While non-catholics have gone too far in assuming that all that is or was involved in indulgences is buying and selling for profit, we need to step back and realize that while long ago there WERE abuses of this doctrine, it was instituted to help loved ones in purgatory or one's self in advance to shorten one's time there. We need to recognize the sincerity of those who have participated in this practice. We should not OVERstate the issue because some have abused it in "selling" indulgences.
THE PRESUMPTION PROBLEM
But there are problems with the teaching. First, it is not Biblical. Secondly, the teaching is built on the PRESUMPTION that when God cleanses us from sin, guilt is removed but temporal punishment remains. Now let's think about this. If a courtroom judge says "not guilty"...and then says "5 years in prison for you." you would accuse him of double-talk. Christ did not just suffer for "guilt" when He died, He suffered TEMPORAL PUNISHMENT too. His blood PAID for the sins. This guilt-vs-punishment idea is an artificial distinction....nowhere taught in the Bible.
HOW MUCH PAYMENT IS NEEDED?
It is said that what actually pays for the sin-debt of the person in purgatory (providing someone has paid for the indulgence) is a payment from THE TREASURY OF MERIT. So just where did this treasury of merit come from to draw on and shorten someone's purgatory time? While I do not believe there is a purgatory (see Purgatory article), the logic involved in the treasury of merit is flawed. I'd say a quadruple payment is being required. First, the person who sins is in purgatory, secondly someone pays for the indulgence (if it is for a loved one), thirdly there is a withdrawal of someone else's merit from the "treasury" and also we have Christ's contribution. And people contributing never know how much is needed to secure someone's release. It seems like speculation and double jeopardy to me.
HOW GOOD IS THIS CURRENCY?
How does the treasury come to have merit to apply to another person? It is from the excess good deeds of others who are Roman Catholics such as martyrs, or people like Mother Teresa -- people who did above and beyond what was needed for themselves. (Is that possible in terms of dealing with sin?) The Catechism, paragraph 1475 states that the holiness of one profits others. Paragraph 1477 indicates that Mary's prayers and good works are part of it, which are "immense, unfathomable and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury too are the good works and prayers of all the saints."
The problem is that there is one and only one thing that can eliminate sin and bring to us the "righteousness of God" and that is the shed blood of Christ. "Without the shedding of blood is no remission." Hebrews 9:22. If any person were to stand before God and offer either THEIR good works or someone else's or some relative's money...the verdict would always be the same: Isa 64:6 "All your righteousnesses are as filthy rags." Why? They aren't shed blood. Under the Old Covenant it took animal blood, offered repeatedly, to cover sin; under the new covenant, it is the shed blood of Christ that cleanses us from ALL sin and He only had to die once to secure that blessing for us who believe in it. That's all He asks for...faith in His shed blood's power to cleanse!
Romans 3:10 says "there is none righteous, no not one". In terms of HUMAN righteousness being acceptable to God...no matter whose it is... the offer is only going to make matters worse. The presumption is made that there are some saints that are "good enough" "worthy enough" or "holy enough" in their performance to do more than is needed, when the Bible indicates that we ALL fall short of the glory of God....and if we even sin one sin (James 2:10) we stand before God as being guilty of having broken all the commandments. The forgiveness and any worthy standing of those saints supposedly contributing to the treasury could ONLY be gained by SHED BLOOD, so why focus on what THEY did as imperfect humans? It's the wrong currency. You may say..."But there IS the shed blood of Christ in the treasury. That is what makes the system work to satisfy God." But there is a huge problem with this: it is a COMBINING of shed blood with human effort or works. The combining of the two elements CANCELS the effect of the shed blood. We see this in Romans 11:6 and Titus 3:5. And Hebrews 1:3 says that Christ PURGED our sins BY HIMSELF! He took our purgatory!
"And if by grace, then is it no more of works; otherwise grace is no more grace." (It's what God does, not what we do.) "Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us..."
It is like having a 100% pure medicine to cure every disease and to it we add our multiple-virus-laden sweat. What have we accomplished? We ONLY polluted it. We ruined the perfection of the formula! The WHOLE indulgence doctrine is a denial of the SUFFICIENCY and VALUE of the shed blood of Christ and is therefore the SUPREME INSULT TO CHRIST AND HIS SACRIFICE!
At the heart of this teaching we find a substituting of HUMAN righteousness for the kind of righteousness that GOD wants us to receive from Him as a gift that was paid in full by Christ, and is to be received by faith. We MUST ask this: Was that shed blood valuable enough to pay for ALL our sins or not? If we have to add ONE THING to it... it then DEVALUES the shed blood...it becomes insufficient. But the Bible states that His blood is PROPITIATORY (Rom. 3:24) and that means 100% satisfactory to God. God is willing to transfer the value of this 100% effective sacrifice to our record. Whatever sin record we might have, the cross took it away!
And you, being dead in your sins...hath He quickened together with Him,
having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances
that was against us, which was contrary to us, taking it out of the way,
nailing it to his cross." Col. 2:13-14.
God is no longer "remembering" the sins of those who are trusting in that "propitiatory" sacrifice. (Rom. 4:8 and 3:24) Our forgiveness is a gift we receive explained in Romans 4 using the terminology of IMPUTED RIGHTEOUSNESS. Click Here to study this AMAZING love-transferred gift God wants all his followers to understand! We do not need to draw from an imaginary treasury of polluted good deeds and worthless currency... ALL we need is the shed blood of Christ! Trust in it today.