By Mike T. Rogacs
Being a former Catholic, from time to time I look back upon my former religion and am always amazed at the glaring inconsistencies of its doctrines as compared with Biblical doctrine. One such example is the method in which a Catholic believes his sins are to be remitted by the church and thereby by the Lord.
It is taught by the Catholic Church that sin carries with it two consequences: guilt and punishment (punishment in this life and/or in Purgatory). The guilt of the sin must be removed by confession to the priest and by Contrition; a sorrow and detest for the sin. In addition, there remains the need for “Satisfaction;” that is, a paying of the penalty for the sin or at least seeking some sort of atonement for the penalty. One can “pay the penalty” by various acts of penance assigned by the “church” (remembering that to the Catholic mind the “church” is the hierarchy of the institution, not really all the people). If this is not done before death, a man will “pay” for his sins by suffering in Purgatory. This is a realm of the dead where their sins are purged away in time and after all sins are purged, the individual will then be permitted to enter heaven; and then again only if he had been guilty of “venial sins.” “Mortal sins” are more serious sins that cannot be purged in Purgatory, and they result with the sentence of eternity in Hell.
Let us briefly pause to remind ourselves that the concept as mentioned above is quite erroneous in light of the Scriptures. A sinful individual is not required by the Bible to confess to a special official of the church called a priest. God revealed that all Christians are priests and that we are to confess our faults one to another (1 Pet. 2:5,9; Jas. 5:16). The only wages – or penalty – for sin is death, spiritual death, with the consequence being eternal damnation for any sin if a man is not moved to repentance. A man does not need to “pay” for sins in this life or after death if he has become sorrowful over those sins, repented and has asked the Father for forgiveness (Rom. 6:23; 2 Thess. 1:6-9; 2 Cor. 7:9-11). Also, concerning Purgatory, there is no scriptural basis for a “venial and mortal” distinction between sins, and there likewise exists no basis for the concept of the realm of Purgatory. As the Scriptures teach, when we sin in one point of the law we are guilty of all points of the law (Jas. 2:10). This being true, the Catholics would then have us guilty of both venial and mortal sins! How, then, could we solve the dilemma? The truth is that there is no such distinction is sins. And Purgatory? It is most likely a perversion of the Biblical teaching concerning the Realm of Hades (Lk. 16:22-28; Acts 2:27, 31; Matt. 16:18; 2 Pet. 2:9; etc.).
“The Sacrament of Penance”
But included in the Catholic concept of remission of sins is the topic of our concern in this article. It is a little understood topic by many who are outside the Catholic Church, and even by many Catholics to boot! We approach this topic by going on with our look at the concept of remission of the penalty of sin (the Sacrament of Penance) in the Catholic Church. The Catholic is taught that he can seek atonement for this penalty by seeking an “Indulgence.” The indulgence is defined by Catholics as “a remission, granted by the Church, of temporal punishment which often remains due to sin after its guilt has been forgiven.” In other words, one can avoid the punishment of sin if the church will see fit to grant him an indulgence. These grants can be total, partial, perpetual and temporal (within a certain time limit). They are granted by the church to a living individual or can also be granted to someone who is dead and in Purgatory (how one knows if a dead friend or relative is no longer in Purgatory and therefore no longer needs someone in this life to seek an indulgence is extremely hard to determine in the doctrine). The church administers these grants (indulgences) by a general edict applying certain terms which can be met by all Catholics if they so choose to meet them. Such an edict was used in persuading the Catholic citizenry of the European nations to fight in the Crusades in the Holy Land and thereby, in service to the church, gain an indulgence for sin. An indulgence can also be administered by a written decree to an individual when he has in some manner earned such favor from the church, or by word of mouth from a priest in a mass or some other occasion (an emergency, etc.). (We might recall hearing of a mass being said for some famous departed individual, i.e. John F. Kennedy.) The derisive expression “buying an indulgence” is partly justified if one realizes that certain costs of a priest’s time might need to be paid by the individual who has asked for a mass to be said. It is also obviously true that in past ages indulgences were literally bought by influential Catholics (although the church has in print referred to this practice as being an “obvious” corruption of the doctrine).
