According to the Handbook for Today's Catholic, page 47,
"If you die in the love of God but possess any stains of sin, such stains are cleansed away in a purifying process called Purgatory. These stains of sin are primarily the temporal punishment due to venial or mortal sins already forgiven but for which sufficient penance was not done during your lifetime."
The Catholic Catechism, paragraph 1030, says that Purgatory is for "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."
Among the many doctrines that Catholicism claims to be derived through Sacred Tradition, Purgatory is one of the most interesting and puzzling, particularly to a Protestant. In light of the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith, how is it possible that an afterlife cleansing through punishment is necessary for a Christian who has trusted in Jesus to cleanse him from all His sins? Wasn't Jesus' punishment for our transgressions sufficient? Didn't He take our place in that He suffered our death? It would seem that the words of Christ, "It is finished," (John 19:30) do not mean that the cleansing of our souls was completed on the cross.
Of course, Roman Catholic doctrine states that eternal life is bestowed upon the one who receives baptism (Catechism, par. 1265 - 1266, 1992). It is the stains of the sins committed after baptism and not removed through penance, good works, prayers, the Mass, etc., that are removed in the fires of Purgatory (Handbook for Today's Catholic, page 47).
In light of the doctrine of justification by faith (Rom. 5:1; Rom. 4:5; Rom. 9:30; Acts 13:39; Gal. 2:16), where Jesus bore all of our sins, Purgatory would seem to have no theologically justifiable right to exist. But the Bible alone is not appealed to by Catholic theologians in support of Purgatory. By far, the main support for Purgatory is found in the Catholic doctrine of Sacred Tradition. Nevertheless, what does the Bible say about justification, punishment, and our sins?
What is justification by faith?
To justify means acquit, declare righteous, the opposite of condemn. It means to be not guilty of breaking the Law and to be deemed righteous by the standard of the Law.
God gave the Law, i.e, the Ten Commandments. The Law is a reflection of God's character and it is a perfect standard of righteousness which no one can keep. Since no one is able to keep God's Law, no one can be justified by the Law (Rom. 3:20). There is, therefore, none righteous (Rom. 3:10-12). This is the problem of all people. We have all broken God's Law and are in need of justification, of being declared righteous in God's sight. This can only be done through the Messiah, our sin-bearer.
Jesus is the one who took our place on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24), became sin on our behalf (2 Cor. 5:21), and turned away the wrath of God from us (Rom. 5:9) by being a propitiation (1 John 2:2) that turned away the wrath of God. He was punished in our place. Therefore, Jesus was our substitution. The righteous work of Christ is imputed to the believer by grace (Titus 3:7) and through faith (Rom. 5:1). This justification is a legal action on the part of God reckoning the believer as having satisfied the Law -- all of the Law.
It necessarily follows that to be justified in God's eyes, is to be fully justified. It is not part of the Law that must be satisfied, but all of it. Perfection is the standard. Likewise, it is not part of our sins that were borne by Christ, but all of them. This justification includes all of the sins of the believer (past, present, and future) or else we could not be justified.
What does the Catholic Catechism Say?
The Catholic Catechism (paragraphs 1990-1992) says,
"Justification detaches man from sin which contradicts the love of God, and purifies his heart of sin. Justification follows upon God's merciful initiative of offering forgiveness. It reconciles man with God. It frees from the enslavement to sin, and it heals"...."Justification is at the same time the acceptance of God's righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ..." and "...justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith. It conforms us to the righteousness of God, who makes us inwardly just by the power of his mercy."
Of particular interest is the reference that "justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith." There are many verses in the Bible that deal with baptism and putting on Christ (Gal. 3:27; Rom. 6:1-11). This paper is not intended to discuss the nature of baptism. Nevertheless, I strongly affirm that baptism is a covenant sign for the believer who is already justified by faith and for the children of believers who are under the covenant headship of the family. Baptism is not what justifies a person. Rather,
- Justification is a gift by His grace through Jesus (Rom. 3:24)
- Justification is by grace (Titus 3:7)
- Justification is by faith (Rom. 3:28; 5:1; Gal. 3:24)
- Justification is by Jesus' blood (Rom. 5:9).
- Justification is in the name of the Lord Jesus (1 Cor. 6:11).
- Justification is not equated with baptism, but with grace, faith, and the blood of Jesus.
Jesus said, "It is finished," (John 19:30)
Jesus bore our sins in His body, paid the penalty for them, and died. He said, "It is finished." In Greek, the phrase, "It is finished" is one word, tetelestai. In ancient Greek papyri texts that were receipts for taxes, when a debt was paid in full, the word tetelestai was written on the document. This meant that the debt had been paid in full. In other words, Jesus had finished the work of atonement. But not only atonement (to make amends, to make right), but also of propitiation (turning away God's wrath). He had fully paid the debt invoked by the sinner. There was nothing more to be done... It was finished.
Yet, the doctrine of Purgatory, in effect, is saying that we must suffer in Purgatory for sins not covered by baptism and not covered by the cross. It is to say that the work of Christ is not finished and that there are things we must do to complete the sacrificial, cleansing work of Christ. This amounts to earning heaven by our good works, albeit a work of suffering. Additionally, the doctrine of Purgatory implies that a person must atone for his own sins. It implies that the person must do more than what the Law of God requires of him. This is called supererogation.
When Jesus said, "It is finished," all that was necessary in the atonement was concluded and all in Christ were justified. We cannot complete or add to Christ's work through our suffering. Purgatory is not only unnecessary, but it contradicts God's Word.