We are coming to the end of our series of studies of Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. My plan is to conclude the series next Lord’s Day morning, not with the examination of one more feature of Catholic teaching but with a summation, a drawing together of the lessons of the whole series. I had thought I might do that this morning, but I felt, at the last, that purgatory was too important an element of Catholic teaching to leave unnoticed. In a certain way, I feel, it serves, better than almost any other part of the teaching of the Roman Catholic church, to demonstrate how different is the Catholic concept of salvation and the spiritual ethos or atmosphere produced by it.
You are probably broadly familiar with the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, though, Catholics themselves will tell you, many Catholics themselves have only a vague notion of the doctrine. Scott Hahn complains, for example, that many Catholics think of purgatory as a second chance, which it is not. What is more, in some Catholic circles today, and especially in American Catholicism, it has fallen into positive neglect, even disfavor. Nevertheless, it is an essential, integral part of the Roman system.
Here is the doctrine. The souls of the damned are, at death, committed to hell. The souls of those who are perfectly pure at death go immediately to heaven to enjoy the sight and presence of God, but those who are not perfectly cleansed — the vast majority of believers as it turns out — who are still burdened with the guilt of venial sins and have not born the full temporal punishment due them for those sins, must undergo a process of cleansing so that they can become pure and fit to enter heaven. The souls there are assured of an eventual place in heaven, but they must make satisfaction for their sins first, the affliction of their souls to purify them. The length of their stay in purgatory cannot be known ahead of time, nor can the intensity of the sufferings that will be required to purify them. But, those sufferings can be mitigated and shortened by the prayers and good works of the faithful still alive on earth and, especially, by the sacrifice of the Mass. The Pope is supposed to have some jurisdiction over purgatory.
Upon this doctrine of purgatory rests the Catholic practice of praying for the dead, saying masses for the dead, and of the Pope’s granting indulgences for the sake of those in purgatory.
Here are some modern and official Roman Catholic statements of the doctrine.
“Sin must be expiated. This may be done on this earth through the sorrows, miseries, and trials of this life and, above all, through death. Otherwise the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments…. The reasons for their impositions are that our souls need to be purified.
“The doctrine of purgatory clearly demonstrates that even when the guilt of sin has been taken away, punishment for it or the consequences of it may remain to be expiated or cleansed…. In fact, in purgatory the souls of those ‘who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions’ are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt.” [Indulgentiarum Doctrina (1967), cited in J.R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 187]
It is interesting that the new converts to Rome typically make very little of the idea of indulgences — that there is a treasury of merits, filled up by the good works of Christ, Mary, and the saints, from which the Roman hierarchy can dispense remissions of punishments for those in purgatory. For certain works, on certain days, Catholic folk, it is taught, can do things that will lessen the punishment of their loved ones now in purgatory.
Now, to be sure, there are bits and pieces of the Roman Catholic doctrine that can be found rather early in some church fathers. But nothing resembling the developed doctrine of purgatory and indulgences, etc. It is interesting that the Orthodox church does not hold to purgatory, a church that also claims the authority of the fathers and to rest its doctrine on their teaching as an infallible authority.
Roman Catholic writers have tried to argue for purgatory from a few biblical texts, but those arguments are contrived and even they put little weight on them. The fact is, the entire doctrine is without biblical warrant. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray and what to pray for, he mentioned nothing about prayer for the dead. He said nothing, nor did the prophets and apostles about purgatory, about indulgences, or about the church’s authority to remit punishments being suffered by the righteous dead in purgatory. All of this is completely lacking from the Bible and that, surely, is important. For these are not small matters to have been omitted from Holy Scripture.
The Protestant Reformation, as you know, rejected purgatory root and branch as unscriptural and as a doctrine that contradicts the grace of God and the redemption of Christ as revealed in the Bible.
There arguments were these. First, they said, the Bible always describes the state of the dead in terms of two conditions not three. The Bible knows of heaven and hell, the place of the righteous and of the wicked after death, but of no third place. In the Lord’s parable of the rich man and the beggar Lazarus in Luke 16, again the beggar is in paradise and the rich man in torment. This is the alternative. If there is a third it is astonishing that the Bible never says anything about it.
Second, they said that the Bible often openly and emphatically asserts the glorification of the Christian’s soul at the moment of death. Lazarus the beggar is carried to Abraham’s bosom in the Lord’s parable. To die is gain says Paul, to depart is better by far, for to die is to be with Christ. Later, at the end of his life, he said that he had “finished the course” — a strange thing to say if years of punishments still awaited him. But, perhaps he was one of the very righteous who went straight to heaven. But in that same place he says, “Now there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness which the Lord, the righteous Judge will give me, and not to me only, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.” The fact that death will bring them to Christ and bliss is what Paul meant when he wrote to the Corinthian Christians (4:22) that “death is yours.”
