If you think indulgences are an ancient practice of the Catholic Church that have long been forgotten, you’re greatly mistaken. 500 years ago Martin Luther began the Reformation by publicly condemning indulgences as an unbiblical and unethical way to fill the coffers of the Catholic Church. Today many preachers are propagating a new an improved version of indulgences that are no less harmful than those of 500 years ago.
The indulgences of Luther’s time
Let’s first remember a couple of significant aspects of indulgences during the time of Luther and what drove Luther to write the 95 theses and nail them to the door in Wittenburg.
What are indulgences?
In short indulgences were pardons offered by the Catholic Church to parishioners or on behalf of their loved ones. By either performing some religious act, praying a prayer, or donating to the Church a person could reduce their (or a loved one’s) punishment or time in purgatory.
By Luther’s time there were some preachers who began excessively preaching indulgences, claiming that you could obtain the remission of your sins or help your loved one get out of purgatory by “donating” to the church.
While all of Luther’s 95 theses were in a way against the preaching of indulgences, I have summarized 5 of the most significant problems that Luther pointed out.
1. They were human doctrines
Luther pointed out that the idea of indulgences was purely a human doctrine derived not from the Bible but from man’s own imagination.
They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. (Theses #27)
2. They were motivated by greed
It was clear to Luther and many of his contemporaries that the preaching of indulgences were often primarily motivated by greed. Indulgences were most famously used to built St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
It is certain that when money clinks in the money chest, greed and avarice can be increased; but when the church intercedes, the result is in the hands of God alone. (Theses #28)
3. They replaced sound Biblical preaching
It seems that you either preached indulgences or your didn’t and those who did preach indulgences preached it a lot. In fact they preached about them so much that they left little room for any other topic.
They are the enemies of Christ and the pope who forbid altogether the preaching of the Word of God in some churches in order that indulgences may be preached in others. (Theses #53)
Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to indulgences than to the Word. (Theses #54)
4. They destroyed evangelistic zeal
Where indulgences were preached core gospel truths fell by the wayside. Preachers who should have been pleading for the repentance of men were instead begging for the riches of men.
Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth. (Theses #65)
The treasures of indulgences are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men (Theses #66)
5. They preyed upon the poor
Finally, it appears that indulgences mainly extracted it’s large sums of money from the poor in the church. Instead of taking care of the poor as the Church is called to do, they were actually making the poor poorer.
Again, “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is today greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build this one basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?” (Theses #86)
With a modern-day twist contemporary indulgences mirror each of the five problems that Luther spoke against. In order for you to understand better what I’m talking about let’s compare some terms from Luther’s day with modern terms.
Luther’s day vs Modern-day
Indulgence preacher = Prosperity preacher
Indulgences = Seed giving
Yes, the new indulgence preacher is alive and well, only he’s changed his name to “Prosperity preacher!” And his contemporary indulgences are now known as “seed giving” or the “seed principle” or “seed faith” Beyond these changes in terminology little else has changed. If anything these new indulgences are much more sinister than those of 500 years ago. Remission of sin and pardon from purgatory isn’t quite as motivating as it used to be. Thus the new and improved indulgence preachers offer something much more tangible and immediate, wealth!
Purchase their “indulgences” and God will turn your $1 into $100 or your $100 into $1,000. It doesn’t matter how much you give, God will multiply it by 100 and give it right back to you!
Benny Hinn even goes even further and asks this followers to purchase “indulgences” for at least a $1,000 in order to unleash the “thousandfold principle.” Of course all this multiplication leaves you feeling like Jesus is some sort of lucky slot machine that magically multiplies your coins and faith becomes a financial formula for attaining temporary prosperity.
Most prosperity preachers will tell you that if you give to their ministry God will in turn give you a better car, a better job, and a nicer house. You’ll attract prosperity and it’s likely that random amounts of cash will just show up unexpectedly in your wallet or in your bank account. This is the main message of modern-day indulgences.
It’s ironic how the problems of modern-day indulgences are so similar to those of the indulgences Luther condemned 500 years ago.
1. They are human doctrines
Just like in Luther’s time, modern-day preachers use a lot of imagination to come up with their prosperity theology. To rephrase Luther’s 27th theses it might sound something like this:
They preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as you write a check to my ministry God’s financial blessings will multiply.
2. They are motivated by greed
It’s hard to doubt that certain prosperity preachers are motivated by greed. On the backs of many poor and faithful followers have been built extravagant homes for the most popular of the prosperity preachers. Not only are the preachers of modern-day indulgences motivated by greed but so are their followers, who hope their purchase of an indulgence will result in great personal wealth.
Today theses #28 may have looked like this:
When your dollars fall into the offering plate the only thing for certain that will multiply is greed!
3. They replace sound Biblical preaching
Take a look at the sermon titles for prosperity preachers and you’ll be amazed at how one man (or woman) can preach for so many years on one topic. By preaching almost exclusively on matters of money, finance, giving, wealth, etc… they leave little room for solid Bible teaching.
If Luther’s 53rd and 54th theses were to be written today they might sound something like this:
They are the enemies of Christ leave no room for the preaching of the Word of God in order that “Prosperity theology” may be preached. (Theses #53)
Injury is done to the Word of God when, in the same sermon, an equal or larger amount of time is devoted to “Prosperity theology” than to the Word. (Theses #54)
4. They destroy evangelistic zeal
One thing that is always conspicuously lacking in Prosperity churches is true gospel zeal. Why? Because zeal for God and his eternal gospel have been replaced with zeal for temporary material gain.
Jesus said it well, “No man can serve two masters: for either he. will hate the one, and love the other; or else. he will hold to the one, and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and money.” (Mat 6:24)
Today Luther’s 65th and 66th theses may sound like this:
Therefore the treasures of the gospel are nets with which one formerly fished for men of wealth.
The treasures of “Prosperity gospel” are nets with which one now fishes for the wealth of men.
5. They prey upon the poor
Sadly it seems that often the poor are the most likely to be taken by this false gospel. Today millions of poor around the world have been convinced to purchase modern day “indulgences.” Rather than helping the poor, these preachers of prosperity theology are robbing the poor and becoming rich by taking from those who have the least.
Theses 86 may have looked like this today:
Why don’t these prosperity preachers give to the poor instead of robbing them in order to sustain their own luxurious life styles?
The enemies of the Gospel never really think up anything new. Today’s prosperity gospel is only a slightly remade version of the indulgences which Martin Luther fought against 500 years ago. Unfortunately, without the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, our sinful tendency is to strip the Gospel of its eternal message, make it powerless, and then sell it for profit!
As the Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians may we also remind ourselves:
Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 1 Cor 15:1