Did you think that indulgences were a thing of the past? Nope. According to an article in the London Telegraph, “Pope Benedict XVI is offering relief from purgatory to Roman Catholics who travel to Lourdes over the next year, the Vatican said yesterday.”*1
If you do not understand what this means, let me help. The Catholic church teaches that faith in Jesus Christ alone is not enough to fully cleanse us of our sins and make us righteous enough to immediately enter into heaven. They therefore teach, contrary to the Bible, that there is a third option, neither heaven nor hell, where people may go after they die in order to suffer for their sins for a period of time sufficient to purge them of those sins and prepare them to enter into heaven. This place is called purgatory (think of the word purge).
Now, in Lourdes, France, there is a cathedral where, 150 years ago, a peasant girl claimed to see an appearance of the virgin Mary, the Madonna. The Pope wants to increase the traffic of visitors to this site, and thus is offering a plenary indulgence to any pilgrim who will make the journey this next year. The plenary indulgence means that you will be able to cut off your time in purgatory. Or, in Monopoly speak, you will receive a “Get out of purgatory free” card for visiting the site.
What is the problem? The first problem is that we dare not say that the blood of Christ has not sufficiently covered and cleansed us from all sin. No amount of our own suffering could ever make us right before God. Ephesians 2:8-9 makes it clear that we are saved by grace through faith, and none of that comes from ourselves either in our merit, our will, or our suffering. To say that we pay any amount of price for the remission of our own sin or for our own cleansing is to deny the truth of the work of Christ done once for all. If someone has saving faith in Jesus, they will not be sent somewhere to burn off sins that Jesus’ blood somehow did not get to.
Also, there is no true love shown to the church even if the concept of indulgences was somehow legitimate. As martin Luther asked in 1517, “Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.” (#82 from Luther’s 95 Theses).*2 Said in modern speak, “If the Pope can let people out of purgatory, he ought to do so because he loves people, not to simply make money or drive people to visit an attraction.”
*1 Telegraph Article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/main.jhtml?xml=/news/2007/12/06/wpope106.xml
*2 Luther’s 95 Theses: http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html