A Primer on Indulgences

by James Akin

You've heard it many times: "Catholics used to believe in indulgences, but we do not believe in them today." This statement is heard from the lips of many Catholics, even from some priests. It is said with mild embarrassment and a desire to close a chapter of Church history with which many Catholics feel uncomfortable.

Those who claim that indulgences are no longer part of Church teaching have the admirable desire to distance themselves from abuses that occurred around the time of the Protestant Reformation. They also want to remove stumbling blocks that prevent non-Catholics from taking a positive view of the Church. As admirable as these motives are, the claim that indulgences are not part of Church teaching today is false.

This proved by The Catechism of the Catholic Church, which states, "An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and loosing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishment due for their sins." The Church does this not just to aid Christians, "but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity" (CCC 1478).

Indulgences are part of the Church's infallible teaching. This means that no Catholic is at liberty to ignore or disbelieve in them. The Council of Trent stated that it "condemns with anathema those who say that indulgences are useless or that the Church does not have the power to grant them."[1] Trent's anathema places indulgences in the realm of infallibly defined teaching.

This was not the first time an ecumenical council had discussed indulgences-the first times was in 1415, when the Council of Constance affirmed the practice-but at Trent the doctrine was proclaimed infallibly for the first time.

The pious use of indulgences goes back centuries, far beyond the Council of Constance, into the early days of the Church. The principles underlying indulgences extend back into the Bible itself. Catholics who are uncomfortable with indulgences do not realize how biblical they are. The principles behind indulgences are as clear in Scripture as those behind more familiar doctrines, such as the Trinity.

Before looking at those principles more closely, we should define indulgences. In his apostolic constitution on indulgences, Pope Paul VI said: "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 defined conditions through the Church's help when, as a minister of Redemption, she dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions won by Christ and the saints."[2]

This technical definition can be phrased more simply as, "An indulgence is what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven." To understand this definition, we need to look at the biblical principles behind indulgences.

Principle 1: Sin results in guilt and punishment.

When a person sins, he acquires certain liabilities: the liability of guilt and the liability of punishment.[3] Scripture speaks of the former when it pictures guilt as clinging to our souls, making them discolored and unclean before God: "Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool" (Is. 1:18).

This idea of guilt clinging to our souls appears in texts that picture forgiveness as a cleansing or washing and the state of our forgiven souls as clean and white: "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! . . . Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow" (Ps. 51:2, 7).[4]

We incur not just guilt, but liability for punishment when we sin: "I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pride of the arrogant and lay low the haughtiness of the ruthless" (Is. 13:11). Judgment pertains even to the smallest sins: "For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil" (Eccl. 12:14).[5]

Principle 2: Punishments are both temporal and eternal.

The Bible indicates some punishments are eternal, lasting forever, but others are temporal, lasting only a time. Eternal punishment is mentioned in Daniel 12:2: "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life and some to shame and everlasting contempt.[6]

We normally focus on the eternal penalties of sin, because they are the most important, but Scripture indicates temporal penalties are real and go back to the first sin humans committed: "To the woman he said, 'I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children, yet your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.'

"And to Adam he said, 'Because you have listened to the voice of your wife and have eaten of the tree of which I commanded you, "You shall not eat of it," cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth to you, and you shall eat the plants of the field. In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return'" (Gen. 3:16-19).[7]

Principle 3: Temporal penalties may remain when a sin is forgiven.

When someone repents, God removes his guilt ("though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow" [Is. 1:18]) and any eternal punishment ("Since . . . we are now justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God" [Rom. 5:9]), but temporal penalties may remain. One passage demonstrating this is 2 Samuel 12, in which Nathan the prophet confronts David over his adultery:

"Then David said to Nathan, 'I have sinned against the Lord.' Nathan answered David: 'The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin; you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die'" (2 Sam. 12:13-14).

