I grew up Catholic. Though I visited churches of other denominations, I was steeped in Catholic doctrine. I learned Jesus died on the cross for my sins. I knew this basic belief was required to get into heaven.
But, as I got older, other Catholic doctrine didn’t make sense to me. My problem-solving bent kept me from reconciling what I knew to be true from the Bible with some of the teachings from the church. As a result, I left the denomination as a young adult.
My turning point happened in a high school World History class, of all places. We talked about the Roman Catholic Church and the idea of “indulgences.” And they made no sense to me.
You might be wondering what an indulgence is. The “official” definition is “a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven.”
In plain talk, an indulgence is work a person does to take away her earthly punishment for her sin. Upon its completion, a person owes no debt to the Church for sinning against God. She has paid the cost to satisfy God’s justice.
Indulgences were tied to the doctrine of purgatory. According to the Catholic church, purgatory is the place our souls go to suffer and make atonement for sins before going to heaven.
Even as I type these words, I think of Jesus and the cross.
Isaiah 53:5 says of Jesus,
“But He was pierced because of our rebellion, crushed because of our iniquities;
punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds.”
Jesus paid it all for us.
Furthermore, we can also look at Isaiah 53:11:
“After His anguish, He will see light and be satisfied.
By His knowledge, my righteous servant will justify many,
and He will carry their iniquities.”
If Jesus carries our iniquities, what more could we do?
If we could earn forgiveness for our sin, why did Christ die?
Our faith in God and in the finished work of Jesus saves us.
Nothing about our unredeemed selves is good or righteous in comparison to God.
Isaiah 64:6 tells us, “all our righteous acts are like a polluted garment.”
How then can an indulgence make us more righteous before God? Simply, it cannot.
John 14:6 declares Jesus is the only way to righteousness and eternity with God.
If we believe there is something we can add to Jesus’ finished work on the cross, then what do we do with John 3:16?
In the time of Pope Innocent III, people could pay for indulgences. In fact, sometimes the government would give them out. If citizens could not do what the indulgence required, they would donate money, pay for buildings, etc.
If we follow the logic of indulgences, the rich were able to buy their way into redemption before God. More indulgences, more righteousness.
But Romans 3:20-27 disputes this false logic. Instead, Paul teaches these truths:
- No one is justified by works
- Righteousness comes only through faith in Jesus Christ
- There is no distinction among people because we are all sinners
- We are justified freely by God’s grace
- No one can boast because of works
And Romans 3:28 sums it all up:
“For we conclude that a person is justified by faith
apart from the works of the law.”
In other words, justification is given to us
not earned by us
No wonder Martin Luther had a problem with indulgences! Luther came to believe in justification by faith alone. His 95 Theses were based on his disagreement with the notion we can be justified by any means other than faith in Christ.
And I agree with Him wholeheartedly. If we are to live according to the Word of God, then we are called to embrace justification through faith alone with gratitude and confidence.
We can build our walk with the Lord on verses like Ephesians 2:8, which says,
“For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves;
it is God’s gift— not from works, so that no one can boast.”
Glory belongs to God. If we could create our own righteousness, the glory would be ours. But the Bible teaches there has been only one human who could claim glory.
Jesus, because He was fully God and fully man.
He alone is the radiance of God’s glory and the source of our purification from sins. (Hebrews 1:3)
It is so important, friends, to understand our position in relation to God and His Son, Jesus.
Jesus is the only Savior. (Isaiah 43:11)
We can never save ourselves.
And I am grateful the burden of justification has already been carried. The battle to defeat the power of sin has already been won. Let us lay aside our attempts to earn salvation, instead always grounding ourselves and finding rest in the finished work of the cross.
Sola Day 9
What was impossible before, was now possible because of God, His grace, and His Spirit! I could stop trying to follow Him in my own strength and instead rely on His Holy Spirit to power my everyday interactions.
It is a lesson I am still learning, but one that makes my life less about my abilities, and more about His purposes.
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