The Catholic Church cites Matt. 16:18,19 and 18:18 as their authority for “binding and loosing” in all spiritual matters, even in the realm of sin and its penalty. They believe the Pope to be the successor of Peter, possessing Peter’s power, and all priests sharing similar authority to bind and loose by being successors of the other apostles. But this doctrine of Apostolic Succession is alien to the scriptures, and this fact negates the concept that “the church” (or the hierarchy) has the authority to bind or loose anything, aside from binding or loosing any supposed penalty for sin. But believing in this apostolic succession, it was easy to develop the doctrine of indulgences during the Crusades, and seeing the possible profit involved, to continue to expand the doctrine’s scope. (In all false doctrine there appears to be suspicious motives of gain.)
It is also taught that God Himself can grant without the church’s approval any indulgence to anyone in Purgatory. It is true that God will exercise mercy in His judgments concerning the saints, but the Bible teaches, as we will note later, that this will not be in the form of an indulgence.
Now that we have an outlook on indulgences, we must ask the obvious question: where do the Catholics believe these grants for the remission of punishments come from? From God the Father? No. It is taught that they come from a place called the “Treasury of Merits” (sometimes called “Treasury of Grace”). To adequately present the composition of this “treasury” I shall give to you a quote from The Teaching of the Catholic Church, editor, Canon George D. Smith, page 977:
“The Church is not merely a number of individuals joined by belief in the same truths, by the practice of the same worship, and by submission to the same authority. It is this, indeed, but it is more. It is the Mystical Body of Christ. By his death Christ made it possible for us to gain that supernatural life of sanctifying grace whereby ‘we are made partakers of the Divine Nature.’ Those who possess this life are united with each other by their common union with Christ from whom they all received it. Thus Christ’s merits and satisfaction are shared by faithful Christians through their union with Christ in the Church . . . Thus Christ’s atonement being infinite is inexhaustible, and all the sins of the world can be expiated by it. Moreover, the saints have often made satisfaction in excess of what they require to atone for their own sins. This satisfactory value of their acts, not being used for themselves, remains in existence and can be used for others. This is that spiritual treasury often called the `Treasury of Merits,’ from which can be unceasingly drawn satisfaction for the sins of Christians.”
Let us make clear the implications of this teaching. The “Treasury of Merits” or “Grace” is the store house of all grants for the remission of sin and its punishments. It is made up of all the “excess” merits and virtues of all Catholic “saints” (the special champions of the faith), of the most revered (or is it overly revered) Virgin Mary, and of the “inexhaustible” merits of the sinless Jesus Christ. If one is in sin and is a Catholic, he can gain the forgiveness of God by seeking to apply to his credit the good life of someone else.
Surely the fallacy of the doctrine should be evident. In the above quote it was suggested that a Christian has the Divine Nature of Christ at the moment he becomes a member of the “body” of Christ. Thusly we are to be automatically found sharing the merits of Christ. One does not have to pay for his sins if he can get Jesus (or get the church to ask Him) to grant remission, even after death, of the penalty of any sin. In other words, it is supposed to be the meritorious lives of others, especially that of Christ, which pays for our sins and remits the consequences of such. The mistake of the above quote is that the church is not part of the Mystical Body of Christ in the sense of the Catholic thought. The church is not literally part of the bodily form of Christ and therefore possesses the “Divine Nature,” simply because we are part of His actual form and substance, and being part of Him in this manner we have assumed the benefits of His meritorious life. In this view, we would have the stockpile of virtues flowing through the “veins” of that “body-substance” of Christ, and we draw from the veins whatever “food” (virtues) we need to correct our inadequacies, as does each cell of a physical body. Biblically, the term “Body of Christ” refers to the body, or group, of believers which Christ claims as His own; which He purchased with His blood (Eph. 3:15; Acts 20:28). Again, it is a group, it is an ekklesia, not a literal body-substance of one called Christ. This is often the mistake of the mystical thinking Catholic Church. Another example is their doctrine that mystically the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper changes to a literal body and blood of Jesus. This, too, is contrary to scripture as is their concept of the church’s being a “body.” This Biblical “body” which we are truly baptized into (Gal. 3:27; Eph. 1:22-23) is called “a body” to express to us that the group of Christians forming the ekklesia should function as does the human body: one head, many members, different functions (1 Cor. 12:12-18; Rom. 12:4-5). The Divine Nature mentioned is not given automatically to God’s children any more than a child’s personality is automatically given to him at birth in this life. After our spiritual birth in baptism (Rom. 6:1-6; etc.) we must put on whatever characteristics that are required of us by our spiritual parents. We do this by emulating Jesus Christ’s demonstrated virtues (2 Pet. 1:2-9; Phil. 3:13-17; 1 Cor. 11:1) just as a child emulates his father, mother, brother and sister. The virtue of Christ itself is not that which saves us. It is our birth by baptism into God’s one family group and the obedience of the rules of that family (the faith of Christ) which will also have us emulating to the best of our human ability the virtues of Christ. His sacrifice gave us the remission of our sins through the likeness of his death, burial and resurrection in baptism, and His life gave us the example of obedience of the Almighty Father, the kind of obedience necessary to please Him (1 Pet. 1:9-23).