God forgave David, to the point of sparing his life, but David still had to suffer the loss of his son as well as other temporal punishments.[8]

In Numbers we read, "But Moses said to the Lord . . . 'Now if thou dost kill this people as one man, then the nations who have heard thy fame will say, "Because the Lord was not able to bring this people into the land which he swore to give to them, therefore he has slain them in the wilderness"' . . . Then the Lord said, 'I have pardoned, according to your word; but truly, as I live . . . none of the men who . . . have not hearkened to my voice, shall see the land which I swore to give to their fathers" (Num. 14:13-23). God states that, although he pardoned the people, he would impose a temporal penalty by keeping them from the promised land.

Later Moses, who is clearly one of the saved (see Matt. 17: 1-5), is told he will suffer a temporal penalty: "And the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 'Because you did not believe in me, to sanctify me in the eyes of the people of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them'" (Num. 20:12; cf. 27:12-14). Protestants often deny that temporal penalties remain after forgiveness of sin, but they acknowledge it in practice-for instance, when they insist on people returning things they have stolen. Thieves may obtain forgiveness, but they also must engage in restitution.

Protestants realize that, while Jesus paid the price for our sins before God, he did not relieve our obligation to repair what we have done. They fully acknowledge that if you steal someone's car, you have to give it back; it isn't enough just to repent. God's forgiveness (and man's!) does not include letting you keep the stolen car.

Protestants also admit the principle in practice when discussing death. Scripture says death entered the world through original sin (Gen. 3:22-24, Rom. 5:12). When we first come to God we are forgiven, and when we sin later we are able to be forgiven, yet that does not free us from the penalty of physical death. Even the forgiven die; a penalty remains after our sins are forgiven. This is a temporal penalty since physical death is temporary and we will be resurrected (Dan. 12:2).

A Protestant might say that God gives temporal penalties to teach a sinner a lesson, making the penalties discipline rather than punishment. There are three responses to this: (1) Nothing in the above texts says they are disciplines; (2) a Catholic could also call them disciplines;[9] and (3) there is nothing wrong with calling them "punishments," since "disciplining" a child is synonymous in daily speech with punishing a child.

As Greg Krehbiel, a Protestant who has written for This Rock, points out in a privately circulated paper, the idea that all temporal penalties vanish when one is forgiven "is the error at the heart of the 'health and wealth gospel,' vis., 'Jesus took my poverty and sickness away, so I should be well and rich.'"

The Catholic has good grounds for claiming temporal penalties may remain after a sin is forgiven. The Church has shown this since its earliest centuries and by prescribed acts of penance as part of the sacrament of reconciliation.

Principle 4: God blesses some people as a reward to others.

Suppose a father prays for his seriously ill son and says, "Dear Lord, if I have pleased you, then please heal my son!" The father is asking that his son be healed as a reward for his (the father's) pleasing God. Intuitively we recognize this is a valid prayer that God sometimes answers positively. But we do not need to stop with our intuitions: Scripture confirms the fact.

After Abraham fought a battle for the Lord, God spoke to him in a vision and said, "'Fear not, Abram [Abraham], I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.' But Abram said, 'O Lord God, what wilt thou give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?' . . . And behold, the word of the Lord came to him, 'This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.' And he brought him outside and said, 'Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.' Then he said to him, 'So shall your descendants be.' And he believed the Lord, and he reckoned it to him as righteousness" (Gen. 15:1-6). God promised Abraham a reward-a multitude of descendants who would not otherwise be born. These people received a great gift-the gift of life-because God rewarded the patriarch.

God further told Abraham he would have nations and kings come from him, that God would make a covenant with his descendants, and that they would inherit the promised land (Gen. 17:6-8). All these blessings came to Abraham's descendants as God's reward to him.

This principle is also in the New Testament. Paul tells us that "as regards election [the Jews] are beloved for the sake of their forefathers" (Rom. 11:28); the principle is also found in passages in which one person approaches Jesus for the healing or exorcism of someone else, such as the story the Canaanite woman (Matt. 15:22-28).

Principle 5: God remits temporal penalties suffered by some as a reward to others.

