Revisiting Luther’s Earliest Heresy

This Halloween is the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. The topic of indulgences inspired most of the Theses, as forty directly address them. An indulgence, according to the Catechism, is a “remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church.” Indulgences remain part of Church teaching, but a few common questions remain: how and why did they begin, why did they become controversial, and how are they used today?

Although indulgences are not directly mentioned in Scripture, a number of Old Testament passages call monetary charity a means for forgiveness and the remission of sins. Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar to “redeem [his] sins by almsgiving and [his] iniquities by generosity to the poor; then [his] serenity may be extended” (Dan 4:27). Several verses in the Book of Proverbs communicate a similar message, such as Prov. 19:17: “He who is generous to the downtrodden makes a loan to the Lord; He will repay him his due”. In Jewish commentaries, rabbis wrote that the hand of the poor is like an altar—both are direct conduits to God which directly confer remission of sins.

In the early Church, the libellus pacis (“letter of peace”) was another precursor to the modern indulgence. These documents were obtained from those who had suffered for the faith and given to Christians who had fallen away. The libellus was presented to the bishop, who took the writer’s sufferings into account and released the penitents from the punishment incurred. However, the libellus became abused, as St. Cyprian wrote to givers of libelli: “To this you should diligently attend, that you designate by name those to whom you wish peace to be given.”

The tradition of these two practices, giving alms and the libellus pacis, led Pope Clement VI to solidify the centuries-old idea of the “Treasury of Merits” in 1343. In this system, the merits of the saints were stored in a treasury from which the Church, in the person of the Pope, could draw in order to remit the penalty of sin. Indulgences were awarded for almsgiving and acts of prayer, charity, and pilgrimage. However, an indulgence was only granted after a confession of sin, linking forgiveness to one’s repentance. Pope Sixtus IV, in 1476, declared that indulgences could be gained for a soul in Purgatory. However, he did not clarify whether a confession was required for the remission of the sins of another. This seemed to break the intrinsic link between penance and forgiveness of sin, and an idea arose that one could buy one’s way into heaven.

The most notable proponent of this error was a Dominican named Johann Tetzel, who coined the phrase: “When a penny in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.” Luther’s Theses were largely a response to Tetzel’s abuses, but Tetzel’s greatest critic was a theologian named Cardinal Cajetan. Both men initially criticized Tetzel for abusing indulgences, but over time Luther became convinced of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This led him to condemn the Church’s entire “Treasury of Merits.” In contrast, the Council of Trent banned the sale (but not the practice) of indulgences, while condemning those who denied their ability to remit the punishment of  sin.

In 1967, Blessed Pope Paul VI released Indulgentiarum Doctrina regarding official Church teaching on indulgences. In the modern age, there are two types of indulgences, which differ to the degree of punishment remitted: plenary and partial. For a plenary indulgence to be granted, one must be completely detached from sin, confess sins in Confession, receive the Eucharist, and pray for the Pope. Plenary indulgences are attached to acts, such as praying the Rosary in a church or oratory, praying for thirty minutes in Adoration, or reciting the Stations of the Cross. For a partial indulgence, one must be contrite of heart in these actions.

In Indulgentiarum Doctrina, Blessed Pope Paul VI writes, “the aim pursued by ecclesiastical authority in granting indulgences is … urging them to perform works of piety, penitence and charity—particularly those which lead to growth in faith and which favor the common good.” When discussing indulgences for the Year of Mercy, Pope Francis wrote, “I wish that the Jubilee Indulgence may reach each one as a genuine experience of God’s mercy.” Even into modern times, indulgences are not a corrupt or antiquated way to “buy one’s way into Heaven;” rather, they are a way of manifesting God’s loving mercy in a concrete way.

This article was brought to you by the Theology Club’s Zossima Project: Making prayer an education. For a complete works cited, please email Thank you for your readership.