The Catholics have forgotten long ago that the Bible only indicates that a man shall be judged according to the works he does in his body. No man shall be judged by how I have lived, good or bad; nor shall I be judged by how any “saint” or how Mary lived. I, and all mankind shall be judged according to how we were able to live according to Christ’s laws and up to His examples, from our baptism unto the day of our death (1 Pet. 1:2). No one’s virtue or merit can or shall remit or purge sin or its punishment from another person’s soul before or after death. To be sure, God has promised to use mercy in His judgments, but this mercy shall be based upon our own application of mercy in this life, and upon Christ’s knowledge of human weakness (to which He did not yield) (Jas, 2:13; Heb. 4:15-16). But to think the merits of other saints could purge our sins? Why, God tells us that the righteous will scarcely be saved by obedience (1 Pet. 4:18)!
Effects on the Church
I have been motivated to write these remarks concerning the erroneous Catholic doctrine of the “Treasury of Grace” for a reason which to many might now be obvious. There has been some of our brethren in Christ who have for reasons of their own been teaching what to my eyes is just about the same thing as a “Treasury of Merits” or “Grace”. I have not seen anyone call it a treasury, but it is quite clear that they are teaching that our salvation is based not upon our obedience of God’s law but upon the “error-free and meritorious life of Jesus Christ.” Some call this the “imputation of Christ’s righteousness” upon souls. Some call it simply Calvinism. But let us give credit to all whom it’s due: the doctrine can find roots in the Catholic Church which developed the concept in an attempt to put aside the importance of an obedient life and make salvation easier to the man who dislikes strict obedience. Though it is suggested that it would be better for all Catholics to live a “clean” life, the doctrine of the “Treasury” permits, if not encourages, a very loose-lived life. Eat, drink, and be merry. As long as the common Catholic does not incur upon himself the wrath of the hierarchy, it is good to let him think that the meritorious life of someone else will eventually get him into heaven. The Catholics on the Crusades committed a multitude of sins against humanity, but since indulgences were granted from the meritorious lives of others, the Crusaders needed not to fear Hell, while it so happened that the Church profited.
Is it not clear that any doctrine which justifies disobedience, no matter if such disobedience appears to be “white and little” or “black and big”, is of Satan, not of God (Eph. 5:6,7; 2 Thess. 1:7-9)?!
The motive of the Catholic Church to redefine sin and its forgiveness was power: a loose definition of faithfulness and obedience of God’s laws, methods, and plan of work and worship would insure obtaining a membership to that church as large as possible. This definition helped contribute to the rise and support of every unscriptural practice presented to the Catholics by each group of converts (instrumental music in worship; infant baptism by various modes; church control and involvement in social and political concerns; Christmas; Easter; etc.). In all this can be seen the evil that any practice and belief can eventually fit into a religion which teaches that a broad base of fellowship of any peoples with a “good” king of religiousity is justified by the meritorious life of Christ which will cover up the disobedience of the “good in other churches.”
That is what some of our brethren are teaching; let us have a broader base of fellowship. The meritorious life of Christ is really a “Treasury of Grace” which will purge away for free the disobedience that is done in “ignorance.”
I left the Catholic Church. Why is it that some of my brethren wish to drag us all back?!
Truth Magazine, XX:10, p. 10-12
March 4, 1976