The sight of indulgences being bought and sold is just not something I witness on a regular basis. That is, until this past Saturday. As my tired feet trudged through a stretch of muddy dirt, that’s exactly what I saw.
She was selling them in the middle of the marketplace in the village of Holly Grove. A nun sat on a step with a basket brimming with indulgences. Standing beside her was a banner which displayed in calligraphic letters, “Indulgences $4.”
Forgiveness, bought and sold on the street as if it were on par with candles, pottery, and jewelry which were being traded nearby.
Now, Rome had not sanctioned these indulgences. They were just fabrications of indulgences mimicking those that would have been sold in the 16th century. I was at a Renaissance Festival spending the day with friends when I saw this scene depicted by an actor selling props to festival patrons.
But, imagine this scene as a regular proceeding, as a daily norm.
Are you bothered by your sins? Do you need assurance that everything will be ok in the next life? No problem. Sure, you may not be able to go back in time and undo past offenses, but thanks to this little certified paper, you can be assured that you are just one step closer to heaven.
Sure, indulgences didn’t flat out forgive sins, but they did cover some of your purgatory expenses. Indulgences were, in some regard, an insurance policy for your salvation.
Based on your “plan” or indulgence purchased, a set amount of time would be detracted from your stay in purgatory. If you had the means, you could get the all inclusive plan—a plenary indulgence would cover everything, all your time in purgatory was covered by this crafty work of the Devil.
“If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3)
The idea of indulgences is attractive to the Old Adam. The Old Adam depicts God as a record keeping, royal judge. Indulgences promised comfort for a sin troubled conscience, but it could never deliver. How much was enough? How angry is God with me? If you, O Lord, should keep a record of my iniquities, O Lord, what must I do to stand?
“Therefore unless God averts His eyes from our sins, yes, even from our righteousness and virtues and reckons us as righteous because of faith, which lays hold of His Son, we are done for.” — Martin Luther
We are done for. If God keeps record of sins, we are done for. There is no indulgence great enough to wipe out our sin. Our deeper problem lies in the fact that we are sinners by nature, it’s who we are.
Luther’s conscience immensely troubled by his disobedience to the holy Law of God. He longed for assurance, words of comfort and forgiveness to quiet his troubled soul. The peace of mind promised by indulgences, penance, and relics never came.
We cannot barter and trade for our justification. Although we may try, our assumed good works cannot give us good credit against our transgressions. If God keeps a record of wrongs, we are done for. We cannot buy our way out of this. There is no redeeming ourselves from the mess we’ve created.
You cannot buy a salvation insurance policy. You cannot purchase salvation. You have been purchased.
Our God does not keep a record of sins. He obliterates the record of sin held against us in the death of His Son.
He turned His face away from our sins when He turned His face away from Christ who became our sins. We have been purchased not with paper or plastic, gold or silver, but with the blood of the Son of God.
“But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. ” (1 Corinthians 15:10)
We can have confidence with the apostle Paul. But by the grace of God I am what I am. But by the grace of God I am baptized. But by the grace of God I am justified. But by the grace of God I am loved. But by the grace of God I am sanctified in Christ. It is all because of the grace of God that I have been redeemed from my sin.
“There is now nothing in all the world that you can be more sure of than Jesus crucified for you, risen for you.” — Norman Nagel
The attractive nature of indulgences dissipates like morning fog when Light of the Gospel breaks through. There is no assurance apart from Jesus. There is now nothing we can be more confident in than the work of Jesus for us.
Kathy graduated from Wisconsin Lutheran College with a B.A. in Media Design. She is currently a writing contributor with Christ Hold Fast, Higher Things, and Coffee by Gillespie, as well as a freelance graphic designer. She is the co-author of The Sinner/Saint Lenten Devotional from 1517 Publishing.