Of all the doctrines invented by the Church of Rome, that of purgatory, with its associated teaching about indulgences, seems to have been one of the most harmful. It is still an integral part of its teaching. The Roman Catholic catechism states that it is 'the place where souls suffer for a time after death on account of their sins'.
Every person, so the Church of Rome teaches, is liable to eternal and temporal punishment for his sins. God, on account of his Son, pardons the eternal punishment for Christians so that they need not go to hell. But even the Christian after death will suffer in purgatory, which is defined as a place where the pain is as intense as that of hell but does not last for all eternity. Thus the temporal punishment due to sins, which God has not forgiven the sinner, has to be worked off by acts of penance in this life, and in a state of suffering and misery hereafter.
A doctrine of this magnitude and importance ought surely to be plainly stated in Scripture, yet a careful study of the Bible reveals no evidence of it. The one or two texts quoted are quite inadequate. Where Paul speaks of being saved 'yet so as by fire' (1 Corinthians 3:12 ff), is a good example, and is also regarded by the Church of Rome as a full proof of its teaching about purgatory. Examination of the passage shows that, first, Paul is not speaking about Christians in general, but teachers in the church, and the nature of the work they do in building up the church, some of which is shoddy and poor workmanship and will not stand the test, but some of it is good and will endure. Secondly, the nature of the test, 'as by fire', refers not to the cleansing of the person, but the testing of the work of such teachers in the church, which is a very different thing. Thus the passage has nothing whatever to do with the doctrine of purgatory as taught by the Church of Rome. It is unthinkable that on a matter as important as this our Lord and his apostles would have given the church no clear teaching.
More than this, the Gospel itself makes no distinction like that which the Church of Rome makes between eternal and temporal punishment. There is no suggestion that God reserves a clause relating to temporal punishment when he commands the Gospel of full forgiveness of sins to be preached. What would we think of a government that declared a general amnesty without reserve, but then later, when the offenders came forward, stated that it related only to certain kinds of offenses and not to others.
The teaching of the Scriptures on the state of the believer after death contradicts the doctrine of purgatory. To die, says Paul, is 'to depart and be with Christ which is far better' (Philippians 1:23). To have everlasting life, through faith in Christ, means that we 'shall not come into condemnation; but have passed from death to life' (John 5:24).
The doctrine of purgatory inspires fear and binds the laity ever more tightly to the priesthood who claim to be able to release souls from purgatory by the offering of the sacrifice of the mass for the dead, though, strangely, the priest is quite incapable of saying when a soul is released and when such masses should cease.
Associated with this is also the doctrine of indulgences. The church, it is claimed, has the power to remit punishment in purgatory upon the performance of certain pious acts, such as the saying of certain prayers, or visits to holy places.
It is well known that in earlier centuries the Roman Church gained great income from the direct sale of indulgences. Although this iniquitous practice has now been discontinued, the Roman Church still makes huge profits out of indulgences, by the alms which are encouraged when indulgences are sought, and by the sale of rosaries and other articles to which indulgences are attached. We can be sure that if the Church of Rome got rid of its doctrine of purgatory a great part of its wealth would disappear with it.
Article XXII of the Church of England rightly condemns the doctrine of purgatory as 'a fond thing vainly invented and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God'. Nothing has happened to change the validity and relevance of those words, and we must be thankful that they speak so plainly and warn so clearly of the danger.
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