Indulgences: Do Catholics try to buy their way to Heaven?

I hesitate to go into this question because it so complex and emotionally charged. But as usual, when I try to avoid a thorny subject, someone sends me an email about it:

"I mean really who thought it was a good idea to let people pay off their sins--get outta here!"

This well meaning Evangelical had heard about the Catholic doctrine of indulgences, perhaps during an Evangelical sermon outlining the "errors" of the Catholic Church. I guess the Lord is giving me a nudge to explain it.

Actually, the phrase above "people can pay off their sins" is quite a bit off of Catholic doctrine. Catholic doctrine has always taught that it is a sin to sell spiritual things, including indulgences, despite some wrong actions by priests 500 years ago. This article introduces stuff like Penance, Punishment, Suffering, Confession, Reconciliation and of course... Indulgences. I invite you to put on your "open mind" and join me.

I've broken this article up into 2 parts. (1) The indulgences scandal of the 1500's and (2) the actual explanation of what Indulgences are. I'll start with the scandals because that's what most people email me about. Everybody loves a good conspiracy theory.

Part 1 - The Scandal of Selling Indulgences in the 1500's

Perhaps you've seen "Luther the Movie." If so you probably think some pretty awful things about Catholicism. Most secular historians would agree with Donald J. Levit, who writes for Reeltalk Movie Reviews. He said:

In 'Luther,' the reality of Martin Luther within sixteenth century temporal and spiritual complexity is dumbed down beyond recognition.

Aren't some evangelical pastors "selling blessings" much like corrupt priests of the 1500's "sold indulgences"

Surprisingly, some of the loudest Evangelical critics of the 500 year old indulgences scandal are approaching their congregations with very similar language to the corrupt priests of the 1500's who Martin Luther criticized. When speaking about their ministries, many Evangelical pastors will say something like:

"Now dig deep into those pockets for this most worthwhile ministry, it will be a blessing to you and your family!"

When they say the gift will be a "blessing" to the giver, that God is looking with favour upon the offering, that the giver will be "blessed." Although different Evangelical pastors may mean different things by the word "blessing," many would say the giver will receive blessings in all areas of their lives including financial, health, family life etc.

It is wrong to sell spiritual things. It was wrong for corrupt priests to do it in the 1500's and it is wrong for Evangelical preachers to do now. There is a thin line between legitimate and blasphemous teaching in the area of money. On one hand, it is perfectly legitimate to say God looks with favour on a generous heart. (Mark 12:42) On the other hand there is a very human tendency of greed and manipulation, and sometimes motives are mixed and not entirely without merit. (i.e., building a beautiful medieval Catholic Church or Evangelicals wanting to build a huge "Dream Center" Church)

Martin Luther's Reform

Indulgences were a main spark that fueled the reform. Martin Luther was right when he said that there was abuse of indulgences. The Compendium to the Catechism says:

...Unfortunately the practice of indulgences has on occasion been improperly applied. This has been either through "untimely" and superfluous indulgences which humiliated the power of the keys and weakened penitential satisfaction or it has been through the collection of "unlawful profits" which blasphemously took away the good name of indulgences... (Indulgentiarum Doctrina, 8)

What went down in the indulgences scandal?

The indulgences scandal was a bad scene. Dr. Art Sippo has done quite a bit of research on this and said:

There was a program to raise money for the building of St. Peter's Basilica and a plenary indulgence was offered.  A donation was asked for in proportion to one's earnings, but it was possible to gain the same plenary indulgence by prayers for the project and the usual conditions (confession, & communion)...SOME of the people sent to offer the indulgence to the peasants used slogans, over-simplified examples and other techniques to speak down to the crowds to entice them to make a donation. The priest charged with overall supervision of the offer in Germany was Fr. Tetzel. Luther attacked him in the 95 Theses and that was the start of the ... revolt.

