Why would Catholics and Protestants argue over this?

Any discussion of Catholic and Protestant relations usually ends up focusing on a short list of issues: the Pope, Mary, justification, and, of course, purgatory.

To many Protestants, purgatory is yet another misguided add-on by the Catholic Church, an extraneous bit of theological speculation designed to part parishioners from their money: “As soon as a coin in the coffer rings / the soul from purgatory springs goes the popular medieval ditty—one that captured so much of what Luther so mightily protested against.

But is the doctrine of purgatory actually as heretical as Protestantism has long held it to be? Or is it, instead, barely any different from the belief of Protestants (of which I am one)? I argue the latter. Here’s why:

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church:

1030 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.

1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned.

“Achieving holiness” is another way of describing sanctification. Purgatory, then, at its heart, is about sanctification, about becoming holy so that we can stand pure and unblemished before God. In his book Systematic Theology, conservative evangelical Wayne Grudem defines sanctification as:

a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., in the Modern Catholic Dictionary, defines sanctification as:

Being made holy. The first sanctification takes place at baptism, by which the love of God is infused by the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5). Newly baptized persons are holy because the Holy Trinity begins to dwell in their souls and they are pleasing to God. The second sanctification is a lifelong process in which a person already in the state of grace grows in the possession of grace and in likeness to God by faithfully corresponding with divine inspirations. [Italics added.] The third sanctification takes place when a person enters heaven and becomes totally and irrevocably united with God in the beatific vision.

Likewise, Bradford A. Mullen in the Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology writes:

Sanctification has a negative and positive orientation. Negatively, sanctification is the cleansing or purifying from sin [...] Positively, sanctification is the growth in righteous attitudes and behavior. [Italics added]

Pope Benedict XVI (Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger) sums up his understanding of Purgatory in Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life:

Purgatory is not [...] some kind of supra-worldly concentration camp where one is forced to undergo punishments in a more or less arbitrary fashion. Rather it is the inwardly necessary process of transformation in which a person becomes capable of Christ, capable of God and thus capable of unity with the whole communion of saints. Simply to look at people with any degree of realism at all is to grasp the necessity of such a process. [...] Man is the recipient of the divine mercy, yet this does not exonerate him from the need to be transformed. Encounter with the Lord is this transformation. It is the fire that burns away our dross and re-forms us to be vessels of eternal joy.

Compare the former Pope’s description of Purgatory with Wayne Grudem’s further words about sanctification:

Because there is sin that still remains in our hearts even though we have become Christians (Rom 6:12–13; 1 John 1:8), our sanctification will never be completed in this life. But once we die and go to be with the Lord, then our sanctification is completed in one sense, for our souls are set free from indwelling sin and are made perfect. The author of Hebrews says that when we come into the presence of God to worship we come “to the spirits of just men made perfect” (Heb. 12:23). This is only appropriate because it is in anticipation of the fact that “nothing unclean shall enter” into the presence of God, the heavenly city (Rev 21:27).

Most Protestants believe that at the moment of death God completes that process of sanctification, purging any remnant of sin from the soul. Catholics believe that the exact same thing happens—but that instead of an instantaneous event, sanctification is a process that continues after death. The Catholic view is that the process of sanctification—the rooting out and healing of our attachment to sin by the Holy Spirit—continues postmortem for as long as it takes one to become fully conformed to Christ’s image.

Both Catholics and Protestants agree that it is a crucial part of the Christian life to grow more Christ-like, more holy, more sanctified. Both also agree that none of us achieves that holy perfection in this life—that we all die unperfected.

The sole difference between the Catholic and Protestant views is in the exact timing of the completion of sanctification.

There exists nothing explicit in Protestant theology that runs counter to the notion of sanctification continuing to take place after death. One can, in fact, fully believe every major Protestant creed and confession, and still have no reason at all to reject the possibility that sanctification is a process that continues postmortem.

There is simply no theological basis for arguing that a belief in purgatory conflicts with Protestantism.

C.S. Lewis, himself a Protestant, and a beloved guiding light to modern evangelicals, in a letter to his friend Malcolm 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 cleansed first.”

There are, to be sure, points of difference between Protestant and Catholic theologies that are perhaps necessarily divisive. But the doctrine of purgatory should not be counted among them.

And if purgatory is not, in fact, an issue as divisive as so many believe it to be, is it not reasonable to guess that other theological points of contention between Protestants and Catholics might also, through simple examination and reflection, prove to be less substantive than imaginary?

Dan WilkinsonDan Wilkinson

Dan is a writer, graphic designer and IT specialist. He lives in Montana, is married and has two cats. He blogs at CoolingTwilight.com.

The Political Punch Behind Christianity’s Favorite Prayer
Christians and Spank Culture: How and Why to Stop It
How (and why) Adam and Eve evolved
Progressive Christianity won’t give you measles
  • Mark Kirschieper

    This is a GREAT article! I really appreciate the manner, in which Dan has made a great case, for reconciliation between the RCC, and Protestantism, on this particular subject.

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      Thanks Mark!

  • https://elizabeth-fullerton.squarespace.com/resume Elizabeth

    I’m Protestant — I practically typify Luther’s outrage at the Catholic hierarchy — but I always liked the idea of purgatory. Not for unsaved infants. But people like me? Old enough to know better? It’s nice to think Heaven has a waiting room while we get our acts together.

