The Leipzig Debate — Martin Luther vs. Johan Eck 1519
PURGATORY: A CATHOLIC VIEW
The following article appeared on November 2, 2014 in the newsletter of The Parish of Saint Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Bay Shore, New York. The article, written by Monsignor Tom Coogan, is reprinted below in its entirety and followed by a Lutheran reply.
Last Sunday I made a visit to our friends at St. Luke (sic) Lutheran across Montauk Highway. Their Pastor Kris Baudler graciously allowed me to observe in the assembly as they conducted their service. I found their full congregation, although smaller than ours, very welcoming and engaged.
On the rare occasions when I get to see how other houses of worship live out their faith, I make comparisons to how we as Catholics express our own. It impresses me when the theological differences that would be at the heart of why they are not us and we are not them actually can be noticed. In fact, Pastor Kris’ sermon was about why they are “Lutherans” and not just “Christians.”
One of the differences that stood out to me was their rejection of Purgatory.
To summarize our belief in Purgatory, I quote the Catechism of the Catholic Church which in 1030-1031 states,
“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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
Our belief in Purgatory has scriptural roots in the places in the Bible where prayers for the dead are encouraged. If the departed were automatically in Heaven, why would prayer be helpful? And if a wretched soul was evil in this life as to merit everlasting torment in God’s justice, who would wish to pray on their behalf, and what good would it do them?
The idea of Purgatory to me has always been a stance of humility, as who among us, even loving our Lord as greatly as we do, yet still would dare pretend we are worthy of Salvation?
Exactly what Purgatory might be like has not been defined by our Church, but that a Purgatory experience exists is something we have to believe as Roman Catholics.
On a personal note, I believe in Purgatory because I see it as healthy and human – a dictate of the law written into every Human heart by its Creator.
In the losing of those we love, our devotion drives us to care for them as best we can should we be granted a season of decline before their end.
And just as our love for them does not end with their passing, neither does our desire to express care and concern for them cease. This beautiful impulse of our souls is given its outlet and expression in our prayers for them. However else Purgatory might benefit the faithful departed, it is also a mercy on us, their families and friends.
Even beyond that, I see the continuation of our love and concern after death as a proof that they – the objects of our love – continue to live.
This All Soul’s (sic) Day is a solemn day for us to reflect on the splendor of these truths and recognize in them glimmers of the glory of our true homeland, that Paradise where we pray our beloved dead may reside in peace.
At your service (and theirs) and His,
A LUTHERAN REPLY
I wish to express my gratitude to my good friend and brother in Christ, Monsignor Tom Coogan, for two things. One, for gracing St. Luke’s with his presence and two, for writing this article on the subject of purgatory and my homily that day, “Why I’m a Lutheran.” Whether by design or accident, Msgr. Tom came to St. Luke’s on Reformation Day of all days, which also happened to be the day of Confirmation, when some of our young students are examined following instruction in scripture, church history, law and gospel, and Lutheran theology. Part of their oral examination included questions related to Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 for a debate on the sale of indulgences for the shortening of one’s time in purgatory. (Luther still believed in purgatory at the time, but not in the sale of indulgences.)
What follows is my Lutheran reply to some of the Catholic points Tom raises, beginning with his somewhat curious line, “Their Pastor Kris Baudler graciously allowed me to observe in the assembly as they conducted their service.” My hope, of course, is that he did more than just observe, but also worshipped the one Triune God revealed in Jesus Christ. It wasn’t that I “allowed” him— I invited him. (After all, if Jesus invited Judas Iscariot to the Last Supper, I’m sure we can graciously welcome a Catholic monsignor to the house of the Lord.)
But his comments do highlight how far apart, unfortunately, Roman Catholics and confessional Lutherans still are in the present ecumenical age. Our differences are real and they touch on what are still the core theological concerns raised during the Reformation, issues which despite much good will on both sides, remain unresolved to this day. The reason for the differences can be summed up as follows:
For Lutherans the really big deal is justification, which is the central message of the Gospel (das Hauptstück, “the main thing,” Luther called it). Purgatory and related subjects all come down to the question of justification. Catholics and Lutherans are in agreement that in order to be justified in the eyes of God, we must be righteous. How this occurs, though, is where we part ways.
Roman Catholics believe in infused righteousness. That is to say, God “infuses” (infusio) His righteousness into us so that we can achieve full righteousness over our lifetime through faith and good works. This requires a cooperative effort on our part (the employment of Erasmus’s notion of “free will”) for a relationship with God (the Aristotelian system). In short, Catholics believe that in order to be declared just by God, one must first become just. Justification = faith + works.
