Do We Believe in Purgatory?

Series: Question Box

by Rick Phillips June 24, 2001

Our question tonight is this: “What do we believe about the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory?” First we must briefly define the subject. The most recent Roman Catholic catechism, or statement of faith, says this: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” (1030). Purgatory, then, is a hell-like place for believing dead, but should not be confused with hell since it will ultimately prepare believers for heaven. 

The catechism’s biblical support for purgatory consists of two passages which obliquely speak of purification through fire, neither of which in fact supports the idea of purgatory. One of them is 1st Corinthians 3:15, where Paul speaks of those whose works in this life are burned up as worthless by God’s judging fire. The verse actually teaches the opposite of purgatory, comparing such a worldly believer to one who escapes a burning house having lost all his possessions. The second passage is 1 Peter 1:7, which uses the common biblical metaphor of God refining our faith the way a metalsmith refines gold. “These [trials] have come so that your faith --of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.” This is about earthly trials that separate us from worldliness, saying nothing about our souls being purged in purgatory prior to heaven. 

Purgatory is consistently denied and vigorously opposed by Protestant Christians. The first reason for our opposition is its lack of biblical support. The second reason is that it denies the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone, so central to our faith. According to the Bible, we are saved from our sins by trusting in Jesus Christ as our Savior. What we are receiving by faith is really two things at the same time. First, our sins are taken away by Christ’s death on the cross. As We are forgiven our sins because Christ bore them in our place. Second, by faith we are credited with the righteousness of Christ. Both of these are plainly explained in passages like Romans 3 and 4. We are accepted by God because our sins have been taken away and because through faith we have received Christ’s own righteousness.

All this deals with the doctrine of justification, which answers the question, “What is it that allows me, a sinner, to be accepted by a holy God?” Roman Catholicism answers that you will be accepted by God, you will be justified by him, not when you have received Christ’s righteousness by faith but when you have your own righteousness, having attained spiritual and moral perfection. The key difference in between imputed and infused righteousness. Evangelicals believe Christ’s righteousness is imputed to the believer by grace and through faith. Roman Catholicism teaches that God infusesChrist’s righteousness into the Christian, in this life mainly through participation in the sacraments of the church. Purgatory comes in because there is a problem inherent to the Roman system. We are accepted by God, they say, only when we are actually perfect according to his standards of holiness. But, of course, none of us have achieved that at the end of our lives and so purgatory becomes a necessary evil. Since we die not having achieved our own righteousness, purgatory is a way of envisioning this after our deaths. From a biblical perspective, the problem, then, is not purgatory, but the doctrine of infused righteousness. Like most erroneous schemes of salvation, especially those that deny the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work, Roman Catholicism requires something “extra” to balance the books. Here, that something extra is purgatory, a doctrine that has no real basis except the futility of the Roman Catholic scheme of infused righteousness that mandates its inclusion.

In contrast to this, the Bible says that we are justified not by our righteousness, not because we have attained to spiritual and moral perfection, but because we are clothed with the righteous robes of the Lord Jesus Christ. It tells us of a salvation received by faith, not by purging fire. It grounds our confidence not in our spiritual attainment but in the finished and sufficient work of Jesus Christ. Paul writes in Romans 3:23-25, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood.” That means that Christ’s death, received through faith, removes sin as a barrier to our acceptance with God. Paul wrote in Titus 3:4-5, “But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy.” Purgatory presents at best a warped perspective on God’s mercy, supposedly in the interests of protecting his justice. It is good news, we are told, that God lets you go to purgatory instead of into hell. But, we reply, it is not very good news, and it certainly presents a view of God’s mercy that is less than inspiring.

Purgatory, we are told, is necessary so that God will be just in justifying sinners. In contrast, the Bible teaches that God’s justice is satisfied by the sacrifice of the spotless Lamb of God in our place.

In a stinging refutation of the whole Roman Catholic system, and especially infused righteousness and purgatory, the apostle Paul says that God justifies not those who merit his approval, but rather– and I quote Romans 4:5 – “God justifies the wicked” through faith in Jesus Christ. Similarly, Hebrews 7:27 undoes the doctrine of purgatory, saying of Christ, “He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”

The doctrine of purgatory is a doctrine of fear, as illustrated by the countless Roman Catholics who place money in jars trying to shorten the stay of their dearly departed supposedly now in purgatory. Purgatory exposes the systematic divergence of Roman Catholicism from biblical Christianity. It ultimately puts human merit in the place of divine grace as the principle of our justification, stealing glory from Christ and giving it instead to the church and its priests, who ultimately control the means of salvation under that system of spiritual oppression. 

What a contrast the idea of purgatory is to the biblical and Christian doctrine of salvation. Just this afternoon, our church celebrated the life and death of a dear believing sister, and our pastor was able to comfort us with the words of Psalm 73:24, which assures that after trusting Christ in life we will be received at once with love by God in our death. “You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will take me into glory.” It is into glory that justified sinner go at death, not into a hell-like furnace of purgatory. All because of the righteousness that is not of ourselves, not of the church, but is of Christ through faith, so that, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:30, Jesus is himself our righteousness before our loving God. That is why the Christian gospel is one of joy and not of fear, in life as well as in death, a Gospel of the hope of eternal life that says to all who trust in Christ, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).

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