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      According to Catholic tradition unsaved infants go to Limbo … but interestingly, Limbo isn’t official Catholic dogma.

      • https://elizabeth-fullerton.squarespace.com/resume Elizabeth

        Interesting. “The really important thing is the (participants in) the Council of Trent 400 years ago said, ‘Please don’t think of this as junior hell, because it’s a whole different process because this is really a preparation for glory.’ It’s clear in the church’s theology it’s much more a process than a place.” –The Catholic Courier, which verifies Limbo isn’t official Catholic dogma. Kind of makes you wonder why the first of my three baptisms was as a wailing infant.

  • Eve Fisher

    I have always believed in Purgatory, mainly because I’ve always thought that one life is simply not enough for most of us (or at least ME) to get our act together. And I’ve always thought it one of the kinder beliefs about the afterlife in a world where people are always sending people to hell. And, I might add, it’s at least implied in 1st Peter – twice. (I Peter 3:19-20, and 1 Peter 4:6)

  • buzzdixon

    Is there a theological term for a belief that this world is Purgatory? ‘Cuz that’s the way I tend to lean…

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      Hinduism? ;)

      • http://johnshore.com/ John Shore

        GOOD ONE, DAN!

    • http://thethreews.wordpress.com/ Ken Leonard

      I don’t know of such a term, but I’m inclined the same way. It seems to fit.

  • Sheila Warner

    I’m a Protestant covert to Roman Catholicism. There is a passage in Scripture in which our works will be made manifest after going through fire: wood, hay, stubble are burned off, and gold and silver remain. I used to joke that I’d have tractor traller loads of wood, hay and stubble when I die. So Purgatory wasn’t such a hard doctrine to accept. The one area of division where I don’t see Protestants and Catholics coming together is in the doctrine of transubstantiation, which is the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of Holy Communion. Try that on for size and I doubt you’ll find agreement. But this was a nice article.

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      Yes, of course the Eucharist is a major dividing line. But, though there is real disagreement on that doctrine, the beliefs of Lutheran and Reformed Protestants (particularly those following Calvin) are far closer to the Catholic understanding than many people realize. It’s the Zwinglian view — that the Eucharist is solely symbolic — that drives a real wedge on the issue — and sadly that’s the view that’s most widely associated with Protestant Christianity.

  • http://denmotherblog.wordpress.com/ The Den Mother

    On the question of timing, perhaps both Protestants and Catholics are correct about purification after death: “With the Lord, a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” (2 Peter 3:8) Just a thought.

  • cajaquarius

    I was raised Catholic and always felt that the Catholic Church should have taken the concept of Hell and Purgatory and combined them to create a new place called Hell. The concept of eternal torment for being born in the wrong place at the wrong time or because you didn’t believe in Jesus and happened to choose to bet on the wrong number when you spun the roulette wheel of life has never sat well with me.

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      It shouldn’t sit well with you! The idea that God would eternally torment someone for such trivial and uncontrollable things is morally repugnant.

  • Camino1

    How is the judgment seat of Christ not purgatory?

    • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

      How would Christ’s judgment — the bema — be purgatory? Your appearance in court doesn’t count as part of your sentence/punishment/rehabilitation!

      • Camino1

        Even his coming will cause the nations to mourn. I’m not sold on the happy-happy parousia theory.

        • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

          I’m not quite sure what the “happy-happy parousia theory” is — or how it relates to the possibility of postmortem sanctification.

          • Camino1

            It’s any eschatology that sidesteps 2 Thess. 2:8.

            His coming IS judgment.

          • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

            There’s no quicker way to derail a theological conversation then to plant one’s flag on a particular eschatological bunker and defend it to the bitter end. That said, I personally look forward to Christ’s second coming and can’t think of anything better than his perfect judgment, especially in light of Romans 8.1. And that day will indeed by a happy, happy, parousia. And I still fail to see what that has to do with purgatory.

          • Camino1

            I entered the conversation with a question that clearly offends you. What kind of mind is offended by a question?

            We may not agree, but a flag seems to have been planted long before I weighed in.

            I’m more accustomed to encountering this kind of resistance from the far right, perhaps many truculent Calvinists, but not on Patheos.

          • https://elizabeth-fullerton.squarespace.com/resume Elizabeth

            Hi Camino1. I like the idea of purgatory (indicated below.) I don’t intend to go there, but my concept of Jesus and the Divine generally is pretty liberal.

            Dan’s hard to offend. I’ve tried. Nice use of ‘truculent’. :)

          • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

            I’m not offended in the least. Confused by your line of reasoning, yes, but offended, no.

          • Camino1

            Okay. What I am saying is that it is possible that our appearance in court could indeed count as part of our sentence/punishment/rehabilitation!

            I realize that this consideration is not linear, but the Scriptural communication models are arranged for the benefit of an audience’s ability to process.

            It’s possible that our names are on an actual scroll somewhere, but I think the point God wants to get over to billions of people transcends the model.

          • http://coolingtwilight.com/ Dan Wilkinson

            I think you’ve put your finger on an important point: our understanding of these things is necessarily limited, we see through a glass dimly, and at best we’re only able to conceive of second-rate analogies. I concede that it’s certainly possible that judgement may in fact have a purging affect, but I think it’s theologically unhelpful to conflate the two, much like it doesn’t make much sense to me to conflate justification and sanctification, even though they are obviously related.