Have you ever seen St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome? Whether you see it in person, or in pictures, it’s spectacular. From the vast piazza surrounded by tall columns to the gigantic dome that dominates Rome’s skyline, it is unforgettable. Those who step inside witness vast marble hallways lined with priceless works of art, including Michelangelo's Pietà.
Even the casual observer can tell that no expense was spared when Pope Leo X set out to rebuild the cathedral in the sixteenth century. Five hundred years later it is still a monument of architectural grandeur and lavish beauty.
But beneath the outward appeal of its construction lies the ugly truth about its funding. The elegance of St. Peter’s quickly becomes an eyesore when you realize its extreme opulence was financed primarily through the extortion of Europe’s longsuffering peasants.
Pope Leo X used the sale of indulgences as the primary means of funding his massive building projects in Rome. Leo sent representatives throughout his dominion to extort the masses through the sale of indulgences.
To understand indulgences, we need to go outside the teachings of Scripture and acquaint ourselves with the codified Catholic dogmas of purgatory, penance, and the treasury of merit.
Catholics believe in a place between heaven and hell called purgatory. According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church
All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation, but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. Catechism of the Catholic Church, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM, Paragraph 1030
Roman Catholicism denies the clear biblical teaching that final judgment follows death (Hebrews 9:27), when the redeemed inherit eternal life (Revelation 21:27) and the unredeemed inherit eternal damnation (Revelation 20:15). The belief in purgatory implicitly denies Paul’s teaching that there is “now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). In fact, Catholicism goes so far as to pronounce damnation on anyone who denies their doctrine of purgatory:
If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.  Council of Trent, Canons on Justification, Canon 30
Even for the serious Catholic, who has already worked hard to achieve salvation, purgatory remains an inevitable dread. The only mystery on this side of the deathly veil is how much punishment awaits and how long it will take before one reaches “the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
In the medieval church, purgatory sentences were widely thought to be much longer than our earthly life spans. Understandably, that caused a great deal of anxiety among church members. The offer of a reduced sentence, or escape altogether, had even the poorest parishioners eager to empty their pockets—especially if it allowed them to sidestep the grueling acts of penance.
The Catholic belief in penance is a distortion of the biblical doctrine of repentance. Whereas repentance refers to a newfound hatred for sin and the profound desire to turn away from it, penance is a process by which the sinner makes satisfactory payment for his own sins. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Absolution takes away sin, but it does not remedy all the disorders sin has caused. Raised up from sin, the sinner must still recover his full spiritual health by doing something more to make amends for the sin: he must “make satisfaction for” or “expiate” his sins. This satisfaction is also called “penance.”  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraph 1459
Making satisfaction for sins often involved the recitation of certain prayers, gifts to the church, and other good works. More extreme acts of penance required periods of self-denial and even self-harm. Brutal flagellation and starvation were not uncommon, especially for people guilty of egregious sins, or those tortured by a tender conscience.
Prior to his conversion, Martin Luther suffered enormously through those acts of satisfaction. He had an acute awareness of his own depravity and thus willingly put himself through the most rigorous of penitential acts. James Kittelson describes them in vivid detail:
Long periods with neither food nor drink, nights without sleep, bone-chilling cold with neither coat nor blanket to warm him—and self-flagellation—were common and even expected in the lives of serious monks. . . . [Luther] did not simply go through the motions of prayers, fasts, deprivations, and mortifications of the flesh, but pursued them earnestly. . . . It is even possible that the illnesses which troubled him so much in his later years developed as a result of his strict denial of his own bodily needs.  James M. Kittelson, Luther the Reformer, Fortress Press ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 55.
For many, the more extreme forms of penance were even more unappealing than time spent in purgatory. Both false doctrines put an incredible burden on the members of the Catholic Church. There was no hope of reprieve, in this life or the next.
The Treasury of Merit
That absence of hope created a market that the Roman Catholic Church could exploit. To that end, they instituted the treasury of merit, a heavenly slush fund for Catholics to draw on to reduce their future suffering, or perhaps escape purgatory altogether. Composed of the excess righteousness achieved by Christ, His mother Mary, and all the saints, Catholics could draw on the treasury of merit—for the right price.
According to Catholic dogma,
The “treasury of the Church” is the infinite value, which can never be exhausted, which Christ’s merits have before God. They were offered so that the whole of mankind could be set free from sin and attain communion with the Father. . . . This treasury includes as well the prayers and good works of the Blessed Virgin Mary. . . . [and] the prayers and good works of all the saints.  Catechism of the Catholic Church, Paragraphs 1476–1477
Indulgences were sold as a way to tap into the treasury of merit. The bottomless nature of that reservoir amounted to a conveniently limitless income stream for the coffers of Rome.
The Sale of Indulgences
Pope Leo X called on a monk by the name of Johann Tetzel to lead the sale of indulgences in Germany. Tetzel was a master salesman—the spiritual forerunner of the charlatans we see dominating Christian television today. He may have also been the pioneer of seductive advertising jingles. His sales pitch was certainly effective: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs.” And while that’s an English translation, it rhymed just as well in the original German—the money klingt and the soul springt.
The scene was imposing. Tetzel preached under the pope’s banner and the sanctimonious aura of the church. It was extortion and emotional manipulation of the highest order. It was quick and dirty business. The money flowed freely and the transactions were finalized swiftly. Tetzel’s entourage rapidly moved from town to town, amassing a vast amount of wealth along the way.
Behind Tetzel lay a long trail of German peasants with empty pockets. But in front of him stood one very angry monk who was about to put an end to Tetzel’s obscene racketeering.