone, to save me. This faith will never be found apart from evangelical obedience but even this obedience is by faith through grace, not by my merit or the merit of any of the saints.

This is why I do not care at all for the idea of merit in some Protestant conceptions of grace, even though the merit here is said to be found in Christ alone. I am saved and kept by grace, not by any merit. I submit that the whole idea of merit is confusing, even grossly misleading, and should be dropped. By any definition it confuses grace and can thus mislead good people who do love Christ as well as others who think they are actually earning their way into God’s favor.

Related Posts


  1. Nick Morgan July 20, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    Thanks for this post John, as a Roman Catholic who loves the Church and this present Pope, I too find the doctrine of merit and indulgences very confusing. I know it is “official” Church teaching, so I won’t outwardly deny it, but I too sometimes wonder if it is a later “accretion” that simply distracts from rather than enhances the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I agree that this is a topic that needs more prayer and much more ecumenical dialogue between serious and Charitable Christians on both sides of the “Reformation”, whether it be to ultimately abandon it or at least make it understandable and consistent with the Gospel of Grace alone in Jesus Christ. God bless!

  2. Mark Shea July 21, 2008 at 12:50 pm

    I appreciate the generosity of spirit in your approach to the Catholic Faith. It’s refreshing. I think you are laboring under a variety of misapprehensions about the meaning of terms like merit, as well as what the effect of indulgences is and what Purgatory is all about.
    My own takes on matters like merit, indulgences and the like, and purgatory are at links I provide in my URL.
    Blessings on your work in the Vineyard. May God speed the day when we are in full union in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  3. Tony July 21, 2008 at 12:56 pm

