Purgatory - A Cruel Doctrine
I wonder how far on in her redemption my late mother’s progressed? These words, spoken with some degree of wistfulness to me by a gentle Roman Catholic colleague, rudely reminded me of the network of false doctrine any RC must strain to break through to reach the true freedom of grace in Christ Jesus. Even those critical of the priesthood and hierarchy and with some measure of spiritual strivings nevertheless are powerfully held in its cruel unscriptural grip.
This lady was alluding to the RC concept of ‘purgatory’ which was the immediate cause of the Reformation. Most Protestants might assume the Roman Church had long ago quietly consigned this doctrine to the dustbin, but here’s how she defines it in the Second Vatican Council as recently as the mid-Sixties:
The truth has been divinely revealed that sins are followed by punishments. God’s holiness and justice inflict them. Sins must be expiated. This must be done on this earth ... Otherwise the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments.
Now we agree it is eminently biblical that sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and that which is to come. Our Catechism stresses that every sin separates between us and our God so that if we offend at a single point we are guilty at all points (James 2:10). And as we offend against an infinite God our debt is infinite and our own ‘righteousness’ utterly inadequate to recompense God. Only the perfect righteousness of Christ, imputed or counted to us out of the pure grace of God, can make peace.
Rome Denies the Heart of the Gospel
Rome strenuously denies this, the very heart of the Gospel. For her, only certain sins are ‘mortal’, whilst others, if mixed with our ‘good works’, are not hell-deserving – they are minor or ‘venial’ sins and, through purging fires of lesser punishment, God can be compensated for them. Thus is the enormity of sin downplayed!
For what is Rome doing here but investing our own works with a reconciling power they do not and cannot possess – to satisfy infinite wrath. Thus is man either puffed up in spiritual pride or driven to desperation and hopelessness as he tries to atone for his own sins.
Despite the fact that Paul tells us we all continuously fall short of the glory of God, Rome insists her ‘saints’ can reach such superabundant levels of self-righteousness that there is a ‘treasury of merits’ from which, for a financial sum an ‘indulgence’, can be imputed to the account of anyone in purgatory and effect early release to heaven! Thus is Christ’s perfect righteousness denigrated and Rome involves herself in denying the efficaciousness of the imputation of Christ’s righteousness unless ‘increased’ by our own good works, yet commending imputation when it is the merits of her own so-called saints. Little wonder the Reformers recoiled from this as sheer blasphemy!
Our reply to this can be simply drawn from Scripture. Firstly, it is clearly taught that we shall for all eternity remain in the spiritual condition in which we die. In Ecclesiastes 11:3 and 12:5 it is said where ‘the tree falleth, there it shall be’. And ‘man goeth to his long home’ – his fixed, eternal state and the mourners go about the streets! The same urgent note of warning is sounded in Revelation 22:11 – ‘He that is unjust, let him be unjust still; and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still’.
The concept of a place of temporary purging after death is entirely alien to the New Testament. Rather, the teaching is that death takes us directly to the heavenly Presence. Does not Christ Himself assure us, ‘Where I am, there shall also my servant be; if any man serve me, him will my Father honour’ (John 12:26)? Paul too is emphatic: ‘If our earthly house … were dissolved we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens’ (2 Corinthians 5:1). We can be confident that being absent from the body we are present with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8). To depart from the flesh, he says, is to be with Christ which is far better (Philippians 1:23). Our citizenship is even now in heaven and from there we await Christ’s second coming (Philippians 3:20).
The Finished Work of Christ
The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin so that our sins are blotted out from God’s sight and we are accepted in the Beloved and reconciled to God. Christ has freed us from the curse of the Law and delivered us from the wrath due to sin. Death therefore has lost its sting and its terror for the believer. This is why Paul can declare that ‘He that is dead is freed from sin’ (Romans 6:7) and thus is persuaded that ‘neither death nor life ... shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-39).
Death brings us blessed peace (Romans 5:1 & Psalm 37:37) and rest (Hebrews 4:10); this is why Paul can describe it as being ‘asleep’ in Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:20). Being united to Christ, when we die all contaminating influences are removed as we are perfectly sanctified in Him. We require no further purging and He is not ashamed to claim us as His very brethren (Hebrews 2:11). Thus our hearts are sprinkled from an evil or troubled conscience! Wonderful grace and compassion of God indeed! No one can bring a charge against God’s elect in Christ, so what need for this pitiable idea of a further appeasing of God and securing His favour towards us by our own self-wrought righteousness? Without grace any and every sin deserves infinite punishment being directed against an infinite God, so it is utterly impossible for us to pay off this debt. Release from a purgatorial prison, if one existed, could never be met by our own finite supposed righteousness.
Our salvation is all of grace, from first to last the work of the Triune God. We need to be found ‘in Christ’, having been given to Him by His Father and made temples of the Holy Spirit. Look closely at Paul's words:
Know ye not that ye are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? ... The temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.1 Corinthians 3:16-17
Rome flatly denies this with her purgatory teaching. She states that we are not holy enough at death to dwell immediately in the presence of God, but Paul says that even in this life the Holy Spirit is dwelling in our hearts. Or is Rome implying the Holy Ghost is not God?!
Of course Christians are not exempt from appearing before the great Throne of Judgment but let us rejoice that for us who are in Christ it is a Throne of Grace: our works may be woefully inadequate but still our persons are accepted in Christ! ‘Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth; yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labours; and their works do follow them’ (Revelation 14:13). This is why Paul can exult in the Saviour's emancipating righteousness:
There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.Romans 8:1
The clear, present comforting force of that little Gospel word ‘now’ is directly contradicted by Rome’s doctrine – there is now condemnation which only purgatory can remove. Small wonder her more earnest people are popularly seen, by themselves as much as by others, as weighed down by guilt because Rome’s remedy is utterly impotent to pay the infinite price of sin.
Purgatory, we conclude, involves Rome in a wrong view of sin, of justification and sanctification; a misleadingly proud view of the potential of human merit; an incoherent view of imputation, rejecting Christ’s but selling others’ to us; futile prayers for the dead; and exclusive claims of church power for their denomination that belies all their ecumenical posturing.
With a heavy heart we see many deluded by her and kept from total reliance on Christ alone. Our prayer must be that her victims will come to share the joy and peace in believing which is expressed so beautifully in our Shorter Catechism:
What benefits do believers receive from Christ at death? The souls of believers are at their death made perfect in holiness and do immediately pass into glory; and their bodies, being still united to Christ, do rest in their graves till the resurrection.