What is the basis for people’s believing in purgatory?
“Purgatory“ comes from a Latin word that means “to purge.” Roman Catholicism defines it in its catechism: “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. . . . The church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent.” However, the idea of purgatory existed long before, in Greek and pagan philosophy—Plato’s in particular. Origen, who lived in the third century, has been credited with introducing it to the church.
Bible-believing Christians reject the teaching of purgatory—not only because it is not found in the Bible, but because it contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture that Christ’s substitutionary atonement is sufficient for our sin (Hebrews 7:25–27) and that we ourselves are incapable of paying for our sins (Romans 5:6–8). Jesus took our place on the cross (1 Peter 3:18). If we say that Christ’s work on the cross is not always sufficient for a person’s sins, we make Christ a liar. “While He hung on the cross, Jesus said, ‘It is finished!’ ” (John 19:30). He was referring to what He accomplished for us concerning salvation through His sacrificial death (John 19:30). In essence, purgatory denies that we need a Savior; it implies that various people need to suffer physically to satisfy God.
One can readily see how purgatory corresponds to other works-oriented teachings: penance, indulgences, the mass itself, and so on. Those who have been truly regenerated by the Holy Spirit are eternally secure. We are furthermore sealed by the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13, 14). There is nothing further a person needs to do. No one coming to Christ by faith alone is “imperfectly purified” and in need of undergoing a period of suffering before satisfying God. God sees the believer through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Further, it won’t do any good for people to pray, carry out works of charity, attend mass, and so forth, attempting to influence the condition of people who have died. When a person dies, he or she either goes to be with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:8) or spends eternity in Hell without Christ (Hebrews 9:27). No opportunity for salvation will occur after a person dies. But for the believer in Christ, Romans 8:1 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Those who believe in purgatory refer to Matthew 12:32, which says that blasphemy of the Holy Spirit cannot be forgiven in this age or in the age to come. Thus they think the passage implies that some sins can be forgiven at a later time. However, comparing Scripture with Scripture shows us that implication is not the case. Death ends any further opportunity to be saved (Luke 16:19–31; 2 Corinthians 6:2; Hebrews 9:27).
Those who believe in purgatory also refer to 1 Corinthians 3:15: “If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” But here the apostle Paul was speaking of works being burned—not a person. We must look at the context; verses 11 and 12 speak of things a believer builds into his or her life—present labor and future rewards. It does not mean that a person might not measure up and would therefore spend a certain amount of time in the Lake of Fire, as it were, to satisfy God. It is true that a believer will face the Judgment Seat of Christ, but the issue is a person’s fruit-beating as a believer, not his or her salvation.
Those who believe in purgatory also use 1 Peter 1:7: “That the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Here again Scripture refers to a person who is already a believer. The believer does not have to undergo punishment to satisfy God and therefore complete his or her salvation. Rather, the trials and testings of life can refine a believer, just as the illustration says.
We know from studying in science class that gold (the metaphor in 1 Peter 1:7) loses its impurities when it’s sufficiently heated. Trials and testings do the same to us believers while we sojourn through life. That is, we experience progressive sanctification; we are being fitted for the next life. The verse is not speaking of our need to do something further to attain salvation.
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