After the Martin Luther thing blew up, the Pope launched an investigation. It was kind of a fiasco, which exonerated Fr. Tetzel. Yeah, it was a mess! John Pacheco says this:

The Pope (or the bishops in Germany) did not approve of the "selling of indulgences." ... there were abuses that priests and bishops did not correct and check. However, the Church has never taught that money remits temporal punishment for sin ... www.Catholic-Legate.com

This 500 year old incident has become a theme that some Evangelicals pastors have repeatedly preached to their congregations about Catholics. This has caused much disdain for the Catholic Church in some Evangelical circles. One of the drawbacks of being a 2000 year old denomination is that there are incidents throughout history that people can point at and hold against the Catholic Church.

Two thousand years from now, if the Evangelical Church remains (and if the Lord hasn't come back yet) I expect there would be plenty of colourful bits of history that people who want to criticize the Evangelical Church would be able to seize upon. Even now there is financial scandal in some Evangelical ministries, including some TV Evangelists. So let's go easy on each other. I think each of our denominations should pull the planks from our own eyes before criticizing the speck in the eye of another.  The Church is for saints and sinners and it is not surprising that some Church people have done sinful things. "Let he who is without sin throw the first stone." (Jn 8:7) "All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:23).

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Part 2 - What are Indulgences?

Where did Indulgences come from?

In the very early days of the Church, committing mortal sin merited automatic, formal excommunication from the Church. After A.D. 217, with the Papal relaxation of this original Apostolic discipline and the introduction of the principal of indulgences (literally, the sinless Body of Christ tolerating / "indulging" members who were non-saints, who still struggling to overcome repeated sins), there developed a distinction between true or essential membership in the Church (i.e., living in a state of grace and/or persistent loyalty to Catholic doctrines) and formal or institutional membership in the Church.  

Many Evangelicals believe that what you do with money (and other actions) on earth will affect the quality of your eternity in Heaven

Let us examine what many Evangelical denominations (although not all), believe about money and heaven. The famous Evangelical Moody Institute in Chicago, teaches that there are different sizes of "houses" in heaven, depending on how we respond to our faith. The Evangelical pastor, Rick Warren in his bestseller book "The Purpose Driven Life" says:

One day you will stand before God, and he will do an audit of your life, a final exam, before you enter eternity... he will ask ... 'What did you do with what I gave you' ... will determine what you do in eternity...(The Purpose Driven Life, pg. 34)

At the end of your life on earth you will be evaluated and rewarded according to how well you handled what God entrusted to you. That means everything you do...has eternal consequences...you will receive a promotion and be given greater responsibility in eternity ..." (The Purpose Driven Life, pg. 45)

Two paragraphs later Rick Warren says:

...The Bible says 'if you are untrustworthy about worldly wealth, who will trust you with the true riches of heaven?' ...God says there is a direct relationship between how I use my money ("worldly wealth") and the quality of my spiritual life ("true riches"). How I mange my money determines how much God can trust me with Spiritual blessings. (The Purpose Driven Life, pg. 46)

If we combine that with his discussion of tithing, the famous Evangelical Pastor Rick Warren is basically saying, if you tithe, you will receive spiritual blessing in this life and after you die and go to heaven. He is saying part of that reward will be that you will be 'given greater responsibility in heaven."

On the Christian radio, an Evangelical Gospel song came on :

I've been doing what you want me to do,
I've been saying what you want me to say,
I've been living the way you want me to live, 
Any way you bless me is alright with me, 
Just keep blessing me.

This song does not bother me in the least. In Catholic doctrine, an indulgence has very little to do with money, it is a gift that God gives. It is much like what an Evangelical would call "a blessing." More about that below.

When the Evangelical community speaks about "blessings" and "sufferings", it is touching on concepts quite similar to penance and indulgences (although they would not call them such). All humans struggle with suffering. Evangelical proponents of the "Prosperity Gospel" would say that suffering exists in people's lives because they have not fully surrendered to God. Yet the apostle Paul, who was one of the greatest Christians, endured tremendous suffering even while having great faith (2 Cor 24-30). I hardly think of Paul as someone of shallow faith. If so, we are all in big trouble. Suffering is a mystery.  I further discuss suffering here.

