According to the Roman Catholic Church, what is the definition of an indulgence?

“‘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.’ ‘An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin.’ The faithful can gain indulgences for themselves or apply them to the dead.” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1471

“By a plenary indulgence is meant the remission of the entire temporal punishment due to sin so that no further expiation is required in Purgatory. A partial indulgence commutes only a certain portion of the penalty; and this portion is determined in accordance with the penitential discipline of the early Church.” – Catholic Encyclopedia, “Indulgences”

In other words, by doing certain works – such as saying certain prayers, praying the rosary, visiting churches on certain days, etc. a person may be able to reduce their amount of time spent in purgatory. For an example list of indulgences, click here.

Treasury of the Church

What is the “treasury of the church”?

“We also call these spiritual goods of the communion of saints the Church’s treasury . . . the “treasury of the Church” is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. In Christ, the Redeemer himself, the satisfactions and merits of his Redemption exist and find their effficacy.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1476

‘This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. They are truly immense, unfathomable, and even pristine in their value before God. In the treasury, too, are the prayers and good works of all the saints, all those who have followed in the footsteps of Christ the Lord and by his grace have made their lives holy and carried out the mission the Father entrusted to them. In this way they attained their own salvation and at the same time cooperated in saving their brothers in the unity of the Mystical Body.'” – Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 1477

The “treasury of the Church” basically is a reservoir of merit consisting of Christ’s sacrifice, Mary’s prayers and good works, as well as the prayers and good works of the saints. When a Roman Catholic receives an indulgence some of this merit is applied to their account, therefore reducing their amount of time spent in purgatory after death.

The Problem with Indulgences

Rome’s teaching on indulgences, along with their teachings on penance and purgatory, has one critical flaw – what about the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross? The truth is that Jesus Christ took all of our punishment on the cross:

“Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” – Isaiah 53:4-6 KJV

The concept of indulgences, penance, or purgatory suggests that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross was insufficient, and therefore a believer must still pay the price for their sins through their own suffering. Is this what the Bible teaches? Are we made more righteous by our actions?

“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.” – Galatians 2:21 KJV