The longer I live, the more I serve Christ, the more I am compelled to take a long view of history and an eternal perspective toward the few small years comprising our life on earth. I love the emphasis I often hear calling for increasing the Church’s role in societal restoration. These are big issues and range in areas diverse as long-standing nationalistic enmity, to racism and racial disagreement and distrust, to environmental awareness and care, and the list goes on. This adjustment seems to me to be the right track. After allowing the pendulum to swing too far to individual evangelism, it is appropriate to look at the church’s role in the world that goes beyond just trying to get people to say the sinner’s prayer.
I also recognize that this is perhaps uniquely an evangelical problem. And an American Evangelical problem at that. Mainline churches, for all of the flack they catch from others in the evangelical community, are now being seen as a source of some stabilizing and “successful” practices: liturgy, comprehensive catechism, and this stance of social restoration that I am talking about. It’s almost as if the younger brother is just now waking up to the family business that has been going on for hundreds of years. At least that’s what it feels like in the church circles I move in.
With that caveat in mind, I must confess, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about indulgences. You know, those things we were taught to protest against as Protestants. You know, those things that caused Martin Luther to nail 95 Theses to a door.
So what are indulgences?
The word comes from the Latin meaning to “give free rein to” and in the common sense we are giving free rein to an appetite or desire. The uniqueness and lure of the thing makes it an indulgence.
And while this may be the way we normally use the word (not that we normally use the word) it does not exactly convey the theological sense of the word.
Here is a simple definition from the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
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”
There. Hopefully that cleared it up. Now you know. So…
Why have I been thinking about indulgences?
Obviously that definition of indulgences is pretty obtuse. I am not a Roman Catholic practitioner, let alone scholar, nor do I aspire to be. I am pretty sure my understanding of these concepts is flawed, but that doesn’t mean I cannot gain inspiration from them.
In practical terms, an indulgence is a good work — an offering, or prayers, or a pilgrimage — that a faithful Christian performs to alleviate the purgatorial sufferings of themselves or someone else. The church, as the minister of redemption, grants the remission of the temporal punishment of sin in exchange for the indulgence performed by the faithful Christian. Because of the doctrine of the communion of the saints, an indulgence can be performed on behalf of someone else.
One can see how this was ripe for abuse and why the Reformers were protesting a system that was commonly understood as an exchange of forgiveness for money — especially if the seller of the indulgence was preying on the compassion of living relatives who were already stricken with grief.
And let me add that I understand that as Protestants we will choke on the word “perform” in relation to the remission of sin. It sticks in our throats. I mean, Scripture Alone! Faith Alone! Grace Alone! And all that. I get it. If it helps, think of performance as the living out, or acting out, of God’s grace in our lives.
Even so, I cannot help but love the desire of Christians to sacrificially pay a price to alleviate the suffering of others. I have no desire to practice indulgences. However, there are a couple of big ideas I would like to pull out of this concept, even if they are technically not part of the correct understanding of indulgences. I beg your indulgence.
- Even though sins are forgiven by God, and the guilt of those sins are only forgiven by God, there is still a temporal, residual effect of those sins (consequences) that can be understood as punishment (in this life or in purgatory is immaterial to this point I am trying to make).
- In this way, punishment is not something meted out by God but simply the negative consequences of sin that we, and other people, now have to live with.
- The faithful Christian can actively take part in the remission of those consequences through the performance of good works.
- Good works become the way the church dispenses and applies the treasury of Christ’s satisfaction, which is boundless. In other words, we (Christians, the church) draw on the abundance of God’s grace in performing good works that lead to the remission of the consequences of sin. (Not thinking of the church as an institution to which faithful Christians belong, but instead the community of those faithful Christians)
Hmmmm. Still a mouthful. Let me cut to the chase.
Imagine a scenario where my son abandoned his girlfriend and newborn baby. And let’s say he disappeared and we have no idea where he is. Perhaps this young woman is in college or some other situation and is not able to completely provide for herself. Now imagine my wife and I take complete responsibility for this woman and our grandson. We adjust our life style cutting down on entertainment and eating out to create a college fund for our grandson. We sell our house and move into an apartment in order to afford a place for this family. As we are able, we help them with expenses. We begin to do household chores and anything necessary to help this single mother. In essence, as much as we could, and as much as is received by the mother of our grandson, we replace the help and partnership that our son would have/should have provided.
And none of this had anything to do with the worthiness of the young lady. We made this commitment because it was our son and we took responsibility. It would not be because of who she is that we would do this, but because of who we are. But here’s the essential point, because of God’s grace in our lives, we still have joy. We are still fruitful in ministry and loving life. All we have lost is temporary things and we have positively changed the future of this family.
In a nutshell this — our grace-infused good works redeemed the consequences of the sin of our son.
So… what if we saw the church’s ministry of redemption in terms of alleviating the temporal effects of sin, as in, redeeming the consequences of the sins of others?
And the church (us) ministered freely out of the abundance and overflow of God’s grace that we have received through Christ?
And we worked from an eternal perspective spending the years of our lives to correct the wrongs of the past by paying the cost of making it right?
How would the world’s view of the church change if we actively not only acknowledged the sins of our past but sacrificially performed good works to alleviate their consequences?
How would our lives as Christians change if we saw this redemptive ministry as a priority as we live our lives together as a community?
What’s the point of all this?
During this political season, when lines are drawn in our nation, I am surprised (No, that’s not quite right. I am more disappointed) that the church allows battle lines to be drawn through our community by others.
Many of the turmoils we are experiencing as a society can be traced back to gross sins of our ancestors. Things like the rape and pillage of entire communities in the theft of Native American land, or the blight of slavery which is one the greatest blood stains on all of human history.
There is no doubt that these things continue to shape who we are.
And not in good ways.
While our society may stop celebrating Christopher Columbus day as a move towards political correctness, those pronouncements do not have the ability to bring redemption to these sins of the past.
Here’s the good news. We, the church, have that ability through the abundance of God’s grace, through our non-attachment to anything except Christ, and our commitment to being agents of justice and mercy and God’s Kingdom.
It starts with an acknowledgement of past guilt. Acknowledging that Christians did this. We can’t look at the mistakes of past generations and conclude that they did not know God and therefore supported slavery or genocide. Wrong. The church did this, too. Members of our extended family, in the church, supported this. They were wrong when they did it, but they did in fact do it. And those sins continue to effect us today. Segregation, and much of the culture war language of the last 50 years is rooted in racism and the church has been an advocate and apologetic voice along the way. You cannot run from history. We should stop trying.
Even if those previous generations asked for forgiveness—and if they did, we can believe God has forgiven them—all of society is still being punished today through the consequences of these gross sins.
Let’s take responsibility. We can’t allow the world to continue to flounder trying to fix something through a bankrupt system. We can acknowledge our opportunity and actively engage in this ministry of redemption.
How will we do it? By being willing to pay whatever it costs.
And it will cost us. But it will only cost us temporary things.
“He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”
~ Jim Elliot
I beg your indulgence. It is time to give free rein to God’s grace in the world.