This article, like many of the others, dates back to 1553. Little change has been made in it over the years. The only changes was in Elizabeths reign when the word "impiety" was substituted for the word "iniquity." The object is, of course, to condemn the Romish teaching on "works of supererogation." In our study of this article, we should consider three lines of thought:
(1) the meaning of the word "supererogation," (2) the history of the growth of the system of indulgences, (3) the theological defense offered for them, involving works of supererogation, and the teaching of Scripture on the subject.1. The name--"Supererogation"
This word is a combination of Latin words. It is based on the simple verb "rogare." Classical writers sometimes used it with "legens" 'for populum" after it. Often it was used in a technical sense and means, so coupled with the above word or words, "to ask the people about a law" and so simply to "propose a bill," or "introduce a law." Hence, the compound verb "erogare" was used in connection with a money bill, and came to mean "to pay out money from the public treasury, after asking consent of the people." When the word "super" was added to make it "supererogare" it meant "to pay over and above."
This word appears in the Latin translations of the Scriptures. A New Testament reference found in Luke 10:35, in the parable of the Good Samaritan, "what so ever thou spendest more" (over and above now foreseen) (superogare). Later, the term was adapted by ecclesiastical writers as a term for the "excess of merit" attributed to the saints, and for what the article calls "voluntary works besides, over and above Gods commandments."2. The History of the Growth of the System of Indulgences
It was the open sale of indulgences, which was closely connected with the doctrine of the works of supererogation. It was this that aroused the indignation of Luther and finally led to the revolt against the Papacy.
The doctrine and its practical application had a gradual growth. We can trace its beginnings to the early days of the church, the days of martyrdom and virginity in the primitive church.
It is only natural that the memory of those who had laid down their lives for their faith in Christ should be held in the greatest honor. Some Christians, under the stress of persecution, denied Christ altogether. Others sacrificed to heathen gods. Many repented of their failings and weaknesses under trial, but while the peace of the Church was granted upon their repentance, many believed that a time of penitential discipline must be passed in proof of their repentance and sorrow. Some grew impatient over the delay before entering into full fellowship with the church again. They persuaded the Confessors to intercede for them and to ask for their readmission to the sacraments or ordinances of the church.
Eventually these Confessors, not only brought pressure upon the church to admit them to the full fellowship of the church, but they used their influence to reduce or remove entirely all penitential discipline. Here we see how the system of indulgences developed. At first the Confessor, himself, could only present the case to the church for its decision, but gradually the Confessor took upon himself the right to increase or decrease or remove all penitential discipline for a price or preestablished conditions.
Then there developed, in the early church, the idea that virginity made possible more efficient and effective Christian service. It was possible for these Christians, in their single or unmarried state, to do more for God than He required and that special merit was attached to the unmarried state. This idea had much to do with the establishing of the monastic life which today is seen in the Roman Catholic Priesthood and Sisterhood.
Thesc unmarried Christians, by denouncing all worldly goods and fame were said to deserve far more than other Christians who made no such sacrifices.
The Crusades played an important part in the development of the indulgences and the development of the doctrine of supererogation. At the Council of Clermont (1095), Pope Urban II declared that to those who took up arms against the Infidel, he remitted the penance due to their sins, and promised to those who should die in the combat the pardon of their sins and eternal life. One statement in the decision of the Council reads, "whosoever shall go to Jerusalem to liberate the Church of God out of pure devotion and not for the purpose of obtaining honour or money, let the journey be counted in him of all penance."
Soon "indulgences" or remissions of penance, and some of all of the temporal penalties attached to sin, were granted for any or all acts of devotion whereby the church profited. Such indulgences were granted, not only for those who "took the Cross" against the infidel, but to those who took part in the building of churches and cathedrals, and in many other pious acts, so that practically the expenditure of a certain sum of money could secure indulgences.
It was the sale of these indulgences to promote building of St. Peters in Rome by Tetzel that infuriated Luther. He denounced all indulgences which led to his excommunication from the Roman Church.
Soon the idea of purgatory was developed. "Purgatory" was a part of the temporal penalty for sin. Indulgences were made possible through the meritorious acts or the gifts of the living whose account could be transferred to the account of the departed and used for the benefit of the soul in purgatory. The door was now opened to the notion that it involved a promise of eternal forgiveness of the grossest of errors for a price or a deed. It made possible the grossest of errors and superstitions, but it was encouraged by the Church to fill its coffers.
