Indulgences & Distribution of Grace (vs. Calvin #58)

Indulgences & Distribution of Grace (vs. Calvin #58) August 25, 2020

This is an installment of a series of replies (see the Introduction and Master List) to much of Book IV (Of the Holy Catholic Church) — and some of Book III — of Institutes of the Christian Religion, by early Protestant leader John Calvin (1509-1564). I utilize the public domain translation of Henry Beveridge, dated 1845, from the 1559 edition in Latin; available online. Calvin’s words will be in blue. All biblical citations (in my portions) will be from RSV unless otherwise noted.

Related reading from yours truly:

Biblical Catholic Answers for John Calvin (2010 book: 388 pages)

A Biblical Critique of Calvinism (2012 book: 178 pages)

Biblical Catholic Salvation: “Faith Working Through Love” (2010 book: 187 pages; includes biblical critiques of all five points of “TULIP”)


III, 5:2-5; 8:1 


But since very many who see the vile imposture, theft, and rapine (with which the dealers in indulgences have hitherto deluded and sported with us), are not aware of the true source of the impiety, it may be proper to show not only what indulgences truly are, but also that they are polluted in every part. They give the name of treasury of the Church to the merits of Christ, the holy Apostles and Martyrs. They pretend, as I have said, that the radical custody of the granary has been delivered to the Roman bishop, to whom the dispensation of these great blessings belongs in such a sense, that he can both exercise it by himself, and delegate the power of exercising it to others. Hence we have from the Pope at one time plenary indulgences, at another for certain years; from the cardinals for a hundred days, and from the bishops for forty. These, to describe them truly, are a profanation of the blood of Christ, and a delusion of Satan, by which the Christian people are led away from the grace of God and the life which is in Christ, and turned aside from the true way of salvation. For how could the blood of Christ be more shamefully profaned than by denying its sufficiency for the remission of sins, for reconciliation and satisfaction, unless its defects, as if it were dried up and exhausted, are supplemented from some other quarter? (III, 5:2)

Catholics believe no such blasphemy. We fully agree with Calvin and Protestants that Christ’s merits are super-sufficient (a trillion times sufficient and efficient) to accomplish any task. At the same time, God chooses to involve creatures in His distribution of grace and salvation: in applying what Christ won on the cross.

That’s what prayer is about, and what redemptive suffering on behalf of others is all about; it’s what participating in the redemptive saving power of Christ (in an entirely secondary, derivative sense) by means of our own suffering is about (the last two things having been documented from Scripture earlier in this chapter).

Peter’s words are: “To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins,” (Acts 10:43); but indulgences bestow the remission of sins through Peter, Paul, and the Martyrs. “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin,” says John (1 John 1:7). Indulgences make the blood of the martyrs an ablution of sins. “He has made him to be sin (i.e. a satisfaction for sin) for us who knew no sin,” says Paul (2 Cor. 5:21), “that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.” Indulgences make the satisfaction of sin to depend on the blood of the martyrs. Paul exclaimed and testified to the Corinthians, that Christ alone was crucified, and died for them (1 Cor. 1:13). Indulgences declare that Paul and others died for us. Paul elsewhere says that Christ purchased the Church with his own blood (Acts 20:28). Indulgences assign another purchase to the blood of martyrs. “By one offering he has perfected for ever them that are sanctified,” says the Apostle (Heb. 10:14). Indulgences, on the other hand, insist that sanctification, which would otherwise be insufficient, is perfected by martyrs. John says that all the saints “have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” (Rev. 7:14). Indulgences tell us to wash our robes in the blood of saints. (III, 5:2)

This is sheer sophistry: classic repeated examples of Calvin’s “either/or” reasoning: the creation of false dichotomies. The Bible takes a “both/and” approach. It is God who ultimately does all these things, but He utilizes His creatures to help apply it. That overcomes Calvin’s relentless false dichotomies.

Calvin wants to argue that human beings never have anything whatever, by their God-produced merits, to do with salvation. This is quite curious, since the Bible so often contradicts him. Here are many such passages that Calvin, oddly enough, somehow completely overlooked, with additional notes of how Calvin’s own unfinished “either/or version” of Scripture (the “EOV”) translated the passages:

Romans 11:13-14 . . . I magnify my ministry  [14] in order to make my fellow Jews jealous, and thus save some of them.  [EOV: “I magnify God, in order that . . . He may save some of them.”]

Romans 15:17-18 In Christ Jesus, then, I have reason to be proud of my work for God. [18] For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, [EOV: “I have no reason to be proud of my work for God . . . what Christ has wrought through no one else to win obedience from the Gentiles”]

1 Corinthians 1:21 . . . it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. [EOV: “it pleased God without the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.”]

