(Today is All Souls’ Day, the commemoration of the holy souls in purgatory. As it happens, I had this post half-brewed already after a recent e-mail conversation with an anti-Catholic.)
One of the most frequent charges I hear from anti-Catholics against the doctrine of purgatory is that it “nullifies the finished work of Christ on the cross” — that somehow, the idea of purgatory implies that Jesus’s atonement was “not enough”; that sinners still have to expiate their own sins. This charge reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what purgatory is.
In fact, as Scripture itself teaches, it is the ultimate mercy:
According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation [i.e. you whom I planted, cf. vv. 5–8], and another man is building upon it [i.e. each of us, fellow workers of the Lord, cf. v. 9]. Let each man take care how he builds upon it. For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw — each man’s work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Corinthians 3:10–15)
If any man’s work is burned up — even by the fire of judgment — he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. Even if a man’s works are merely wood, hay, straw — materials that will not last — if he has squandered his time on this earth, and not stored up treasures in heaven (cf. Matthew 6:20) — then there is still a chance for him to be saved. How merciful is our Lord!
(At this point, I got off track and examined the passage more closely than I intended to, to reject a common Protestant counterargument — after I said I wasn’t going to. If you would like to read that, I will post it separately tomorrow(?).)
This purging fire is not a limitation of Christ’s atonement — it is an even further and deeper extension of it. Christ’s work on the cross was so overpowering, so uncontainable, that it bursts every bond of death, hell, and the grave — that it can reach to us even beyond the grave. Anti-Catholics suppose that purgatory is the application of some other power than the grace of Christ to the soul — usually, they think it is our own works or purchased indulgences or some other such? But that final purification is accomplished by none other than the same grace, the same blood, the same redemption that redeems us in life.
So why, they ask, weren’t we redeemed in life? Doesn’t this idea suppose that His redemption wasn’t enough to save us while we were alive? Here is where Protestants misunderstand. In especially the Evangelical Protestant mind, “salvation” is a one-time event, a one-time regeneration by faith, which imputes to us the righteousness of Christ, such that there is no other work to be done so far as our salvation — we are then “saved.” This tends to conflate a lot of ideas together, even from classical Protestant theology, and lose some in the shuffle. Our terminology and vocabulary is a stumbling block at this point, especially to Catholic–Protestant dialogue.
Catholics agree that in a sense, salvation is a once-and-for-all event: the irrevocable moment of our Baptism in which we are washed with the blood of Christ, our every sin cleansed, and our former self is buried with Christ, and we are raised to new life in Him. Catholics even agree that in a sense, that initial justification is by faith alone — not a “faith” of mere intellectual assent, but of faith on fire with love and raised by hope. And nothing can take away that grace; it is imprinted on our souls. But that isn’t the end of the journey. We then have a road to walk (cf. Matthew 7:13–14), a cross to bear (Luke 9:23). We have to abide in Christ (John 15:1–17) and endure to the end (Matthew 24:13, Luke 21:19). And on that journey, if we abide in His love, we will be sanctified — gradually purified and made holy.
Sanctification: This is a term that I think many Evangelicals have lost sight of; and many Reformed understand, but have separated it so far from justification that they fail to associate it with salvation. Catholics do not make a clean distinction between the two as Protestants have: because they are both the works of Christ’s grace, and they are both integral parts of the same process of cleansing us from sin and making us holy. But put in Protestant terms: yes, there is an initial justification in which we are saved from our sins and incorporated into Christ. And purgatory has little to do with that. As Paul himself said, one’s perishable works can be burned away and we can be saved through fire — but only if his foundation is Christ. Purgatory is only for those who die in Christ: the holy souls in purgatory are already “saved,” and they will go to heaven, without exception. Put simply, purgatory is the completion of the process of sanctification if we didn’t complete it in life.
There is a difference between the eternal guilt of one’s sins, which is wholly obliterated by Christ’s forgiveness, and the temporal effects of one’s sins, which must be purified by sanctification, that comes into play here. But this post is already too long. The difference in Protestant theology between justification and sanctification is illustrative here: even if we are wholly justified by Christ, the guilt of our sins forgiven, we still must be sanctified — for nothing impure can enter heaven and stand before God (Revelation 21:27).
Evangelical Protestants especially, but Reformed too, make a sharp, ruthless, and binary distinction between those who are saved and those who are unsaved — cleanly defined by that one-time moment of salvation. So often they lament the deaths of those who, in their judgment, were not saved, who had not experienced that salvation. But this leaves no room for the overflowing mercy of our God. It is true that Jesus is the only way to the Father (John 6:44). But only God can judge our hearts; only He can know the foundation He lays. And purgatory, rather than a limitation of God’s grace, is its ultimate outpouring in our lives — bringing that final, purifying grace to those of us whose works built on that foundation were imperfect.