ArticlesThe Question of Purgatory: Three Reasons Why Purgatory Is Not Real

The Question of Purgatory: Three Reasons Why Purgatory Is Not Real

By Jordan Velazco, MDiv student at Criswell College and member of Lebanon Baptist Church

 

“When a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs.” The Reformation started because Luther claimed this jingle from Tetzel conflicted with the Bible. Yet, some Protestants over the years have endorsed the doctrine of purgatory, even notable people such as C. S. Lewis and Watchman Nee. Given the support of such influential Christians, pastors may begin to wonder if purgatory might be true after all. Traditionally, this place of temporary suffering is said to exist for the purposes of paying for sins, earning merit, and completing sanctification. Drawing from the Bible, this article will present three corresponding reasons to reject purgatory.

Reason 1: The Forgiveness of Sins

The first reason to reject purgatory is because God, from the moment of our conversion, has forgiven our sins, past and future. Many who believe in purgatory specifically deny that God forgives future sins at conversion. Such is the case with the Catholic church, which believes that God only forgives past sins at baptism. Any sins committed after baptism must be either forgiven through penance or paid for after death.[1] This is the main purpose of purgatory in Catholicism. As canon thirty of the Council of Trent says, 

If any one saith, that, after the grace of Justification has been received, to every penitent sinner the guilt is remitted, and the debt of eternal punishment is blotted out in such wise, that there remains not any debt of temporal punishment to be discharged either in this world, or in the next in Purgatory, before the entrance to the kingdom of heaven can be opened (to him); let him be anathema.[2]

Similarly, some Protestants, like Watchman Nee, say that unconfessed sins are not forgiven and, thus, must be paid for in purgatory.[3] To many then, this is purgatory’s primary purpose.

However, the Bible is clear that all sins past and future are forgiven at conversion. In Romans 4:7–8, Paul describes the righteousness that comes by faith in Christ by quoting David saying, “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Notice that the first two verbs are past tense while the third is future tense. Past sins are forgiven and covered; future sins are not taken into account. Moreover, Paul says in Romans 8:33, “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies.” No one can bring a charge against a Christian because God has already rendered His verdict; they are justified. Thus, nothing can “separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” whether present or future (Rom. 8:38-39). Thus, the truth is that God forgives our past and future sins when we believe in Christ.

This wonderful guarantee provides an excellent reason to reject purgatory. If the purpose of going through purgatory is to pay for sins, then no Christian has to pass through purgatory. All our sins, whether past or future, were forgiven the moment we trusted in Christ.

Reason 2: The Imputation of Christ’s Righteousness

Another reason to reject purgatory is that the righteous life of Christ is imputed to believers. There are passages of Scripture that indicate forgiveness of sins is not enough to get to heaven; one must also fulfill the covenant of works and merit eternal life through good deeds. Such passages include Matt. 19:17, Rom. 10:5, and Gal. 3:10–12. Summarizing the biblical data, the theologian Brandon Crowe says, 

Life as a reward for obedience is already conveyed in the account of Adam, but is further clarified by Scripture’s consistent correlation between doing the commandments and life. One important text in this regard is Leviticus 18:5… Paul’s use of this text, in conjunction with Deuteronomy 27:26, attests the principle that eternal life requires complete, entire adherence to the law of God.[4]

Thus, for humans to go to heaven, they need to be perfectly obedient and righteous; simple innocence will not suffice. 

With this in mind, Christ’s role as the new Adam takes on extreme importance. According to Romans 5:18–19, Adam’s one sin resulted in the condemnation of all, whereas Christ’s obedience climaxing at the cross results in the many being considered righteous and given life. This is because God counts Christ’s righteousness as belonging to believers, such that we become “the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor 5:21). As Luther says,”By faith Christ changes places with us. He gets our sins, we get His holiness. By faith alone can we become righteous, for faith invests us with the sinlessness of Christ.”[5] Since Christ lived a perfect life He has earned heaven on our behalf; we do not need to merit eternal life because He already has.

Some, however, maintain that believers must do good works to merit heaven. As Jerry Walls says, “It is not a matter of having the righteousness of Christ imputed to us… He got a hundred in order to empower and enable us to get a hundred too, and until we get a hundred we are not getting into heaven.”[6] Thus, Christians must earn heaven through their works. What happens if they have not done enough works before dying? They can continue to work until they get a hundred in purgatory. This system is inconsistent with the teaching of the Scriptures. Christ’s righteous life is imputed to us, and, thus, there is no need for purgatory.

Reason 3: The Relationship between Sanctification and the Beatific Vision

The final reason to deny purgatory is that the beatific vision finishes what conversion begins. Perhaps, the most common reason given for the existence of purgatory today is that it enables sanctification to be completed so that the believer can enter heaven. Some verses in Scripture, like Heb 12:14, Ps 24:3–4, and Rev. 21:27, seem to teach that no unholy person can come into the presence of God. Since people die before they are fully sanctified, proponents of purgatory argue their sanctification must continue after death and before entering heaven. Moreover, many claim that a unilateral act of sanctification by God would compromise a believer’s free will. As Jerry Walls says, “If God is willing to dispense with our free cooperation in the next life, it is hard to see why He would not do so now, particularly in view of the high price of freedom in terms of evil and suffering.”[7] Thus, sanctification must be continued as a cooperative process and not a single act occurring at death. In the words of Watchman Nee, “If a man is not changed in this age but will be different in the new heaven and new earth, and if death does not cause a person to change, then when does the change occur?… there will be discipline, and this discipline will prune and cleanse us.”[8]

The problem with this argument for purgatory is that it has an improper view of indwelling sin and sanctification. Also called the sin nature, indwelling sin is that aspect of humans that inclines them to sin. Indwelling sin is not itself a thing but a twisting of things. We know this because God is the one who made everything (Jn. 1:3), and everything He made was good (Gen. 1:31). However, sin itself is evil, which means it cannot be a thing itself but a twisting of things. Specifically, indwelling sin is hostility toward God or a failure to love Him first (Rom. 8:7, Rom. 1:21–25). 

