by Rev. Donavon Riley
Despite Martin Luther’s provocative teachings at Wittenberg University—and their influence on students, faculty, local monks and priests, and earthly rulers—the theology and practices of late Medieval Roman Catholicism continued relatively undisturbed.
One such practice was the sale of indulgences. Indulgence sales were the medieval equivalent of a modern “big tent revival meeting.” An indulgence salesman would roll into town with a theater troupe, clowns, public orators, musicians, and the like. It was quite the scene when everything was set up and the show began, like a circus and stage play and concert combined!
And even though indulgence sales were a spectacle to see, their purpose was very serious. Theologians of the church had concluded that although baptism washed away the stain and penalty of original sin, Christians still had to “do what was in them” in order to be saved at the Last Judgment. However, if a Christian lived a life that was neither too wicked or too holy, they died they were sent to purgatory when they died. As a consequence, any sin that remained on their record had to be worked off (or paid off, thus the sale of indulgences) before they could be set free to enter into heavenly peace (after presenting themselves to St. Peter and Jesus at the gates of heaven). So an “indulgence” was simply how the church “indulged” a sin by absolving it of all penalty. All that was necessary to procure an indulgence was proof that the Christian was sincerely repentant over his sin. Or, if he was dead, his family or friends had to provide proof in his place.
In purgatory, the dead could not do anything to work off their sin. On the other hand, since they were in purgatory they could not commit any more sin. So, if someone could purchase an indulgence in their name, for them specifically, showing that the dead truly was repentant over the sin committed after baptism, the dead could escape purgatory. If no one came forward on their behalf, they were essentially doomed to remain in purgatory, because they could not square accounts with God.
When one did buy an indulgence, the money that exchanged hands was proof of penitence, because this was another example of self-sacrifice on the part of the one seeking an indulgence, whether while they were still alive or on behalf of the dead. And, as always, it was said by every indulgence salesman that the money which purchased an indulgence was for “the work of the church.”
In the end, indulgence sales were held in the same esteem by the church as confession, penance, and other spiritual exercises that demonstrated a Christian was truly committed to “doing what was in him” to faithfully guarantee God was pleased with him.
Next week, we will turn our attention to John Tetzel, who became the target of Luther’s anger when the young professor finally broke from his support of the Church’s practice of selling indulgences.
Rev. Donavon Riley is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Webster, Minnesota.