How Complete Is God’s Forgiveness?
On what basis does God forgive? Are indulgences required?
HONESTY with ourselves requires us to admit that we are sinners, that we commit sins, that we make mistakes, that we often miss the mark. As a Hebrew poet or psalmist of old once expressed it: “We have sinned just the same as our forefathers.” To which the Christian apostle Paul adds his testimony: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”—Ps. 106:6; Rom. 3:23.
The fact that we are sinners should and does give us concern. Why? Because it plagues us with a guilty conscience, and what is more, sin makes men the enemies of God, even as it did our first parents, bringing forth God’s displeasure, which resulted in death to them and to their offspring: “That is why, just as through one man sin entered into the world and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men because they had all sinned.” Yes, “the wages sin pays is death.”—Rom. 5:12; 6:23.
Lovingly Jehovah God has provided a means by which we can become his friends, by having our sins forgiven us. Thus we are told: “When we were enemies, we became reconciled to God through the death of his Son.” (Rom. 5:10) However, this reconciliation does not come automatically to us. It comes only to those who exercise faith: “He that exercises faith in the Son has everlasting life.”—John 3:36.
What does it mean to “exercise faith”? It means more than simply saying “I believe.” It means doing something about it; it means becoming active, for “faith without works is dead,” it being alone. (Jas. 2:26) As the apostle Peter exhorted the conscience-stricken Jews who had been involved in the death of the Son of God: “Repent,” feel truly sorry for your sins, “and turn around so as to get your sins blotted out.” To turn around means to change the direction in which one is going—in this instance, from following a course of selfishness and sin to following a course of righteousness. While we cannot do so perfectly, yet we can and must oppose sinful tendencies in our flesh and keep striving to do better. “Do not let sin continue to rule as king in your mortal bodies that you should obey their desires.”—Acts 3:19; Rom. 6:12.
By pleading for forgiveness on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice we can have freedom from a consciousness of guilt, even as we read: “If anyone does commit a sin, we have a helper with the Father, Jesus Christ, a righteous one. And he is a propitiatory sacrifice for our sins, yet not for ours only but also for the whole world’s.” But we must follow a consistent course of action: “If we are walking in the light as he himself is in the light, . . . the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us.”—1 John 2:1, 2; 1:7.
But what does this forgiveness include? All punishment for sin, or is there punishment to be undergone? According to the Roman Catholic Church, for the sins that a believer himself commits he must undergo temporal punishment, that is, punishment limited in time: “There still remains the temporal punishment required by Divine justice.” She further claims that “that requirement must be fulfilled either in this present life or in the world to come, i.e., in Purgatory.”* And here is where the teaching of indulgences comes in, for indulgences are granted to reduce the temporal punishment one is supposed to suffer in purgatory after death.
Regarding indulgences, the Council of Trent (December 3, 4, 1563), among other things, stated: “The holy synod teaches and ordains that the use of indulgences, as most salutary to Christians and as approved by the authority of the Councils, shall be retained in the Church; and it further pronounces anathema [curses] against those who either declare that indulgences are useless or who deny that the Church has power to grant them.”
The Roman Catholic Church also teaches that there are two kinds of indulgences: plenary, that is, full and complete indulgences, and partial indulgences. By plenary indulgences she means that all future punishment for sins is wiped out so that, if one died right after having received plenary indulgence, he would go straight to heaven; which, however, modern theologians are wont to qualify with a few “ifs,” giving one to understand that such a thing is rarely likely.
Partial indulgence is for a certain number of days. As for what will gain one such indulgences, there are almost an endless number of things. For example, wearing certain religious articles that have been blessed results in granting indulgences for so many days. Kissing the pope’s ring gives one a 300-day indulgence; but kissing an ordinary bishop’s ring, only 50 days. Ascending the “holy stairs” in Rome on one’s knees—which steps are supposed to be the ones Jesus walked at the time of his trial and judgment—“whilst meditating on the passion [suffering] of our Lord Jesus Christ,” merits more than 3,000 days’ indulgence for each step.
Indulgences are also granted for reading the Bible. Thus the preface of The New Testament, Catholic Confraternity edition, has the note: “Pope Leo XIII granted to the faithful who shall read for at least a quarter of an hour the books of the Sacred Scripture with the veneration due to the Divine Word and as spiritual reading, an indulgence of 300 days.—Preces et Pia Opera, 645.”
A CONFUSED PICTURE
That the use of indulgences in the Middle Ages was made to serve selfish ends history clearly shows. This was, in fact, one of the chief causes of the Reformation; Pope Leo X was seeking to collect money by the sale of indulgences for the completion of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome, and the most notorious agent of this indulgence traffic was John Tetzel. All of this caused the priest and monk Martin Luther to break with Rome. Thus The Catholic Encyclopedia tells that “indulgences were employed by mercenary ecclesiastics as a means of pecuniary gain.”
There was much learned discussion of the value of indulgences at the Vatican II Council, no small amount of it being adverse. However, in spite of all this, Pope Paul VI saw fit to put more emphasis on indulgences than ever before by announcing that 1966 would be a Jubilee Year, which usually comes only every twenty-five years. During the Jubilee Year in times past, any Catholic who traveled to Rome to visit one of its four major Roman Catholic basilicas, or elaborate cathedrals, and worshiped there gained plenary indulgence. However, for this year the pope decreed that Roman Catholics can obtain plenary indulgence at home, simply by attending one of the certain cathedrals he specified in their dioceses where special instructions were to be given on the accomplishments of the Vatican II Council.—Time, Dec. 31, 1965.
