Diving for sins
I’m talking about Purgatory again…just to give you a heads-up right at the top in case the torturous flames aren’t of concern or interest to you. Some may wonder why I am spending so many posts on a concept that I believe is false, when if it is, no one is suffering in the flames so no harm done. I actually would like to leave it but feel compelled to stay a little longer because it “kindles” fear in those who believe it, and more so because it compromises and distorts the true gospel. Was Jesus’ sacrifice for sins sufficient or do we still need to be purified?
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “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.” (1030) The Bible does speak of “the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” in Hebrews 12:14. But key to the Catholic Church’s doctrine of Purgatory is her interpretation of this passage from Hebrews, as well as Revelation 21:27 which says that “nothing unclean will ever enter” God’s dwelling place at the end of time, and I will argue that neither the author of Hebrews nor the apostle John is teaching that if we should tell a lie a moment before death, we will need to have our souls scrubbed before we can be in God’s presence.
The book of Hebrews talks a lot about our sin and God’s provision for it, beginning in chapter one, verse 3:
- After making purification for sins, he [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
If we still need to be purified or purged of our sins, either in this life or in Purgatory, what did Jesus do?
- For I will be merciful toward their iniquities, and I will remember their sins no more. – Hebrews 8:12
This is a reference to Jeremiah 31 where God is foretelling the new covenant, when he will put his law in our minds and hearts. Other Old Testament passages similarly teach the gracious mercy of God in not only paying the penalty for our sins through the death of Jesus, but completely removing them from us.
- He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.- Psalm 103:10-12
- I, I am he who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins. – Isaiah 43:25
- Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea. – Micah 7:18-19
In Hebrews 9 and 10 the author presents Christ as the great high priest foreshadowed in the Old Testament Day of Atonement rituals when the priest would sprinkle the blood of sacrificed animals on the altar, the vessels, and on and around the mercy seat. And he says:
- For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant. – Hebrews 9:13-15
- Indeed, under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. – Hebrews 9:22
The animal blood shed in the OT was prescribed by God and sufficient to atone for their sins though it did not cleanse them perfectly or eternally so needed to be repeated yearly. The author contrasts that deficiency with Jesus’ perfect sacrifice of himself:
- But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. – Hebrews 10:12-14
So before the verse in question about holiness, the author has taught that 1) we have been purified of our sins, 2) God remembers our sins no more, 3) Jesus’ blood has purified our conscience, and 4) we have been perfected by his offering in death, among other similar statements about his all-sufficient sacrifice. Does it make sense that he also believes that our sins which God has removed from us “as far as the east is from the west” and cast “into the depths of the sea” still need to be purged in unimaginably painful flames? And if he did, don’t you think he would mention it?
To rightly understand what the author is saying in Hebrews 12 about holiness “without which no one will see the Lord,” we need to read it in the context of the entire book. He knows that within virtually any body of professing believers there will be some whose profession is not genuine, though they themselves may not even realize it. Perhaps he had personal knowledge of one such subgroup among the recipients of this epistle, made obvious by their lack of obedience and submission to Christ. His repeated warnings and exhortations throughout the book not to miss the salvation God offers constitute a primary theme and message that the author is writing to convey.
- Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. (2:1)
- how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? (2:3a)
- but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope. (3:6)
- Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. (3:12)
- For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. (3:14)
- Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it. (4:1)
- See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; (12:15)
- See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. (12:25)
So when in 12:14 he tells them to strive for or pursue holiness because they won’t see God without it, he is not teaching that our souls must be perfectly spotless at death or else we’ll need purification in Purgatory. He’s saying that our lives and conduct must be such that they give evidence that we have separated ourselves to God, which is what the word translated “holy” means. He’s warning them that if they reject the salvation through Christ, “hardening their hearts” in giving lip service to the faith but not truly submitting, evidenced in their lack of holiness and perseverance, they will not enter the rest that God has promised those who have genuine faith.
Well, this got quite long and there are more verses to cover, because as I said when I started this polemic against Purgatory, the truth of the doctrine stands or falls on whether it conforms to or is supported by Scripture. Thanks for persevering to the end. I hope you’ll return for the next installment.