But, especially, we have our text this morning, from the pen of the Apostle Paul. All the more powerful it is for its context. [What follows is drawn from B.B. Warfield, “The Christian’s Attitude toward Death,” reprinted, BOT 77 (Feb. 1977) 1-11] Paul has described in the opening chapters of his second letter to the church in Corinth the trials and afflictions that he endured as an ambassador of Christ. He had recently suffered intense persecution in Ephesus. He has also been torn by anxiety about his churches, especially the church in Corinth concerning which he had heard such distressing things.
But, he says, amidst all of these trials he is upheld by two things: the sense he has of the greatness of his work and of the greatness of his hope in Christ. Though the outward man is wearing away with toil and worry, the inward man is being renewed, because heavy as life’s burdens may be, they are incomparably light in comparison with the eternal weight of glory that is his in Christ. Like Moses he looks to his reward and endures seeing the Invisible One. Like Abraham, he is content to dwell in tents because he looks for a city that has foundations. That is how he ends chapter 4.
And that is the thought with which he begins chapter 5. What are earthly sufferings to one who looks upon his own body as a tent in which he sojourns for a time and expects that the laying of it aside will be the step by which he enters into the mansion prepared for him by Christ his Savior who has gone before him?
The Apostle then contemplates the wearing away of this body of his. Now, to be sure, it is not death exactly that he longs for. He is weary here and carries many burdens. But he shrinks from death. He wishes he could be alive when the Lord returns. Why? Because, as he says in vv. 3-4, he does not wish to “found naked,” that is, to be without his body. Death is very unnatural and it is only because the Lord Jesus stands on the far side of it, ready to welcome us, that we can bear it. For death brings a separation of what was never to be separated, the “life-long companions” of soul and body. Interestingly, Paul seems to care less for the deserted body than for the naked soul. It is an unnatural and sin-caused nakedness the believer encounters at death, this is what Paul recoils from. This is not the believer’s final state, it is not his or her perfect state, it is not the completeness and fullness and consummation of salvation for which we long. That will be, he says, in v. 4, when we are, at the resurrection, clothed with our heavenly body, our immortal selves will be entire and complete and the life of eternity will begin. Our redemption is incomplete, unfinished until the resurrection. How important to say that. The Bible always lays stress on this fact, that salvation is not full and complete salvation until the body has been reborn, made immortal, and joined again with the soul.
But, don’t you see how he hurries on, there in vv. 6-8. For Paul, even in the light of what he has said about the unnatural separation of soul and body, knows very well that imperfect as the condition of believers after death may be, much as they may long to be clothed with their eternal bodies, it is still a state better “by far” than that state in which he then lived and we now live, because to be away from the body is to be at home with the Lord! It is better to be together — soul and body– than to be apart, soul separated from body. But it is better to be separated, soul from body, in the presence of the Lord, than to be together, soul and body, away from the Lord, even away as we are who walk with him in the world. There, in death, the believer is so much more “with” the Lord that it can be described as being “present with” or “at home” with the Lord. Or, as he puts it in v. 7, the difference between believing life here and after death is the difference between living by faith — hard, hard work — and living by sight!
The Roman Catholic notion of purgatory stands this argument on its head and so many other statements of Holy Scripture that are designed precisely to console the believer in the face of death with the thought that to die is to be with Christ, to die is to finish one’s course, to die is to go home, to die is better by far, to die is to be brought into the number of the spirits made perfect, to die is to be made like Christ for we shall see him as he is, to die is gain.
And, as Calvin writes in his Institutes [III, v, 10, p. 684], “[if all godly men, after their death, enjoy blessedness in the very presence of God], what, I beg of you, will our prayers confer upon them?”
Third, the Reformers argued that the notion that we must satisfy for our sins by paying the price for them, enduring punishment for them, was an insult to the perfection of the redemption of Christ, of his sufferings for our sins, and assumed the fundamentally erroneous notion that we could pay for our sins — even their temporal penalties — if we had to. It is crucial to the entire biblical teaching of salvation and of Christ’s redeeming work to understand that for the man or woman who is in Christ by faith, “there is, therefore, now no condemnation.” As the author of Hebrews puts it in 1:3: “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the Right Hand of the Majesty in heaven!” The work was finished. Or, as the same author has it later, “Since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool, because by one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy.” [10:13-14] As the Scripture says it in a hundred different ways, we are healed by his stripes, not ours; the chastisement of our sin fell on him, not us. There is no sense in which the afflictions of believers, in this life, “pay” for their sins in the sense that they remove the guilt or penalty of those sins. They are only chastisements by which we are taught to love and fear God. They are discipline not satisfaction. They have no virtue to remove guilt or to remit penalty. Christ alone, the infinite and infinitely perfect sacrifice, can do that!
The notion that there are some souls pure enough to go straight to heaven but most are not perfectly illustrates the terrible problem we find here. Our purity before an infinitely holy God does not consist in anything we have done or suffered, nor could it. The only suffering adequate to pay for any part of our sin is eternal suffering; and the only works adequate to earn entrance into heaven are perfect works with no mixture of sin whatever. But we have no such sufferings or works to offer God. That is why Christ alone can be our Savior; he alone can meet the standard of God’s justice on our behalf so that God can be both just himself and the justifier of sinners.
