This article is the first in a series I will be writing regarding my concerns with the official teachings of the Roman Catholic Church (RCC). Someone very close to me recently converted to Catholicism and has become an avid Catholic apologist and teaches catechism at their local parish. While we have very amicable conversations about the differences between Catholicism and Protestantism, there are just too many serious theological issues within the RCC for me even to consider changing my faith.
One of my biggest concerns –– if not the biggest –– is the Catholic doctrine of purgatory (formally declared 1274 AD).1“Thus Saith Rome” is a brief synopsis of changes in official RCC teaching down through the years I find this belief to be contrary to God’s nature and His infallible Word: The Bible. Why would God the Father, whose Son voluntarily underwent an excruciating death to pay for our sin and save us from eternal damnation, then turn around and send us to purgatory to be sanctified by an agonizing fire for an indefinite amount of time? Was the Savior’s sacrifice or the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying work (Philippians 1:6) insufficient to the task? Why would a loving Father do this to His own children? Why do Catholics believe this when there is virtually no scriptural support for it outside of their additional books2The Catholic Bible adds extra, non-canonical books, called the Apocrypha, to the Old Testament in the Roman Catholic Bible?3see 2 Maccabees 12:43-45
If the doctrine of purgatory is true, would not Jesus have discussed it at length with the disciples or at least mentioned it? The Catholic Church also shares the same books of the New Testament in which Protestants believe; so where did this doctrine come from if not from Christ, not from the Apostle Paul, nor any other New Testament writer? This question speaks to the debate regarding the source of our authority. Is it Sola Scriptura — Scripture alone as taught by the Protestant Church; or is it Prima Scriptura — Scripture plus church tradition, Scripture plus the teaching authority of the Magisterium (the Pope and Bishops)?4For further discussion see, “Sola Scriptura: Modern Misconceptions of Luther’s Intentions” What should Christians believe when purgatory is not clearly addressed –– or even alluded to, in my opinion –– within the Protestant Bible?
Understanding the RCC Doctrines of Purgatory and Sanctifying Grace
“As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgment, there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offenses can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.”5 Catechism of the Catholic Church on line [aka CCC] and CCC 1031, pg. 269, 1994 ed.
According to Catholic Answers website:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven,” which is experienced by those “who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified”6CCC 1030, pg. 268. It notes that “this final purification of the elect … is entirely different from the punishment of the damned”7CCC 1031, pp. 268-269.
“The purification is necessary because, as Scripture teaches, nothing unclean will enter the presence of God in heaven (Rev. 21:27) and, while we may die with our mortal sins forgiven, there can still be many impurities in us, specifically venial sins8Venial sins: “Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. … It is corroborated by human experience.”; CCC1854, pg. 454 “… Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.”; CCC 1855, pg. 454 and the temporal punishment due to sins already forgiven.”9Catholic Answers online tract: What is Purgatory?
What Does It Mean to Be “Sanctified?”
The word grace denotes God’s unmerited love and favor toward human beings. It can be broadly understood as kindness or blessings from God that we don’t deserve. The word sanctify as it pertains to the life of a Christian means “to set a person apart for holiness” or “to make holy.”10Got Questions -“What is sanctifying grace?”
In Protestantism, Christians enter sanctification — a state of holiness and growing in holiness at the moment they are born of the Spirit of God: “This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe” (Rms 3:22) regardless of whether they have been physically water baptized.
However, this does not mean that we are without sin for the rest of our life. It simply means we are no longer slaves to it (Rms 6:1-7). We are positionally set apart from sin (1 Cor 6:11, 1:2; Heb 10:10,14,29; Rms 1:7). We then continue to become more like Christ as we live according to His will (1 Pet 1:15-16). At God’s timing, we are fully sanctified once we enter heaven (1 John 3:2, Rms 8:29).11Rhodes, Ron. The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations (pp. 198-199). Harvest House Publishers. Kindle Edition Furthermore, Protestantism teaches it is not our works that sanctify us, but the finished work of Christ and the indwelling of His Holy Spirit. Christ sanctifies us through the truth of his Word (Eph 5:25-26, John 17:17), and it is the Holy Spirit Who changes hearts so that we want to follow Christ (2 Thess 2:13, 1 Peter 1:2).
The RCC, on the other hand, teaches the doctrine of sanctifying grace, which refers to a specific supernatural infusion of God’s grace that, via the Catholic sacrament of water Baptism, makes a person holy and pleasing to God. The RCC teaches that at Baptism, sanctifying grace is received, and a person becomes part of the Body of Christ and “… becomes a ‘son of light,’ indeed, he becomes ‘light’ himself”12CCC 1216, pg. 312 “… it is necessary for salvation.”13CCC 1277, pg. 324 Thus, they are able to receive additional graces for living a holy life.
