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You can save your soul: In 140 characters or less

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Pope Francis launches the smartphone app Missio during an audience at the Vatican (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo)

“You can save your soul: In 140 characters or less.” So headlines USA Today.  The subtitle explains: “Indulgences will be offered via Twitter.”  The story announces that Pope Francis “plans to grant plenary indulgences by Twitter during the World Youth Day 2013” which starts next week in Brazil.  So, what are “indulgences”?  Why would the pope offer them via Twitter?  Why does any of this matter to the rest of us?

The Catholic Encyclopedia defines “indulgence” as “a remission of the temporal punishment due to sin.”  The article explains that an indulgence is not permission to commit sin, pardon of future sin, or exemption of any law or duty.

Here’s how the theology works: First, the sinner confesses his sin through the “sacrament of penance.”  The guilt of his sin and its eternal punishment are then removed, but the temporal punishment required by divine justice remains.  However, Jesus’ death and the merits of the saints have created the “treasury of the Church,” a depository from which indulgences can be granted to remove temporal punishment.  In response to good works on the part of the sinner, the Church can dispense such indulgences.

The upcoming World Youth Day is an opportunity for participants to receive indulgences, but those who cannot travel to Brazil would miss their chance.  However, if they participate in World Youth Day broadcasts or perform other spiritual acts, they can now receive indulgences.  These will be made available to the pope’s nearly 7.5 million Twitter followers in all languages.

Indulgences have been a significant bone of contention between Catholics and Protestants for centuries.  The Catholic Encyclopedia clearly states, “Least of all is an indulgence the purchase of a pardon which secures the buyer’s salvation or releases the soul of another from Purgatory.”  Nonetheless, under the rule of Pope Leo X (1475-1521), such sales to finance the building of St. Peter’s Cathedral became common.  Johann Tetzel was especially infamous for his promise, “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from Purgatory springs.”  Martin Luther’s objection to this corruption sparked the Reformation.

Here ends your theology lesson.  Why is this issue important whether you’re Catholic or not?  As a Protestant, obviously I do not affirm the doctrine of indulgences.  But as a Christian, I’m glad that so many people are seeking to know Christ and make him known.  More than 300,000 have already registered for this year’s World Youth Day; their theme is “Go and Make Disciples of All Nations,” from Matthew 28:19.

Christians can disagree on matters of faith and practice while agreeing that the world needs Jesus.  Someone told Dwight Moody, the famous evangelist, “I don’t like your soul-winning methods.”  Moody said, “I don’t like them much, either.  What are yours?”  The man admitted he didn’t have any.  Moody replied, “I like mine better than yours.”

Would he like yours?