Another great post on Pr. Surburg’s blog, Surburg.blogspot.com:
Recently the Vatican caught the attention of many Lutherans when it announced that Roman Catholics who follow the “rites and pious exercises” at the weeklong Catholic World Youth Day on television, radio and through social media can receive an indulgence. Included in this is the Twitter account of Pope Francis.
The social media angle certainly puts a new spin on an old practice. However, the bigger surprise for many Lutherans may be the fact that the Roman Catholic church still issues indulgences. The fact that they do illustrates how the basic issues that were at the heart of the Reformation still exist today.
One of the professors who had the greatest influence on me at the seminary, Dr. Norman Nagel, used to emphasize how important it is to handle accurately the theological positions of others. He taught me that it is always best to let those who hold another position speak for themselves by citing their own words.
Fortunately, it is not difficult to do this when it comes to official Roman Catholic teaching. The current edition of the Catechism of the Catholic Church is available online. In discussing the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation the Catechism states:
1446 Christ instituted the sacrament of Penance for all sinful members of his Church: above all for those who, since Baptism, have fallen into grave sin, and have thus lost their baptismal grace and wounded ecclesial communion. It is to them that the sacrament of Penance offers a new possibility to convert and to recover the grace of justification. The Fathers of the Church present this sacrament as “the second plank [of salvation] after the shipwreck which is the loss of grace.” (47)
Though in Baptism “all sins are forgiven, original sin and all personal sins, as well as all punishment for sin” (1263), an “an inclination to sin that Tradition calls concupiscence, or metaphorically, ‘the tinder for sin’ (fomes peccati); since concupiscence ‘is left for us to wrestle with, it cannot harm those who do not consent but manfully resist it by the grace of Jesus Christ’” (1264). Baptism gives grace and forgiveness, but it is possible to fail in the struggle against sin. When this happens, the believer looks to the Sacrament of Penance and Reconciliation.
While acknowledging the changes in practice that have occurred (1447), the Catechism goes on to say:
Penance consists of contrition, confession and satisfaction. As it describes contrition theCatechism says:
1452 When it arises from a love by which God is loved above all else, contrition is called “perfect” (contrition of charity). Such contrition remits venial sins; it also obtains forgiveness of mortal sins if it includes the firm resolution to have recourse to sacramental confession as soon as possible.
Naturally Christians who struggle with sin will not conclude that they love God above all else. Therefore there is another kind of contrition that leads to Penance:
This imperfect contrition prompts the believer to partake of the sacrament of Penance. In Penance the believers confesses his sin. The priest then pronounces absolution and determines the satisfaction that is to be performed by the believer. The Catechism describes satisfaction in the following manner:
Absolution spoken by the priest takes away sins. However, the believer still has spiritual issues that must be addressed. He must do something more to make amends for the sin. He must “make satisfaction for” his sin.
When describing the form of penance the Catechism indicates:
Penance is something that the believer must do. However, the Catechism is very clear that this doing is not separated from Christ. Instead, it is an act of cooperation which is done through Christ:
Thus Penance does not deal with the forgiveness of sins itself. Instead it addresses thetemporal penalties that result from sin – something that must be dealt with in order to achieve full spiritual health. This full spiritual health must be present in order for a person to experience fullness of salvation. As indicated above, from the Roman Catholic perspective, sin has a “double consequence.” The Catechism states:
1472 To understand this doctrine and practice of the Church, it is necessary to understand that sin has a double consequence. Grave sin deprives us of communion with God and therefore makes us incapable of eternal life, the privation of which is called the “eternal punishment” of sin. On the other hand every sin, even venial, entails an unhealthy attachment to creatures, which must be purified either here on earth, or after death in the state called Purgatory. This purification frees one from what is called the “temporal punishment” of sin. These two punishments must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin. A conversion which proceeds from a fervent charity can attain the complete purification of the sinner in such a way that no punishment would remain. (84)
Christians must receive forgiveness for sin. But they must also address the “temporal punishment.” If this has not occurred at death, further purification is necessary and this purification occurs in the state called Purgatory. It is critical to recognize that people experiencing Purgatoryare believers who will experience the fullness of salvation. However, if they have not done enough to make sufficient satisfaction during life, believers must receive further purification in Purgatory before entering into full salvation. The Catechism says of Purgatory:
If we ask about the basis for the teaching of Purgatory, the Catechism tells us:
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come [a quote from St. Gregory the Great]. (608)
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (609) From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. (610) The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them [a quote from St. John Chrysostom] (611)
Penance, Purgatory and Indulgences are inter-related teachings of the Roman Catholic church. The Catechism itself notes that, “The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of Penance” (1471). Indulgences deal with the same temporal punishments that are addressed by Penance, and that if not dealt with during this life, require purification in Purgatory. The Catechism says about indulgences:
1471 “An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints.” (81)”
An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.” (82) The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead. (83)
Indulgences remove this temporal punishment due for sins. They can be either deal with some or all of the temporal punishments. The source used to remove these temporal punishments is the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. Indulgences can be applied to either the living or the dead.