For many Evangelicals, a "blessing" is a kind of relief (a remittance) from some sort of suffering - either spiritual or material on nature. For instance if an Evangelical is blessed spiritually, the suffering of feeling separated from God is reduced. If the Evangelical is blessed financially (as Jabez was) the suffering of poverty is reduced. If the Evangelical is blessed with health, then the suffering from ill-health is reduced.

Although these examples are not direct correlations to the Catholic concept of "indulgences", they do help throw some light (and perhaps some compassion) on the concept of indulgences. Before explaining what an indulgence is, let's look at the source of the big controversy over indulgences.

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Can't sell spiritual things: selling indulgences was wrong

The Catholic Catechism is clear that it is a sin to buy and sell spiritual things, including indulgences.

Simony is defined as the buying or selling of spiritual things.53 To Simon the magician, who wanted to buy the spiritual power he saw at work in the apostles, St. Peter responded: "Your silver will perish with you, because you thought you could obtain God's gift with money!"54 Peter thus held to the words of Jesus: "You received without pay, give without pay."55 It is impossible to appropriate to oneself spiritual goods and behave toward them as their owner or master, for they have their source in God. One can receive them only from him, without payment.

The minister should ask nothing for the administration of the sacraments beyond the offerings defined by the competent authority, always being careful that the needy are not deprived of the help of the sacraments because of their poverty."56 The competent authority determines these "offerings" in accordance with the principle that the Christian people ought to contribute to the support of the Church's ministers. "The laborer deserves his food."57 (Catechism 2121, 2122)

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OK so what do Catholics believe about punishment?

Punishment is a concept that is very unpopular in today's culture. Corporal punishment is not favoured in our society and our youth have very little discipline as a result. Catholics believe God is a "loving God" but he is also a "just God" - an awesome God. Catholics believe there is a double consequence to sin:

  1. Venial sin (the not so serious stuff) entails unhealthy attachments to creatures which must be purified either here on earth or after we die. (Evangelicals might call this "Backsliding") This results in temporal punishment.  Every Christian sins every day.
  2. Grave or mortal sin (the bad stuff) deprives us of communion with God. This results in eternal punishment - hell. (2 Thes 1:9) Once forgiven, the eternal punishment is removed but there may be some temporal punishment that remains.

I'm sure some readers are now saying, "yeah see, Catholics do have a punishing God!"  I say yup...sometimes. I love my heavenly Father and I rejoice in his righteous discipline because I know he cares enough about me to want to me change for the better. Any parent with a bratty teenager will understand. Sometimes I'm that bratty teenager with God and a need a good swift kick in the pants. (Eph 6:4) In Psalm 50 we read "For you hate discipline, and you cast my words behind you." It appears God is into discipline. It is the origin of the word "disciple."

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"Temporal" Punishment - it's not about "debt"

An Evangelical emailed me and said:

 "Jesus used the Greek word TETELESTAI for "it is finished," which is translated "paid in full." It was used in his day on documents that released prisoners from jail after their relatives paid the bail."

TETELESTAI literally translates as "it is finished." "Tetelestai" can be associated with the "paid in full" connotation only from its cultural context. It was stamped on debts that were paid. I think the primary meaning of "it is finished" is that Jesus was signifying the completion of the Passover meal. I also have no problem with the other interpretation of "paid in full". Jesus always speaks at many levels.

In ancient Jewish tradition, at every Passover meal there were four cups of wine. The last supper finished with only the third cup being consumed. Christ consumed the fourth cup on the cross.

"When he had received the drink, Jesus said 'It is finished'" (TETELESTAI) . (Jn 19:29-30)

This signified that the Passover meal had been completed, Jesus being the Passover lamb (this research was conducted by Scott Hahn).

Catholics agree He paid the price for our sins, which is "eternal" damnation. Perhaps we might look at it this way. If I was 10 years old and got into trouble with bullies and they were contemplating stabbing me to death because I stole something from them, my father would come and pay off those bullies so that I wouldn't be killed (eternal damnation). My father would have "paid in full" the debt I owe. I would owe nothing. But when I got home, my father would probably give me some consequences, not because he hated me or because I owed him a debt, but because he loved me. It is no longer about "debt", it's about "discipline." There is a difference.