The Catholic can eventually gain full and final justification by sustaining this relationship with God, cooperating with His continuing graces, and not committing any mortal sins14Mortal sins: “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.”; CCC1855 without subsequent penance.15Got Questions –“What is Sanctifying Grace?” Thus, “sanctifying grace” is also called the “grace of justification,” because it is the grace that makes a soul acceptable or justified before God. 16Got Questions –“What is Sanctifying Grace?” As the Catholic Catechism states:
“Justification is conferred in Baptism, it conforms us to the righteousness of God …”17CCC 1992, pg. 482
Only at the end of this process of cooperation (that is, at death) will a Catholic person know for certain if they are fully justified. If he or she is not fully justified at death, then they go to purgatory to complete the sanctification process. According to Catholic Answers:
“Through repentance, he (the sinner) may have gained the grace needed to be worthy of heaven, which is to say, he has been forgiven and his soul is spiritually alive. But that is not sufficient for gaining entrance into heaven. He needs to be cleansed completely.”18Catholic Answers online Tract: What is Purgatory?
In explaining purgatory to non-Catholics, RCC apologists will paint a picture of what we need to do after we have been given access to God’s house. (i.e., initial salvation) We don’t want to enter God’s house covered in filth. Before we sit down to dinner with God, we need to wash up and put on our finest clothes. Purgatory is presented as the final step in preparation to enter God’s presence. (Compare with 2 Cor. 5:8 “We are confident, yes, well pleased rather to be absent from the body and to be present with the Lord.”) RCC apologists use the example of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:33–43) to justify the doctrine of purgatory19Catholic Answers, “The Good Thief Isn’t Good for Protestant Doctrines” and argue that, in addition to being justified by faith, good works are also necessary for salvation. Purgatory is an intermediate place where final purification occurs for those who lack sufficient good works. Should the thief, who was saved from damnation because of coming to faith at the last minute, be given the same privileges as that of the Catholic saint? Catholic Answers realizes the eyewitness of the thief on the cross (Luke 23:42-43) calls their claims into question and works hard but unpersuasively to make him the exception to the rule.20Catholic Answers, “The Good Thief Isn’t Good for Protestant Doctrines” Baptizing an individual as a disciple isn’t the same thing as baptizing them for salvation. See MCOI Journal, “Liquid Salvation.” Don Veinot, September 1996
Taking Scripture Out of Context
Catholic Answers tract “What is Purgatory?” takes Matthew 25:31-46 out of context to support their views on purgatory. They argue that all Christians will undergo the Sheep and Goat judgment as described by Christ from this portion of His Olivet Discourse. (Matthew 24:1-25:46). In context, these chapters are about Israel and the promised kingdom, with Christ occupying His throne and the twelve apostles occupying twelve thrones judging Israel. (Matthew 19:28) This out-of-context passage is used by the RCC to argue that works are necessary for a person’s sanctification and, thus, final justification. However, when read in context, it is clear that Jesus is addressing those who will be present “when the Son of Man comes in His glory …” and, thus, this passage has nothing to do with sanctification or purgatory.
When Christ states:
“truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me,” He’s talking about believers ministering to believers who were being persecuted during the tribulation.21Howse, Brannon. Twisted Scripture, Twisted Theology (pp. 103-104). Worldview Weekend Press. Collierville, TN. PDF Version.
Looking at the context we see in Matthew 25:31-33:
“But when the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him; and He will separate them from one another, as the shepherd separates the sheep from the goats; and He will put the sheep on His right, and the goats on the left.”
“Jesus is setting up His millennial kingdom, and He is separating the sheep from the goats. He’s dividing believers from non-believers, and in the process, Jesus commends these believers for ministering to other believers who were being persecuted and who were in prison because of Christ. He is honoring their proclamation of the Gospel.”22Howse, Brannon. Twisted Scripture, Twisted Theology (pp. 103-104). Worldview Weekend Press. Collierville, TN. PDF Version
Unfortunately, most Catholics adhere to an amillennial23Amillennial: the denial that an earthly millennium of universal righteousness and peace will either precede or follow the second advent of Jesus Christ (Merriam Webster online, accessed 07/11/2023 eschatology; and because of this, they may not read this portion of the Olivet Discourse in its historical-grammatical setting. This has resulted in the RCC allowing their systematic theology to inform their understanding of Scripture instead of allowing Scripture to inform their systematic theology.
Purgatory and Praying for the Dead was Not a Jewish Practice
In an effort to defend the RCC doctrine of purgatory,24Catholic Answers, Tract: What is Purgatory? Catholic apologists like Catholic Answers also like to quote second-century apocryphal writings such as the Acts of Paul and Thecla and third-century martyrs like the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicity, to suggest the alleged Christian practice of praying for the dead was a continuation of the Jewish Mourner’s Kaddish.25Catholic Answers, Tract: What is Purgatory? However, according to Chabad.org — the flagship website of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic Movement — the flagship website of the Chabad Lubavitch Hasidic Movement — the Mourner’s Kaddish “is not a prayer for the dead. Exactly the opposite … it consists solely of lofty praises for the Creator and heartfelt imploring for the perfection of Creation.”26“Soul Services: Saying Kaddish Reciting the Kaddish prayer aids the departed…and the mourner”; Yerachmiel Tilles, ChaBad.org
Sins Remembered No More
Sacrifice and meal offering You have not desired;
My ears You have opened;
Burnt offering and sin offering You have not required.