    Just for clarification,it is important to understand first, what is Indulgence? God bless:
    Indulgences: The World’s Most Misunderstood Spiritual Gifts
    Most Catholics live and die blissfully unaware that the Church even offers indulgences anymore. (A Catholic friend to whom I mentioned I was writing this article said, “They went out with Vatican II, didn’t they?”) Practically no Catholic gives much thought to them. They languish in the Church’s attic of doctrinal knick-knacks.
    So why bother with them? Two reasons. First, indulgences (while relatively insignificant in the grand scheme of things) are nonetheless minor tributaries to the Church’s river of grace and are therefore intrinsically interesting. But second (and most important), a proper understanding of indulgences among laypeople is surprisingly helpful toward healing rifts in the Body of Christ. For though indulgences are neglected by most Catholics, nervously curious Protestants looking at Rome still find them scandalous. Indeed, the very word “indulgence” can set many a Protestant heart aquiver with the deep foreboding that, whatever papists say, they are slaves to works salvation–a suspicion only enhanced when Catholic ignorance lends credibility to the fear that Rome keeps its flock in the dark about what she really teaches.
    I know these feelings quite well. And I do not disagree that Luther had a point about the “scandalous traffic in indulgences” of which the Renaissance Church was guilty. Even the Council of Trent agreed with that. But, as a convert, I came to discover the Renaissance Church was guilty, not of the theology of indulgences (which is, as we shall see, simply a theology of charismatic grace) but of simony–that is, of sinfully selling that “grace” for cold cash like a stock investment. So then, Luther was right–partly. But Rome was (in her theology if not her Renaissance practice) right too. How?
    Catholic theology has an incorrigible knack for obscuring marvelous insights in confusing terminology. Thus, for instance, she speaks of “temporal punishment for sin” which sounds to Protestants as though Jesus didn’t do enough and you still have to endure extra torture so you’ll be fully “punished” in addition to the 80% or 90% of the punishment He took for you.
    In reality, “temporal punishment” is just Catholicese for what Protestants call “chastisement.” That is, it is pain unto life such as Scripture refers to when it tells us God punishes all those he loves as his children. (Hebrews 12:5-6). In short, temporal punishment is part of how God redeems our sinful actions and turns their consequences into occasions of sanctity rather than damnation. For as Paul says, “suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” (Romans 5:3-5). This is the common sense reason why repentant murderers are forgiven, yet not freed from prison. The consequences of the sin remain, but, by grace, they are turned to glory.
    Very well then, as with the confusing term “temporal punishment” this Catholic knack for packaging a great idea in opaque terminology is particularly acute in the notion of indulgences. For indulgences depend on a term which Protestants find especially sinister: the “treasury of merit.”
    What is “merit”? Well, it isn’t “extra righteousness earned by particularly nice people who pitched in to help our well-meaning but inadequate Savior’s effort at redemption” (which is what many people think “merit” means). Rather “merit” is an old-fashioned term whose modern equivalent (according to theologian Hans Urs Von Balthasar) is “fruitfulness.”
    Now we’re in Protestant territory! Christians, as all Protestants know, are graced to bear fruit by the work of Christ (John 15 and all that). We are commanded by God to bear grace to the world and to each other. For as C.S. Lewis observes, God “seems to do nothing of himself which he can possibly delegate to his creatures.” We are thus to bear fruit by acting as agents of grace, doing the will of God and generally “wielding our little tridents.” And the power of the Holy Spirit (as all Christians know) is absolutely necessary for this fruit to exist at all, much less ripen. So, in bearing fruit, we are not talking about “works salvation.” We are talking about cooperation with grace.
    Now one of the manifestations of grace, as every charismatic knows, is the charism or spiritual gift. Spiritual gifts are graces given via the members of the Church so that the Body is built up in love (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12, Eph. 4:11-16). Some of the gifts given to the Church are more famous (tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.). But nestled right in the middle of them is a gift which does not get talked about much. That gift is the gift of mercy. (Rom. 12:8)
    An indulgence is a formal apostolic enactment of the gift of mercy. It is directed at members of the Catholic communion under apostolic authority through their baptism into the Church. That means that indulgences are not a form of earned justification (since that was already freely given in baptism), but are instead given to lessen the temporal punishment due to sin already forgiven. In short, they are an aid to growing in holiness, not a coupon for buying the forgiveness of God.
    An example: I, a man with a bad temper, get baptized, calling on the Lord to be saved. What does that make me? Usually it makes me a Christian man with a bad temper since the gift of new life is grace, not magic. Baptism is not an instant cure-all. It is a gate into the transforming grace of God which, with our cooperation, can eventually heal our brains, hearts and bones.
    So then, I come home from baptism full of transforming grace and, finding you did not give me the chocolate Easter bunny I wanted, break your window in a rage. I repent. I am forgiven by God and you. All my guilt is taken away by the blood of Christ the instant I repent. But I still must pay for the window and I still, by grace, have to do something about my temper. Moreover, I am strapped for cash (since I have several broken window lawsuits pending which did not magically disappear when I was baptized). But (asking for God’s help) I do what I can to pay you back. You (a Christian with the gift of mercy) forgive the remainder of the debt and even give me a little something so I can afford anger management counseling and legal fees. You have, in effect, granted me a partial indulgence, relieving the temporal punishment for my already-forgiven sin and helping me toward sanctification with your charism.
    So it is with the Church. For she has been graced with all charisms, graces, gifts and fruit (called by medieval theology “the treasury of merit” but referred to by St. Paul as “every spiritual blessing in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). And as the communion of graced believers, the Church has the power to authoritatively administer that blessing where she wills, just as Paul had (Eph 3:2). Indeed she is simply doing as St. Paul’s told her to and using her spiritual gifts, especially the gift of mercy, in granting indulgences by her apostolic spiritual authority–the authority of the graced believer (1 Cor. 12:31).
    Long ago, such mercy was visible in the lessening of severe penances required of those guilty of serious sin–penances which, but for indulgences, could last months or even years. (That’s why old Catholic prayer books offer “Indulgences of 365 days attached to doing thus and so.” This originally referred, not so much to “days in Purgatory” [there are, after all, no clocks there], but to earthly days of penance.) But that leaves us in a bit of a puzzle since nowadays, the relaxation of those severe penances makes the grace of indulgences largely invisible. To be sure, the Church still says an indulgence can, in some unfathomable way, help us in the process of sanctification. (And proofs of a negative are hard to come by.) But the nature of that help is very mysterious. Maybe the grace comes in the form of “extra strength” to love under difficult circumstances. Maybe some other way. I, at any rate, don’t know.
    “But,” my Evangelical friends blurt out, “people have to earn indulgences. That’s salvation by works!” No, that’s pastoral common sense akin to St. Paul’s dictum “If a man will not work, he shall not eat.” (2 Thes. 3:10) Similarly, if a sinner will not repent by acting in obedience to grace, he shall not receive an indulgence. For indulgences are like student grants for people who want to study sanctity, not like free diplomas for slackers who want to party. They are spiritual gifts to help us work out our salvation with fear and trembling, not carte blanche so that we needn’t bother with sanctity at all. And even so, they are granted with incredible ease and frequency for the most trifling acts of obedience to grace–like saying an “Our Father” or reading Scripture for 15 short minutes. Evidently, God and His Church want us to be blessed and graced!
    So in the end, this Evangelical-gone-Catholic came to realize what a great pity it is (and one long overdue to be rectified) that many honest Protestants like myself have feared indulgences as nothing but a corrupt medieval money-making scheme. They are nothing of the kind originally and, though their good name was dragged through the mud by Tetzel and his ilk, they have been nothing of the kind since Trent. It is high time lay Catholics make clear, in Protestantese, that indulgences don’t make cents, they make sense!
    Copyright 2001 – Mark P. Shea

