I think I need to start this article a little differently than most of my others: I need to say that this article doesn’t necessarily represent the views of any other preacher on this website. Of course, I don’t usually say that, so why am I today? Well because today, I’m talking about something controversial (something which I’ve got a feeling the others won’t agree with me on): Purgatory.
For hundreds of years Purgatory has been a topic of great disagreement between Catholics and Protestants (although the line isn’t as clear as some would think). In general, Protestants think that Purgatory is the teaching of the anti-Christ; Catholics think that Protestants just don’t understand.
As with pretty much everything else, I’m with the Catholics on this one (stick with me Protestants – just give me a chance), and today I’m going to explain why, but first we need to start by looking at the objections of Protestants: simply put, Purgatory goes against the gospel. It adds to the work of Christ. It suggests that Christ didn’t really save us from our sins after all. But is this fair? Well, let’s think about this logically.
First, we need to understand what heaven is. Now heaven is most certainly a place for life after death, and it’s most certainly a place where the Church Triumphant worships God continually, without the burdens which we feel here on Earth. But the answer which we really need for the purposes of this article is perhaps the most obvious: that heaven is perfect. That’s imperative.
But next we need to ask this: why is heaven perfect? Well in order to best answer that, we will benefit from looking at what it is that makes this world imperfect. The answer’s found in Genesis: when God first made the world, he saw that it was good – a word which, in this context, can be understood to mean perfect. When he made the fish and the animals, he saw that it was good. In fact, everything was good up until a certain point: the fall. When the first people rebelled against God – when they obeyed sin – the world was no longer perfect. The world was now fallen. So, what is it that makes earth imperfect? Sin. Nothing else. Just sin.
And what is it that means sin is able to ruin this world? Well we’ve already found the answer to that. It wasn’t the animals which obeyed sin, nor was it anything in this world other than ourselves. We are the only things which obey sin, and so we are the only things which ruin earth.
But let’s think about this a minute: if we ruin earth, by allowing sin to dwell in our hearts, will we not also ruin heaven? If I continue to obey sin when I am in heaven, how will heaven remain perfect? It can’t, can it? Instead, if heaven is to remain perfect, I’ve got to stop obeying sin, and I am convinced, after only a short battle with sin thus far, that I am incapable of refusing sin whilst it dwells in my heart. Instead, if I am to avoid threatening the perfection of heaven, I must have that sin removed from me.
And so we come to our next pivotal question: did Christ do that? Surely we must all agree, whether Catholic or Protestant, with what I have said so far: that heaven is perfect and that sin ruins perfection. Therefore, if we are to avoid threatening the perfection of heaven, we ourselves must have sin removed from our hearts – we must be cleansed from our sin. And that is something which we ourselves are incapable of doing. Now if Protestants agree with me in saying that we are incapable of purging ourselves of sin, and yet they continue to refuse the teaching of Purgatory, then they must have only one explanation left, and that is that Christ made us perfect. If we can’t purify ourselves of sin, and the only stage after death is heaven, then there only seems to be one stage left, and that is Christ himself – Christ must have made us perfect. But I hope you can see already that that is entirely false. Yes, Christ sacrificed himself so that we would be forgiven of our sins – we are forgiven – but we find enough evidence in our own daily lives to prove that forgiveness is clearly not the same as purification. Why? Because we continue to sin. I know that I’ve sinned today, and I know that you have all sinned at least once in your life. And yet Christ died nearly two-thousand years ago. Though Christ has died – though we are truly forgiven of our sins through the great mercy of God our Father, and the incomprehensible grace of our Lord himself – we are evidently yet to be purified.
So we have a problem, don’t we? Because if we were to die today, we would be forgiven of our sins – Christ himself told us to believe that. But if we were to enter heaven in our current state of sin and rebellion against our Father, would we not ruin it? Would we not threaten its perfection? I know I would.
And this is where Purgatory comes into play, for Purgatory gives us that perfection which the Cross clearly hasn’t. Purgatory removes the threat which we pose to heaven.
It’s when we realise what Purgatory gives us that we can see the whole idea in a new light. The problem which so many people have today is that when they think of Purgatory, they think of fire. Quite rightly too; Purgatory is probably a fire, and thus it probably causes some discomfort. But when people think of Purgatory in this way, they think of some sort of punishment – they often think of the same punishment which those who don’t repent bring upon themselves – the punishment of hell. But that discomfort which the Church Suffering (those in Purgatory) feel, is not in any way the same as the agony which those living in eternal damnation feel. Nor can this discomfort be compared, in any way, to a punishment. Why? Well because this discomfort is simply the result of our own love for sin. When that sin is removed from us, we hate to see it go, and so that discomforts us – it is no punishment, but simply the emotion which we feel as sin is taken from our heart.
That’s why Purgatory is not an act of God’s wrath – it shouldn’t be seen as a lesser hell. Instead, it should be seen in a glorious manner, for it is in Purgatory where our hearts are made pure. How gracious it is of God that he would send his son to die for us, that we can be justly forgiven of our sins. And how even more gracious it is – as if he hadn’t already done enough – that he would then go on to make his people perfect, that they could worship him freely and honestly, that they would not ruin heaven.
Charles Spurgeon once said that if he were a Roman Catholic, he would rather turn a heretic in sheer desperation as to avoid Purgatory. But you know what? I must disagree, because whenever I think of Purgatory, and what it offers, I never fail to smile. Thanks be to God for his grace.