Purgatory and 1 Cor. 3:15

fireThe doctrine of Purgatory in the Catholic church is explained in this statement from the Second Vatican Council, p. 63, which says,

"The truth has been divinely revealed that sins are followed by punishments. God's holiness and justice inflict them. Sins must be expiated. This may be done on this earth through the sorrows, miseries and trials of this life and, above all, through death. Otherwise the expiation must be made in the next life through fire and torments or purifying punishments. "

The Protestant church has objected to the doctrine of Purgatory by stating that this teaching denies the sufficiency and full efficacy of Christ's atoning sacrifice.  To say that our sins are expiated by our suffering is an insult to the cross of Christ since it says that the cross was not sufficient to cleanse us of our sins.  It says that we must suffer--that we must do something to have our sins fully cleansed.   Instead, the Protestants maintain that Jesus' sacrifice alone is what justifies and removes from us all guilt.  We look to the cross and to the cross alone for the complete forgiveness of our sins; and, though our works will one day be judged, we have passed out of condemnation (Rom. 8:1).  Our works reflect on rewards in heaven--not to get us to heaven.  Jesus bore all our sins (1 Pet. 2:24). There are no sins left for purgatory to cleanse because it was all done by Jesus on the cross.  This is why Jesus said, "It is finished!" (John 19:30).  In Greek the term, "it is finished," is "tetelestai."  It was a term used in legal contexts to state that a debt had been paid in full.  "Papyri receipts for taxes have been recovered with the word tetelestai written across them, meaning "paid in full." (Walvoord, John F., and Zuck, Roy B., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, (Wheaton, Illinois: Scripture Press Publications, Inc., 1983, 1985).  Therefore, there is no need for purgatory.

Nevertheless, because the Protestants appeal so much to the Bible, the Catholics have sought to find the doctrine of Purgatory within its pages. One such verse is 1 Cor. 3:15.

"If any mans work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire."

As with any verse in the Bible, to fully understand it, we must look at it in its biblical context. Following is 1 Cor. 3:10-15

"According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But let each man be careful how he builds upon it. 11For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12Now if any man builds upon the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13each mans work will become evident; for the day will show it, because it is to be revealed with fire; and the fire itself will test the quality of each mans work. 14If any mans work which he has built upon it remains, he shall receive a reward. 15 If any mans work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire."

The context speaks of Paul having planted the Corinthian church, and that another person was building upon that work: verse 6 says, "I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth." Paul goes on to say that unless a person builds upon the foundation of Jesus, his work will be burned up the in the day of judgment (v. 13). See also, 1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 1:14; 1 Thess. 5:2).

Paul is simply using the terms that are familiar to the people of the time. Fire was the tool used to purify metals and to get rid of that which was unwanted--the dross. So, too, on the day when our works are examined, the fire of judgment will both purify and remove. This will not affect our salvation, but it will affect our rewards. The theme of fire used as purification is also found in 2 Pet. 3:10-13.  But this is not talking about becoming saved or staying saved.

1 Cor. 3:15 does not teach purgatory as a place we go to in order to have some of our sins cleansed from us. It teaches that even though the person is justified by faith and cannot face damnation, his works will, however, be judged on "that day." Those works which are good will survive the fires of judgment the way gold, silver, and precious stones can survive fire.  But false works will be consumed the way fire consumes wood, hay, and straw.  What is left has no bearing on whether or not we are saved.  It has to do with rewards in heaven.

Paul goes on to say in 1 Cor. 4:5, "Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men's hearts; and then each man's praise will come to him from God."

Note also, 1 Pet. 1:6-7, "In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ."

2 Pet. 3:10-13, "But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, in which the heavens will pass away with a roar and the elements will be destroyed with intense heat, and the earth and its works will be burned up. 11Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, 12looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, on account of which the heavens will be destroyed by burning, and the elements will melt with intense heat! 13But according to His promise we are looking for new heavens and a new earth, in which righteousness dwells."

Purgatory is a dangerous doctrine that makes the Cross of Christ insufficient by requiring the person to undergo suffering in order to be made worthy of being with God.  This is a false teaching and is to be avoided.  We are justified by faith (Rom. 5:1)--not by faith and works (Rom. 3:28).



About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.