The practice of indulgences could never exist apart from a belief in purgatory. Since no one wants to go to purgatory, indulgences exist to reduce or eliminate the amount of time one needs to spend in suffering after death before being allowed entrance into heaven. Because of purgatory, Catholics argue that prayers should be offered for the dead that they might be delivered out of the suffering of purgatory into heaven. An indulgence is the granting of remission from the temporal punishment due to sin through the application of the supererogatory righteousness of the saints in the treasury of merit which the pope has access to through the keys of the church. The practice of indulgences is still alive and well today and is expressed most clearly in the papal encyclical Indulgentiarum doctrina. In it, Pope Paul VI proclaims that by carrying our crosses, we expiate our sins and the sins of others:
“Following in the footsteps of Christ, the Christian faithful have always endeavored to help one another on the path leading to the heavenly Father through prayer, the exchange of spiritual goods and penitential expiation. The more they have been immersed in the fervor of charity, the more they have imitated Christ in His sufferings, carrying their crosses in expiation for their own sins and those of others, certain that they could help their brothers to obtain salvation from God the Father of mercies.”
In the church, there is a great treasury of merit which contains the righteous deeds of the saints which help to bring about the salvation of others:
“This treasury also includes the truly immense, unfathomable and ever pristine value before God of the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, who following in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by His grace have sanctified their lives and fulfilled the mission entrusted to them by the Father. Thus while attaining their own salvation, they have also cooperated in the salvation of their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.”
It is rather shocking that the document admits that the practice of indulgences developed over time (the first historical reference to indulgences does not appear for at least a thousand years after Christ) and was not practiced by the earliest Christians:
“The conviction existing in the Church that the pastors of the flock of the Lord could set the individual free from the vestiges of sins by applying the merits of Christ and of the saints led gradually, in the course of the centuries and under the influence of the Holy Spirit’s continuous inspiration of the people of God, to the usage of indulgences which represented a progression in the doctrine and discipline of the Church rather than a change.”
The Catholic Church anathematizes anyone who says that indulgences are useless:
“But the Church, in deploring and correcting these improper uses ‘teaches and establishes that the use of indulgences must be preserved because it is supremely salutary for the Christian people and authoritatively approved by the sacred councils; and it condemns with anathema those who maintain the uselessness of indulgences or deny the power of the Church to grant them.’”
I agree with John Calvin that indulgences are a Satanic mockery of the work of Christ. The righteousness by which we stand before God is not a patchwork righteousness made up of a combination of the righteousness of Christ, Mary, the saints, and ourselves. The doctrine of the imputation of the active and passive obedience of Christ is essential to justification and the foundation for the Protestant rejection of indulgences. This alone is the gospel.
A common verse used to support indulgences is Colossians 1:24 where Paul says that he is “filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body.” Therefore, it is argued that the sufferings of Christ on the cross are not sufficient to save us. We need to complete what is lacking in Christ’s atonement through our own suffering. But the affliction of Christ Paul is speaking of is not his suffering of atonement on the cross for sin (Heb 10:10-14), but his lifelong suffering as a minister of God. These are the ministerial sufferings of Christ which Paul continued by acting as a servant of God for the sake of the church through his apostolic ministry. Because Christ and Paul are now in heaven and no longer suffering, it is the church’s responsibility to continue this suffering. This is especially true for pastors as they shepherd and suffer for the church of God. This suffering includes persecution which is the calling of all Christians (2 Tim 3:12).