Still reading - and enjoying - MacCulloch's huge work: Christianity...the first 3000 years. (Penguin)
Fascinating snapshots of the development of faith and practice in the church.
For instance...on page 555 he links assumptions that, at the time (1200-1300), seemed to fit well:
1. God demands action from a sinner to prove he has repented
2. Christ's merits are infinite since he is part of the Godhead...and there are merits from the saints, and Mary that together, form a "treasury of merit."
3. The pope would be criminal not to provide for the dispensing of those merits to those in need.
4. Merits can be granted to the faithful (even the departed ones) to shorten their time in purgatory.
5. That grant is an indulgence. (The "earliest dated piece of English printing" is an indulgence -1476.)
6. Lots of money was involved..."indulgences were as ubiquitous as the modern lottery ticket."
All of that changes when you see that assumption #1 is in itself wrong...along with lots of the others in this list.
God's demands for action have nothing to do with us proving we have repented....but we are called to a new life that demonstrates that we indeed have become new creatures in Christ.
We are forgiven freely by the sufficient work of Christ in death and resurrection, and on the basis of faith alone. That is the clear reading of His Word. (Indeed, it was the practice of indulgences that put much fuel on Martin Luther's fire and brought on the Reformation and protestantism.)
Indulgences....are they still around? Yes. In different form, yes. In more primitive cultures, yes. In our "Christian" culture? Yes.
It can happen when the Bible (in our daily, actual living) is less than the sufficient guide to faith and practice.
May we stand in faith entirely....and turn from that which lessens Christ's call to action in our lives.