If you were to die tonight – and whatever age you are, make no mistake, that could happen – where would you go? Even if it's not tonight, the day is coming inescapably for each one of us, unless Jesus returns first, when we will wake up for the last time in the morning of the day on which we will die. So what happens to us after death is arguably the single most important thing that we need to get clear about so that we can be ready for that day. And what we do believe about that has a profound effect on how we live now. So that's what we're thinking about today, and my title is a question: Purgatory or Paradise? What does that mean? Well, first let me back up a minute.
We're in a short series called What Christians Believe, looking at a few more of the Articles of the Church of England. What are they? These Articles are 39 short statements of Christian teaching, based on the Bible, from 400 years ago. For hundreds of years these have been a key part of the foundation of the life of this nation. If we abandon what they teach, then those foundations get destroyed, and our nation becomes like a house built on sand that will collapse when the storms come. They are still the official teaching, or doctrine, of the Anglican Church in this country today. This is an Anglican Church, and we are committed to the teaching of the 39 Articles – above all, because they are faithful to the teaching of the Bible.
Today we've come to Article 22, which has the title 'Purgatory'. It relates to teaching that if we got wrong would blight our lives, and if we get right enables us to live with peace and freedom as we face the coming day of our death. So this matters to all of us. But it does need a bit of thinking through. So, as you'll see on my outline, I'm going to help us to get clear on this by asking six questions.
1. What is this Article 22?
The language is old-fashioned, so at the top of my outline on the back of the service sheet you can see what the Article says, written out with the language somewhat modernised, below the original version. The meaning is the same. Let me read it to you.
Article 22. Purgatory
The Roman doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration (both of images and of relics) and the invocation of saints is a futile thing foolishly conceived and grounded on no evidence of Scripture. On the contrary this teaching is repugnant to the Word of God.
So this is a strong criticism of certain 'Roman doctrine', that is, teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. This comes from that time over 400 years ago when the Church of England split with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. And it immediately raises a couple of questions to begin with.
For one thing, what should our attitude be towards the Roman Catholic Church? Well one of the earlier Articles is helpful on that, because Article 19 says that the church of Rome has erred, not only in their practice and forms of worship but also in matters of faith. In other words, the Roman Catholic Church is a Christian Church, and believing Roman Catholics are our brothers and sisters in Christ. And there is much that we believe in common. But also in some things the Roman Catholic Church has gone wrong – has erred – including in some of its teaching. It's not just them, of course, as that Article makes clear, and in our time it's clear that the Church of England is going wrong too.
But for another thing, and even so, is it right to be critical of the teaching of other churches and Christians? Yes, it is right, because God has called us in the Bible to guard the faith and the gospel that he has revealed to us. And that means we have to be clear when people have departed from the Biblical faith in some way. We must first be self-critical, aware that we too can go wrong, and ready to be corrected by the Bible ourselves. And all that we say must be in a spirit of love. But if we're not ready to be clear about where people have taken a wrong turn, then we won't be able to help them back onto the right road; we won't be able to help others stay on the right road; and we'll end up taking wrong turns ourselves. So we'll all lose our way.
We mustn't be intimidated by the fake so-called tolerance of our society that affirms everyone except those who disagree with it. If we're going to be clear about the truth, we have to be ready gently to identify what is false.
2. What doctrine is being criticised here?
The Article speaks of:
"The Roman doctrine concerning purgatory, pardons, worshipping and adoration (both of images and of relics) and the invocation of saints…"
So we're talking about doctrine – which simply means teaching – as taught by the Roman Catholic Church (with the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, at its head) at the time these Articles were being written and then revised, which was in the 1500s. A long time ago. Does the Roman Catholic Church still teach these things? That's my next question on the outline, so we'll come on to that in a minute. Four aspects of Roman Catholic teaching, then, are mentioned here: first, purgatory; secondly pardons; thirdly veneration of statues, pictures and relics; and fourthly calling upon the saints. What is meant by those?
