The term “indulgences” refers to specific prayers and actions, permeated with a spirit of penance, that are an extra-special channel of God’s superabundant, healing grace. Once a person has repented of his sins and, if necessary, received forgiveness from Christ through the Sacrament of Reconciliation, indulgences help to further the healing process that is needed for himself or for a Holy Soul in Purgatory and for the people that have been hurt by his/her sins.
Two-fold Consequence (i.e. Punishment)* of Sin
*Before we get started, please know that the Church uses the words consequence and punishment interchangeably here because in this case, the natural consequences of sin are, in fact, a punishment that naturally flows from sin. There are negative effects set in motion every time we sin but the effects can be greater and much more intense depending on whether the sin is mortal or venial.
In order to come to grips with the Church’s teaching on indulgences, one must first understand the Catholic teaching on the two-fold consequence/punishment of sin: namely, the eternal and the temporal.
The eternal consequence of sin refers to hell, the permanent separation from God by persisting in a state of unrepentant mortal sin. Thus, the eternal aspect refers to whether or not we are forgiven.
The temporal consequence of sin, on the other hand, refers to the way in which our sins wound us and others.
God wants not only to forgive our sins, but to heal and transform us.
If we were to imagine our sins as nails driven into a piece of wood, and forgiveness as the removal of those nails, we would still be left with holes in the wood where the nails previously were.
In other words, the work of God is not complete upon mere forgiveness, but seeks to go further through healing and transformation accomplished by our cooperation with supernatural grace through penance & indulgences (i.e., filling in the holes of the wood).
In this light, the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains:
“These two punishments [eternal and temporal] must not be conceived of as a kind of vengeance inflicted by God from without, but as following from the very nature of sin” (CCC, 1472).
We know this is true because we see the temporal consequences of sin everywhere. Even after we have repented of our sins and received forgiveness it is still obvious that further healing is necessary, not only for ourselves but also for the people we have hurt by our sins.
“For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption” (Galatians 6:8).
Forgiveness and temporal punishment/consequences are not opposite ends of a spectrum. They are two sides of the same coin. Together, they establish an essential part of the Lord's plan for believers.
Forgiveness is relational. It puts us back into a right relationship with someone. The Father sent Jesus to make a sacrifice on our behalf, and by so doing reconciled us to Himself. By His mercy alone, we can have communion with the Lord.
On the other hand, consequences are circumstantial. Often God does not remove consequences simply because we trust Christ as Savior or confess sin. He leaves them in place for us to struggle with and to grow from for many important reasons. Here are three:
to learn from our mistakes;
in order to fortify us for future temptations because when we experience the consequences or realize there is a punishment accrued, it makes it easier to resist future temptations.
to grow in humility and empathy for others.
God gives a punishment (consequence) because He not only wants to forgive us, but to heal and transform us completely not merely superficially.
We do this as parents. When our children get in trouble, and they say they’re sorry, we respond both with forgiveness and their punishment.