Year of Jubilee—by Papal Indulgence
David J. Engelsma
The high expectations that people have for the year
2000 include that some look forward to it as a "year of Jubilee." Such a
regard for it is the highest expectation of all. Others may anticipate
social disorder and even disaster because of Y2K, or eschatological
troubles because of the supposed significance of the year 2000 for the
end of the world. Those who see the year 2000 as a year of Jubilee
expect special blessings of salvation in the coming year.
The view of the year 2000 as a Jubilee year is that
of the Roman Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II has decreed that the
year 2000 is a "Jubilee," indeed a "Great Jubilee." The observance of
the year that this decree calls for will be an exercise of Roman
If this is so, one may ask, why is the matter of any
concern to Protestants? More especially, why is the matter of concern to
Reformed churches and Christians?
Rome itself forces the matter of the Jubilee year
upon us, for one of Rome's purposes with the Jubilee is the achievement
of the unity of all Christians. Jubilee has an ecumenical purpose.
In an "Apostolic Letter" that gave instructions concerning
the preparation for the Jubilee year, a document titled, "As
the Third Millennium Draws Near" (Tertio Millennio
Adveniente), the pope declared the following:
Among the most fervent petitions which the Church
makes to the Lord during this important time, as the even [sic] of
the new millennium approaches, is that unity among all Christians of
the various confessions will increase until they reach full
communion. I pray that the Jubilee will be a promising opportunity
for fruitful cooperation in the many areas which unite us; these are
unquestionably more numerous than those which divide us. It would
thus be quite helpful if, with due respect for the programs of the
individual Churches and Communities, ecumenical agreements could be
reached with regard to the preparation and celebration of the
Since this ecumenical cooperation and full communion
with Rome is not possible for true Protestants, particularly Reformed
churches and people, it is proper, if not a duty, to make clear to
ourselves and to Rome why cooperation and communion are impossible. We
ought to demonstrate that such cooperation and communion are forbidden
We have a controversy with Rome on the eve of the
year 2000, and Rome has a controversy with us. This controversy is
exactly the controversy that our respective spiritual and ecclesiastical
forbears had with each other at the time of the Reformation in the early
sixteenth century. This controversy has not been resolved.
The controversy is fundamental. The issue is that
raised by the apostle in the epistle to the Galatians: justification by
faith alone according to grace alone on the basis of the
redemption of the cross of Christ alone versus justification by
faith and human works according to grace and human
merit on the basis of Christ's cross and the deeds of humans
themselves. Such is the importance of the controversy that, as the
apostle says in
Galatians 1, the issue is the difference between the one true gospel
of Christ and "another gospel, which is not another" (vv. 6-7).
So far is it from being the case that the year of
Jubilee can bring us together that, in fact, the Roman Catholic Jubilee
illustrates, exemplifies, and highlights the basic doctrinal difference
between us. For it is the Roman Catholic teaching that the year 2000
will be a Jubilee to the people by papal indulgence.
There is yet a third reason why Reformed Protestants
should comment on the Jubilee year. The fact is that the year 2000 is
a year of Jubilee. More precisely, A.D. 2000 is part of the year
of Jubilee. During this year, we hope to enjoy the blessings of this
special time—the blessings of salvation. The question—and the topic of
this pamphlet—is not, "A.D. 2000—Year of Jubilee or not a Year of
Jubilee?" A.D. 2000 is "year of Jubilee." But the question is, how
is it Jubilee to the children of God? How will they receive and
enjoy the blessings that Jubilee holds for them—by papal indulgence, or
by the gospel recovered by the Reformation?
Description of the Roman Catholic Jubilee
On November 29, 1998, the pope issued a bull, "The
Mystery of the Incarnation" (Incarnationis Mysterium),
proclaiming the year 2000 as a "Great Jubilee Year."
I therefore decree that the Great Jubilee of the
Year 2000 will begin on Christmas Eve 1999, with the opening of
the holy door in Saint Peter's Basilica in the Vatican, a few hours
before the inaugural celebration planned for Jerusalem and Bethlehem
and the opening of the holy door in each of the other Patriarchal
Basilicas of Rome.