When God blesses one person as a reward to someone else, sometimes the specific blessing he gives is a reduction of the temporal penalties to which the first person is subject. For example, Solomon's heart was led astray from the Lord toward the end of his life, and God promised to rip the kingdom away from him as a result. "[T]he Lord said to Solomon: 'Since this is what you want, and you have not kept my covenant and my statues which I enjoined on you, I will deprive you of the kingdom and give it to your servant. I will not do this during your lifetime, however, for the sake of your father David; it is your son whom I will deprive. Nor will I take away the whole kingdom. I will leave your son one tribe for the sake of my servant David and of Jerusalem, which I have chosen" (1 Kgs. 11:11-13). God lessened the temporal punishment in two ways: by deferring the removal of the kingdom until the days of Solomon's son and by leaving one tribe (Benjamin) under Judah.

God was clear about why he did this: It is not for Solomon's sake, but "for the sake of your father David." If David had not pleased God, and if God had not promised him certain things regarding his kingdom, God would have removed the entire kingdom from Solomon and done so during Solomon's lifetime. This is an example of God lessening a punishment for the sake of one of his saints.

Other examples are easy to think of. God promised Abraham that, if he could find a certain number of righteous men in Sodom, he was willing to defer the city's temporal (and eternal) destruction for the sake of the righteous (Gen. 18:16-33).

Paul noted, "As regards the gospel they [the Jews] are enemies of God, for your sake; but as regards election they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the call of God are irrevocable" (Rom. 11:28-29). Paul indicated that his Jewish contemporaries were treated more gently than they otherwise would have been treated (God's gift and call were not removed from them) because their forefathers were beloved by God, who gave them irrevocable gifts (which are listed in Rom. 9:4-5).

Principle 6: God remits temporal punishments through the Church.

God uses the Church when he removes temporal penalties. This is the essence of the doctrine of indulgences. Earlier we defined indulgences as "what we receive when the Church lessens the temporal penalties to which we may be subject even though our sins have been forgiven." The members of the Church became aware of this principle through the sacrament of penance. From the beginning, acts of penance were assigned as part of the sacrament because the Church recognized that Christians must deal with temporal penalties, such as God's discipline and the need to compensate those our sins have injured.

In the early Church penances were sometimes severe. For serious sins, such as apostasy, murder, and abortion, the penances could stretch over years, but the Church recognized that repentant sinners could shorten their penances by pleasing God through pious or charitable acts that expressed sorrow over and a desire to make up for one's sin.

The Church also recognized the duration of temporal punishments could be lessened through the involvement of other persons who had pleased God (principle 5). Sometimes a confessor[10] or someone soon to be martyred would intervene and ask, as a reward to the confessor or martyr, that the penitent have his time of discipline lessened. This was how the Church recognized its role of administrating temporal penalties (principle 6); the role was simply part of the ministry of forgiveness God had given the Church in general.

Scripture tells us God gave the authority to forgive sins "to men" (Matt. 9:8) and to Christ's ministers in particular. Jesus told them, "As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.... Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained" (John 20:21-23).

If Christ gave his ministers the ability to forgive the eternal penalty of sin, how much more would they be able to remit the temporal penalties of sin![11] Christ also promised his Church the power to bind and loose on earth, saying, "Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matt. 18:18). As the context makes clear, binding and loosing cover Church discipline, and Church discipline involves administering and removing temporal penalties (such as barring from and readmitting to the sacraments). Therefore, the power of binding and loosing includes the administration of temporal penalties.

Principle 7: God blesses dead Christians as a reward to living Christians.

From the beginning the Church recognized the validity of praying for the dead so that their transition into heaven (via purgatory) might be swift and smooth. This meant praying for the lessening or removal of temporal penalties holding them back from the full glory of heaven.

If it is reasonable to ask that these penalties be removed in general, then it would be reasonable to ask that they be removed in a particular case as a reward. A widower could pray to God and ask that, if he has pleased God, his wife's transition into glory be hastened. For this reason the Church teaches that "indulgences can always be applied to the dead by way of prayer."[12]

A close parallel to this application is 2 Maccabees. Judah Maccabee finds the bodies of soldiers who died wearing superstitious amulets during one of the Lord's battles. Judah and his men "turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out" (2 Macc. 12:42).