1 Corinthians 7:14, 16 For the unbelieving husband is consecrated through his wife, and the unbelieving wife is consecrated through her husband. Otherwise, your children would be unclean, but as it is they are holy. . . . [16] Wife, how do you know whether you will save your husband? Husband, how do you know whether you will save your wife? [EOV: “how do you know whether God will save your husband? . . . whether God will save your wife?]

1 Corinthians 9:19-22 For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. [20] To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews; to those under the law I became as one under the law — though not being myself under the law — that I might win those under the law. [21] To those outside the law I became as one outside the law — not being without law toward God but under the law of Christ — that I might win those outside the law. [22] To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.   [EOV: “that God, not I, might win the more. . . . that God, not I, might by all means save some.”]

2 Corinthians 5:18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; [EOV: “and gave no one else the ministry of reconciliation”]

Ephesians 3:2 . . . the stewardship of God’s grace that was given to me for you, [EOV: “God’s grace that could not be and was not given to me for you”]

2 Timothy 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation in Christ Jesus with its eternal glory. [EOV: “I endure nothing for the sake of the elect, that would help them obtain salvation“]

James 5:20 . . . whoever brings back a sinner from the error of his way will save his soul from death . . . [EOV: “When God brings back a sinner from the error of his way He will save his soul”]

1 Peter 3:1 . . . some, though they do not obey the word, may be won without a word by the behavior of their wives, [EOV: “may be won without a word by the behavior of Jesus”]

1 Peter 4:10 As each has received a gift, employ it for one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: [EOV: “God employs it for others, as a good steward of His varied grace”]

There is an admirable passage in opposition to their blasphemies in Leo, a Roman Bishop (ad Palæstinos, Ep. 81). “Although the death of many saints was precious in the sight of the Lord (Ps. 116:15), yet no innocent man’s slaughter was the propitiation of the world. The just received crowns did not give them; and the fortitude of believers produced examples of patience, not gifts of righteousness: for their deaths were for themselves; and none by his final end paid the debt of another, except Christ our Lord, in whom alone all are crucified—all dead, buried, and raised up.” This sentiment, as it was of a memorable nature, he has elsewhere repeated (Epist. 95). Certainly one could not desire a clearer confutation of this impious dogma. Augustine introduces the same sentiment not less appositely: “Although brethren die for brethren, yet no martyr’s blood is shed for the remission of sins: this Christ did for us, and in this conferred upon us not what we should imitate, but what should make us grateful,” (August. Tract. in Joann. 84). (III, 5:3)

No one is saying otherwise, so this is a perfectly moot, and useless point. Calvin continues to war against a straw man that he seems to think is Catholic teaching. Of course, as always, Augustine and Leo: two of the greatest teachers in the early Catholic Church –, have expressed what we continue to hold today. Nothing has changed.

If Calvin were so utterly confident that the Catholic Church taught such “blasphemies,” surely he could muster up one quotation (but this seems to be quite the novelty for him) from a Catholic dogmatic source? But he doesn’t do so, and there is a very good reason for that: it doesn’t exist.

Indeed, as their whole doctrine is a patchwork of sacrilege and blasphemy, this is the most blasphemous of the whole. (III, 5:3)

It would be if only we believed it, as Calvin vainly imagines and fantasizes. But it’s great copy to sell books and whip up suspicions and hostilities, . . .

Let them acknowledge whether or not they hold the following dogmas: That the martyrs, by their death, performed more to God, and merited more than was necessary for themselves, and that they have a large surplus of merits which may be applied to others; that in order that this great good may not prove superfluous, their blood is mingled with the blood of Christ, and out of both is formed the treasury of the Church, for the forgiveness and satisfaction of sins; and that in this sense we must understand the words of Paul: “Who now rejoice in my sufferings, and fill up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in my flesh for his body’s sake, which is the Church,” (Col. 1:24). What is this but merely to leave the name of Christ, and at the same time make him a vulgar saintling, who can scarcely be distinguished in the crowd? He alone ought to be preached, alone held forth, alone named, alone looked to, whenever the subject considered is the obtaining of the forgiveness of sins, expiation, and sanctification. (III, 5:3)

We believe in a treasury of merits, because it is plainly described in Scripture, in concept, as shown not far above in no less than eleven explicit passages. Rightly understood, these merits and graces are always derived from, only come ultimately from Him. But they are real, and they help others to be saved and to obtain more grace (just as prayer does: perhaps that will be Calvin’s target, too?).

Calvin’s mistake in caricaturing Catholic teaching is to imply that we see or draw no distinction whatever between the redemptive suffering and martyrdom and blood of a saint, compared to the passion of Christ, and His crucifixion, and His blood.

