Many people think of indulgences (earning or buying one’s way out of purgatory, bit by bit) as a forgotten practice of a then-corrupt Roman Catholic Church, left behind in the pre-reformation days. However, the Vatican this week issued a fascinating statement on indulgences.

The Guardian reports:

“In its latest attempt to keep up with the times the Vatican has married one of its oldest traditions to the world of social media by offering ‘indulgences’ to followers of Pope Francis' tweets.

The church's granted indulgences reduce the time Catholics believe they will have to spend in purgatory after they have confessed and been absolved of their sins.”

Though the practice of buying and selling indulgences went through massive reform not long after the Protestant Reformation, devout Catholics can still win “time off” purgatory through certain tasks, such as (The Guardian explains) “climbing the Sacred Steps, in Rome (reportedly brought from Pontius Pilate's house after Jesus scaled them before his crucifixion), a feat that earns believers seven years off purgatory.”

And now, for those devout Catholics unable to perform such feats, purgatory can be lessened by following the events of Catholic World Youth Day via social media.

This news not only stirs up the doctrinal disagreements on the afterlife between Protestants and Roman Catholics, but also brings to mind the tension between faith and works that so many Christians have struggled with throughout the ages.

According to a Crosswalk devotional entitled "What Happens When We Die?":

“There is no soul-sleep, or purgatory, or in-between world. At the instant of our death we will be ushered into the presence of the Lord.”

In an interview with Christianty.com, Joel Beeke tells believers that,

“To be made right with God, you first need to realize that you’re wrong with God…Now to be made right with God, two things have to happen that you can’t do yourself. One thing, you have to have all your sins paid for. And the Bible tells us we can’t do that ourselves, because sin demands death and hell, and we just can’t do that ourselves and pay the full price of sin. So we need a savior who comes and takes our place, to satisfy the justice of God against the sins that we’ve committed…

“The second thing that needs to be done for us, that we cannot do, is – the law has to be obeyed… And so Jesus came for thirty-three years in this world and he perfectly obeyed, all the time…

“Through these two things…he takes our place, and we believe in him alone for salvation, and repent of our sins, and receive him as the only savior.”

Many Protestants historically reject aspects of Roman Catholicism (such as papal infallibility and the earning of indulgences) based on these words from Hebrews:

“Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

What do you think? With Jesus as our high priest, do you “approach the throne of grace with confidence”? What are your views on papal authority, purgatory, indulgences, and church tradition?

Debbie Holloway is the Family Life Editor for Crosswalk.com

Publication date: July 17, 2013