The reference to the sin being "wholly blotted out" refers to its temporal penalties. The author of 2 Maccabees tells us that for these men Judah "was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness" (v. 45); he believed that these men fell asleep in godliness, which would not have been the case if they were in mortal sin. If they were not in mortal sin, then they would not have eternal penalties to suffer, and thus the complete blotting out of their sin must refer to temporal penalties for their superstitious actions. Judah "took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this . . . he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin" (vv. 43, 45).

Judah not only prayed for the dead, but he provided for them the then-appropriate ecclesial action for lessening temporal penalties: a sin offering.[13] Accordingly, we may take the now-appropriate ecclesial action for lessening temporal penalties-indulgences- and apply them to the dead by way of prayer.

There is a difference between the way indulgences are obtained by us in this life and the way in which they are applied to the dead. The official documents of the Church, such as Pope Paul VI's apostolic constitution on indulgences, the Code of Canon Law, and The Catechism of the Catholic Church, all note that indulgences are applied to the dead by way of prayer.

This is because Christians in the hereafter are no longer under the earthly Church's jurisdiction. They no longer can receive sacraments, including penance, and the Church does not have authority to release their temporal penalties. All it can do is look to God and pray that he will lessen them. This is a valid form of prayer, as 2 Maccabees indicates. We may have confidence that God will apply indulgences to the dead in some way, but the precise manner and degree of application are unknown.[14]

These seven principles, which we have seen to be thoroughly biblical, are the underpinnings of indulgences, but there are still questions to be asked:

Who are the parties involved?

There are four parties: The first pleased God and moved him to issue a reward, providing the basis for the indulgence; the second requests the indulgence and obtains it by performing the act prescribed for it; the third issues the indulgence (this is God working through the Church); and the fourth receives the benefit of the indulgence by having his temporal penalties lessened.[15]

How many of one's temporal penalties can be remitted?

Potentially, all of them. The Church recognizes that Christ and the saints are interested in helping penitents deal with the aftermath of their sins, as indicated by the fact they always pray for us (Heb. 7:25, Rev. 5:8). Fulfilling its role in the administration of temporal penalties, the Church draws upon the rich supply of rewards God chose to bestow on the saints, who pleased him, and on his Son, who pleased him most of all.[16]

The rewards on which the Church draws are infinite because Christ is God, so the rewards he accrued are infinite and never can be exhausted. His rewards alone, apart from the saints,' could remove all temporal penalties from everyone, everywhere. The rewards of the saints are added to Christ's-not because anything is lacking in his, but because it is fitting that they be united with his rewards as the saints are united with him. Although immense, their rewards are finite, but his are infinite.

"If the Church has the resources to wipe out everyone's temporal penalties, why doesn't it do so?"

Because God does not wish this to be done. God himself instituted the pattern of temporal penalties being left behind. They fulfill valid functions, one of them disciplinary. If a child were never disciplined he would never learn obedience. God disciplines us as his children -- "the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives" (Heb. 12:6) -- so some temporal penalties must remain.

The Church cannot wipe out, with a stroke of the pen, so to speak, everyone's temporal punishments because their remission depends on the dispositions of the persons who suffer those temporal punishments. Just as repentance and faith are needed for the remission of eternal penalties, so they are needed for the remission of temporal penalties. Pope Paul VI stated, "Indulgences cannot be gained without a sincere conversion of outlook and unity with God."[17] We might say that the degree of remission depends on how well the penitent has learned his lesson.

How does one determine by what amount penalties have been lessened?

Before Vatican II each indulgence was said to remove a certain number of "days" from one's discipline-for instance, an act might gain "300 days' indulgence" -- but the use of the term "days" confused people, giving them the mistaken impression that in purgatory time still exists and that we can calculate our "good time" in a mechanical way. The number of days associated with indulgences actually never meant that that much "time" would be taken off one's stay in purgatory. Instead, it meant that an indefinite but partial (not complete) amount of remission would be granted, proportionate to what ancient Christians would have received for performing that many days' pious deeds. So, someone gaining 300 days' indulgence gained roughly what an early Christian would have gained by, say, reciting a particular prayer on arising for 300 days.

