I was interested in reading the following article in our local paper about the revival of the Catholic tradition of indulgences:
According to the newspaper article, these indulgences are designed to "hasten" one's "journey to heaven" and "avoid punishment in the afterlife".
I have great respect for the Catholic Church. I am thankful that the Church has stood for the cause of Christianity for so many centuries in the midst of incredible, often difficult, circumstances. Personally, I've found a great number of Catholic authors helpful (especially St. Augustine, Henri Nouwen and Thomas Merton). But this area regarding indulgences is one where we sharply differ.
The issuing of indulgences was a major cause of (what is known today as) The Reformation, which started in the early 1500's and birthed the Protestant Church. The initial leader of the Reformation was a German named Martin Luther, who I've been reading recently for a seminary program.
Luther had initially considered being a lawyer before feeling called by God to become a monk. While living at a monastery and serving as a pastor and teacher in the city of Wittenberg, Luther wrestled with intense feelings of guilt...knowing that he was sinful and constantly falling short of God's standards.
At the same time a man commissioned by Rome, named Johann Tetzel, traveled throughout Germany selling indulgences, to limit the punishment of purgatory for those who purchased them and for their designated recipients who had already died.
Luther eventually did finally find comfort...not in indulgences, or in changing his beliefs about God's standards, but through his study of Scripture, particularly his study of St. Paul's writing (in Romans, to be exact). There he discovered the idea of "justification by faith"...that Christians are made right with God, not by their own works of righteousness but rather through faith in the work of Christ.
If you're struggling with this concept, I'd encourage you to read Romans or Galatians in the New Testament to see Paul's passion around this concept...that it's not our work, but the work of Christ that will remit sin because Christ has taken the punishment for us.
If you're interested in learning more about Luther, I'll be reading his biography this week. The biography I'm reading is by Roland H. Bainton called, "Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther". I'll keep you posted with what I learn.