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In 2013, the Vatican announced that it would offer indulgences to those who followed Pope Francis on his twitter account. According to the CBS report, the Vatican Council was recognising how many young Catholics would be unable to attend the World Youth Conference in Brazil, and so Vatican kindly arranged for people to access the events on social media.
Other indulgences have since been offered by the Vatican in an attempt to quicken the faithfuls time in purgatory and fast track the route to heaven. In 2015, Pope Francis announced that a Jubilee year of mercy would be accompanied with special plenary indulgences.
Purgatory is not a concept that is found in nor taught by the Bible, but has its origins in Medieval Catholicism. It is believed that once a person dies, instead of direct entry into heaven, they spend a period of time in an intermediate realm known as purgatory. The purpose of this place is to purify sinners and to punish all those sins that have not been forgiven in this life. Anyone caught committing a mortal sin will find themselves going directly to hell, but others have opportunity to pay for their sins by a duration in purgatory, a timeframe which depends on the number of and seriousness of those sins.
The practice of indulgences, another teaching which is not taught in the Bible, slowly came into being from the 16th Century, and became a catalyst for the Reformation. Roman Catholicism teaches that indulgences are a means by which people can receive remission for sins, and therefore reduce the time they would otherwise spend in purgatory. Indulgences take on multifarious forms, from saying a prayer, to completing a sacred pilgrimage, to helping the poor and now, by following Pope Francis on twitter. Specifically, you needed to follow the live feed of the Youth Conference via his twitter account, and doing so will alter your personal account before God and aid you to enter heaven more quickly.
Speaking to the offer of indulgences via twitter, Patrick Hornbeck (chair of the department of Theology at the University of Fordham in New York) suggested,
“This Pope has done a remarkable job of demonstrating how well aware he is of the way in which his younger audience, his younger followers, follow things and I think it totally makes sense that young Catholics would be much more likely to participate via social networking and social media rather than through traditional ways”.
While Protestants may readily repudiate these dangerous and untrue doctrines on indulgences and purgatory, we have our own ways of slipping into similar pathways. Anytime we emphasise an experience or ritual or activity as a means of convening assurance before God or of acquiring God’s favour, we have turned our backs on the only gift that justifies and reconciles.
The Bible is clear, no works, whether religious in nature or not, can aid in any way a person’s standing before God.In contrast to depending on misleading religious works to release of jail time in a place that does not exist, the good news of Jesus Christ is this,
“all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:23-24)
“For we maintain that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (Romans 3:28)
“If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about—but not before God. What does Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 4:2-5)
The rise of Pope Francis has been taken as a positive sign by many Catholics, Protestants, and by many irreligious Westerners; his camaraderie with the common person is appealing, and his commentary on social issues at times suggests ground is slowly shifting in the Vatican. Even I would agree with Pope Francis on some points of theology and ethics, and yet on this most crucial matter he is in error and by reinforcing the errors of Trent, he is directing millions of twitter followers not out of purgatory but into hell.
This isn’t rocket science, does anyone truly believe that saying a prayer or throwing a few dollars to a charity or listening to a Papal sermon can really wipe away years of transgressions and persuade God to change his posture toward us? What volume of ‘good deeds’ is suffice and of what duration should they be? This is chasing after the wind. There is no assurance and it requires the adherer to trust the words of priests who have invented these supposed means of grace. Instead, we ought to accept what God has spoken and what Jesus Christ has accomplished.
At a gathering of the Victorian Chapter of the Gospel Coalition today, Peter Jensen reminded those present that “faith is the instrumental means of salvation… faith can never be boasted of because faith always points to its object…Faith is the antithesis of all good works…Don’t turn faith into a work.”
So long as ecclesial authorities play games with the grace of God in Christ Jesus (whatever their denomination affiliation), and so deny people the sweetness and joy of knowing peace with God, the principle of semper reformanda remains a pressing agenda. My encouragement to my Catholic friends is, bypass this nonsense of indulgences and return to the source, read the Bible for yourself and see what not only the Reformers discovered in the 16th Century but what Christians have understood and believed since the very beginnings of the Church,
“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9).