To overcome the confusion Paul VI issued a revision of the handbook (Enchiridion is the formal name) of indulgences. Today numbers of days are not associated with indulgences which are either plenary or partial.[18]

Only God knows exactly how efficacious any particular partial indulgence is or whether a plenary indulgence was received at all. The new system of reckoning leaves exact amounts to God and involves the Church in only general principles.

"Don't indulgences duplicate or even negate the work of Christ?"

Despite the biblical underpinnings of indulgences, some are sharply critical of them and insist the doctrine supplants the work of Christ and turns us into our own saviors. This objection results from confusion about the nature of indulgences and about how Christ's work is applied to us.

Indulgences apply only to temporal penalties, not to eternal ones. The Bible indicates that these penalties may remain after a sin has been forgiven and that God lessens these penalties as rewards to those who have pleased him. Since the Bible indicates this, Christ's work cannot be said to have been supplanted by indulgences.

The merits of Christ, since they are infinite, comprise most of those in the treasury of merits. By applying these to believers, the Church acts as Christ's servant in the application of what he has done for us, and we know from Scripture that Christ's work is applied to us over time and not in one big lump (Phil. 2:12, 1 Pet. 1:9).

"But what about the merits of the saints-by the doctrine of indulgences aren't the saints made co-saviors with Christ?"

Not at all. At best they would only be saving us from temporal calamities, which any human may do (and should do!) for another without blaspheming Christ.[19] Besides, the saints have the ability to please God because the love of God has been put in their hearts (Rom. 5:5). It is God's grace that enables them to please to him. His grace produces all their good actions, and his grace is given to them because of what Christ did. The good actions of the saints therefore are produced by Christ working through them, which means Christ is the ultimate cause of even this temporal "salvation."

"Should we be talking along these lines? Isn't it better to put all of the emphasis on what Christ alone?"

No. If we ignore the fact of indulgences, we neglect what Christ does through us, and we fail to recognize the value of what he has done in us. Paul used this very sort of language: "Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church" (Col. 1:24).

Even though Christ's sufferings were superabundant (far more than needed to pay for anything), Paul spoke of completing what was "lacking" in Christ's sufferings. (As put by Augustine, "The God who created you without your cooperation will not save you without your cooperation.") If this mode of speech was permissible for Paul, it is permissible for us, even though the Catholic language about indulgences is far less shocking than was Paul's language about his own role in salvation.

Catholics should not be defensive about indulgences. They are based on principles straight from the Bible, and we can be confident not only that indulgences exist, but that they are useful and worth obtaining.

Pope Paul VI declared, "[T]he Church invites all its children to think over and weigh up in their minds as well as they can how the use of indulgences benefits their lives and all Christian society.... Supported by these truths, holy Mother Church again recommends the practice of indulgences to the faithful. It has been very dear to Christian people for many centuries as well as in our own day. Experience proves this."[20] James Akin is a contributing editor to This Rock.


To gain any indulgence you must be a Catholic in a state of grace. You must be a Catholic in order to be under the Church's jurisdiction, and you must be in a state of grace because apart from God's grace none of your actions are fundamentally pleasing to God (meritorious). You also must have at least the habitual intention of gaining an indulgence by the act performed.

To gain a partial indulgence, you must perform with a contrite heart the act to which the indulgence is attached.

To gain a plenary indulgence you must perform the act with a contrite heart plus you must go to confession (one confession may suffice for several plenary indulgences), receive Holy Communion, and pray for the pope's intentions. (An Our Father and a Hail Mary said for the pope's intentions are sufficient, although you are free to substitute other prayers of your own choosing.) The final condition is that you must be free from all attachment to sin, including venial sin.

Because of the extreme difficulty in meeting the final condition, plenary indulgences are rarely obtained. If you attempt to receive a plenary indulgence, but are unable to meet the last condition, a partial indulgence is received instead.