We have talked before of the Roman Catholic doctrine of justification. Here is the grand illustration of how far removed from the biblical doctrine the Catholic doctrine actually is. It understands some who are justified as having earned direct entrance to heaven by their own merits, but many others, most others, still have more to do when they die. No, Christ is not then our only way to God, he is not alone and entirely the one who brings us to God, as the Scripture always says he is.
And, still more, how foreign the idea that the good works of other men could merit a speedier entrance into light than Christ has won for all his people. The fathers will have nothing of that! As Augustine put it, “Even though we as brethren die for our brethren, no martyr’s blood is shed for the forgiveness of sins. This Christ has done for us, and he has bestowed this upon us not for us to imitate him, but for us to rejoice.” And Leo I the same. “The righteous have received, not given crowns; and from believers’ fortitude have come examples of patience, not gifts of righteousness.” [Calvin, III, v, 3, p. 672]
All through the ages, the godly have taken indescribable consolation and strength from the Bible’s teaching that death is the end of their sufferings and their entrance into the very presence of God, the sight of their Savior himself. Were they wrong? Can anyone read the Word of God and say they were wrong.
Daniel Rowland, the leader of the Great Awakening in Wales in the 18th century, had a godly grandfather who, as he was dying, sensing his entrance into the next world, said to those around his bed, “I am now in the air among the chariots…” Was he wrong?
Roger Youderian was one of the five young missionaries speared to death in the jungles of Ecuador, Jan. 8, 1956. He had been discouraged in the months leading up to that final trip into the interior and had, at one point, not long before, decided to give up missionary work and go home. He thought himself a failure. On Dec. 19 he wrote in his diary, “I will die to self. I will begin to ask God to put me in a service of constant circumstances where to live Christ I must die to self. I will be alive unto God. That I may learn to love Him with my heart, mind, soul, and body.” Just before he left to join the other four men, he penned these two verses:
There is a seeking of honest love,
Drawn from a soul storm-tossed,
A seeking for the gain of Christ,
To bless the blinded, the beaten, the lost.
Those who sought found Heavenly Love
And were filled with joy divine,
They walk today with Christ above
It needed a fourth line but he couldn’t find it. As he put down his pencil he told his wife, “Barb, I’ll finish it when I get home.” Is he not home? And is not the verse finished? Does he not walk today with Christ above? Is it not repugnant to the Scripture’s entire presentation of the glory of Christ as our Redeemer, who has saved us to the uttermost, to believe anything less?
Alexander Whyte once, late in his 50 year long ministry at Free St. George’s in Edinburgh, reminisced about the first pastoral visit he made after coming to St. George’s as Dr. Candlish’s young assistant. It was to one of the elders of that congregation and the man was on his deathbed.
“And I see the thing as if it had been yesterday. There lay open on his pillow — what book do you think? His Bible? No. The Pilgrim’s Progress? No. The Saints’ Rest? No. Rutherford’s Letters? No. I will tell you what it was, for you would never guess. It was the Westminster Confession of Faith, and it was open at the great chapter on justification. ‘I am dying on that Gospel chapter,’ he said. And I had no sooner finished it to him than he fell asleep in Christ his Righteousness.”
There is the issue, brothers and sisters. There is the issue for you too, those of you who are here without Christ this morning. How will you get into heaven? Do you think that God will do his part but that you must do your part as well? Do you think that Christ is the Savior but you have your contribution to make as well? Or do you know, as the Spirit of God teaches every soul that is being saved, that you have nothing in your hand to bring, nothing at all. Naked you come to Christ for dress, helpless you look to him for grace, foul you fly to that fountain that he and he alone has opened from which to wash our sins away.
Not the labors of my hands can fulfil thy law’s demands;
Could my zeal no respite know, could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone; thou must save and thou alone.
There are many kinds of deaths. [Brookhiser, Founding Father, 198] The death of irreverent, irreligious wits. “What? The flames already?” quipped Voltaire, when a lampshade by his deathbed caught fire. There is the death of tyrants: Hitler shooting himself and their gasoline-soaked bodies burning in a pit in the bomb-pocked yard of the chancellery, or Stalin making convulsive motions with his arms as if to fend off God or wolves. There is the death of heros. Men charging the guns, diving on a grenade. But there is also such a thing as a Christian death. The death of someone who knows of a holy God, and of a great guilt, and of the hope of forgiveness — full and free — in Jesus Christ who suffered himself for the sins of his people.
And when the time comes for you to die, that time that comes to all of us sooner rather than later, which death will be your death? What will be in your heart and mind to say to God? What will be the truest and deepest conviction of your entire life at that moment? When you feel the life force leaving your body, when you recognize that the separation of body and soul is now upon you and cannot be avoided any longer, when all around you, your loved ones, the furniture, the bedclothes, even the room itself begins to slip away, what will you think of Christ then, what will be your hope then?
Nothing in my hand I bring; simply to the cross I cling!