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John Tetzel’s Indulgences

During the era of the Protestant Reformation, certain Roman Catholic clerics employed the practice of “auricular confession” (confessing sins into the ear of a priest) to enhance their own financial welfare and that of the Church. It was commonly taught (and still is) that through the “confessional,” relief from guilt, and release from eternal punishment, may be obtained.

At the same time, it was believed that the sinner still will be required to bear the penalty of temporal punishment. This punishment will be extracted either in this life, or in purgatory.

The people who subscribed to this dogma (which is totally without biblical support) thus sought relief from the anxiety of the prospect of purgatorial torment. At this point enters the dogma regarding “indulgences.”

An “indulgence” is the promise of the remission of temporal punishment upon the basis of certain prescribed “good works,” e.g., fasting, prayers, pilgrimages, etc. Mainly, though, it was alleged that the pains of purgatory could be minimized by the payment of money into the Church treasury. The construction of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome was partially financed by the sale of indulgences.

Pope Leo X (A.D. 1475-1521) commissioned John Tetzel, a Dominican monk, to travel throughout Germany selling indulgences on behalf of the Church. Tetzel declared that as soon as the coins “clinked” in his money chest, the souls of those for whom the indulgences had been purchased would fly out of purgatory.

These indulgences not only bestowed pardon for sins committed already, they were used to license the commission of future transgressions as well. In the classic volume, The Life and Times of Martin Luther, noted historian Merle D’Aubigne relates an amusing episode relative to this practice.

A certain Saxon nobleman heard John Tetzel proclaiming his doctrine of indulgences, and the gentleman was much aggravated at this perversion of truth. Accordingly, he approached the monk one day and inquired as to whether he might purchase an indulgence for a sin he intended to commit.

“Most assuredly,” replied Tetzel, “I have received full powers from his holiness for that purpose.” After some haggling, a fee of thirty crowns was agreed upon, and the nobleman departed.

Together with some friends, he hid himself in a nearby forest. Presently, as Tetzel journeyed that way, the knight and his mischievous companions fell upon the papal salesman, gave him a light beating, and relieved him of his money, apparently taking no pains to disguise themselves.

Tetzel was enraged by the foul deed and filed suit in the courts. When the nobleman appeared as the defendant, he produced the letter of exemption containing John Tetzel’s personal signature, which absolved the Saxon of any liability. When Duke George (the judge before whom the action was brought) examined the document, exasperated though he was, he ordered the accused to be released.

Error is its own worst enemy!


D’Aubigne, J.H. Merle, The Life and Times of Martin Luther (Chicago: Moody, 1955), p. 103.

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