Lutherans, on the other hand, believe in forensic righteousness, (“forensic” being a legal declaration by a judge.) From the cross, God our judge, declared the world “not guilty!” for Jesus’ sake. (“God sent His Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world.” John 3:17). God’s righteousness is imputed to us for Christ’s sake. On the cross a “marvelous exchange” of attributes (as Luther called it) takes place: Christ exchanges his righteousness for our unrighteousness (our sin, guilt, and death, for His faith, love, and eternal life). He literally swaps them out. This forensic declaration can only be received by God’s gift of faith alone which we receive in our baptism (“The just shall live by faith alone!” Romans 1:16-17). In short, God declares us just (for Jesus’ sake, not ours). We cannot first become just in order to be declared just because we do not possess any righteousness of our own. We do not possess free will, because our will is in bondage to sin, death, and the devil. We don’t cooperate with God toward our salvation and we are not His partners. He does it all from the cross, by himself, simply as a gift through Christ (“for God so loved the world”), hence Soli Deo Gloria, “to God Alone the Glory!” Justification=faith alone.
For Lutherans, justification is not a process, but a single forensic act. We are fully justified by grace through faith in Christ who declared from the cross, “It is accomplished.” When the judge pronounces us “Not Guilty!” the pardon is not conditional, but carte blanche. To borrow from Ripley, the declaration from the cross to the world is: “Your sins are forgiven. Believe it or not!” To not believe it is to not believe Christ. The most succinct summation of the Gospel is John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” Indeed, we ALREADY do have it by faith alone, as he says in John 6:47, “Truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me HAS eternal life,” a status not predicated on certain conditions still waiting to be met in the afterlife.
Justified by God’s grace on the cross, and having received His righteousness by faith (having none of our own), the Holy Spirit daily increases in us His gifts of faith, love, and forgiveness, (a lifelong process in our baptism known as “sanctification,” God perfecting us in holiness, changing us “one degree at a time” as St. Paul says). The fruit of faith is good works, not in order to be justified, but done in love through the prompting of the Holy Spirit.
For Lutherans, the sole source for knowledge of God’s divine will is Holy Scripture. We are famous (or perhaps infamous) for trumpeting the biblical “solas,” i.e., sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, sola scriptura. That is to say, we believe scripture declares that all persons are justified by God’s grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, revealed through God’s Word alone. On this single truth the church either stands or falls.
By contrast, Catholicism has three voices of equal authority: church tradition, church teaching (the "magisterium" e.g., councils & popes), and scripture. Hence their core teachings can be at odds when it comes to the question of justification (which, after all, is ultimately what purgatory is about).
These contrasting positions explain why Tom and I (that is, Catholics and Lutherans) cannot bridge the gap when it comes to purgatory and similar topics. For example:
He cites the Catechism of the Catholic Church on the subject adding, “Our belief in Purgatory has scriptural roots in the places in the Bible where prayers for the dead are encouraged.”
But there are no such places in the Bible as far as Lutherans are concerned, the Catechism’s only footnote (1032, n.607) being 2 Maccabees 12:46, a book of the Apocrypha (or “hidden” books) which Protestants do not accept as canonical. While Luther found them “useful and good to read,” he cautioned they are not on par with canonical scripture, which knows nothing about a place called purgatory or any other place where sins still need to be expunged from the believer after death. Nor, for that matter, did the early church. To support its idea, the Catholic Catechism says that scripture “speaks of a cleansing fire,” citing 1 Corinthians 3:15 and 1 Peter 1:7, even though both passages refer to the present sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in this life.
Declarations from the Church and its traditions, unsupported by God’s word in scripture, are a non-starter for Lutherans. For this simple reason, the doctrine of purgatory is dead on arrival (pun intended). As a Lutheran, I greatly appreciate Tom’s questions, and will attempt to answer them with a few questions of my own.
The Catholic Catechism says: “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. The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.”
Questions: How is the blood of Christ not able to perfectly purify the believer who received it in faith? How is the cross a partial victory? If our eternal salvation is “indeed assured,” why the need for further purification? Has Christ alone not “achieved the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven” for us? Were we crucified for the redemption of the world? Were we raised from the dead? Can we still “achieve” what Christ supposedly has not?
Luther asked a similar question of the Catholic Aristotelian system that excoriated it from back to front and front to back: If good works justify, why must we still need to be declared just? If we are declared just, why must we still do good works?
Msgr. Tom asks:
“If the departed were automatically in Heaven, why would prayer be helpful?”
The Lutheran answer is that it isn’t. It is no longer needed. Lutherans don’t pray for the dead, assured by God’s word that the faithfully departed rest securely in God’s loving hands, from which no one can snatch them, not even the church which possesses no power to increase or diminish their status with God in the afterlife. That the believer is already in heaven upon closing his or her eyes is a given, as is clear from Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross, the parable of Lazarus & the Rich Man, etc., not to mention the entire Gospel of John for starters.
