The Protestant Indulgence
By Michael Britton, Th.D.
I have been teaching Church History for 20 years. One of the highlights of my year is showing the great Martin Luther film from the 1950s starring Niall MacGinnis. It might be in black and white but I still think it is the best of the Luther films that I have seen. In that film, Luther finds one of his parishioners publicly drunk in the middle of the day. When Luther chastises him, the man produces an indulgence that he bought from Tetzel, the monk who largely raised the funds for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The parishioner informs Luther that his sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven, because of the indulgence. He believes that as a result of having purchased the indulgence, he can live any way he pleases. When Luther shows disgust for both the indulgence and Tetzel, the man is shocked, saying that he paid good money for it. Of course, the story does not end there. Luther subsequently nailed his 95 theses attacking indulgences to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church on October 31, 1517, which some consider to be the official beginning of the Reformation, though his predecessor John Wycliffe is generally regarded as the “Morningstar” of the Reformation.
The great issue of the Reformation was soteriology (salvation) and justification, how a person becomes saved or born-again. Sola Fide (only faith), Sola Gracia (only grace) was the cry. Salvation by God’s grace through faith, plus nothing. Of course, this was determined by the overriding presupposition, Sola Scriptura (only scripture), not church tradition.
A few years ago, I was dealing with a person who was knowingly, consciously, and deliberately violating the Word of God consistently over a period of years. I was concerned about the spiritual condition of this person, especially as she was elderly. When I expressed my concern about her spiritual condition and pending eternal state, she merely assured me that everything was in order eternally because she had prayed “the prayer,” (the sinner’s prayer for salvation) many years ago. The more I contemplated this experience, the more it smacked to me of the Roman Catholic indulgence, only cheaper.
Charles Ryrie wrote in his book So Great Salvation (Wheaton:Victor, 1989) on pp. 141-142, “Normally one who has believed can be described as a believer; that is, one who continues to believe. But.. .apparently a believer may come to the place of not believing, and yet God will not disown him, since He cannot disown Himself.”
Therefore, we now have unbelieving believers. Does this make sense? Ryrie goes on to argue against those who would “conclude that if someone does not continue to believe, then he or she was never believer in the first place.” This kind of theology must be how the elderly person I counseled, who was in church all her life, arrived at her assumption.
I John 2:19 says, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.”
I believe that a true believer in Christ can never lose his or her salvation, but I also believe there can be false professions. There can be those who are professors that are not possessors. However, it seems that the way “eternal security” is being taught is that once the person is given new life by the Holy Spirit in regeneration, that life may - or may not - be lived out as a Christian. In fact, his “eternal security” is in no way affected by his failure to live a new life. Accordingly, once a person “believes,” there is nothing be does that can affect his eternal salvation, even knowing, conscious, and persistent sin. By raising his hand or walking down the aisle, or repeating a short prayer, he has purchased his Protestant indulgence.
Though you cannot lose your salvation, what about those who show no fruit of salvation and persist in continual sin? Paul says in Titus 1:16, “They profess that they know God; but in works they deny him being abominable, and disobedient, and unto every good work reprobate.” In other words, just because they made a profession of salvation in the past does not change the fact that their actions demonstrate their profession to be false.
The Lord Jesus Christ said, “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16). This not only applies to false prophets but also to false professors. Jesus also said, “If ye love me, keep my commandments.” (John 14:15) Paul said, “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” (Philippians 2:12).
Our faith is not a one time event. It is not like signing a contract, or buying an indulgence and now God is on the hook. Returning to Martin Luther, the verse that was instrumental in his salvation was Romans 1:17, “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” Not a one time event, but “from faith to faith.” Justification! This issue is still with us.
And yet, we are not saved by works. But ironically neither are we saved apart from good works. Everyone knows Ephesians 2:8,9. Consider Ephesians 2:10, “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” The we, obviously, are those who are saved. We are saved by grace through faith alone, but faith is never alone and is always accompanied by the saving graces.
Maybe a better term than the way “eternal security” is being used would be the perseverance of the saints.