  4. Chad Toney July 21, 2008 at 3:43 pm

    Tony, a cut and paste of an entire article in someone’s combox is bad taste. Mark already left a link to his articles through his comment name.

  5. Catholic Audio July 22, 2008 at 9:14 am

    What a wonderfully forthright and charitable presentation of your position. Your love of Christ and truth is evident in your writing, and I pray that I may imitate you as you imitate He Who Is.
    Now, I see that you’ve posted from a Catholic source who cites Indulgentiarum Doctrina, but I wonder (since you didn’t link to it) if you’ve read it yourself. Below are some excerpts:
    “Unfortunately, the practice of indulgences has at times been improperly used either through “untimely and superfluous indulgences” by which the power of the keys was humiliated and penitential satisfaction weakened, or through the collection of “illicit profits”…”
    “It was [never] believed, however, that the individual faithful by their own merits alone worked for the remission of sins of their brothers…”
    “It is Christ the Redeemer Himself in whom the satisfactions and merits of His redemption exist and find their force.”
    If you have the time and have not yet already, I would recommend giving it a read and checking the footnotes as you go. It may just turn out that the Church isn’t saying what you think.
    If you’re (quite understandably) pressed for time, I would simply stick with Mr. Shea’s links – I had exactly the same thought as I read your post as he did.
    God Bless,

  6. Bertrand July 23, 2008 at 7:48 am

    One paper I found helpful is,
    “Reversing Babel: A Calvinist Reading of the Tridentine Doctrine of Merit” (PDF)
    Jimmy Akin’s “Righteousness and Merit” is also a good introduction:
    Akin includes the following quote from a joint Lutheran-Catholic paper that clarifies why the term “meritum” was chosen. The very last sentence may be the ecumenical breakthrough that we’re looking for:
    “[T]he dispute about merit also rests largely on a misunderstanding. The Tridentine fathers ask: How can anyone have doubts about the concept of merit, when Jesus himself talks about ‘reward’ and when, moreover, it is only a question here of acts that a Christian performs as member of Christ? . . . Many antitheses could be overcome if the misleading word ‘merit’ were simply to be viewed and thought about in connection with the true sense of the biblical term ‘wage’ or reward (cf., among other passages, Matt. 20:1-16; 5:12; John 4:36; 1 Cor. 3:8, 14; Col. 3:24). There are strong indications, incidentally–and a linguistic analysis could provide the evidence–that the language of the liturgy does not merely reflect the true meaning of the concept of merit stressed here, but–quite contrary to the Reformers’ fears–prefers to explain what was meant through the word meritum rather than through the term merces (reward), for the very reason that merit sounds less ‘materialistic’ than reward.”

  7. Bertrand July 23, 2008 at 9:23 am

    “This, I submit, is why far too many Catholics do not hear the gospel of grace as clearly as they ought to hear it. One can say, ‘They do not understand the teaching of the Church.’ I agree, to a point, but the teaching of the Church helps to create the confusion in my estimation.”
    I would say that the lack of adequate formation is the reason why a Catholic may tend towards self-justification. I don’t think the Catholic teaching on Merit contributes to this tendency; in my experience, Merit is hardly ever mentioned in homilies and catechetical talks.
    When one finds the discussion of Merit in magisterial documents, it is presented as being contingent on God as its first cause. Thus, if and when a Catholic encounters the teaching on Merit and integrates it, he would be reaffirmed in the gratuity of Grace.

Comments are closed.

My Latest Book!

Use Promo code UNITY for 40% discount!

Recent Articles