An enormous stimulus was given to the system by the institution of the "Jubilee" year in 1300. Pope Boniface VIII offered "the fullest forgiveness of sins" to all those who for fifteen days should devoutly visit the churches of St. Peters and St. Paul in Rome. This naturally drew a vast crowd of pilgrims to the city and greatly enriched the Church. Instead of every one hundred years, Pope Clementshortened it to fifty years and Pope Urban VI in 1389 reduced the period between "Jubilees" to thirty-three years. Finally Pope Paul II reduced it to twenty-five years in 1470. The last "Jubilee" was held in 1950.
Eventually, indulgences were offered to certain streets or markets, taverns and even brothels if a large percentage of the profits was turned over to the Church. The donor or donors infallibly opened to themselves the very gates of heaven. If the amount was paid to the account of the dead in purgatory, instantly, their souls were liberated from the prison.3. The Theological Defense for Works of Supererogation
Naturally, such a system, did not go unchallenged. Explanations of its meaning were asked for, and a theological defense of it was required.
The original system was defended by the words of Jesus. exercising the power of "binding and loosing" which the Church possessed through Him. But when the indulgence was something more than this, when it could be transferred to the benefit of others, and availed for the dead and mitigated the pains of purgatory, something more was needed to explain the doctrine. The Church found it necessary to teach that "the voluntary works over and above Gods commandments" which had been performed by the saints, and which were not needed to merit their own salvation, were not lost or wasted, but went into the treasury of the Church; and that, together with the infinite merits of Christ, these works of supererogation formed a deposit of super abundant good works, which the Pope, as holding the keys of the kingdom of heaven, could unlock and
dispense for the benefit of the faithful, so as to pay the debt of the temporal punishment of their sins, which they might still owe to God.
The Churchs very defense of such a system betrays a certain amount of uneasiness. Thomas Aquinas, who defended the system, felt that his task was a difficult one. Erroneous opinions on the subject were common, but the Church had approved of indulgences, and therefore had to be defended.
However, it could not be proved by Scripture unless taken out of its context. Bible teachers have always contended that such a procedure makes it a pretext. The whole theory of indulgences and works of supererogation rests upon a false notion of our relation to God. The idea of a quantitative satisfaction for all things wrongly done, that has to be made either in this life or in the next, but which "is capable of being commuted for the ceremonial utterances of a prayer or the visit to a shrine, each good for a given number of days, or years, or centuries," (Plumptre, "Spirits in Prison"), page 307, can claim no support from the Scriptures. The idea that men cannot only render unto God as much as they are bound to do, but that they may actually do more for His sake than is required is directly contrary to the very words of Jesus. He said in Luke 17:10, "When you have done all things that are commanded you, say, we are unprofitable servants."
One of the Scripture portions used to the support of the teaching of "works of supererogation" is that relating to the rich young ruler in Matthew 19:16-22. Bellarmine argued that as the young man had kept all of the commandments (he said that he had) he had done all that was necessary to obtain eternal life, but that Jesus had told him that if he would be perfect, "sell that thou hast and give it to the poor, and thou shalt have treasures in heaven." Had the young ruler done this, Bellarmine declared, he would have built up a deposit in heaven to his favor, "works of supererogation," since he already had eternal life.
Bellarmine, ignorantly or intentionally, disregarded the fact that the young mans previous answer proved that he, the young ruler, had a very inadequate conception of his duty to God, and of the real range of the claim which God had upon him. It was in order to help him realize this that the further direction was given, and the very conclusion of the story shows that there was indeed something "lacking" for when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions."
So the whole scriptural foundation breaks down, and we must come to only one conclusion. The doctrine of "works of supererogation" cannot be taught without arrogance and impiety. We have already proven that such teaching is contrary to our Lords own words, "When ye shall have done all the things that are commanded you, say, 'we are unprofitable servants" we have done that which it is our duty to do.
The Roman Church still makes much of the doctrine of "supererogation." Those who made the pilgrimage to Rome in 1950 received special blessings and years of penance or purgatory were forgiven. Special novenas are made. Gifts of money, instead of flowers, are placed on the caskets of loved ones for prayers of deliverance from purgatory, often through the accumulated goodnesses of former saints.
Many Protestants, also, believe that through the merits of their so called good works they can earn the right to heaven. Because of their works of "supererogation" God is required to bless them and assure their entrance into heaven. This is contrary to Scripture as we read in Ephesians 2:8-9, "For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God; not of works lest any many should boast," Isaiah tells us that "our good works" are in the sight of God, "filthy rags." (Isaiah 64:6).
It is true, as we are told in Ephesians 2:10, that we are saved unto good works, but not by
them. However, let us remember the words of Jesus in John 15:5; "without Me, ye can do
nothing." When we have done our best, we are still "unprofitable servants" for what was done
that was truly good, He did it through us, not we ourselves.