‘What would Luther say?!’ My daughter, Claire, had emailed me a link to a news item this week. It was the recent announcement by the Vatican that those attending the forthcoming Catholic World Youth Day in Brazil – which is a week long event – may receive an indulgence. Those unable to attend the event in person but who are following it diligently in the cyber world through Facebook, Twitter, and other social media may also receive an indulgence as well. The combination of some-thing ancient like an indulgence and something con-temporary as social media is worth noting by the world. ‘Surely indulgences aren’t still around?’
To which the answer simply is ‘Yes, they are’. Yet many people when thinking about them would go to the 16th century and the Reformation – Martin Luther – 95 Theses – sales of indulgences – maybe even Johan Tetzel and his slogan: ‘As soon as the gold in the casket rings; the rescued soul to heaven springs’ or some-thing similar – payment for getting out of gaol so to speak or Purgatory or Hell – and that this abuse was a catalyst for the Reformation and the Lutheran Church in particular. Even if people don’t know the history, they know that Lutherans opposed the sale of indulgences – and then indulgences themselves – regarding them as unnecessary aids or interventions between the sinner and Jesus and the forgiveness Jesus gives to us and the strength Jesus gives to help us then live forgiven / absolved lives.
Now I don’t want to be an apologete for indulgences but today the Roman Catholic church would want to make clear that they recognise the abuses of the past and with appropriate reforms indul-gences are to be seen as the Roman Catholic way of helping Roman Catholics live the sanctified life. Because indulgences are part of the Roman Catholic church’s infallible teaching they are always going to be part of the Roman Catholic church and so Lutherans need to be aware of this fact.
What is the Lutheran response? I would say that the basic answer hasn’t changed. Lutherans look at them as an unnecessary step or action or even comfort for a disciple of Jesus in their following of Jesus each day. For Lutherans, indulgences seem like the proverbial temporal carrot when threatened with the temporal stick – and so that way of thinking makes Lutherans uneasy as we contemplate such things as grace, forgiveness, discipleship, justification and sanctification. Lu-theran radar gets twitchy because indulgences still seem too close to a type of works righteous-ness.
Nevertheless can I also say to Lutherans that we should consider what indulgences are seeking to do within the Roman Catholic world view. If you read about them I think you’ll get a sense of a church wanting her members to be genuine in discipleship, repentance, and faith and not to play mind games with the faith. And that concern is something Lutherans also have. We know folk who do play Paul off against James – ‘faith alone’ we cry – knowing or do we? – that faith is never alone? We say ‘we’re saved not by our good works’ and rightly so but as soon as we’re saved what then do we – or should we – seek to do? … And if you didn’t say ‘good works’ in your head I’m disappointed!
So what do I do with my disappointment? Well, if I’m Roman Catholic then I have recourse to seek or teach indulgences. As a Lutheran, I point you back to the cross of Jesus, I take you – or go my-self – to our baptism – I hear the Gospel or I proclaim the Gospel – that Jesus has died for us – our sins are forgiven – and then empowered by the Gospel battle them and live in the forgiveness pro-claimed.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome: For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.” (Romans 1:16-17 ESV)
A sole focus on the Gospel – on the cross of Jesus – means that I don’t even see an indulgence or the need for them. (That’s what Luther would say.) — GS