The Jubilee year runs from Christmas Eve 1999 to
January 6, 2001. This is a tremendously important year for Roman
Catholics, one that is observed with a great deal of ceremony and much
activity. The year begins on Christmas Eve with the pope's symbolical
opening of a certain holy door in St. Peter's and his walking through
this door into the church building. The year closes with the walling up
of the same door on January 6, 2001.
Many of the Roman Catholic faithful observe the year
by going on pilgrimages. The very first of the supposedly spiritual and
saving acts by which the Jubilee must be observed, according to the
papal bull, is pilgrimages: "The first is the notion of pilgrimage
... A pilgrimage ... is an exercise of practical asceticism, of
repentance for human weaknesses ... of interior preparation for a change
of heart." If possible, Roman Catholics should make a pilgrimage to the
great church buildings in Rome. Recommended also are pilgrimages to
important church buildings in Jerusalem. If one cannot leave his own
country, he should visit certain church buildings in his own land.
All of this ceremony and symbolism and all of these
activities have special, saving significance, because the year 2000 is a
Jubilee year. By virtue of the papal proclamation, the year 2000 is a "holy
year." It is the realization of the Old Testament year of Jubilee.
Observing the Old Testament Year
In the thinking and teaching of the Roman Catholic
Church, this matter of the Jubilee year is a real continuation of the
Old Testament law of the year of Jubilee. In the Old Testament, every
fiftieth year—the year following seven periods of seven years—was a
Jubilee year for Israel. The law that instituted and regulated the year
of Jubilee is found in
And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years
unto thee, seven times seven years; and the space of the seven
sabbaths of years shall be unto thee forty and nine years. Then
shalt thou cause the trumpet of the jubilee to sound on the tenth
day of the seventh month, in the day of atonement shall ye make the
trumpet sound throughout all your land. And ye shall hallow the
fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all
the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you ... A
jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you ... For it is the
jubilee; it shall be holy unto you ... (vv. 8-12).
Especially three elements belonged to the proper,
prescribed observance of the Old Testament Jubilee. Land that the poor
had had to sell returned to its original owner, so that everyone again
possessed his inheritance in Israel. Those Israelites who, because of
poverty, had sold themselves as slaves were released. And the Israelites
might neither sow nor reap.
That Old Testament ordinance and type had a rich
significance. As the year of the release of prisoners from the bondage
of slavery, it was a year of liberation, a year of freedom. The trumpet
that announced the Jubilee "proclaimed liberty," according to
Leviticus 25:10. The return of the land to its original owners
represented the cancellation of debts. The prohibition of sowing and
reaping meant that both the people and the land had rest. But this
liberty and rest were a dramatic enjoyment of covenant fellowship with
God as the numbers involved made plain. The year of Jubilee was the
fiftieth year as the fulfilment of "seven sabbaths of years ... seven
times seven years" (Lev.
Adding to the brilliantly clear significance was that
the Jubilee year began on the tenth day of the seventh month, which is
Leviticus 25:9 as the "day of atonement." That was the day in Israel
when the high priest covered the sins of Israel by sprinkling blood on
the mercy seat in the holy of holies of the tabernacle. The year of
Jubilee, then, was based on the atonement and gave Israel in striking
ways the benefits of the covering of their guilt in the sight of God.
Understandably, that Old Testament year of Jubilee
was a year of joy, especially for the poor, the oppressed, the burdened,
and labouring in Israel. For good reason, "Jubilee" came to mean
"joy"—the great joy of jubilation.
So rich a sign was the Old Testament year of Jubilee
of the salvation of God that the prophet Isaiah foretold the coming
Messiah as bringing about the real Jubilee year.
The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because
the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he
hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to
the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound;
to proclaim the acceptable year of the LORD, and the day of
vengeance of our God; to comfort all that mourn (Isa. 61:1-2).
Luke 4:16-21, at the beginning of His public ministry Jesus Christ
deliberately picked this Old Testament prophecy of the fulfilment of
Jubilee for His installation sermon in the synagogue in Nazareth. Having
read the text, He said, "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your
ears" (v. 21).
This now is what the year 2000 has become by papal
decree: a real implementation and observance of the Old Testament
Jubilee year. For one year, between Christmas Eve 1999 and January 6,
2001, that Old Testament law is in force again. That Old Testament
ceremony returns in a literal way.
