Article 22 — Of Purgatory

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping, and Adoration, as well of Images as of Reliques, and also invocation of Saints, is a fond thing vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

During their reformation, the leading English divines necessarily focussed a considerable effort on demonstrating the wrongness of several core beliefs of the late medieval Roman Catholic Church. Foremost among these were beliefs about salvation, authority in the church, and the afterlife — with the latter being the focus of Article 22.

The “Romish Doctrine” of the afterlife was quite complex and made up of a number of interrelated parts. First and perhaps foremost was Purgatory, the supposed antechamber of hell where the saved-but-not-yet-purified members of the church went upon their death in order to be ‘purged’ of the guilt or stain of their sin — a process that was torturously painful and which could last thousands upon thousands of years.

Second was Pardons, which were the remissions of that purgatorial pain as granted by the Catholic Church to those who either made certain financial donations (i.e. paid for them), or who completed various prescribed rituals to demonstrate their piety and submission.

Finally, Worshipping and Adoration of Images and Relics, and Invocation of Saints were all expressions of the cult of the saints, which was a pervasive part of late medieval English Catholicism. This ‘cult’ was not an underground, deviant religious sub-group, like the cults of today, but rather a broad and general obsession with those departed believers who were believed to have avoided purgatory and instead been translated directly into heaven as reward for the great quality and purity of their mortal lives. These ‘saints’ were regularly idolised by the worship of their memory, and by the reverence shown to their pictures and relics which were believed to either contain, or channel, special grace. In some cases, the saints were even directly called upon to answer prayers.

Of course, all of this was completely unacceptable to the Protestant Reformers. Not only did they realise that these beliefs had facilitated the exercise of an enormous amount of power and control by the Roman Catholic Church over the peoples of Christendom, they also recognised that the entire Roman view of the afterlife was simply a “fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.”

It was because of this that the Roman view of the afterlife was challenged from the very earliest days of the Reformation. Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses of 1517 were mostly concerned with abuses of the Catholic system of pardons. It is worth noting that England’s first significant movement away from the old Roman doctrine of purgatory came through its earliest Articles of Religion: the Ten Articles of 1536. Those Articles said of those who had died, ’forasmuch as the place where they be, the name thereof, and kind of pains there, also be to us uncertain by Scripture’ and that it is only God ‘to whom is known their estate and condition.’ This is a remarkable declaration given that fifteen years earlier, Henry VIII had included a case for purgatory as the opening to his Defence of the Seven Sacraments, the work that won him the title Defender of the Faith from Pope Leo X.

Contrary to the views of the Roman Catholic Church, the Bible teaches that no one has any further penalty or punishment to pay for their sin once they accept the merits of Christ’s death. Isaiah 53:4–6 makes plain that the Lord’s servant has taken our punishment and made us whole; has healed us by his bruises. There is no sense in Scripture that Jesus’ death was only a part-payment for sin, with the rest to be made up by the extreme suffering of his people between their own deaths and resurrection. Instead, Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 5:6–8 and Philippians 1:21–23 that if he were to die, that would only send him to a far better place – home with the Lord – which is exactly where we find the martyred believers in Revelation 6:9–11. And in 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18 he teaches that this is where believers remain waiting until they return with Jesus at his second coming.

This view of the intermediate state was standard amongst the mainstream Reformers and it is strongly argued for by Calvin in Psychopannychia, his first theological work. It was also, in fact, quite explicit in Article 40 of the Forty-Two Articles of 1553, of which the Thirty-Nine Articles are a revision. Article 40 was directed against Soul Sleep and Conditionalism, which are the two forms of Christian Mortalism. The former is what Calvin wrote against in his above-mentioned work, and is the belief that the soul is unconscious between death and resurrection. The latter is the view that the soul ceases to exist from death until it is made new again with the body. Once these two ideas are excluded along with purgatory, the only remaining possibility for believers is the biblical teaching of a conscious intermediate state between death and resurrection that is enjoyed in the very presence of Christ.

While it could be easy to push consideration of the intermediate state aside, as though it were a largely irrelevant theological obscurity, just a little reflection reveals how pastorally important truths concerning the afterlife are. When a dearly loved Christian sister or brother faces death or dies, we do not need to be uninformed regarding their fate. Instead, we can be deeply comforted with the great truths that they are now with Jesus, the object of all their deepest hopes and longings, and that they are safe and secure until the day of his return to earth when they will be present as he consummates his kingdom. We can most certainly be assured that they are not suffering the pains of purgatory which, in the last analysis, is only a cruel imaginary place. And in addition to our own comfort, being rid of Roman Catholic beliefs about the afterlife frees us to direct all our praise and petition away from anyone and anything less than Christ himself — who is our only true and sure hope and intercessor.


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