Some may say that the Prodigal Son had no consequences and no punishment. The Prodigal Son had spent his whole inheritance and that was gone forever. For sure he got a great meal and a welcome home party, but even the Prodigal Son experienced consequences for his debauchery.

My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him;  for the Lord disciplines those he loves and chastises every child whom he accepts. Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline?  If you do not have the discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children; Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and? live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness (Heb 12:5)

Some denominations have said there is never any punishment from the Lord, especially after we surrender to him. The above passage was speaking to Christians who had already turned their lives over to Christ. They had been saved from damnation (eternal punishment) and they had entered the family of Christ. Nevertheless there is punishment at times.

The Apostle Paul had turned his life over to Jesus authentically. Although Jesus restored his vision after he was hit on the road to Damascus, Paul nevertheless had a very painful number of years. (2 Cor 24-30). He said "I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body that is the church" (Col 1:24) Evangelicals believe Jesus washes us clean in "one sweeping motion" never to be dirty again. Catholics believe there is "one sweeping motion" but afterward the "washing clean" process continues for the rest of our lives and we must "endure to the end." (Mk 13:13, James 1:2, Mt 10:22, Mt 24:13)

The thief on the Cross beside Jesus received freedom from "eternal punishment", which is hell. Jesus said to him "This day thou shalt be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). However, the thief still experienced "temporal punishment." After he turned his life over to Jesus he continued to hang on the cross which was probably pretty darn painful even if it was for only a few hours and his legs were busted - ouch! (Jn 19:32) Jesus could have easily had him taken down from the cross but he didn't. There are consequences to sin even after forgiveness.

Temporal punishment is not "vengeful" retribution from God. God is not the big fly swatter of the universe. The punishments stem from the very nature of sin itself.

One of the big complaints against the Catholic practice of confession is that it allows people to run back to the Priest every week but live poorly the rest of the time. (Sunday morning Catholics) This is where Temporal punishment comes in. Jesus, through the Priest, provides absolution (forgiveness) and grants freedom from Eternal punishment of hell. Jesus will forgive "seventy times seven" (Mat 18:22). However, not all Temporal punishment is removed through absolution. So Catholics who don't live their faith all week long are not getting away with too much. In my experience, the only Catholics who go to confession these days are those who are serious about their faith.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate "Temporal punishment" is to describe a situation in my own  life. In 1984, I was involved in an abortion with my girlfriend (at the time) because we were chasing our careers on Broadway and films. God has long since forgiven me but in prayer he has made it clear to me that I will never become a famous person. Moses never entered the promised land because he killed one of his own people (even though God forgave him). Similarly, I do not believe the Lord will allow me to ever experience the fame I was seeking when I had the abortion. This is "Temporal punishment." I accept the punishment. Now I try to help out the pro-life movement wherever possible. I don't do it to win "Brownie points" in heaven. I do it because I love the Lord and he has put it on my heart to do this. He can use my past sin to educate others. One might call this a "penance." (My story of Abortion is here)

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Eternal Punishment

It's in vogue in today's secular society to believe that there is no hell. One of the greatest victories of the devil over the modern age is that he made them think he doesn't exist. Thankfully Catholics and Evangelicals understand that there is a hell and that evil and the devil are real. Those who blatantly and obstinately persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth will not do too well in the afterlife. (Heb 10:26). Hell is real and it is waiting for all those who turn away from the Lord Jesus Christ.

Thankfully there is Reconciliation

Jesus forgives "seventy times seven" (Mat 18:22) and will take anyone back into the fold who earnestly seeks him. For Catholics, that is a process of Confession, Reconciliation and Penance.

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Penance

The Catechism says this about penance:

Absolution [forgiveness] takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must "make satisfaction for" or "expiate" his sins. This satisfaction is also called "penance." Catechism 1459

Penance consists of three interrelated things:

  1. Confession, (a sincere manifestation of my conscience where I have failed God and my neighbour)
  2. Contrition (genuine sorrow for sorrow because I have offended the all good God)
  3. Satisfaction which includes amends (an attempt to repair the effects of sin)

"Amends"

After we confess our sins and are forgiven by God, we should do what we can to make reparation for our wrong actions. Jesus forgives us. He is a "forgiving God" but he is also a "just God." For instance, if I steal a $4,000 piece of equipment from a recording studio and then ask God to forgive me, he will forgive me if I have a humble and contrite heart. However, he will also probably want me to pay back the $4000 if possible (this is called amends).