Jubilee by Indulgences
The benefits of the Jubilee are received and enjoyed
by Roman Catholics mainly by means of indulgences. The year itself is
now special. It is "holy." When properly observed, the year itself
bestows special grace on the people. The papal letter preparing for the
Jubilee, "As the Third Millennium Draws Near," declared that "a Jubilee
is always an occasion of special grace, 'a day blessed by the Lord.'"
The main means by which the Jubilee year blesses and
saves people is indulgences. I quote from the bull, "The Mystery of the
Another distinctive sign, and one familiar to the
faithful, is the indulgence, which is one of the constitutive
elements of the Jubilee.
I decree that throughout the entire Jubilee all
the faithful, properly prepared, be able to make abundant use of the
gift of the indulgence.
Indulgences are "one of the constitutive elements"
of the Jubilee for Rome, and the proper observance of the Jubilee
consists of an "abundant use" of indulgences.
Indulgences are the Roman Catholic Church's
application to a sinner's account of the meritorious good works of Mary
and other saints, to satisfy the justice of God concerning the temporal
punishment of the sinner's transgressions. This is punishment that he
himself would otherwise have to pay off to God in purgatory.
Just as indulgences can be applied to the account of
the living, so they can be applied to the account of someone who is
already suffering in purgatory, thus saving him from that hellish
torment. The section of the bull, "Mystery of the Incarnation," that
stipulated the "conditions for gaining the Jubilee indulgences" noted at
the outset that "the Jubilee indulgence also can be applied in suffrage
to the souls of the deceased."
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines an
indulgence this way: "remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's
justice, to sin ... granted by the Church ... through the application of
the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints." The Roman
Catholic Church claims to have this "treasury" of merits at her
disposal, to administer as she wills. (This is why in the 62nd of the 95
theses Luther said, "The true treasure of the church is the holy gospel
of the glory and grace of God." Not the merits of the saints, dispensed
by indulgences, but the gospel of the perfect righteousness of Christ,
bestowed through preaching, is the treasure of the church.) People have
to earn these indulgences from the Roman Catholic Church. They earn them
by pilgrimages, by prayers, by giving alms, by donating to Roman
Catholic charities, and even by not smoking for a day.
Because the year 2000 is a "Great
Jubilee," people can earn "plenary indulgences," that
is, complete indulgences. Most indulgences are
partial. They deliver from only a part of the temporal
punishment in purgatory. In the year of the "Great Jubilee,"
complete deliverance from all the pain and punishment of
purgatory is available. The bull that proclaimed 2000 as
"Great Jubilee" stated: "Each member of the faithful, having
fulfilled the required conditions, can receive or apply the
gift of the plenary indulgence."
No wonder that Roman Catholics are excited about the
year 2000 as the year of Jubilee. A.D. 2000 is the opportunity to enjoy
the blessing of the salvation of God which was pictured by the Old
Testament Jubilee. A.D. 2000 is the rare opportunity to earn both for
themselves and for their loved ones who are now in the fires of
purgatory full and complete deliverance from the temporal punishment of
all their sins. It offers escape from all purgatorial suffering.
The way is that of indulgences.
A.D. 2000: year of Jubilee—by papal indulgence!
The Protestant Protest
Rome must not be surprised that we Protestants
repudiate her Jubilee. The Reformation of the sixteenth century was
occasioned exactly by Rome's doctrine and practice of indulgences.
Inasmuch as Rome's doctrine of indulgences expresses and illustrates
Rome's gospel of salvation, particularly justification, by man's own
meritorious works, the entire Reformation was about indulgences. Pope
Leo X published a bull authorizing the sale of indulgences for the
purpose of rebuilding St. Peter's Church in Rome. That brought super
salesman Wetzel into Germany, where he came into contact with Luther.
The indulgences that Tetzel was hawking were plenary.