“And if a wretched soul was evil in this life as to merit everlasting torment in God’s justice, who would wish to pray on their behalf, and what good would it do them?”
The Lutheran answer again is that once they’ve died, they’re in God’s hands. Witness King David’s (non)reaction to the death of his and Bathsheba’s infant son. When they’re gone, they’re gone. The rest is up to God. Fully 2/3rds of Jesus’ parables carry a stern warning: The clock is ticking. Now is the time. Act now! This is the day of salvation, but eventually the door to the banquet hall will be shut, the nets will be drawn in, and the harvest gathered safely into the barn. Or as a clever philosopher (whose name escapes me) once said: “The meaning of life is
. . . that it ends.”
“The idea of Purgatory to me has always been a stance of humility, as who among us, even loving our Lord as greatly as we do, yet still would dare pretend we are worthy of Salvation?”
The Lutheran answer is that the question comes from a belief in “infused,” not “imputed” righteousness. No one is “worthy of salvation,” because we do not “love the Lord” —“greatly” or otherwise—no one has ever kept even the 1st Commandment, and surely neither Tom nor I would have the chutzpah to say that we have “loved the Lord our God with all of our heart, with all of our soul, and with all of our strength,” much less kept any of the other nine. The Son alone has; he alone has been faithful. Hence, “no one is righteous, no one seeks for God, no one does good, no, not even one,” Romans 3:10-12. Only one person has ever been deemed worthy—the crucified Christ. Yet when he imputes His worthiness, His righteousness, to me from the cross (John. 3:16) received by His gift of faith, I am indeed fully and truly worthy! (“If the Son sets you free, you are free indeed,” John 8:36.) I am thereby enabled through the Holy Spirit to love the Lord and my neighbor as myself. It is not of my worthiness, of which I have none, but of the worthiness of Christ in me of which I boast! “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me!” (Galatians 2:20). There is no pretending here. There is only the bold declaration, “Thanks be to God!” that because Christ lives, I live also! Christ’s worthiness in me is the heart and soul of the Gospel proclamation. It doesn’t get any bolder than that!
The Aristotelian system, on the other hand, which essentially says I must be good and do the right thing in order to be pleasing to God is nothing more than a case of homo curvatus in se in the law (“man curving in on himself”) as Augustine put out, a fruitless and frustrating journey on the treadmill of the Jeffersonian moral continuum through an enslavement in free will and a refusal to die. To paraphrase Luther (via St. Paul): How then does one know if one has ever done enough? If we cannot boldly declare “from the rooftops” that we are completely “worthy of salvation” for Jesus’ sake, “then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain, and we are even found to be misrepresenting God” (1 Corinthians 15:14). “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied” (St. Paul – 1 Cor. 15:19).
My question for Monsignor Tom is: How does one offer assurance at the grave if one is unsure of what Christ has done, if the salvation of the dearly departed is also dependent on them “doing their part”? How does one know if it has been enough? If no Catholic can be certain that heaven, (and not some nebulous notion of purgatory) awaits them at death, why should we not encourage them to “rage against the dying light,” to “be afraid; be very afraid,” and not “ask for whom the bell tolls”?
He writes to his flock at St. Patrick:
“Exactly what Purgatory might be like has not been defined by our Church, but that a Purgatory experience exists is something we have to believe as Roman Catholics.”
Why does one “have to” believe anything the church says if it does not have it from the word of God, apart from which, the church possess neither authority nor holiness? The answer Catholics give, of course, is that Catholicism gives its Church equal voice with scripture. Lutherans would typically reply that it is the word of God that begets the church, and never the church the word of God.
“On a personal note, I believe in Purgatory because I see it as healthy and human – a dictate of the law written into every Human heart by its Creator.”
A Lutheran reply is that purgatory is indeed of “human” origin, a scholastic invention that is unhealthy for heart, mind, and soul. It is law, not gospel, and as I reminded the Confirmation class when Monsignor Tom visited, the purpose of the law is to show us that it cannot be kept. Its sole function is to accuse the sinner (lex semper accusat), to terrify us concerning our sinful nature for the purpose of repentance, and to send us fleeing to the cross. God sends us fleeing from God . . . to God. As for the idea of purgatory being “written into every human heart,” well, a Lutheran would probably reply with the words of the prophet Jeremiah which point to Christ instead:
“But this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord; I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. And no longer shall each man teach his neighbor and each his brother, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
Question: Why then does Purgatory still “remember their sin”?
“The law says, ‘Do this, do that’ and it is never done. The gospel says ‘Believe this’ and it is already done."
— Martin Luther
Thanks be to God! Amen.
Pastor Kris Baudler