Below are indulgences listed in the Handbook of Indulgences (New York: Catholic Book Publishing, 1991). Note that there is an indulgence for Bible reading. So, rather than discouraging Bible reading, the Catholic Church promotes it by giving indulgences for it! (This was the case long before Vatican II.)

An act of spiritual communion, expressed in any devout formula whatsoever, is endowed with a partial indulgence.

A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who devoutly spend time in mental prayer.

A partial indulgence is granted the Christian faithful who read sacred Scripture with the veneration due God's word and as a form of spiritual reading. The indulgence will be a plenary one when such reading is done for at least one-half hour [provided the other conditions are met].

A partial indulgence is granted to the Christian faithful who devoutly sign themselves with the cross while saying the customary formula: "In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen."

Priests who administer the sacraments to the Christian faithful who are in a life-and- death situation should not neglect to impart to them the apostolic blessing, with its attached indulgence. But if a priest cannot be present, Holy Mother Church lovingly grants such persons who are rightly disposed a plenary indulgence to be obtained in articulo mortis, at the approach of death, provided they regularly prayed in some way during their lifetime. The use of a crucifix or a cross is recommended in obtaining this plenary indulgence. In such a situation the three usual conditions required in order to gain a plenary indulgence are substituted for by the condition "provided they regularly prayed in some way." The Christian faithful can obtain the plenary indulgence mentioned here as death approaches (in articulo mortis) even if they had already obtained another plenary indulgence that same day.


1471. The doctrine and practice of indulgences in the Church are closely linked to the effects of the sacrament of penance.

"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" (Indulgentarium Doctrina norm 1). "An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin" (ibid. norm 2, norm 3).

Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.

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 (Council of Trent [1551]: Denzinger-Schonmetzer 1712-1713; [1563]: 1820).

1473. The forgiveness of sin and restoration of communion with God entail the remission of the eternal punishment of sin, but temporal punishment of sin remains. While patiently bearing sufferings and trials of all kinds and, when the day comes, serenely facing death, the Christian must strive to accept this temporal punishment of sin as a grace. He should strive by works of mercy and charity, as well as by prayer and the various practices of penance, to put off completely the "old man" and to put on the "new man" (Eph. 4:22, 24).

1474. The Christian who seeks to purify himself of his sin and to become holy with the help of God's grace is not alone. "The life of each of God's children is joined in Christ and through Christ in a wonderful way to the life of all the other Christian brethren in the supernatural unity of the Mystical Body of Christ, as in a single mystical person" (Indulgentarium Doctrina 5).

1478. An indulgence is obtained through the Church who, by virtue of the power of binding and losing granted her by Christ Jesus, intervenes in favor of individual Christians and opens for them the treasury of the merits of Christ and the saints to obtain from the Father of mercies the remission of the temporal punishments due for their sins. Thus the Church does not want simply to come to the aid of these Christians, but also to spur them to works of devotion, penance, and charity (Indulgentarium Doctrina 5).


Myth 1: A person can buy his way out of hell with indulgences.

This is a common misunderstanding, one that-anti-Catholic commentators take advantage of, relying on the ignorance of both Catholics and non-Catholics. But the charge is without foundation. Since indulgences remit only temporal penalties, they cannot remit the eternal penalty of hell. Once a person is in hell, no amount of indulgences will ever change that fact. The only way to avoid hell is by appealing to God's eternal mercy while still alive. After death, one's eternal fate is set (Heb. 9:27).

Myth 2: A person can buy indulgences for sins not yet committed.

The Church has always taught that indulgences do not apply to sins not yet committed. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes, "[An indulgence] is not a permission to commit sin, nor a pardon of future sin; neither could be granted by any power."

Myth 3: A person can "buy forgiveness" with indulgences.

The definition of indulgences presupposes that forgiveness has already taken place: "An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven"(Indulgentarium Doctrina norm 1). Indulgences in no way forgive sins. They deal only with punishments left after sins have been forgiven.

Myth 4: Indulgences were invented to money for the Church.

Indulgences developed from reflection on the sacrament of reconciliation. They are a way of shortening the penance of sacramental discipline and were in use centuries before money-related problems appeared.