Luther's 95 theses, in God's providence the onset of
the Reformation, had indulgences as their direct occasion and were, from
beginning to end, a challenge to and a condemnation of indulgences. The
placard over the theses read: "95 Theses about Indulgences." Thesis 32
warned: "Those who believe that through letters of pardon they are made
sure of their own salvation will be eternally damned along with their
teachers." And, as noted above, thesis 62 took dead aim at Rome's claim
to possess a treasury of merits which it can apply to the living and the
dead by means of indulgences: "The true treasure of the church is the
holy gospel of the glory and grace of God."
For Rome now to play up indulgences, with great
fanfare in the public press, as the main feature of a Jubilee year is an
open, deliberate declaration of war upon Protestant Christianity. By her
Jubilee year, Rome opposes her gospel of human will, merit, and work
against the Reformation gospel of grace alone.
Indeed, such is Rome's boldness—the word "chutzpah"
is fitting—that the papal bull proclaiming the Jubilee year made me
smile in spite of myself. Here are a document and a Jubilee year that
are all about indulgences, that are mainly the promotion and practice of
indulgences. And right in the middle of all this promotion, explanation,
defence, and praise of indulgences, the pope says, apparently with a
straight face, "We especially want this Jubilee year to encourage
ecumenicity, leading to full communion with the separated brothers
and sisters of Protestantism."
The Protestant Reformed Churches protest!
Although we are no Luther, our protest is not a whit
less vehement and determined than was his.
Our protest has the same purpose that Luther's had:
defence of the gospel of the glory and grace of God.
Rome's Jubilee year, with indulgences as its purpose,
and the papal bull proclaiming both the Jubilee and indulgences are also
the reason why we pay absolutely no attention to the movement,
Evangelicals and Catholics Together, or to the recent Roman
Catholic/Lutheran accord on justification, except to condemn them both
out-of-hand. Rome's bold insistence on indulgences demonstrates beyond
the shadow of a doubt that Rome has not changed its teaching on
justification—not a whit. The agreements with Rome on the part of
the evangelicals in Evangelicals and Catholics Together and on the part
of world Lutheranism either mean nothing, or, as is more likely, that
the evangelicals and Lutherans are compromising the gospel of grace
alone, for the sake of union with the Roman Catholic Church.
The day that Rome truly embraces the Reformation's
gospel of righteousness by faith alone, she will publicly and
forthrightly repudiate indulgences. This repudiation will be accompanied
by heartfelt sorrow over that gross sin against grace for so many
hundreds of years.
The Jubilee of an Apostate Protestantism
Objectionable as Rome's doctrine of Jubilee is, the
notions of apostate Protestant churches about Jubilee are still worse.
Many Protestant churches have evidently accepted the papal decree that
2000 is a special year of Jubilee, continuing the Old Testament
ceremony. These churches now preach the coming Jubilee year. What it
amounts to for these Protestant churches is only that we all put
pressure on our government to cancel the monetary debt owed our nation
by poor countries in Latin America, South America, Africa, and other
Never mind that the money loaned is money taken by
our government from the hard working taxpayer! Never mind that the
reason often for the difficulty of the poor nations to repay what they
owe is that the rulers have squandered the money on their own pleasures
or deposited it in Swiss banks! Never mind that the cancellation of the
debt will encourage future borrowing for profligate spending, with no
intention to repay! Never mind that the Bible's demand upon nations as
upon individuals is: "Pay your debts!"
The point is that these Protestant churches have made
a purely earthly and material thing out of the biblical Jubilee. The
only debt these churches know is monetary. The only freedom they can
conceive is physical. The only rest of which they are conscious is
earthly. The only joy they celebrate is that of a full belly and bulging
Rome at least recognizes and teaches that the deepest
need of man is spiritual. His real debt is punishment owed to God. His
real bondage is sin. His unrest, in reality, is fear of a just and
terrible God. His joylessness is apprehension at death.
The Reformed Christian, true son or daughter of the
Reformation of the sixteenth century and perceptive student of the Word
of God in the book of Galatians, rejects Rome's Jubilee with
indignation. But he or she holds apostate Protestantism's Jubilee in
Biblical Critique of the Roman Jubilee
Despite her denial of it, the Roman Catholic Church
with all her doctrines and practices is subject to authoritative
examination by the Word of God, Holy Scripture. Believers can,
believers may, believers must judge all teachings by the
standard of the apostolic gospel contained in the New Testament
Scriptures, even though these teachings are brought by an apostle,
whether Paul or Peter, or by an angel from heaven. "But though we, or an
angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we
have preached unto you, let him be accursed" (Gal.
