biblical proofs of indulgences | Dave armstrong


Russian icon of Saint Paul / Apostle Paul (1550) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]


[slightly modified excerpt from my book, A Biblical Defense of Catholicism]


[For a brief historical explanation of this vexed issue of the Protestant Revolt (aka “Reformation”): see: Catholic Indulgences: History & Myths.]


Biblical evidence of indulgences

Matthew 16:19 [RSV] I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 18:18 Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.

John 20:23 If you forgive someone’s sins, they are forgiven; if you hold back someone’s sins, they are held back.

These passages form the biblical basis for priestly absolution (forgiveness) and, in general, papal and ecclesial jurisdiction (by extension, the power to impose penance – to bind, withhold – and to grant indulgences – lose, forgive). Matthew 16:19 was spoken by our Lord to Saint Peter alone, and is the main basis of the concept of the papacy (along with the previous verse). Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23 were directed to the twelve disciples. From these verses, among others, the Catholic Church deduces the power and the governing jurisdiction of the bishops (in agreement with the pope), in particular in an ecumenical council like Trent or Vatican II.

Karl Adam, in his wonderfully insightful book, The spirit of Catholicism, comments on the Catholic belief in indulgences:

The Church, by virtue of her power to bind and loose, can supplement the poverty of one member with the wealth of another. . . All the main ideas on which the doctrine of indulgences is based – the necessity of the atonement for sin, the cooperative atonement of the members of the Body of Christ, the power of the Church to bind and loose on earth whether its action be valid in heaven, all these ideas are contained in Holy Scripture.

So that although the historical form of indulgence has undergone some changes. . . and may in the future undergo further changes, and although the theology of indulgences has only been gradually developed, yet in substance the doctrine conforms to the pure thought of the Scriptures. Here, as in no other practice of the Church, members of the Body of Christ cooperate in the atonement of love. All the seriousness and the joy, the humility and the contrition, the love and the fidelity which animate the Body are here particularly combined and manifested. [1]

1 Corinthians 5: 3-5 I have already pronounced judgment in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who did such a thing. When you are assembled and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you will have to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus. {see 5: 1-2}

2 Corinthians 2: 6-8, 10-11 For such, this punishment of the majority suffices; then you should instead turn to forgiving and comforting him, or he might be overwhelmed with excessive sadness. So please reaffirm your love for him. . . Who you forgive, I forgive too. . . in the presence of Christ, to prevent Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

Saint Paul in his commandments and exhortations to the Corinthians fully agrees with the Catholic principles of penance and indulgences. He binds in 1 Corinthians 5: 3-5 and loosens in 2 Corinthians 2: 6-7,10, acting as a type of papal figure in 2 Corinthians 2:10, much like Saint Peter among the apostles. He forgives and orders the elders of Corinth to forgive too, even though the offense was not committed against them personally. Obviously, both parties are acting as representatives of God in matters of the forgiveness of sins and the remission of temporal penalties for sin (an indulgence). In this area, as in all other doctrinal areas, the Catholic Church is founded on the Bible, takes everything it teaches seriously, and struggles with all the implications and deeper sources of truth to be found. in the pages of the Holy Scriptures of God.

Cardinal Gibbons specifies:

Here we have all the elements that constitute an indulgence. First – Penance, or temporal punishment proportionate to the gravity of the offense, is imposed on the transgressor. Second – The penitent is truly sorry for his crime. Third – This determines the Apostle to remit the penalty. Fourth – The Apostle considers the relaxation of penance ratified by Jesus Christ, in whose name it is given. [2]

The doctrine of penance was unmistakably believed and practiced by the early Church, as recognized by reputable reference works on the history of the Protestant Church. [3] It was firmly established in the early Church and did not change substantially in the Middle Ages, but was only developed, like all Catholic doctrines. It has been the subject of much reasoned speculation and discussion among scholastics (such as St. Thomas Aquinas), but it was neither invented nor distorted at this time, as the biblical evidence here conclusively proves. -above.

* * * * *

Just as penance is the imposition (and, it is hoped, the voluntary acceptance) of temporal penalties or penalties for sin, so indulgences are the remission or relaxation of these same temporal penalties, in virtue of the prayer and penance (of various kinds) of others in the Church. [4] The doctrine of indulgences presupposes both the communion of saints [5] and the treasure of merits, derived in the last resort from the Person and the work of Jesus Christ, secondarily by the holiness of the saints and especially of the Blessed Virgin. [6]

The Church has jurisdiction to distribute these accumulated merits with mercy to those who have less merit (see 1 Corinthians 12:26). [7] Indulgences are a logical extension of infused justification and penance, and are essentially the same as any spiritual or temporal benefit applied to one person due to another’s prayer. In either case, a Christian is helped by another’s act of love.

The Council of Trent prohibited the sale of indulgences, the abuses having become scandalous in the preceding period, thus joining Luther and the Protestants on this point, while retaining the doctrine itself (not wanting to “throw the baby out with the water bath ”). In recent decrees on this doctrine, the Church has emphasized that the pious disposition of the recipient of an indulgence is of paramount and paramount importance (similar to the use of sacramentals, such as holy water). [8]

To sum up, Catholics believe that sin causes cosmic disturbance and is a direct insult to God, our Creator, and that it also perpetuates destructive tendencies and practices in the individual and disastrous results within the Church. and the human community. [9] Sin causes a breach in our “friendship” with God, which requires some kind of repair. [10]

Penance and indulgences are complementary aspects of the deeply biblical and harmonious system of Catholic theology in which real and infused justification (as opposed to simply imputed, forensic, or declared justification) takes place. If indeed God’s purpose is to free us from sin in this life – as Catholics believe – then the atonement and elimination of sin is of the utmost importance: hence the doctrine and practice of penance.


[1] Karl Adam, The spirit of Catholicism, translated by Justin McCann, revised edition, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Image, 1954 (originally 1924 in German), 127-128.

[2] Cardinal James Gibbons, The faith of our fathers, New York: PJ Kenedy & Sons, revised edition, 1917, 308-309.

[3] FL Cross & EA Livingstone, editors, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Oxford University Press, 2nd edition, 1983, 1059; JD Douglas, Editor-in-Chief, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, revised edition, 1978, 762.

[4] CCC [Catechism of the Catholic Church], #1471, 1498; John A. Hardon, Catholic catechism, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1975, 560-570, Pocket Catholic Dictionary, New York: Doubleday Image, 1980, 193-194; Council of Trent, session 25 (3-4 December 1563), Decree concerning indulgences.

[5] CCC, # 1474-1475, 1479.

[6] CCC, #1476-1477.

[7] CCC, # 1478.

[8] Pope Paul VI, Apostolic Constitution on the Revision of Indulgences (1967).

[9] CCC, # 980, 1440, 1443-1445, 1469, 1488.

[10] CCC, #980, 1440, 1468.


[For a further brief historical explanation of this vexed issue of the Protestant Revolt (aka “Reformation”): see: Catholic Indulgences: History & Myths.]


Meta Description: Explanation of the biblical justification for the controversial Catholic doctrine of indulgences.

Meta Keywords: indulgences, communion of saints, penance, mortification, asceticism, intercession, intercession of saints, absolution, forgiveness of sins, temporal punishment, prayer,


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