A.D. 2000: Year of Jubilee - by Papal Indulgence or by Reformation Gospel?



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 Catholic piety.

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 Jubilee.

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 by God.

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 ispart 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 Leviticus 25:8ff

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 fulfillment of "seven sabbaths of years ... seven times seven years" (Lev. 25:8).

Adding to the brilliantly clear significance was that the Jubilee year began on the tenth day of the seventh month, which is identified in 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 laboring 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 (Is. 61:1,2). 

According to Luke 4:16-21, at the beginning of His public ministry Jesus Christ deliberately picked this Old Testament prophecy of the fulfillment 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 Incarnation":

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 plenaryindulgence" (emphasis added).

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 supersalesman Tetzel 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, defense, 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."

We protest!

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: defense 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 places.

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 bank account.

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 contempt.

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. 1:8, 9).

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 centers 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 offenses 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 justified" (Gal. 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 righteousness (Rom. 10:3).

God accepts no righteousness other than His own righteousness, which He has worked out for sinners in the cross of Jesus Christ.

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 canceled 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 fulfill. 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 4:16-21).

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 Cor. 6:2).

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 with God!


Debtors! Slaves! Captives! All who labor 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 topreach 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" (Luke 4:18, 19).

A.D. 2000: year of Jubilee-by preaching, not by indulgences!

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 favor-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.

Last modified on 07 December 2013
Engelsma, David J.

Prof.David J. Engelsma (Wife: Ruth)

Ordained: September 1963

Pastorates: Loveland, CO - 1963; South Holland, IL - 1974; Professor in the Protestant Reformed Seminary - 1988; Emeritus - 2008


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