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Indulgences: The Rescinding of Temporal Punishment


Note 1: eternal punishment, damnation, is not affected by indulgences.


Note 2: “plenary” indulgence: all temporal punishment is rescinded.





We sin.  We repent before God and are forgiven.


As sinners we need to make reparation, make satisfaction, and receive temporal  punishment for our sin.


Penance is prescribed.


However, at life’s end we can still be wondering whether our penance exactly counterbalances our lifetime’s sins.  Temporal punishment for sin may still be owing.


The remaining debt must then be paid after death; ie, in purgatory.


Having received the sacrament of penance we can be released from the outstanding temporal punishment — ifour penance is exactly commensurate with the punishment due us.


We can ensure that it is by obtaining an indulgence, which indulgence releases penitents from the rigours of purgatory.  (An indulgence can be procured through the performance of good works or through a cash-payment.)


All of this is deemed to be in harmony with “the power of the keys” vested in the church.



                            The Treasury of Merits


Jesus Christ and the saints have gained merit far above what is necessary to avoid damnation and gain heaven.


This superfluity of merit is calculated and “deposited” in the merit-book.


The treasury of merits isn’t essential to the theory of indulgences, but psychologically it helps people who understand that they are purchasing accumulated merit.  (I.e., “good works” indulgences can be prescribed that allow us to “work off” and therein be rid of any otherwise-remaining purgatorial rigours.)


(Eventually there overtook the church the notion that by cash-payment one could purchase release from purgatory.)














                              Luther’s Objections


1]  the crass materialism of it all


2]  the effrontery of usurping the prerogative of God with respect to temporal punishment (today we should say the consequences of sin)


3]  the sub-personal, mechanical notion of merit and merit-book


4]  the role of the saints as co-redeemers


5]  Rome ‘s view of the nature of the keys  (NB: for the Reformers, the power of the keys is simply the efficacy of the WORD.  The church attests the WORD; the church’s authority with respect to the forgiveness of sins is precisely that the church claims no authority for itself but points away from itself to him who is uniquely authoritative, Jesus Christ (= WORD).


6]  Rome ‘s view of the nature of the church:

-that Jesus Christ inheres the church

-that God has relegated his authority to the church (of Rome )

-that the church “rules” instead of being a servant

-that the church “controls” purgatory



The early Luther insisted that the pope could only remit those penances that the church had itself canonically applied.  The later Luther distanced himself entirely from the logic of indulgences.

(Note the difference between the penalty for sin and the consequences of sin.)