Are Indulgences Making a Comeback?

Are Indulgences Making a Comeback? Rev. Tony Cooke

One of the movies I’ve enjoyed in recent year was about Martin Luther’s ministry leading up to and through the Protestant Reformation (the title of this work from 2003 is “Luther”).  In it, his grief over the unscriptural practice of indulgences is clearly seen.  The “Pocket History of the Church” says that indulgences, “…authorized by papal authority in 1411, had begun in the eleventh century with the teaching that pious service, say, in the Crusades would reduce one’s stay in purgatory. In the fifteenth century, guarantees of shorter stays in purgatory in exchange for monies became a regular component of fundraising techniques for the papacy.”

The idea of “buying blessings” did not start, though, in the Middle Ages.  In Acts 8, Simon the Sorcerer made an offer to Peter that he could refuse (because of Peter’s integrity)!

Acts 8:18-22

18 And when Simon saw that through the laying on of the apostles’ hands the Holy Spirit was given, he offered them money, 19 saying, "Give me this power also, that anyone on whom I lay hands may receive the Holy Spirit."

20 But Peter said to him, "Your money perish with you, because you thought that the gift of God could be purchased with money! 21 You have neither part nor portion in this matter, for your heart is not right in the sight of God. 22 Repent therefore of this your wickedness, and pray God if perhaps the thought of your heart may be forgiven you.

The New Testament in Modern English translates verse 20, “To hell with you and your money!”  J.B. Phillips says that this “is exactly what the Greek means,” and the Message Version and the Good News Translation also provide similar renderings.  Even today, the term “Simony” refers not only to the practice of purchasing ecclesiastical offices, but also is used broadly to denote any kind of trafficking in sacred things.

We all know that tithing and giving is an important part of what the Bible teaches, and we know that it takes money for churches and ministries to operate, but there is a serious problem when the impression is given that every blessing, every breakthrough, every miracle, and every answer to prayer is contingent upon a financial gift being given.  Maybe we’re not trying to reduce our own time, or spring a relative from purgatory through financial gifts today, but isn’t it still a serious matter if people are led to believe that every blessing and breakthrough is somehow connected to money?

I recently heard a minister on television extolling the virtues of the number “seven” as it is used throughout the Bible.  Somehow, he drew the conclusion that since this is 2007, that meant that his viewers were being instructed by God to give a certain monetary amount to receive their breakthrough.  Somehow, though, I didn’t hear him suggest that anyone send in a $7 offering (which would have seemed logical if there really was even a remote connection to what we’re supposed to give relative to the calendar year).  Somehow, $77, or $777, and $7,777 were the suggested amounts.  His line of thought made me wonder if no offerings would have been expected in the year 2000. 

As I listened to this slick presentation, I couldn’t help but wonder if Martin Luther wasn’t questioning if he had published his Ninety-five Theses in vain.  I thought to myself, “I’ve heard of the ministries of encouragement, edification, and exhortation, but this is nothing more than extraction—extracting money out of the peoples’ wallets!”  Further, I wondered why all of these presentations on television always end with the phrase, “Go to your phone,” and never, “Go to your church.” 

Recently, I heard of a minister who said, “You can receive information from anyone, but you can only receive revelation from a minister that you sow into.”  I thought to myself, “If that’s the case, then none of us would be able to receive revelation from any of Paul’s writings, because none of us ever gave financially to him.”

As much as I dislike some of the things I’m seeing and hearing (and I know that these are just a couple of examples among hundreds), it reminded me of how grateful I am for the pastors, missionaries, and other fine ministers who share the Gospel and the Word of God in a straightforward manner, with simplicity and sincerity.  Thank God for those who are keeping the waters pure!

Blessings Without Money

I was refreshed as I remembered Isaiah 55:1-2:  Ho! Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat. Yes, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.  Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and let your soul delight itself in abundance.

Please know, though, that I’m not against giving!  Churches, missionaries, and ministries all need finances to operate, and to fulfill the Great Commission!  As long as we hold to the understanding that God’s greatest blessings are free gifts, then we can give from the right heart and the right motive, and we can avoid being pressured, manipulated, or taken advantage of!  What are some of the healthy New Testament principles of giving?

  1. Believers are to give PERSONALLY.  In 2 Corinthians 8:1-5, Paul described the great generosity of the Macedonians, and he said (verse 5), “…they first gave themselves to the Lord, and then to us by the will of God.”  Giving wasn’t just a religious ritual, but it was a reflection of a life totally given to God.
  2. Believers are to give SYSTEMATICALLY.  Paul said (1 Corinthians 16:2), “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside…”  Systematic and regular giving produces stability in churches and promotes maturity and responsibility in believers.
  3. Believers are to give PROPORTIONATELY.  If you read more of 1 Corinthians 16:2, it says, “On the first day of the week let each one of you lay something aside, storing up as he may prosper…”  Giving was to be in proportion to how much the people had prospered.
  4. Believers are to give GENEROUSLY.  Proverbs 11:25 says, “The generous soul will be made rich, and he who waters will also be watered himself.”  Keep in mind that this doesn’t just apply to money.  We can also be generous with our time, our talents, our encouragement of others, etc.
  5. Believers are to give WILLINGLY.  In Exodus 35:5, Moses said, “Take from among you an offering to the LORD. Whoever is of a willing heart, let him bring it as an offering to the LORD…”
  6. Believers are to give PURPOSEFULLY.  One of my favorite verses on giving has always been 2 Corinthians 9:7, which says, “So let each one give as he purposes in his heart…”  Giving should be deliberate and intentional, not because of pressure, hype, or manipulation.
  7. Believers are to give CHEERFULLY.  The last part of 2 Corinthians 9:7 says, “…for God loves a cheerful giver.”  The word cheerful here is the Greek word hilaros, from which we get our English word hilarious.  Giving truly should be a joy!
  8. Believers are to give RESPONSIBLY.  There is a principle of responsibility when it comes to finances.  We need to be responsible not only with the 10%, but also with the 90%.  We are to be responsible to tithe to our local church and we are responsible to see to it that the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is carried out.
  9. Believers are to give EXPECTANTLY.  Many Scriptures (e.g., Ecclesiastes 11:1-3, Luke 6:38, etc.) address the blessing connected with giving, and we should give with a heart of expectancy.
  10. Believers are to give WORSHIPFULLY.  True giving is far more than a financial transaction; it is an act of worship unto God.  In Deuteronomy 26:10-11, God’s people were instructed (regarding their giving), "Then you shall set it before the LORD your God, and worship before the LORD your God. 11 So you shall rejoice in every good thing which the LORD your God has given to you and your house…”

Coming Full Cycle

Wrong teaching or practices should never keep us from doing the right thing!  There was a time in the Old Testament, when God instructed Moses to make a brass serpent and put it up on a pole (Numbers 21:8-9).  It symbolized Christ on the Cross, and everyone who looked on it was healed.  However, that symbol was later abused.  In 2 Kings 18:1-8, King Hezekiah destroyed the bronze serpent because the children of Israel had begun to worship it instead of God.  What God intended to bless the children of Israel became an idolatrous stumbling block to them!  Later, though, Jesus said (John 3:14-15): “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of Man be lifted up,  that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.”

Jesus didn’t throw out the baby with the bathwater!  Even though a godly king had to destroy what had been corrupted, Jesus was able to see beyond the distortions, recall God’s original purpose, and reclaim the truth of what God had originally brought forth.  May we all be very strong in seeing through the clutter and distractions as we walk out God’s original purpose of who He has called us to be and what He has called us to do!