Once again, with his fallacious “either/or” mindset, he fails to make necessary and crucial distinctions and casually assumes that because God did all, in terms of the origins and cause of grace and salvation, therefore man can do nothing at all, even in a cooperative or “secondary vessel” sense (by God’s design). This is not what the Bible teaches, as I have shown repeatedly and will continue to demonstrate.

They acknowledge no fruit if Christ is the only propitiation, if he alone died for our sins, if he alone was offered for our redemption. Nevertheless, they say, Peter and Paul would have gained the crown of victory though they had died in their beds a natural death. (III, 5:3)

Really? This is Straw Man x 1000, and not worthy of the dignity of a rational response.

How maliciously they wrest the passage in which Paul says, that he supplies in his body that which was lacking in the sufferings of Christ! (Col. 1:24). That defect or supplement refers not to the work of redemption, satisfaction, or expiation, but to those afflictions with which the members of Christ, in other words, all believers, behave to be exercised, so long as they are in the flesh. He says, therefore, that part of the sufferings of Christ still remains—viz. that what he suffered in himself he daily suffers in his members. Christ so honors us as to regard and count our afflictions as his own. (III, 5:4)

Calvin actually concedes an important part of the discussion at hand here (whether he is aware of it or not): in his last sentence. Our afflictions are Christ’s. Conversely, His afflictions are, in some mystical sense that we’ll never fully understand, our own, too, and if we are part of that, then in a particular, limited sense, we play a role (always infinitely inferior to that of Christ) in the redemption of others as well.

This has already been shown previously in this chapter, in many scriptural passages. Our sufferings can literally help others to be saved, or redeemed; therefore in that lesser sense, we have participated in the redemption of their souls: a thing that always ultimately goes back to Christ, but in which we participate in a more remote fashion. This is not novel Catholic teaching, but explicit biblical teaching:

2 Corinthians 1:6 If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; . . .

2 Timothy 2:10 Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain salvation . . .

2 Timothy 4:6 For I am already on the point of being sacrificed; the time of my departure has come.

Calvin wrote about two of these verses, as follows:

As he elsewhere says, “I endure all things for the elect’s sakes, that they may also obtain the salvation which is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory” (2 Tim. 2:10). He also writes to the Corinthians: “Whether we be afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation, which is effectual in the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer,” (2 Cor. 1:6). In the same place he immediately explains his meaning by adding, that he was made a minister of the Church, not for redemption, but according to the dispensation which he received to preach the gospel of Christ. (III, 5:4)

But this doesn’t eliminate the apparent meaning of 1:24:

Colossians 1:24-25 Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, [25] of which I became a minister according to the divine office which was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known,

Verse 25 is a different clause and topic: Paul’s preaching function, as an apostle (expanded upon in verses 26-29), rather than an explanation of his meaning in verse 24, as Calvin claims. Therefore it doesn’t at all rule out a connection with redemption in 1:24. It’s merely more “either/or” reasoning; but in this instance it’s more like a moot point, by appealing to Colossians 1:25 in order to dismiss a “Catholic” interpretation.

Other passages (most already produced above), refer to a mystical “togetherness” in some fashion between Christ’s suffering and ours, united to his: 

Romans 6:8 . . . we have died with Christ, . . . 

Romans 8:17 . . . fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

1 Corinthians 12:26-27 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. [27] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. 

2 Corinthians 4:10 always carrying in the body the death of Jesus . . .

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ; . . .

Galatians 6:17 . . . I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

Philippians 3:10 that I may . . . share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,

2 Timothy 2:11 The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we shall also live with him

That’s a lot of material on the same theme (and all from St. Paul). Calvin can’t possibly dismiss all of it. In fact, he writes eloquently about Philippians 3:10:

How powerfully should it soften the bitterness of the cross, to think that the more we are afflicted with adversity, the surer we are made of our fellowship with Christ; by communion with whom our sufferings are not only blessed to us, but tend greatly to the furtherance of our salvation. (III, 8:1)

But usually his passages of this sort tend to contra-Catholic rhetoric:

Far be it from us to imagine that Paul thought any thing was wanting to the sufferings of Christ in regard to the complete fulness of righteousness, salvation, and life, or that he wished to make any addition to it, after showing so clearly and eloquently that the grace of Christ was poured out in such rich abundance as far to exceed all the power of sin (Rom. 5:15). (III, 5:4)

Of course, Paul didn’t think anything was (strictly speaking) lacking in the sufferings of Christ, because he was thinking in a “both/and” mode. He doesn’t see any contradiction between what he says and the sufferings of Christ on our behalf. For Paul it is a “primary” and “secondary / derivative:” scenario, without the latter contradicting the former in the slightest.