First, purgatory. What does that mean? The Roman Catholic Church taught – wrongly – that purgatory is a middle state between heaven and hell. When we die we go to one of three possible destinations. Those who have rejected Christ and the forgiveness that he offers and will not change their minds are condemned and go to an eternal hell. Those who have turned from their sin and put their faith in Christ and who have been cleansed and purged of all their sin with the help of God and have achieved holiness go straight to heaven.
But many of those who are saved are not like that. There are many who have turned from their sin and trusted in Christ, and so who are saved by the grace of God, but who were not purged and purified of all their sin during their earthly lives. People like this when they die are still imperfect. So they don't go to hell, because they have been saved for eternity. Nor do they go to heaven, because they're not yet holy enough. Rather, they first go to purgatory where they spend time being purged and purified of their remaining sin before they are perfected and can go to heaven to be with God for ever. So they don't suffer the eternal punishment for sin we all deserve. They have been saved from that by the grace of God. But they do suffer the temporary punishment for sin that is needed to purify them and make them holy for heaven. That's the doctrine of purgatory – and it's wrong.
The second aspect of Roman Catholic teaching that's criticised is what the Article calls 'pardons'. That doesn't refer to plain forgiveness from God. It refers to teaching that follows on from the teaching about purgatory. This teaching is that souls in purgatory can be helped, and their time spent suffering in purgatory can be shortened, by those who are living. So people can pray for those in purgatory, and give gifts on their behalf, and masses can be offered for them, and pardons – otherwise known as indulgences – can be obtained for them. Then either they'll go straight to heaven or at least their suffering in purgatory will be shortened. These indulgences, or pardons, are possible because there is, as it were, a huge reservoir of forgiveness that's been filled through the sacrifice of Christ on the cross and also through the good works of the saints who have already achieved holiness. And the Church has been given authority to dispense, as it were, the water of forgiveness from this reservoir, which is known as 'the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints'. That's the doctrine of pardons – and that, too, is wrong.
The third aspect of teaching is the veneration of statues, pictures and relics. A relic is something associated with a saint – maybe a piece of clothing, or a bone. It is clear that this is not the same as the worship due to God alone. But Roman Catholic teaching was that it was appropriate to venerate these things in a lesser but still real way.
Then fourthly there is the Roman Catholic teaching about calling upon Saints, and above all on Mary the mother of Jesus – that is, praying to them, and asking them to pray for us in heaven.
These are the four aspects of Roman Catholic doctrine that are marked out here in this Article for criticism. Next question:
3. To what extent is this still Roman Catholic doctrine?
One answer to that is that there is in Roman Catholicism nowadays a wide range of teaching and practice. Roman Catholicism varies depending on where you are and who you talk to. Some Roman Catholic teachers will no doubt either neglect to teach or positively deny at least some of these four aspects mentioned in this Article. Another answer is that official Roman Catholic teaching is defined centrally. In particular, it is spelled out in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, which summarises all of the main Roman Catholic teaching in one large book. And this Catechism clearly continues to teach all four of these aspects of doctrine criticised by Article 22. So for instance it says, on what it calls The Final Purification, or Purgatory:
"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… The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect…"
And on pardons, or indulgences:
"The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead…"
"…one way we can help [the faithul departed] is to obtain indulgences for them, so that the temporal punishments due for their sins may be remitted."
And on calling upon Saints:
"…we can entrust all our cares and petitions to [Mary] … We can pray with and to [Mary]. The prayer of the church is sustained by the prayer of Mary…"
Clearly these are not merely teachings from the past now corrected. Article 22 remains relevant. Next question:
4. On what grounds is this doctrine being criticised?
Our modern version of the Article puts it like this, in a typically forthright way and with no beating about the bush:
"[this doctrine] is a futile thing foolishly conceived and grounded on no evidence of Scripture. On the contrary this teaching is repugnant to the Word of God."
