1975 has been declared by the Pope a Holy Year, so that Roman Catholics who visit Rome or go on other approved pilgrimages receive an indulgence, that is they are led to believe that punishment due for their sins will be remitted by this visit.
The Roman Catholic theory of indulgences goes hand in hand with the theory of purgatory. The two stand and fall together. Purgatory is said to be something whereby you make satisfaction after death for temporal punishment due to your sins, and an indulgence is the Pope’s action in letting you off these required satisfactions because of something else which you have done which he has nominated, for example a visit to Rome in Holy Year. But the Bible teaches that our sins are blotted out completely when we put our faith in Jesus and that there is no over-plus for which we have to give satisfaction in purgatory after death. Purgatory is a cruel doctrine, but it is a figment of the imagination. It has no basis. The Bible teaches, on the contrary, that at death Christians enter into the joyful presence of their Lord, because their sins are completely forgiven through his death.
When I was in Rome, I saw in a building near the Old Lateran Palace a staircase of 29 marble stairs which men and women, young and old, were climbing on their knees. A plaque at the bottom of the stairs stated that God would forgive the punishment of purgatory due to their sin for those who climbed these stairs on their knees, and that was why these people were engaged in this otherwise meaningless activity. I was reminded of Martin Luther when he visited Rome in 1510 before the Reformation movement began, how he had begun to climb these same stairs on his knees in the hope of obtaining indulgences and so shorten his time in purgatory. But half-way up the stairs a verse from the Bible rang through his mind: “The just shall live by faith”.
It was a verse from Habakkuk the Prophet which St Paul had re-echoed in his letter to the church at Rome. “The just shall live by faith.” Yet here was Luther trying to live by works, anxious to accumulate merit with God by climbing up these stairs on his knees. But the bible says, “The just shall live by faith”. This was God’s word. Luther wanted eternal life but he was trying to earn it by merit; but God had said, “The just shall live by faith”. We are told that Luther got up from his knees straight away, walked down and walked out. He turned his back on salvation by merit. For him from now on, it was salvation by trust in God.
“The just shall live by faith”: faith in what? Faith in God’s promises. God has spoken: some people hear and obey, others ignore his word going their own way. Those who hear have faith in him, and God accepts them and he gives them what he has promised. He promises to receive all who come to him through Christ; to save them; to forgive them. His word is clear: “If any man sin, the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all unrighteousness”. Christ’s blood is the only purgatory we need. Since God promises that Christ's blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness there is nothing left over for an indulgence to cover. Since we are saved by faith we ought not to try and climb into his favour by our merit. It is up to us to believe him, to trust him, to thank him, to serve him, so that the peace of God which comes from the knowledge of forgiveness may take the place of fear and guilt.
D. Broughton Knox, "Holy Year" in Selected Works, Volume II, pp 411-412.
This one for you, Pete and Rachel ;-)