God’s Love in Temporal Punishment and the Catholic Teaching of Indulgences

The first way to address the issue of indulgences is to understand the nature of sin. What is sin? What are the consequences of sin? How does God react towards it? And how does the biblical text show God’s pedagogy towards His sons and daughters?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines sin as “an offense against reason, truth, and right conscience; it is failure in genuine love for God and neighbor caused by a perverse attachment to certain goods. It wounds the nature of man and injures human solidarity. It has been defined as “an utterance, a deed, or a desire contrary to the eternal law””[1]. Sin is also a direct offense towards God himself,[2] it is a rebellion of the creature towards his creator, it is the ultimate act of pride and distrust towards the Good, the True and the Beautiful[3]. God detests sin, because sin is what brings away from Him the creatures He loves the most. God hates our sin out of love for us. In the book of Revelation is it written that “[…] nothing unclean shall enter it [heaven], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”[4] So how does God reach out to the fallen humanity He loves?

There are two ways in which God reacts towards our sin: if we repent, by punishing us temporally in order to eradicate the evil within us and restore us towards the path of regaining the state of original justice that humanity had before the fall; and if we don’t repent, by leaving us in our evil ways, letting us fall, and letting us merit eternal punishment. St Paul writes about the wrath of God: “Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves,”[5] and then two verses later he rewrites how God gave up the ones who chose sin in their life. God always prefers sanctifying and temporal punishment over abandonment to eternal damnation. He never wants to let us go; it is only when we persevere in our sin and desire eternal separation from Him that He gives us up.

Sin has a twofold consequence, an eternal one and a temporal one.[6] We see this with the first sin of humanity. God asks Adam to confess his sins to Him[7]. God desires that man acknowledges his sin, the fundamental first step of the journey of repentance. The healing of the relationship starts when Eve finally admits the sin that they had committed[8], and right after that, the Lord heals the eternal consequence of their sin: the gates of His love are not closed; God promises a Savior to mankind[9]. God heals the eternal distance of man from Him, but still He decided to set Adam and Eve on paths of hard labor and suffering so that they could through their hardships expiate for their deliberate refusal of God’s law and plan of love for them, telling Eve that she will suffer greatly in childbearing, and to Adam that he will have to toil the earth which will bring forth thorns and thistles.[10] This is the temporal punishment for the first sin. Immediately after, however, God already lessens part of the punishment, clothing Adam and Eve with animal skin to protect them[11].

Another example of temporal consequence of sin can be seen from everyday life experiences: when a boy breaks the toy of his younger brother, his father requires that he apologizes to his brother. But even when the relationship has been restored, still the boy has the duty to try to fix the broken toy or get his brother a new one.

God in the case of our parent’s rebellion was the One who directly forgave the eternal consequences of their sin, enforced the temporal consequences on them, and directly lessened their punishment. This leads us to ask the main question of this paper: What are indulgences? They are God’s power given to His Church to lessen the temporal punishment of our sins which our loved ones and we have to undergo in Purgatory. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines them as follows “An indulgence 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 which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints”.[12] The sacrament of Confession is where we can experience God’s forgiveness of the eternal consequences of our sin (our separation from God and our damnation) through the power of remitting sins given to the apostles who gave it also to the presbyters. The Church now by divine command does what God did in Genesis, and She does it in two ways, through the sacrament of Confession to save souls from damnation (to remit the eternal punishment), and through indulgences to lessen or take away the temporal consequences of our sins, which sanctify us and lead us towards Heaven.

The Lutheran has problems in understanding this because he does not believe that God founded a Church and gave it divine authority to remit sins. The Lutheran ignores or does not understand what Jesus said to the disciples: “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”[13] The Lutheran does not believe that God’s authority is mediated through the Church, and this is why he does not believe in indulgences. The Lutheran view of Justification also explains why they do not believe in indulgences. According to their doctrine of justification, the merits of Christ are imputed to the sinner, and he appears at judgement covered in the merits of Christ; independently from the life he lived, whether he was righteous or a rebellious sinner, his faith in Christ simply permits him to appear just in front of God; the whole system of merit is non-existent. According to this view, there is no purpose in indulgences, because the sins of the person do not even appear before God at judgement, the sinner is clothed in Christ’s robe, and therefore it would make no sense to save him and then send him to Purgatory to be purified by suffering the temporal consequences of his actions, for Christ does not need to be purified, since He is God.[14] Consequently, there are two things that would be necessary to explain to a Lutheran in order to help him grasp the truth about indulgences: the Church as God’s representative and authority on earth, and proper Justification, so that then he can understand the role of the Church in remitting the temporal consequences of sin.

A Catholic who believes that indulgences are a substitute for confession does not understand what the nature of sin is, and its twofold consequence, and is probably poorly catechized. He should be helped in understanding the biblical texts which show how God reacts at man’s sin once he has repented and been forgiven, how He decides to sanctify us through temporal punishment, and how He also can lessen that punishment of devout soul through the merits of someone else, or Christ’s. Consequently, he should be helped to understand that God has given this power to the Church[15].

The Catholic who belies that indulgences are a substitute for the Sacrament of confession may perhaps regard the clause within receiving an indulgence of being totally detached from every sin, mortal and venial, as sufficient for the forgiveness of the eternal consequences of sin. It is surely a necessary condition, but not a sufficient condition (at least for us who are bound to the sacraments). The Catholic can never presume to have had an authentic detachment from sin and perfect contrition (which are surely necessary conditions for the forgiveness of his sins), but must attend confession if in a state of mortal sin, for he is bound (if he wants forgiveness) to follow Christ’s commandments, in Scripture[16], Tradition[17] and in His Church.[18]

Ed Da Pra


[1] CCC 1849

[2] CCC 1850

[3] There are six basic elements that constitute all sin since the first sin of Adam and Eve: all sin is ultimately a violation of God’s law, a rebellion against God, distrust in God, frustration with God’s plan, a perverse attachment to some creature, and an act of pride

[4] Revelation 21:27 RSVCE

[5] Romans 1:24 RSVCE

[6] CCC 1472

[7] Genesis 3:11

[8] Genesis 3:13-14

[9] Genesis 3:15

[10] Genesis 3:16-19

[11] Genesis 3:20

[12] CCC 1471

[13] John 20:23

[14] John 1:1

[15] CCC 1471

[16] John 20:21-23

[17] Didache 4:14, 14:1 [A.D. 70]

[18] Can. 960

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