While serving as a full-time book editor for Pastor John MacArthur, one of my favorite projects was assembling his careful biblical exposition on heaven into book form. That book was updated in 2013 to address new heresies and alleged there-and-back-again visits to heaven, yet the timeless core teaching remains. John addresses the doctrine of purgatory in chapters 5 and 7. Here it is summarized because the topic remains so relevant. Whatever your presuppositions about purgatory, you are likely to find this analysis helpful because of John's biblical expertise, objectivity, fairness, directness, wisdom, and compassion.
The Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is nowhere taught in Scripture. It was devised to accommodate Catholicism's denial of justification by faith alone. Here is why: Scripture very clearly teaches that an absolutely perfect righteousness is necessary for entry into heaven. Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, "I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven" (Matthew 5:20). He then added, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect" (verse 48)—thus setting the standard as high as it can possibly be set.
We know from Paul's treatise on justification in Romans 4 that God saves believers by imputing to them the merit of Christ's perfect righteousness—not in any sense because of their own righteousness. The Gospel is the Good News of the victory of Jesus Christ over Satan, sin, and death on behalf of His people. God accepts believers "in Christ." He clothes them with the perfect righteousness of Christ. He declares them perfectly righteous because of Christ. Their sins have been imputed to Christ, who has paid the full penalty. His righteousness is now imputed to them, and they receive the full merit for it. That is what justification by faith means. "For our sake [the Father] made [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Corinthians 5:21). In other words, God does not first make us perfect, then accept us on that basis. He first legally justifies us by imputing to us an alien righteousness, then perfects us by conforming us to the image of Christ. He "justifies the ungodly" (Romans 4:5).
Paul wrote, "Since we have been justified [past tense] by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1). And, "There is therefore now [present tense] no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1). Those verses describe our justification as something already accomplished. It is a completed reality, not something we are striving for. Jesus Himself described justification as an immediate event when He said this about the repentant tax collector: "I tell you, this man went down to his house justified"—past tense (Luke 18:14).
Scripture clearly and consistently deals with justification as a settled fact for every believer; it is not an ongoing process. We stand before God in faith right now, fully acceptable to Him because of Christ's righteousness—not because of any doings of our own. Roman Catholic doctrine, however, asserts that justification is an ongoing process that depends on the degree of real, personal righteousness we achieve. According to Rome, Christ's merit imputed to us is not sufficient to save; we must earn more merit of our own through the sacraments and other good works. Righteousness is infused into us (rather than being imputed to us). But it is obvious we are not perfectly righteous by any practical measure. So the righteousness we obtain by grace must be perfected by our own efforts. This actually reverses the biblical order, suggesting that we must first be perfected, and only then is our justification complete. In other words, in Roman Catholic doctrine, God does not justify the ungodly.
The Catholic view of justification poses an obvious dilemma: we know too well that even the best Christians fall far short of perfection. If our own perfection is a prerequisite to heaven, it would seem no one could enter heaven immediately upon death. Any remaining imperfections would need to be worked out first. The doctrine of purgatory was created to solve this dilemma. Deny that we are justified by faith in Christ alone, and you must devise an explanation of how we can make the transition from our imperfect state in this life to the perfect state of heaven. Purgatory is where Roman Catholics believe most people go after death to be finally purged of their remaining guilt and gain whatever merit they may be lacking to enter heaven. Catholicism teaches that this will involve intense pain and suffering. Oddly enough, although Catholic doctrine denies that the imputed righteousness of Christ is sufficient to save sinners in this life, it does allow the imputation of righteousness from earthly sinners to those in purgatory. That is why Masses are said for the dead.
None of that is taught in Scripture. The sufferings of Christ were fully sufficient to atone for our sins. Our own sufferings can add nothing to the merit of Christ. As the writer of Hebrews says, there is no efficacious sacrifice for sin other than what Christ has provided. If Christ's sacrifice is not sufficient, or if we willfully turn away from it, "there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries" (Hebrews 10:26-27). Every believer will be able to say with the prophet Isaiah, "I will greatly rejoice in the Lord; my soul shall exult in my God, for He has clothed me with the garments of salvation; He has covered me with the robe of righteousness" (Isaiah 61:10).