Holy Scripture, particularly the book of Galatians,
exposes and condemns Rome's Jubilee by papal indulgence as the false
doctrine of legalism. Legalism is the heresy that humans must save
themselves, at least in part, by their own obedience to the law. The
false gospel of legalism preaches righteousness by the sinner's own
works. The papal bull proclaiming the Jubilee is that "other gospel" of
Galatians 1, a gospel of righteousness by human works of merit.
Exactly with reference to the sin of lifting some
ceremony out of the Old Testament in order to make the observance of it
binding upon the New Testament church, the apostle says in
Galatians 4:10, "Ye observe days and months and times and years."
According to verse 9, this is a fatal return to "the weak and beggarly
elements" of the Old Testament ceremonial law. Such religious observance
is "bondage," that is, spiritual slavery. For Jesus Christ has fulfilled
those ceremonies, so that believers enjoy the truth and reality of them
spiritually by faith. Those ceremonies, specifically now the Old
Testament Jubilee, are abrogated and abolished. There is no longer any
continuation of the Old Testament law of setting aside one year as a
year of Jubilee. There may not be! To do so is to repudiate Jesus Christ
and His work. After the coming of Christ, the Old Testament ceremonies
are no longer valid.
If the observance of an Old Testament ceremony is the
external (and highly visible!) aspect of the legalism of Rome's Jubilee,
the inward aspect is Rome's teaching of the forgiveness of sins and
righteousness before God by human works of merit. The Roman Jubilee
centres on indulgences. The pope himself pronounced indulgences to be
"one of the constitutive elements of the Jubilee." And indulgences are
the remission of sins; the cancellation of the debt of punishment; the
satisfaction of God's justice; the expiation of offences against the
law; in one word, justification.
But indulgences accomplish all of this by meritorious
human works. Indulgences represent the meritorious good works of Mary
and other saints. And one must himself earn these indulgences by such
good works as a pilgrimage, or giving money to the poor, or abstaining
from smoking for a day. The apostle condemns this in
Galatians 2:16: "a man is not justified by the works of the law, but
by the faith of Jesus Christ." At its heart, the Jubilee of Rome is
justification by works. But "by the works of the law shall no flesh be
2:16). The Roman Jubilee, therefore, is no true liberty, but further
bondage. It is no cancellation of debt, but increase of debt. It gives
no rest to sinners, but leaves them in the unrest of those who do not
submit to the righteousness of God, but go about to establish their own
God accepts no righteousness other than His own
righteousness, which He has worked out for sinners in the cross of Jesus
Jubilee by indulgence is a denial of the cross of
Jesus Christ. In verse 5 of
Galatians 4, the apostle teaches that the Son of God became a man,
subjecting Himself to the law, in order to redeem us by His death.
Galatians 3:13 teaches that by hanging on the tree Christ has
redeemed us from the curse of the law. His suffering fully satisfied the
justice of God. His death was the bearing of the complete punishment.
His cross cancelled the total debt that His people owed.
Indulgences, however, affirm that part of the debt
and punishment must be paid and suffered by us, or earned by us by some
condition that we must fulfil. Thus, indulgences deny the cross of
Christ. This is exactly what the apostle states in
Galatians 2:21: "if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is
dead in vain."
Righteousness with its benefits of freedom, rest, and
joy is wholly gracious.
And this was so plainly revealed in the Old Testament
ceremony of Jubilee! The benefits of Jubilee were squarely based on the
atonement, on the shedding of blood in the stead of and for Israel.
Israel did nothing to atone for itself, did nothing to pay. Then the
benefits were simply bestowed upon Israel, by sheer divine grace: slaves
were released; debtors were freed; land and people had rest. No one did
anything to earn liberation. All simply received it as pure gift.
AD 2000 is not a year of Jubilee by papal
pronouncement and indulgence.
This, however, does not imply that it is no Jubilee
year at all.