Myth 5: An indulgence will shorten your time in purgatory by a fixed number of days.

The number of days which used to be attached to indulgences were references to the period of penance one might undergo during life on earth. The Catholic Church does not claim to know anything about how long or short purgatory is in general, much less in a specific person's case.

Myth 6: A person can buy indulgences.

The Council of Trent instituted severe reforms in the practice of granting indulgences, and, because of prior abuses, "in 1567 Pope Pius V canceled all grants of indulgences involving any fees or other financial transactions" (Catholic Encyclopedia). This act proved the Church's seriousness about removing abuses from indulgences.

Myth 7: A person used to be able to buy indulgences.

One never could "buy" indulgences. The financial scandal around indulgences, the scandal that gave Martin Luther an excuse for his heterodoxy, involved alms- indulgences in which the giving of alms to some charitable fund or foundation was used as the occasion to grant the indulgence. There was no outright selling of indulgences. The Catholic Encyclopedia states: "[I]t is easy to see how abuses crept in. Among the good works which might be encouraged by being made the condition of an indulgence, almsgiving would naturally hold a conspicuous place. . . It is well to observe that in these purposes there is nothing essentially evil. To give money to God or to the poor is a praiseworthy act, and, when it is done from right motives, it will surely not go unrewarded."


Some criticize indulgences, saying they involve our making "expiation" for our sins, something which only Christ can do. While this sounds like a noble defense of Christ's sufficiency, this criticism is misfounded, and most who make it do not know what the word "expiation" means or how indulgences work.

Protestant Scripture scholar Leon Morris comments on the confusion around the word "expiate": "[M]ost of us . . . don't understand 'expiation' very well ... [E]xpiation is ... the making amends for a wrong.... Expiation is an impersonal word; one expiates a sin or a crime" (The Atonement [Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1983], 151). The Wycliff Bible Encyclopedia gives a similar definition: "The basic idea of expiation has to do with reparation for a wrong, the satisfaction of the demands of justice through paying a penalty."

The terms used in these definitions-expiation, satisfaction, amends, reparation-mean basically the same thing. To make expiation or satisfaction for a sin is to make amends or reparation for it. When someone makes reparations, he tries to repair the situation caused by his sin.

Certainly when it comes to the eternal effects of our sins, only Christ can make amends or reparation. Only he was able to pay the infinite price necessary to cover our sins. We are completely unable to do so not only because we are finite creatures incapable of making an infinite satisfaction (or an infinite anything), but because everything we have was given to us by God. For us to try to satisfy God's eternal justice would be like using money we had borrowed from someone to repay what we had stolen from him. No actual satisfaction would be made (cf. Ps. 49:7-9, Job 41:11, Rom. 11:35). This does not mean we can't make amends or reparation for the temporal effects of our sins. If someone steals an item, he can return it. If someone damages another's reputation, he can publicly correct the slander. When someone destroys a piece of property, he can compensate the owner for its loss. All these are ways in which one can make at least partial amends (expiation) for what he has done.

They are ways in which we are expected to make compensation, as even the sharpest critics of indulgences admit. If I have wronged another person, then, quite aside from being put right with God, I must make it up, or at least try to make it up, to the person I have wronged. To make full reparation it is necessary not only to restore what was taken or damaged, but also to compensate the owner for the time the thing was gone or injured. In financial cases this is done by paying interest.

Excellent biblical illustrations of this principle are given in Leviticus 6:1-7 and Numbers 5:5-8, which tell us that in the Old Testament a penitent had to pay an extra twenty percent in addition to the value of the thing he took or damaged. (This applied to a penitent who voluntarily made compensation; a captured thief had to pay back double the value of the item taken [Ex. 22:1-9].)

One of the most significant passages dealing with this issue is Proverbs 16:6, which states: "By loving kindness and faithfulness iniquity is atoned for, and by the fear of the Lord a man avoids evil." Here we are told that a person makes temporal atonement (though never eternal atonement, which only Christ is capable of doing) for his sins through acts of loving kindness and faithfulness.