In other words, this teaching is criticised in four ways. It does no good. It is mere human invention. It has no Biblical basis. And it contradicts fundamental Biblical teaching.
It does no good, that is, if you think in these ways, it's not going to help your life as a disciple of Jesus – rather, it's going to get in the way, and even rob you of the joy and peace that is the fruit of the Holy Spirit and of the Biblical gospel in the life of the believer.
It is mere human invention. These teachings were not present in the early church. For instance, there is no evidence of the doctrine of purgatory being clearly taught for centuries after Jesus and the apostles. It gradually began to develop as a speculation, which then became widely held, and ended up as an enforced doctrine – but not until the 1400s.
It has no Biblical basis. Certainly heaven has no place for sin, and in order to enter heaven we will be purged and purified. But listen again to what Jesus said from the cross the thief who, grievous sinner though he was, put his faith in Jesus:
"Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise."
And he was no special case. That is the pattern of Christian dying taught throughout the New Testament. And so much more could said. This Roman Catholic teaching simply cannot be found in the teachings of Jesus or the Apostles, which is the sum total of all the teaching that we need for our salvation. And not only is it not found in the New Testament…
It contradicts fundamental Biblical teaching. We've already made a start on that, but let me expand a bit with my next question. So:
5. What is the fundamental Biblical teaching that is being contradicted?
Let me mention two aspects of the teaching of the Bible that are in practice undermined and indeed overthrown by this wrong teaching mentioned in our Article 22.
The first is the truth that nothing more needs to be done to pay for our sins. Nothing. Zero. Why? Because Jesus has done it all. Fully. Completely. Totally. That is his glory. That is our joy and our unspeakably glorious blessing. So the Church of England Holy Service in the old Book of Common Prayer wonderfully, Biblically and truthfully speaks of the "full, perfect and sufficient" sacrifice of Christ for our sins. There is no more punishment to undergo, no further price to pay, nothing to fear after death for those who have thrown themselves on the mercy of Jesus and put their trust in him, sinners that we are. Our sins are atoned for, once and for all. Nothing needs to be added to what Jesus has done for us on the cross.
The second basic aspect of the Bible's teaching that is contradicted is the fact of our union with Christ and the indwelling of his Spirit in us by grace through repentance and faith. We do not need to achieve holiness in order to be united to God in Christ. We don't need to wait until we're purified and ready for heaven before we can be united with Jesus. That is his gift to us at the moment of our new birth by grace through faith. We are one with him now. Really one. He gives us his Holy Spirit. The Spirit lives in us and we live in him.
That is the liberating, amazing grace that is promised to us in the gospel. That is the believer's experience. That is why we experience now the fruit and gifts of the Spirit growing within us. That is why we can say 'Jesus is Lord'. That is why we can cry 'Abba, Father'. We wait for heaven. We wait for the return of Jesus in glory. But we don't have to wait for the Holy Spirit. We are already, gloriously, one with God the Father, in his Son, through his Spirit. So:
6. In what ways does this matter to us?
It matters very deeply. That's why, rather uncomfortable though it is, it's important to spell these things out, hopefully gently and in love. That's why if you hold to some or all of this wrong teaching yourself, you need to allow yourself to be corrected by the Scriptures. And if we know someone who holds to these teachings we need to take any opportunity gently and lovingly to correct them, for their sake, and for the sake of any they might wrongly teach. It matters because if our religion goes down these blind alleys, it will enslave us. But that is not God's purpose for us. Jesus came to set us free. Biblical faith sets us free. In the words of the apostle Paul, from Galatians 5.1:
"For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery."
Heavenly Father, we praise you for the freedom that Jesus has bought for us with his blood shed on the cross for our sins. Help us by your Spirit to grasp it, to hold fast to it, to teach it, and to live it. For the glory of Jesus our Lord and our Saviour. Amen.