True Jubilee by Reformation Gospel
The year of our Lord 2000 is a Jubilee year. More
accurately, it is part of the year of Jubilee. Every year from the
beginning of Jesus' earthly ministry to His return is Jubilee. The
entire New Testament age is the year of Jubilee. As a part of the year
of Jubilee, 2000 is not a continuation or repetition of the Old
Testament Jubilee, but the reality of it. Jesus proclaimed it as such.
Having read the prophecy of
Isaiah 61:1-2, concluding with the words, "To preach the acceptable
year of the Lord," Jesus said, "This day is this scripture fulfilled in
your ears" (Luke
Jesus Christ proclaimed and decreed the present age
to be the Jubilee year, acceptable to the Lord as the time in which He
will comfort the poor, free the captives, cancel the debts, and give
rest to His people. Accordingly, the apostle Paul declares, "Now is the
accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation" (II
No mere man set this time apart as the holy year of
Jubilee. It has been consecrated by the Son of God. We have this also
against the Roman Catholic observance of 2000 as a holy year, that a
mere man—the pope—is supposed to be able to make a certain year holy.
The truth is that only God can make anything holy, whether book (the
Bible), people (the Church), day (the Sabbath), or age (the Messianic
Age of Jubilee). "This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears,"
said God the Son in the synagogue in Nazareth, thus authoritatively
proclaiming and setting aside the entire New Testament age as the holy
year of Jubilee.
During this age, Jesus bestows the wonderful
blessings of Jubilee upon the true Israel of God. Cancellation of the
debt of the guilt of sin owed to God! Release of prisoners from the
bondage of the demand to keep the law for righteousness! Deliverance
from the poverty of a total lack of righteousness! The rest of the
imputed obedience of the incarnate Son of God as the basis of communion
Debtors! Slaves! Captives! All who labour and are
heavy laden! Hear the loud ram's horn of a trumpet announcing the year
2000 as Jubilee, as well as all the years that remain until the trump
sounds that announces the perfection of Jubilee on the Day of Christ!
"This day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears." "Now is the
accepted time; behold, now is the day of salvation."
The Jubilee and its blessings are enjoyed by means of
the preaching of the gospel. Jesus Christ Himself plainly said so. "The
Spirit of the Lord ... hath anointed me to preach the gospel to
the poor ... to preach deliverance to the captives and recovering
of sight to the blind [and, thus, by preaching] to set at liberty
them that are bruised, to preach the acceptable year of the Lord"
A.D. 2000: year of Jubilee—by preaching, not
The content of the gospel that is preached is this
Word and promise of Jesus Christ. "To everyone who believes on Me and
who in that faith is sorry for his sins, I give full and free
forgiveness, imputing to him as his own My own righteousness.
"The sole ground of this forgiveness is My own
lifelong obedience and suffering in your stead.
"The only source and cause of this saving act of
justification is the grace—the sheer unmerited favour—of My Father to an
innumerable multitude in all nations whom He chose unto eternal life.
"To receive this blessing, believe on Me as presented
in the gospel of the Scriptures—believe only—with the faith that
I Myself give you and work in you by My Spirit. Do not work! There are
no conditions! There may be no pilgrimages! Pay no money for it, not one
red cent! Whoever pays even one red cent for righteousness forfeits
righteousness, forfeits all righteousness, indeed, is damned for
his paying. Do not even stop smoking for one day!
"In this way, in this way only, you enjoy
freedom—freedom from all punishment and the fear of it, freedom to know
the love of God and to love Him in return with a love that abounds in
good works of thankfulness.
"This is the way to joy—the deep, lasting, jubilant
joy of Jubilee."
Well may we Protestants be exhorted to live in the
consciousness of the year of Jubilee. Too often, we share the world's
fears at the prospects of the new millennium. Too often, we are
burdened, downcast, and depressed. Too often, we seek solace for our
sinfulness and sins in drink, pills, drugs, pleasures, and work. Too
often, we complain as though, well, as though Jubilee had never come.
Too often, we drag ourselves to the worship services, ministers as well
as laity, as though the gospel were not the real treasure of the church.
Ours is the privilege and duty to defend the true
Jubilee against the false, to announce Jubilee to the world, and to live
joyfully in this year of Jubilee ourselves.