1. Trent, session 25, Decree on Indulgences. An anathema is, in this context, a decree of excommunication.

2. Indulgentarium Doctrina 1.

3. The Latin terms for these liabilities are the reatus culpae and reatus poena.

4. See also Ephesians 5:26-27, Acts 22:16,1 Corinthians 6:11,1 John 1:7, and Revelation 7:13-14.

5. See also Matthew 12:36 and Romans 2:16.

6. See also Matthew 25:41, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, and Revelation 14:11.

7. Scripture is filled with other examples of God sending temporal punishments on account of sin. See, for example, Genesis 4:9-12, Deuteronomy 28:58-61, and Isaiah 10:16.

8. See 2 Samuel 12:7-12 for a list.

9. Teaching on indulgences, Pope Paul VI's stated, "The punishments with which we are concerned here are imposed by God's judgment, which is just and merciful. The reasons for their imposition are that our souls need to be purified, the holiness of the moral order needs to be strengthened, and God's glory must be restored to its full majesty" (Indulgentariam Doctrina 2).

10. Here confessors are not priests who hear confessions but those who confessed the Christian faith before the state during a persecution. Confessors, like martyrs, pleased God in a special way by holding to their faith at the risk of their lives.

11. This kind of argument, with the form "If X is the case then how much more likely is Y the case," is called an a fortiori argument. A fortiori arguments were favorites of Jesus and Paul; see Matthew 7:11, 10:25, 12:12, Luke 11:13, 12:24, 28, Romans 11:12, 24, 1 Corinthians 6:3, and Hebrews 9:14.

12. Indulgentarium Doctrina 3.

13. The Old Testament sin sacrifices dealt only with the temporal expiation of sins, "for it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away [the eternal punishment for] sins" (Heb. 10:4); see sidebar on expiation.

14. This is one reason the Church cannot simply "empty purgatory," as Martin Luther suggested it should. Because it lacks jurisdiction, the Church can only pray for purgatory to be emptied, and it does.

15. Some parties may be one and the same person. The person who provides the basis for an indulgence may request one and apply it to another; the person who requests an indulgence may ask it for himself or someone else. The only limit is that under current canon law one may not obtain an indulgence for another living person (although it is possible to do so in principle, as the case of the early penitents shows).

16. These rewards are referred to metaphorically as "the treasury of merits." A merit is anything that pleases God and moves him to issue a reward, not things that earn "payment" from God. Humans can't earn anything from God, though by his grace they can please him in a way he chooses to reward. Picturing the saints' acts under a single, collective metaphor (such as a treasury) is biblical: "It was granted her [the Bride] to be clothed with fine linen, bright and pure" (Rev. 19:8). John tells us, "[F]or the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints." Here the righteous deeds of the saints are pictured under the collective metaphor of clothing on the Bride of Christ, the Church. Jewish theology also recognizes a treasury of merits. Jewish theologians speak of "the merits of the fathers" -- the idea being that the patriarchs pleased God and inherited certain promises as a reward. God fulfills these promises and ends up treating later Jews more gently than they would have been treated. The idea of "the merits of the fathers" is essentially the same as the Catholic concept of the "treasury of merits." Both postulate a class of individuals, the Old Testament patriarchs on the one hand and Christ and the saints on the other, who have pleased God and whom God chooses to reward in a way involving lesser temporal punishments on others.

17. Indulgentarium Doctrina 11.

18. A plenary indulgence-difficult to obtain, because requiring perfect love for God and complete sorrow for sins-remits all temporal punishment due for sins; a partial indulgence remits only part of that punishment, with the exact amount being left indeterminate.

19. For example, it does not offend Christ for a fireman to pull a child out of a burning building. The idea of one human saving another from temporal misfortune does not besmirch Christ.

20. Indulgentarium Doctrina, 9, 11.

This article was taken from the November 1994 issue of "This Rock," published by Catholic Answers, P.O. Box 17490, San Diego, CA 92177, (619) 541-1131, $24.00 per year. Used by Permission.

Copyright (c) 1996 by James Akin. All Rights Reserved.