When I say that I like a good indulgence, I'm not talking about a trip to the London based beauty salon of that name. Nor the delicious sounding moist chocolate cake that I found tempting me on the web when googling "Indulgence". But rather the Roman Catholic practise (still authorised by the church) of people being able to give to the church so that their loved ones have to spend less time in purgatory. For those not versed in things Roman Catholic let me explain...
Purgatory is where RCs are taught that you go when you die to burn off the residue of your sin that you have not been able to deal with whilst on earth through your religious practices (Penance, Mass etc). This is because they don't believe that when you have faith in Jesus you are given his righteous status with God. Rather they believe that through the waters of baptism you are made actually righteous and that then you maintain your righteousness through your life by taking the sacraments. So when you sin, your righteousness decreases, therefore you go to confession and are told to say 3 Hail Marys and 2 Our Fathers as penance. You do this and as a result top your righteousness back up again.
Of course no one can maintain perfect righteousness post-baptism, and therefore, even after the final dose of righteousness through the last rites (I love the other name for this - Extreme Unction- it sounds like a sacrement with attitude!), you need a little refining (or a lot...) so that you are perfect and can go to heaven.
Now Purgatory is not a nice place (don't worry it's not a real place at all!), as the refining that goes on is more of the metal refining process involving a lot of heat, than the manners refining process involving a finishing school in Switzerland. So if you love someone you want to shorten their stay in Purgatory. Therefore you give to the church and get an certificate called an Indulgence in return, telling you how many years they get let off.
It was the misselling of indulgences, primarily to fund the building of St. Peter's basilica in Rome, that was the biggest gripe the Martin Luther had with the Roman Catholic church when he nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg, 500 years ago today. He wasn't seeking to form a new denomination. He wasn't even totally against indulgences (that came later). He just thought, amongst other things, that they were being abused for ungodly gain.
I'm very grateful that Luther's thinking didn't stop there. In his grace, God was at work in this passionate German monk, so that over the ensuing years he came to a fully fledged realisation that righteousness was not something that was given out by the church nor could it be earned through religious effort, but rather was the gift of God through faith in Jesus Christ. As Romans 1:17 says
"For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”
It's not that we are made literally righteous, but rather that God treats as though we are righteous like Jesus, because at the cross Jesus died to deal with our unrighteousness.
There's no doubt that I'd have made a great Roman Catholic. I can do guilt better than most and I love playing mind games with God. My conscience likes nothing better than having an argument with itself, working out what it can and can't get away with. I still like a good indulgence. I like to try and mentally justify things that I do wrong, by telling myself about the things that I do right.
So on this mornings waddle I came across a beer can lying by a country path. When I see these I am irresistibly drawn them, not because I am like Luther and partial to the odd jar of ale, but because I feel the need to pick it up and take it to the bin. So there I am jogging along, holding an empty can of Fosters at 730am. A sight which would have probably have helped most people to understand why I had gone such a bright shade of red.
Now when I jog, I flob. I spit. Lots. But I always try to spit into the hedge, because I hate finding blobs of other people's flob on the path. If I miss the hedge and hit the path I stop and rub it in with my foot. Usually. Because this morning I was moving at such pace that I was at least 3 metres past the flob before I registered my miss. And here's where my indulgence comes in. I felt bad. I knew in my complicated little mind that I should go back. But I told myself that I was holding in my hand a trophy of my good works, an empty can of Fosters, which meant that I didn't have to deal with my sin of path flobbing. I'd bought myself a pass to clear my conscience.
I know. I am both disgusting and think about things too much!
But I think lots of us operate in the same way a lot of the time. We are convicted that something we've done is wrong and so we seek to mentally atone for it ourselves. "I know I shouldn't have been speeding, but it's because I needed to get home to help my wife with the kids." Or we don't want to do something we know is right, so we look to our bank of good deeds and see how much we're in credit. "I know that I should go to the prayer meeting tonight, but last Sunday I went to church twice!"
This way of thinking shows how we fail to see both the depth of our sin, there's nothing we can do to deal with it, and the enormity of God's grace, there's nothing we have to do to deal with. God has done it all in Christ. When those truths are written on our hearts then we may just begin to do the right thing for the right motive; a deep love for God and our neighbour.