Rev. Koole is pastor of Faith Protestant Reformed Church in Jenison, Michigan.
Other than the worship of the Virgin Mary, the doctrine we most associate with the Roman Catholic church and her abuses is probably her doctrine of purgatory.
It is this teaching that serves to underscore what Rome is all about, namely, ignoring (or better, inventing) Scripture, promoting superstition, inculcating fear into the minds of her members, using fear to extract a steady stream of income, corrupting the gospel of Christ crucified, and destroying the blessed assurance of faith in Him.
It is this doctrine that makes plain from just what a bondage God used the Reformation to deliver His people once more.
The striking thing about this purgatory is that it is not the place of the damned, but, according to Rome, the place of the redeemed. It is where all children of God go (except for an elite, super-pious few), there to suffer agonies and torments not at all unlike those of hell itself. The only difference between the two has to do with duration, hell’s torments being eternal, but purgatory’s eventually coming to an end. Still, for many these sufferings are said to last for centuries. Relief from the agony of the fires of purgatory is not meant to come easily for those who die good members of Rome.
The Manual of the Purgatorial Society states:
According to the Holy Fathers of the Church, the fire of purgatory does not differ from the fire of hell, except in point of duration. “It is the same fire,” says St. Thomas Aquinas, “that torments the reprobate in hell, and the just in purgatory. The least pain in purgatory,” he says, “surpasses the greatest suffering in this life.” Nothing but the eternal duration makes the fire of hell more terrible than that of purgatory (cf. Roman Catholicism, L. Boettner, p. 220).
In light of the above, one can well understand the great gloom and oppressive grief that marks death and funerals in Romish circles. Death of believers is not to be considered a release from tears and pain, a victory of faith, and an entry into the glory and the bosom of the Lord, but a descension into an abyss, into the crackling of fire, the smell of smoke, and the groans and cries of thirsty, tormented souls. Understandably, at Romish funerals not songs of triumph and joy are heard, but rather somber, doleful laments. Black with veils is the only appropriate dress.
What moved ambitious churchmen to invent the monstrosity of purgatory is not so difficult to ascertain. It looms as a threat, a sizable club to be used against those who have thoughts of resisting the authority of Rome’s clergy; and it has proved an endless source of income in return for the promise of an early release.
Rome of course has not admitted to this reality and charge. She insists that purgatory is a most beneficial and sanctifying doctrine. The council of Trent (Rome’s response to the Reformation) commanded her bishops diligently to see to it that “… the wholesome doctrine (emphasis mine — KK) of purgatory … be believed, held, taught, and everywhere preached by Christ’s faithful” (Session XXV).
Rome argues that purgatory is a place of restitution for one’s sins. Various kinds of sins make one liable to two sorts of divine punishment, eternal and temporal. Receiving the various sacraments takes care of the eternal punishment, while acts of penance and of good works are meant to deal with temporal punishment. But good works and penance commonly prove a sporadic thing. So purgatory is the place where one makes the final restitution for those evils one’s own sporadic good works failed to overcome. There the completion of one’s just punishment takes place. Those members of the church who have been lax and careless in living a life devoted to God and the church, and especially in listening to the exhortations of the priest, can expect that restitution to be long and severe indeed. What could be more just than that?
Besides, Rome argues, such a threat will have a sanctifying effect on believers in this life. Knowing what awaits one if one is lax and careless in one’s spiritual devotion should put enough fear of the Lord into one to give him strong incentive to refrain from many a temptation and evil. Without this threat, members would simply take advantage of the protecting grace of the church and be inclined to lifelong carelessness.
History has proved how deceptive and spiritually bankrupt Rome’s justification of the doctrine has been. The worldliness and immorality of Rome’s members, to say nothing of the scandalous behavior of her clergy in every age, has demonstrated again and again how little effect the looming threat of this fictitious purgatory has had on the improvement of the morals, to say nothing of the spirituality, of her members’ lives. Threats and dread may produce a bit of restraint in some areas of immorality, but never will such produce spirituality and true godliness. That is the product of heartfelt gratitude. And there is precious little thankworthy about the abyss of purgatory.
Besides, the wholesale monetary abuse of purgatory by Rome’s clergy is too well documented to be refuted. The sale of indulgences is written large on the pages of her sacrilegious history. If one cannot work one’s way out of purgatory, his relatives can buy his way out of the abyss by contributing sums of money to the church in the name of the dearly departed (or by paying for a solemn Mass for the dead). The church claims the authority to determine by how much each contribution shortens one’s stay. Of course, how the church is able to calculate just how long one was sentenced to suffer in the first place is a great mystery, but when you are dealing with people steeped for centuries in such superstitions, such questions are seldom asked.
The doctrine of purgatory was declared an article of faith by the Council of Florence in 1439, which explains the flurry of indulgences at the time of the Reformation, but it had already received ecclesiastical recognition at the time of Pope Gregory the Great (AD 590-604). Though the Reformation soundly denounced the practice, the sore abuse, sad to say, did not end with the Reformation. The ongoing abuse is well chronicled by the autobiography of the Canadian priest, Father Chinique, converted to Protestantism in the 1800s. He wrote,
How long, O Lord, shall that insolent enemy of the gospel, the Church of Rome, be permitted to fatten herself upon the tears of the widow and of the orphan by means of that cruel and impious invention of paganism — purgatory? (Fifty Years in the Church of Rome, p. 48).
The “fattening” to which Chinique referred was the extorting of money from the vulnerable, the lonely, and those in grief. The church, like the Pharisees of Christ’s day, was not above devouring widows’ houses.
It scarcely needs mentioning, does it, that such a system does not curtail immorality and ungodliness, especially amongst the wealthy, but promotes it. What need is there of godliness and repentance, when money turns the same trick! The wealthy have an advantage over the poor.
The whole business is a travesty.
First of all, it is invention without a shred of biblical support. Rome’s primary “biblical” support is in one of the Apocryphal books, of all things, II Maccabees 12. But even this is a doubtful reference. Another so-called proof is I Corinthians 3:12-15, which speaks of one’s works being tested by fire. But this is a testing of one’s “works,” not a burning of one’s “soul”; and it refers to what will take place on the judgment day, not in some intermediate state. Every other passage used is as forced and misused as the one in I Corinthians.
Further, Rome’s doctrine would deprive believers of the blessed Word of God that gives them (us!) that sweet assurance of glory directly upon the experience of death, passages such as John 5:24: “He that heareth my word, and believeth him that sent me, hath eternal life, and cometh not into judgment, but hath passed out of death into life.” Notice — “… and cometh not into judgment.” As Paul declares, for the believer to be “absent from the body” is to be “at home with the Lord” (II Cor. 5:8).
But centrally, as with all of Rome’s major doctrinal errors, her teaching of purgatory is a direct assault upon the gospel of Christ crucified, and the power, value, and full sufficiency of His atoning sacrifice for sin. The “once for all” character of Christ’s death and suffering is mutilated and slandered (cf. Heb. 9:12, 26-28and 10:14, 18). As the apostle John declares, “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin” (I John 1:7). Christ Jesus died exactly so that we would not be as those characterized by a “… certain fearful looking for of judgment and fiery indignation” (Heb. 10:27).
In the name of the gospel, and the full sufficiency of Christ’s atonement for everyone who believeth, the dreadful fiction of purgatory must be denounced and dismissed. Rome ought to pay special heed to the scathing words of her first pope, the apostle Peter, to Simon the magician who also thought spiritual things could be purchased with money. “Thy money perish with thee…” (Acts 8:20).