(This is based, in part, on John Gerstner’s Primer on Roman Catholicism from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. For this lesson, I will also draw from James R. White’s The Roman Catholic Controversy, (Bethany House, 1996).There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.
Biblical Support for PurgatoryWe have already discussed one passage used to defend the doctrine of purgatory:
And whoever speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but whoever speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt. 12:32)Here Rome argues that “the age to come” refers to purgatory. As we saw, Calvin believed this passage could be paraphrased as “will not be forgiven now, nor at the final judgment.” Other Protestant commentators teach that the two ages refer to the old and new covenant. Finally, we saw that this passage, taking the Roman view that “the age to come” refers to purgatory, leads to a contradiction of their own doctrine. For if blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is a mortal sin that cannot be forgiven in purgatory, it then implies that there most be some mortal sins that can be forgiving in the age to come, which violates Catholic dogma that only venial sins can be forgiven (in terms of guilt) in purgatory.
Those passages of Scripture on which it is their wont falsely and iniquitously to fasten, it may be worth while to wrench out of their hands. When the Lord declares that the sin against the Holy Ghost will not be forgiven either in this world or the world to come, he thereby intimates (they say) that there is a remission of certain sins hereafter. But who sees not that the Lord there speaks of the guilt of sin? But if this is so, what has it to do with their purgatory, seeing they deny not that the guilt of those sins, the punishment of which is there expiated, is forgiven in the present life? Lest, however, they should still object, we shall give a plainer solution. Since it was the Lord's intention to cut off all hope of pardon from this flagitious wickedness, he did not consider it enough to say, that it would never be forgiven, but in the way of amplification employed a division by which he included both the judgment which every man's conscience pronounces in the present life, and the final judgment which will be publicly pronounced at the resurrection; as if he had said, Beware of this malignant rebellion, as you would of instant destruction; for he who of set purpose endeavors to extinguish the offered light of the Spirit, shall not obtain pardon either in this life, which has been given to sinners for conversion, or on the last day when the angels of God shall separate the sheep from the goats, and the heavenly kingdom shall be purged of all that offends. (Institutes III.5.7)Another passage used to support purgatory is:
23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are going with him to court, lest your accuser hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you be put in prison. 26 Truly, I say to you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. (Matt. 5:23-26)Here the idea is that, allegorically, the devil is the accuser and God is the judge. Clearly then, according to Rome, you can be placed in a prison from which you can get out—as long as you have paid your debt. They are certain this clearly teaches of purgatory. Calvin comments:
The next passage they produce is the parable in Matthew: "Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him; lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison. Verily, I say unto thee, Thou shalt by no means come out thence, till thou hast paid the uttermost earthing," (Matt. 5: 25, 26.) If in this passage the judge means God, the adversary the devil, the officer an angel, and the prison purgatory, I give in at once. But if every man sees that Christ there intended to show to how many perils and evils those expose themselves who obstinately insist on their utmost right, instead of being satisfied with what is fair and equitable, that he might thereby the more strongly exhort his followers to concord, where, I ask, are we to find their purgatory? (Calvin, ibid.)Calvin is telling us that Jesus wants us to come to fair and equitable agreements with our brothers, lest we cut off our nose to spite our face. Christ is speaking, according to Calvin, of the unseemliness and also risk for a person, especially a Christian, to hold out for ultimate satisfaction, especially against a brother. Matthew Henry comments in a similar vein:
Upon a temporal account. If the offence we have done to our brother, in his body, goods, or reputation, be such as will bear action, in which he may recover considerable damages, it is our wisdom, and it is our duty to our family, to prevent that by a humble submission and a just and peaceable satisfaction; lest otherwise he recover it by law, and put us to the extremity of a prison. In such a case it is better to compound and make the best terms we can, than to stand it out; for it is in vain to contend with the law, and there is danger of our being crushed by it. Many ruin their estates by an obstinate persisting in the offences they have given, which would soon have been pacified by a little yielding at first. Solomon's advice in case of suretyship is, Go, humble thyself, and so secure and deliver thyself, (Prov. 6:1-5). It is good to agree, for the law is costly. Though we must be merciful to those we have advantage against, yet we must be just to those that have advantage against us, as far as we are able. "Agree, and compound with thine adversary quickly, lest he be exasperated by thy stubbornness, and provoked to insist upon the utmost demand, and will not make thee the abatement which at first he would have made." A prison is an uncomfortable place to those who are brought to it by their own pride and prodigality, their own wilfulness and folly.Finally, we have this passage that allegedly supports purgatory:
10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire. (1 Cor. 3:10-15)Rome argues that the juxtaposition of works, fire, and rewards speak of the doctrine of purgatory. But in truth the passage speaks for itself, and the only link to purgatory is that fire is mentioned.
The main problem for the Catholic position is that purgatory is supposed to be about sins, punishment, and purification. This passage is not about sins, but rather about works. It is not sins that are being judged, but works. Here we see a rather plain teaching: that if a Christian does good works that withstand inspection, he will be rewarded. If his works do not withstand inspection there will be the opposite result: he will suffer loss, though not his salvation. The fire refers to the burning up of works made of wood or straw instead of bricks. Matthew Henry comments:
There are others whose works shall be burnt (v. 15), whose corrupt opinions and doctrines, or vain inventions and usages in the worship of God, shall be discovered, disowned, and rejected, in that day--shall be first manifested to be corrupt, and then disapproved of God and rejected. Note, the great day will pluck off all disguises, and make things appear as they are: He whose work shall be burnt will suffer loss. If he has built upon the right foundation wood and hay and stubble, he will suffer loss. His weakness and corruption will be the lessening of his glory, though he may in the general have been an honest and an upright Christian. This part of his work will be lost, turning no way to his advantage, though he himself may be saved. Observe, those who hold the foundation of Christianity, though they build hay, wood, and stubble, upon it, may be saved. This may help to enlarge our charity. We should not reprobate men for their weakness: for nothing will damn men but wickedness. He shall be saved, yet so as by fire, saved out of the fire. He himself shall be snatched out of that flame which will consume his work. This intimates that it will be difficult for those that corrupt and deprave Christianity to be saved. God will have no mercy on their works, though he may pluck them as brands out of the burning. On this passage of scripture the papists found their doctrine of purgatory, which is certainly hay and stubble: a doctrine never fetched from scripture, but invented in barbarous ages, to feed the avarice and ambition of the clergy, at the cost of those who would rather part with their money than their lusts, for the salvation of their souls. It can have no countenance from this text, (1) Because this is plainly meant of a figurative fire, not of a real one: for what real fire can consume religious rites or doctrines? (2) Because this fire is to try men's works, of what sort they are; but purgatory-fire is not for trial, not to bring men's actions to the test, but to punish for them. They are supposed to be venial sins, not satisfied for in this life, for which satisfaction must be made by suffering the fire of purgatory. (3) Because this fire is to try every man's works, those of Paul and Apollos, as well as those of others. Now, no papists will have the front to say apostles must have passed through purgatory fires.