Then I said, “Behold, I come;
In the scroll of the book it is written of me.
I delight to do Your will, O my God;
Your Law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)
The writer of Hebrews quotes from this Psalm to argue that “we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all time” (Heb 10:10). Christ’s blood not only justifies us once for all time but also sanctifies us once for all time.
The Apostle Paul said to Cephas (the Apostle Peter) in his letter to the Galatian church, “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Gal. 2:21) If we are not made righteous by the deeds of the law, then how can we possibly become sanctified by the law? The Apostle Paul posed two very important rhetorical questions to the Galatian believers that have application to the question of purgatory.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
The answer is by the hearing of faith, not by the works of the Law.
Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)
The answer to both is the same. We neither contribute to our salvation nor our sanctification; and to think we can is an indication that we have been “bewitched.”
Contrary to the official RCC teaching that canonized Catholic saints are fully sanctified by their deeds (works), the Bible proclaims a person’s sanctification was completed on the cross long before they were even born. Jesus proclaimed nearly 2,000 years ago: “It is finished.” (John 19:30)
Some would even argue that because the RCC teaches final justification through one’s own works-based sanctification, they are teaching works-based salvation. I have come to realize there are a wide array of Catholics within the RCC — from progressives (who probably shouldn’t even be in fellowship with the RCC) to well-meaning Catholics (who embrace much of Protestantism). The only way I can respond to this concern is to say that I firmly believe a Catholic can be saved, but it would be in spite of the gospel of Rome and Roman Catholic doctrine and not because of it.Ω
Stephanie Potts and her husband, Jim, live in Dayton, Ohio, and have been married for 21 years. She worked with the federal government for 15 years as an intelligence analyst and then entered full-time Christian service in 2015. She first joined Haven Ministries in Denver, Colorado, in 2015 and then transferred to Midwest Christian Outreach, Inc in 2021. She received her Bachelor’s degree from Florida State University in Political Science and International Relations and received her Master’s degree in Geographic Information Systems from Penn State University. She is currently working towards her master’s degree in Christian Apologetics through Southern Evangelical Seminary. She specializes in evangelizing to people involved in the New Age, Muslims, and Native Americans. Stephanie’s personal website: rainbowapologetics.com
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|↑1||“Thus Saith Rome” is a brief synopsis of changes in official RCC teaching down through the years|
|↑2||The Catholic Bible adds extra, non-canonical books, called the Apocrypha, to the Old Testament|
|↑3||see 2 Maccabees 12:43-45|
|↑4||For further discussion see, “Sola Scriptura: Modern Misconceptions of Luther’s Intentions”|
|↑5||Catechism of the Catholic Church on line [aka CCC] and CCC 1031, pg. 269, 1994 ed.|
|↑6||CCC 1030, pg. 268|
|↑7||CCC 1031, pp. 268-269|
|↑8||Venial sins: “Sins are rightly evaluated according to their gravity. … It is corroborated by human experience.”; CCC1854, pg. 454 “… Venial sin allows charity to subsist, even though it offends and wounds it.”; CCC 1855, pg. 454|
|↑9||Catholic Answers online tract: What is Purgatory?|
|↑10||Got Questions -“What is sanctifying grace?”|
|↑11||Rhodes, Ron. The Complete Guide to Christian Denominations (pp. 198-199). Harvest House Publishers. Kindle Edition|
|↑12||CCC 1216, pg. 312|
|↑13||CCC 1277, pg. 324|
|↑14||Mortal sins: “Mortal sin destroys charity in the heart of man by a grave violation of God’s law; it turns man away from God, who is his ultimate end and his beatitude, by preferring an inferior good to him.”; CCC1855|
|↑15||Got Questions –“What is Sanctifying Grace?”|
|↑16||Got Questions –“What is Sanctifying Grace?”|
|↑17||CCC 1992, pg. 482|
|↑18||Catholic Answers online Tract: What is Purgatory?|
|↑19||Catholic Answers, “The Good Thief Isn’t Good for Protestant Doctrines”|
|↑20||Catholic Answers, “The Good Thief Isn’t Good for Protestant Doctrines” Baptizing an individual as a disciple isn’t the same thing as baptizing them for salvation. See MCOI Journal, “Liquid Salvation.” Don Veinot, September 1996|
|↑21||Howse, Brannon. Twisted Scripture, Twisted Theology (pp. 103-104). Worldview Weekend Press. Collierville, TN. PDF Version.|
|↑22||Howse, Brannon. Twisted Scripture, Twisted Theology (pp. 103-104). Worldview Weekend Press. Collierville, TN. PDF Version|
|↑23||Amillennial: the denial that an earthly millennium of universal righteousness and peace will either precede or follow the second advent of Jesus Christ (Merriam Webster online, accessed 07/11/2023|
|↑24||Catholic Answers, Tract: What is Purgatory?|
|↑25||Catholic Answers, Tract: What is Purgatory?|
|↑26||“Soul Services: Saying Kaddish Reciting the Kaddish prayer aids the departed…and the mourner”; Yerachmiel Tilles, ChaBad.org|