Penance, purgatory and indulgences demonstrate the profound difference that exists between the confession of the Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches, even as they share so much of catholic Christianity in common. We see this in two major areas. First, the firm distinction between the guilt of sin and its temporal penalty, and the belief in Purgatory itself are based on heavily in Tradition and not Scripture. In particular it is striking to realize how sparse and weak are the biblical references to Purgatory in the Catechism. For the Roman Catholic church this poses no problem since, “the Church, to whom the transmission and interpretation of Revelation is entrusted, ‘does not derive her certainty about all revealed truths from the holy Scriptures alone. Both Scripture and Tradition must be accepted and honored with equal sentiments of devotion and reverence.’” (82).
Lutherans, on the other hand, base doctrine upon Scripture alone. “Scripture alone” does not mean that that the Church has no need of Tradition. The Ecumenical Creeds provide the lens through which the Church reads Scripture. The Church confesses that if you read Scripture and come to conclusions that contradict the Creeds, you are reading it incorrectly.
Scripture alone does not mean that each individual reads Scripture in splendid isolation in order to determine for himself or herself what it means. [endnote 1] Instead it means that only texts of Scripture can provide the basis for a teaching in the Church. If individual texts of Scripture do not clearly articulate the doctrine, the Church can’t declare it to be a doctrine. The prophetic and apostolic Scriptures alone are the authoritative revelation of God and they alone can ground the teaching of the Church. Sasse observes regarding the relation between Scripture and Tradition in the Roman Catholic church:
Second, while the Roman Catholic church never loses sight of Christ as the ultimate source of salvation, it includes human actions so that salvation becomes a matter of cooperation with God. The need to “make satisfaction” in Penance illustrates this. The word of forgiveness in absolution is not something that forgives the sinner and restores fellowship with God, but rather it puts the believer in the position to do his part. If he doesn’t do his part then at death Purgatory awaits. This is not a biblical understanding of forgiveness.
It is in fact part of the larger picture in which grace, “is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of his own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it. It is thesanctifying or deifying grace received in Baptism” (1999). This sanctifying grace is then “an habitual gift, a stable and supernatural disposition that perfects the soul itself to enable it to live with God, to act by his love” (2000). The initiative rests with God, but then it is the believer who must cooperate with God as he is healed and enabled by God’s grace:
How very different this is from the biblical teaching of the apostle Paul who wrote, “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” (Ephesians 2:8-9 ESV). The apostle goes out of his way to describe salvation as the free gift of God that occurs apart from anything we do. He writes in Titus 3, “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life (Titus 3:4-7 ESV).
For this reason the Lutheran church confesses that we are saved by grace alone, on account of Christ alone, through faith alone. As the Lutherans confessed at Augsburg in 1530: “Likewise, they teach that human beings cannot be justified before God by their own powers, merits, or works. But they are justified as a gift on account of Christ through faith when they believe that they are received into grace and that their sins are forgiven on account of Christ, who by his death made satisfaction for our sins. God reckons this faith as righteousness (Rom. 3[21-26] and 4[:5]” (Augsburg Confession IV).
 Significant intellectual and cultural trends have fostered this attitude in American Christianity. See: Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) and Mark A. Noll, America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
 Herman Sasse, “Apostolic Succesion,” in We Confess the Church (trans. Norman Nagel; St. Louis: Concordia, 1986), 84-107, 88-89.