But for Calvin and his dichotomous thinking, the latter would contradict the former. In order to avoid what he falsely thinks is a contradiction, he seeks to vainly explain the passage away and then express outrage at the straw man of the Catholic Church supposedly disparaging the work and merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. He doesn’t have a solid argument, so he caricatures and rails against his opponent, referring to “monstrous dogmas,” etc.

Moreover, to say nothing of these abominations, who taught the Pope to enclose the grace of Jesus Christ in lead and parchment, grace which the Lord is pleased to dispense by the word of the Gospel? Undoubtedly either the Gospel of God or indulgences must be false. . . . indulgences, bringing forth some portion of the grace of God from the armory of the Pope, fix it to lead, parchment, and a particular place, but dissever it from the word of God. When we inquire into the origin of this abuse, it appears to have arisen from this, that when in old times the satisfactions imposed on penitents were too severe to be borne, those who felt themselves burdened beyond measure by the penance imposed, petitioned the Church for relaxation. The remission so given was called indulgence. But as they transferred satisfactions to God, and called them compensations by which men redeem themselves from the justice of God, they in the same way transferred indulgences, representing them as expiatory remedies which free us from merited punishment. The blasphemies to which we have referred have been feigned with so much effrontery that there is not the least pretext for them. (III, 5:5)

Indulgences, in Catholic teaching, are simply the remission of temporal penalties for sin, imposed by the Church. This is all a rather straightforward application of clear Scripture, stemming from the prerogative of the Church to “bind and loose”: that is, to impose penance, and to grant absolution, or free someone from a penalty:

Matthew 16:19 I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

Matthew 18:17-18 If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. [18] Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.

John 20:23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.

The biblical meaning of “binding and loosing” is explained by a standard Protestant reference dictionary as follows:

These are technical terms describing things forbidden or permitted by decisions of the scribes. . . . The terms are used in Mt. xviii. 18 in a context which defines the Church’s power to excommunicate and reconcile the sinner. . . . Power to remit and retain sins is vested in the whole Spirit-filled community in Jn. xx. 23. (“Binding and Loosing,” in The New Bible Dictionary, edited by J. D. Douglas, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1962, 153-154)

The binding aspect, should be uncontroversial, for anyone familiar with the Bible. Penance is merely an example of a category of imposed penalties: the most serious of which are explicitly noted in the Bible:  excommunication, or separation of a person from the church community (Rom 16:17; 2 Thess 3:6; 1 Tim 1:20; Tutus 3:10) and anathemas, or curses — not damnation to hell – (1 Cor 16:22; Gal 1:8-9). Indulgences are summed up in two Pauline passages. In the first, the Apostle “binds” or imposes a penance, or temporal punishment:

1 Corinthians 5:1-5 It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and of a kind that is not found even among pagans; for a man is living with his father’s wife. [2] And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you. [3] For though absent in body I am present in spirit, and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment [4] in the name of the Lord Jesus on the man who has done such a thing. When you are assembled, and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, [5] you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

Later, St. Paul “looses” or grants what is identical conceptually to an indulgence: taking away a temporal penalty that he himself imposed. He forgives the person, and asks the Corinthian church to do so also, even though the offense was not committed against either party. He acts as God’s representative:

2 Corinthians 2:5-11 But if any one has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure –not to put it too severely — to you all. [6] For such a one this punishment by the majority is enough; [7] so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. [8] So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. [9] For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. [10] Any one whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, [11] to keep Satan from gaining the advantage over us; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

Ironically, Calvin himself, in part of his commentary on this passage (2:6), essentially agrees with Catholics; even using the word “indulgence” (in a general way):

He now extends kindness even to the man who had sinned more grievously than the others, and on whose account his anger had been kindled against them all, inasmuch as they had connived at his crime. In his showing indulgence even to one who was deserving of severer punishment, the Corinthians have a striking instance to convince them, how much he disliked excessive harshness. . . .

He refers to the man who had defiled himself by an incestuous marriage with his mother-in-law. As the iniquity was not to be tolerated, Paul had given orders, that the man should be excommunicated. He had, also, severely reproved the Corinthians, because they had so long given encouragement to that enormity by their dissimulation and patient endurance. It appears from this passage, that he had been brought to repentance, after having been admonished by the Church. Hence Paul gives orders, that he be forgiven, and that he be also supported by consolation. (Calvin’s Commentaries, Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1846-1851)


(originally 2012)

Photo credit: Historical mixed media figure of John Calvin produced by artist/historian George S. Stuart and photographed by Peter d’Aprix: from the George S. Stuart Gallery of Historical Figures archive [Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license]


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