"Make Satisfaction"

I also must move forward in his light with a changed heart looking for every opportunity to be of service. Modern society would call this a "living amends" but it is all part of penance. In article 1460 of the Catechism we find that penance can take many forms such as:

...prayer, an offering, works of mercy, service of neighbour, voluntary self-denial, sacrifices, and patient acceptance of whatever crosses we must bear in life. These penances help configure us to Christ, who alone can expiate our sins once for all. They allow us to become co-heirs with the risen Christ, "provided we suffer with him" (Rom 8:17, Rom 3:25, 1 Jn 2:1-2)

At the end of my life I will stand before God. If I have made and authentic surrender to Jesus,  I believe I will not go to hell. I will either go straight to heaven or I will make a stop in Purgatory. I believe Jesus will look at what I did with the faith he gave me. How did I respond to the call?  If I have responded well and if my character is the best it could be in his light, I believe I will enjoy a direct pass to Heaven. If however, I have not responded wholeheartedly and have had some rebellion, then I believe whatever parts of my soul that have not been cleaned up here on earth will be cleaned up in Purgatory after I die.

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Comparing the Evangelical "Blessing" concept to the concept of "Indulgences" 

Let's look at what we have in common with each other. I'd like to look at how the "Born Again" experience of an Evangelical is similar to a "Conversion of Heart" experience that is taught in the Catechism. It will help us see how the Evangelical "blessing" concept is similar to the Catholic "indulgence" concept. Although different Evangelical denominations might have different variations of these steps, the process is often is described something like this:

Step Evangelicals

Catholics

1
Sin
A person is apart from God and a slave to sin. Personal sin and ignorance of Jesus have condemned them. A person is apart from God and a slave to grave sins (serious) and/or venial sins (not as serious). Perhaps they were Baptised at birth but have lost the grace of that sacrament through rebellion, complacency or disbelief.
2
Awakening
Something happens that lets him/her see the error of his/her ways (a movement of the Spirit) Something happens that lets him/her see the error of his/her ways (a movement of the Spirit).
3
Repentance
The sinner repents before God and asks Jesus into his/her life (is born again). It is a personal encounter with Jesus. Evangelicals would say he is "saved" from final damnation. There is an "affliction of spirit" and "repentance of heart." It is Conversion of heart. A "second conversion" that is a personal encounter with Jesus. (Catechism 1428, See also Acts 2:37, 2 Cor 7:9)
4
Confession
The sinner speaks to his pastor and prays with him. He gets active in his Church again. The sinner confesses his sins before God and man (a Priest) and asks forgiveness which is granted by God. He/she has a reconciliation with God and Church (freed from "eternal punishment" of hell and is restored to the Grace received at baptism)
5
Amends
Amends are made where possible (this attempts to repair injuries caused to neighbours) i.e., returning stolen goods, apologizing for harms done. Amends are made where possible (this attempts to repair injuries to neighbours). i.e., returning stolen goods, apologizing for harms done. This is called restitution or "making satisfaction") (Catechism 1459)
6
Penance
He/she  tries to live a useful life of service, (including tithing and special offerings to Church) often volunteers at Church or other community missions and services. Penance. This helps to restore the injuries that the sin brought upon the sinner him/herself. He/she tries to live a useful life of service, (including charity, tithing, special offerings, works of mercy, etc.)
7
Blessings/
Indulgences
This Christian often receives blessings granted by God which often reduces suffering. It is not a "payoff" for donating, it is simply God's gift in response to this person's "vertically" oriented life. It is a consolation. It often results in restored health, and blessings in other areas of life. This Christian often receives blessings and indulgences granted by God which reduce suffering and "temporal punishment." It is not a "payoff" for donating, it is simply God's gift in response to this person's "vertically" oriented life. It often results in restored health and is a blessing in many areas of life.
For the Catholic, the indulgence may also apply to a remittance of punishment in Purgatory. (Purgatory is a clean-up place before heaven)