Some claim that 1 Corinthians 3 describes purgatory, where the believer is put through a fiery judgment to purge out the dross of sin. But that passage describes judgment of the believer's works to see if they are "wood, hay and straw" or "gold, silver, precious jewels" (verse 12). "If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved" (verse 15). Only the works, not the believers themselves, go through the fire. Heavenly rewards are what is at issue, not entrance to heaven. Scripture clearly indicates that the believer's entrance to heaven occurs immediately upon death. Let us examine a few key passages:
Psalm 16. Here we find King David hopeful even as he faced death: "You will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let Your Holy One [the promised Messiah or Christ] see corruption. You make know to me the path of life; in Your presence there is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (verses 10-11). David anticipated that when he left this world, he would enter the presence of God, finding eternal pleasure and fullness of joy. He had no fear of purgatorial sufferings.
Psalm 23. The final verse of this familiar psalm says, "Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever." David was certain that once his life was over, he would dwell for all eternity in the house of the Lord, which in this context can refer only to heaven. Notice that he goes immediately from "all the days of my life" to dwelling "in the house of the Lord." The hope he expresses here is exactly the same as Paul's: "to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:8).
Luke 9. When Christ was transfigured, Moses and Elijah appeared with Him, speaking with Jesus about "His departure [His crucifixion and resurrection], which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem" (verse 31). Both Moses and Elijah were intimately familiar with Christ, knowledgeable enough about His earthly work to discuss the details of what He was about to do. This is a clear window into the kind of close fellowship we will share with Christ in eternity.
Luke 23. This familiar text describes that touching moment during the crucifixion when one of the thieves next to Jesus repented. He said, 'Jesus, remember me when You come into Your Kingdom.' And He said to him, 'Truly, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise' (verses 42-43). The Greek word translated Paradise is the same one translated Heaven in 2 Corinthians 12:3. Paradise is a synonym for heaven. It cannot be a reference to purgatory. If anyone were a candidate for purgatory, this thief certainly would have been. Moments before, he had taunted Christ along with the unrepentant thief (Mark 15:32). His repentance was a sincere last-minute change—while he was literally in his death throes. Yet Jesus promised to see him that very day in Paradise.
Scripture tells us that apart from holiness, "no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). God doesn't merely justify us, clothing us with imputed righteousness, then leave us bound in the grave clothes of the flesh. He lovingly, graciously conforms us heart, soul, mind, and flesh to a standard befitting the lofty position He has elevated us to. Sanctification is the earthly process of growth toward which we press toward that goal; Glorification is the instantaneous completion of it. God graciously, summarily glorifies us into His presence. There is no waiting period, no soul sleep, and no purgatory.
|The Misunderstanding Runs Deep|
Misunderstanding on this point runs deep. No less a scholar than C.S. Lewis wrote, "Our souls demand purgatory, don't they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, 'It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy'? Should we not reply, 'With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I'd rather be cleaned first.' 'It may hurt, you know.'—'Even so, sir'" (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer [New York: Harcourt, 1964—published posthumously]). By his own admission, Lewis was no theologian (click here for more information:*). He was prone (like too many Anglicans) to water down the clarity of biblical truth with Roman Catholic tradition. But this is surely one of his most glaring and baffling errors. It is as he were totally oblivious to the biblical promise of glorification.
Once more: Nothing in Scripture even hints at the notion of purgatory, and nothing indicates that our glorification will in any way way be drawn out or painful. On the contrary, as we have seen repeatedly from Scripture, the moment a believer dies, his soul is instantly glorified and he enters God's presence. To depart this world is to be with Christ (Philippians 1:23). And upon seeing Christ, we become like Him. It is a graceful, peaceful, painless, instantaneous transition.
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