This has a profound impact on the doctrine of sanctification. Understood properly, its goal is fostering love for God out of which good habits and virtues flow (Jn. 14:15). Now, such love is impossible for humans who must be assisted by the grace of the Holy Spirit in order to will and do good (Phil. 2:12-13). Yet, it seems that this grace is resistible, resulting in a struggle between the believer’s rebelliousness and growing love for God (Rom 6:13; Gal. 5:13–17; Eph. 4:30). However, the believer through the Spirit has already made a decision which shapes their character in such a way that complete sanctification is inevitable. They repented and believed in Christ. When a person converts, they recognize their failure to love God as they should, their need to change, and their inability to save themselves, and they trust in Christ for forgiveness and commit to love and serve Him as Lord. This attitude is the desired outcome of sanctification found in nuce at the very beginning of a Christian’s walk. No wonder Paul could say then, 

But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness… But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life. (Rom. 6:17–18, 22)

If Christians have already made the decision to submit to God and love Him first, why do we still struggle with indwelling sin? It is because we fail to grasp the surpassing worth of God. We know to desire God above all else, “But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire” (Jas. 1:14). Only when our love for God dwarfs every other desire will we Christians be free of indwelling sin. Yet, this will only happen when we come to know God fully. As Paul says in the famous love chapter, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now, I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor. 13:12). John concurs when he says, “we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure” (1 Jn. 3:2–3). In theology, this is called the beatific vision, where God reveals Himself to the believer and the believer sees the divine essence and is changed to be like God. When this happens, God’s surpassing worth will be plain as day, and our love for God will be perfect. Yet, even now as our knowledge of God increases so does our love for Him (Jn 17:26, Col 3:10). 

With these things in mind, one can see the errors in this argument for purgatory. Supposedly, purgatory fully sanctifies believers before ushering them into God’s presence, but sanctification can only be completed by being in God’s presence. By preventing believers from seeing God, purgatory ironically would guarantee that no one would ever become fully sanctified. But, is beatific vision a freedom-violating act of God? Nothing could be further from the truth. The believer at conversion has already freely made a decision that makes complete sanctification inevitable. Through the Spirit, he has moved from being a slave to sin to being a slave to God. Consequently, the purifying effect of the beatific vision is the natural result of a repentant person seeing God.[9] Thus, there is no need for purgatory.

Conclusion

In summary, there are three strong reasons for rejecting purgatory. First, God forgives the future sins of Christians when they believe; so, they don’t need to be paid for in purgatory. Second, Christ’s righteousness is imputed to believers, meaning they don’t need to merit heaven through works in purgatory. Third, the beatific vision perfects our love for God and rids us of indwelling sin, meaning that purgatory would hurt rather than help our sanctification. This means that not only is there no need for purgatory, but that purgatory contradicts the teaching of Scripture itself. Thus, despite the claims of some popular Protestants, the Reformers were right to reject purgatory. 

 

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church, “The Power of the Keys,” articles 985–86, The Holy See, accessed April 18, 2024,  https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/__P2F.HTM

[2] The Canons and Decrees of the Sacred and Ecumenical Council of Trent, “General Council of Trent: Sixth Session,” canon 30, trans. J. Waterworth, (London: Dolman, 1848), Papal Encyclicals Online, accessed April 18, 2024, https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/trent/sixth-session.htm

[3] Watchman Nee, The Gospel of God, The Collected Works of Watchman Nee Set Two, vol. 29 (Anaheim, CA: Living Stream Ministries, 1990) chapter 10, para. 12, accessed April 18, 2024, https://bibleread.online/all-books-by-Watchman-Nee-and-Witness-Lee/book-collected-works-of-watchman-nee-the-set-2-vol-29-the-gospel-of-god-2-Watchman-Nee-read-online/10/

[4] Brandon Crowe, Why did Jesus Live a Perfect Life?: The Necessity of Christ’s Obedience for our Salvation (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2021), 38.

[5] Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, trans. Theodore Graebner (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019) 3:13, para. 141–42, accessed April 18, 2024. https://ccel.org/ccel/luther/galatians/galatians.vi.html

[6] Jerry Walls, “C.S. Lewis: A Case for Mere Purgatory with Dr. Jerry Walls,”Third Annual Philosophy Conference, Houston Baptist University, March 23, 2013, video of lecture, 22:13–23:00, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8u2tZjtPMlo (accessed April 18, 2024).

[7] Jerry Walls, “Purgatory for Everyone,” First Things (April 2002), para. 21, accessed April 18, 2024. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2002/04/purgatory-for-everyone

[8] Watchman Nee, The Gospel of God, chapter 10, para. 8, accessed April 18, 2024. https://bibleread.online/all-books-by-Watchman-Nee-and-Witness-Lee/book-collected-works-of-watchman-nee-the-set-2-vol-29-the-gospel-of-god-2-Watchman-Nee-read-online/8/

[9] John Calvin specifically says that only those regenerated by the Spirit will be cleansed by the beatific vision. All others will be pained and terrified by His appearence because they reject Him. See John Calvin, Commentaries on the Catholic Epistles, 1 Jn 3:2, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: T. Constable, 1855), accessed April 18, 2024. https://ccel.org/ccel/calvin/calcom45/calcom45.v.iv.i.html

 

 

 

*The views expressed are those solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Pastor’s Common

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