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:
The sacrament of forgiveness
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
While acknowledging the changes in practice that have occurred (1447), the Catechism goes on to say:
1448 Beneath the changes in discipline and celebration that this sacrament has undergone over the centuries, the same fundamental structure is to be discerned. It comprises two equally essential elements: on the one hand, the acts of the man who undergoes conversion through the action of the Holy Spirit: namely, contrition, confession, and satisfaction; on the other, God's action through the intervention of the Church. The Church, who through the bishop and his priests forgives sins in the name of Jesus Christ and determines the manner of satisfaction, also prays for the sinner and does penance with him. Thus the sinner is healed and re-established in ecclesial communion.
Penance consists of contrition, confession and satisfaction. As it describes contrition the Catechism says:
1451 Among the penitent's acts contrition occupies first place. Contrition is "sorrow of the soul and detestation for the sin committed, together with the resolution not to sin again."50
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:
1453 The contrition called "imperfect" (or "attrition") is also a gift of God, a prompting of the Holy Spirit. It is born of the consideration of sin's ugliness or the fear of eternal damnation and the other penalties threatening the sinner (contrition of fear). Such a stirring of conscience can initiate an interior process which, under the prompting of grace, will be brought to completion by sacramental absolution. By itself however, imperfect contrition cannot obtain the forgiveness of grave sins, but it disposes one to obtain forgiveness in the sacrament of 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:
1459 Many sins wrong our neighbor. One must do what is possible in order to repair the harm (e.g., return stolen goods, restore the reputation of someone slandered, pay compensation for injuries). Simple justice requires as much. But sin also injures and weakens the sinner himself, as well as his relationships with God and neighbor. Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused.62 Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called ‘penance.’
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.
1460 The penance the confessor imposes must take into account the penitent's personal situation and must seek his spiritual good. It must correspond as far as possible with the gravity and nature of the sins committed. It can consist of prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbor, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and above all the patient acceptance of the cross we must bear. Such penances help configure us to Christ, who alone expiated our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him."63
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:
(1460 continued) The satisfaction that we make for our sins, however, is not so much ours as though it were not done through Jesus Christ. We who can do nothing ourselves, as if just by ourselves, can do all things with the cooperation of "him who strengthens" us. Thus man has nothing of which to boast, but all our boasting is in Christ . . . in whom we make satisfaction by bringing forth "fruits that befit repentance." These fruits have their efficacy from him, by him they are offered to the Father, and through him they are accepted by the Father.64
Thus Penance does not deal with the forgiveness of sins itself. Instead it addresses the temporal 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:
The punishments of sin
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 Purgatory are 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:
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
If we ask about the basis for the teaching of Purgatory, the Catechism tells us:
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.606 The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: [the texts referenced are 1 Cor 3:15 and 1 Pete 1:7]:607
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:
What is an indulgence?
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. 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:
At first tradition is like a tethered balloon, more or less held b the apostolic witness. But with the declaration of two equivalent sources of revelation – Scripture and tradition – the rope is cut and the balloon sails with the wind, no one knows where. The answer came in the course of time. By the 19th century it was so clear that the Catholics were filled with anxiety. Neither in Scripture nor in the tradition of the first centuries can the grounds be found for any of the modern dogmas, from the Immaculate Conception of 1855 through the 1870 Vatican Council’s papal dogma to the Assumption of Mary . None of these were known to the early 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 the sanctifying 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:
2010 Since the initiative belongs to God in the order of grace, no one can merit the initial grace of forgiveness and justification, at the beginning of conversion. Moved by the Holy Spirit and by charity, we can then merit for ourselves and for others the graces needed for our sanctification, for the increase of grace and charity, and for the attainment of eternal life. Even temporal goods like health and friendship can be merited in accordance with God's wisdom. These graces and goods are the object of Christian prayer. Prayer attends to the grace we need for meritorious actions.
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 Succession,” in We Confess the Church (trans. Norman Nagel; St. Louis: Concordia, 1986), 84-107, 88-89.