But, when one considers the nature of the discussion held at Vatican II Council meetings on the value of indulgences, one wonders whether Pope Paul VI is out of step with his prelates or not. For example: There was Maximos IV Saigh of Antioch, who pointed out that in the Roman Catholic Church during the first eleven centuries “there was no trace of indulgences, and even today the Eastern Church ignores them. In the Middle Ages, abuse of indulgences made grave scandals for Christianity. Even in our day it seems to us that the practice of indulgences too often favors in the faithful a sort of pious bookkeeping in which one forgets what is essential, namely, the sacred and personal effort of penance.” Another prelate at the Council pointed out that indulgences tended to widen the gulf between Roman Catholics and other churches in Christendom, that they were theologically unsound and not Biblical enough.
According to reports, these remarks were greatly applauded by the some 2,000 bishops assembled. The original idea of the group of the Council dealing with the subject had been merely to abolish the time feature, so many days, years, and so forth, for this, that and the other thing. But with such strong objections to the very idea of indulgences, nothing was done about them at the Vatican II sessions. In fact, to carry out the ideas of some would have made them liable to the curses inveighed by the Council of Trent upon all who questioned the value of indulgences!
GOD’S WORD ON THE SUBJECT
Can indulgences in fact release one from “temporal punishment”? What is the position of God’s Word on the subject? When Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was on earth he at times freely forgave the sins of some. Did he on those occasions have anything to say about indulgences? No, he did not. (Luke 7:48, 49) Nor did any of his early followers. Thus the apostle Paul writes: “By means of him we have the release by ransom through the blood of that one [Jesus Christ], yes, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his undeserved kindness.” Making it even stronger or more explicit are the words of the apostle John: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous so as to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” If Jehovah God, on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, forgives all our sins, there can be no temporal punishment before or after death for them.—Eph. 1:7; 1 John 1:7, 9.
Besides, how could persons be punished after dying, when, according to the Scriptures: “The living are conscious that they will die; but as for the dead, they are conscious of nothing at all.” Yes, “in that day” that a man dies, “his thoughts do perish.” The Bible tells us of Lazarus, a friend of Jesus who was raised by Jesus after he had been in the grave for four days. Had he been alive somewhere we may be sure he would have told about his remarkable experience!—Eccl. 9:5; Ps. 146:4; John 11:38-44.
The erroneous teaching of suffering for sins after death and of which suffering indulgences are supposed to be able to relieve one is based on a false premise, namely, that man has a soul that is separate and distinct from his body, and that it is immortal, leaving the body at death. But neither scientists nor surgeons have ever found such a soul in man, nor has anyone else found any evidence of such a thing. Man’s consciousness depends upon his organism; seriously harm it, as in an accident, and his consciousness suffers. The Bible teaching is in support of this scientific fact, for it tells us that, upon creation, man “came to be a living soul.” As for man as a soul being immortal, God’s Word plainly negates such a teaching, stating: “The soul that is sinning—it itself will die.” The hope for the dead lies, not in a supposedly immortal soul, but in a resurrection, which the Bible assures us will include “both the righteous and the unrighteous.”—Gen. 2:7; Ezek. 18:4, 20; Acts 24:15.
More than that, not only does the Bible have nothing to say about indulgences and an immortal soul, but it likewise has nothing to say about such a place as purgatory. It tells of God’s creating heaven and earth but never mentions a purgatory, the word not occurring in the Bible from Genesis through Revelation.
SUPPOSED OBJECTIONS CONSIDERED
Those who teach such doctrines as indulgences, immortality of the human soul and purgatory claim that these teachings are supported by Jesus’ words at Luke 12:47, 48, about those knowing his Father’s will and not doing it being beaten with many strokes. However, no illustration can properly be used or interpreted to contradict plain statements of the Bible, but must be construed in harmony with them. Jesus was here stating a principle and a prophecy to be fulfilled at his second coming while his professed disciples were still alive in the flesh on earth.
Another text used to support the indulgence structure is 1 Corinthians 3:15, which reads: “If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, but he himself will be saved; yet, if so, it will be as through fire.” Clearly, here literal fire is not meant, for Christians do not build with literal “gold, silver, precious stones,” or with “wood materials, hay, stubble,” as mentioned in 1 Co 3 verse 12. More than that, it speaks of the person being saved as through fire because his works are burned. He built carelessly or unwisely in this life; in this life his works are destroyed and it is in this life, therefore, that he will be saved, as through fire of testing.
God’s Word shows Him to be reasonable, just, loving and righteous. He has made provision for the forgiveness of sins that are not willful by the ransom sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ. Since that sacrifice cleanses us from all sin and consciousness of guilt, it leaves nothing to be paid for by temporal punishment, and which punishment might be or is supposed to be obviated by indulgences. Especially is there nothing left to be paid after death, since in death man is wholly unconscious, without any thoughts until the resurrection, if that be his lot. Yes, God’s forgiveness is complete.
The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 7, p. 783.