 

Of course spiritual healing doesn't always happen just like this and blessings occur throughout the entire process, but this roughly describes the process. Certainly every step in the above table is a movement of Jesus in the life of the sinner whether he/she is Catholic or Evangelical. As we can see, Catholics who have a conversion of heart (also called a "second conversion") go through a process similar to Evangelicals who have the "born again" experience. Catholics also attach a "Sacramental" significance to each step which means that these steps (repentance, confession, forgiveness, reconciliation, penance etc...) are not only a gift of the Holy Spirit (and a reflection of the movement of Holy Spirit), but the steps themselves are a Grace, and also help cause the movement of the Holy Spirit. (through the Church's intercession)

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Indulgences are not a payoff for sins: here's what they are and what they are not

We can see on the Catholic side of the table that indulgences are the last stage (step 7) after someone has been forgiven and has been reconciled with God. It is not an attempt to pay off sins. An indulgence is a free gift from God through the Church to a faithful servant who has a penitent heart and who is already headed toward heaven. It removes part of all of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven. (Catechism 1471). It's not a "get out of hell free" card. I discuss Temporal Punishment here  

The Apostle James says, "you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinners soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins" (James 5:20). These are not brownie points. It is simply God looking at someone's heart and blessing them.

Church Treasury

The Catholic Church treasury actually has nothing to do with money. It is a doctrine that says the Church has a storehouse of treasures in heaven. (Mat 6:19) The Church believes that all of the blood of the martyrs and prayers of the faithful Christians (and prayers of the Saints) over the centuries have pleased the Lord. The Church believes that it has been given the power to return these graces to people in need. (Mat 18:18) This is the basis of an indulgence. An indulgence is a gift out of this treasury.

David's testimony of receiving an indulgence

Perhaps the best way I can describe an indulgence is to talk about my own experience. I had been a Christian for seven years before I officially made a commitment to the Catholic Church. I had been a good Christian, praying and getting into the Bible, and surrendering my life to Jesus to the best of my ability. However, I still had areas of sin in my thinking that I wasn't rid of. Most people who have an intimate relationship with Christ still have areas with which they struggle. It's a very human thing I think. This was so for me.

A big problem for me was thoughts about bingeing. I had recovered from bulimia but I still thought about binge eating. It was a real trial for me. Even though I wasn't doing it, I was dreaming about it all the time. I just wasn't fully free yet even though I had surrendered my life to Jesus. When I became a Catholic in 1995, the floodgates of heaven poured out upon me and I was immediately freed of these patterns of thought that had dominated my life for many years. I have not dreamed about binge eating and have never had a compulsion to overeat since that time. It was an unbelievable first year as a Catholic. Fantastic. I believe this grace was an indulgence. It was not granted to me because I gave money to the Church. It wasn't a "payoff." It was simply God reaching into his treasure trove of Spiritual riches that have been gained by faithful Catholics over the course of 2000 years. He gave me a grace (an indulgence) for being obedient to the call that I felt on my heart to join the Catholic Church. The riches of the Catholic Church were poured upon me. The indulgence didn't insure that I will get into heaven. I was already headed toward heaven when I surrendered my life to Jesus. The indulgence was simply a free gift God bestowed on me through the Church, the moment I joined. A blessing.

Oh and by the way, I think it is good to give to the Church. Evangelical ministers are right when then say Christians should dig deep. "It will be a blessing to you." Tithing is a good thing. My grandmother who went to the United Church had a wall plaque that said "The Lord loves a Cheerful Giver." This also conveys the concept of an indulgence. Most certainly the Lord loves all people, but he also looks with favour on a contrite heart.

Related Topics:

Purgatory
Justification by Faith alone?
The Pope - the power of the keys on earth?
Flow Chart of Catholic Doctrine


Lord Jesus, let Your prayer of unity for Christians
become a reality, in Your way.
We have absolute confidence
that you can bring your people together,
we give you absolute permission to move.
Amen