October 15, 2017
The word purgatory comes from the Latin purgare, from which we get our word purge. Purgare simply means to purge or purify. In Roman Catholic doctrine, purgatory is the place where the souls of the dead are purified of remaining sins. Now, that begs the question, how is it the believer in Jesus has remaining sin? Because as we saw last week, the work of Christ is insufficient to remove your sin – you must do your part. Full, saving grace is to be earned.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines purgatory as a “purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” In other words, there are still sins clinging to you. Therefore, purgatory is a place of suffering, a kind of weigh station on the way to heaven where believers pay for unpunished or unrepentant sin. Maybe you felt sorry, not sorry enough. Maybe you sinned and forgot to ask forgiveness. Don’t miss that you must pay for your sin to achieve or earn the holiness necessary to enter heaven. You say, but I thought Christ paid for my sin – I thought He bore the punishment. Apparently not completely.
This drove Martin Luther crazy in his early days as an Augustinian monk. He desperately wanted to know his sins were forgiven so he would be accepted by God. The thought of sin and the satisfaction necessary to find forgiveness hounded him. Therefore, Luther kept his vows and pursued the monastic life with an intensity far beyond the already strict requirements. He wore himself out with prayer and fasting. He wore out his superiors with his excessive and interminable confessions. He would spend hours in confession, only to return shortly thereafter. I told you last week his confessor, Johann Staupitz, became exasperated with him, ordering him to leave the confessional and not return until he’d done something worth confessing.
Luther wrote, “I kept the rule of my order so strictly that I may say that if ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I. All my brothers in the monastery who knew me will bear me out. If I had kept on any longer, I should have killed myself with vigils, prayers, readings and other work.” But even these superhuman efforts did not bring peace to his tormented soul. When he said his first mass, he was “utterly stupefied and terror-stricken” at the thought of standing before the Almighty God. Although his father was present, whom he desperately wanted to please, Luther ran out of the church. The whole idea of a righteous God who required righteousness from people actually caused Luther to say, I hated this righteous God.
Back to purgatory. It is suggested the concept goes all the way back to the earliest Christians, who were known to pray for departed saints. If a dead believer immediately goes to heaven, why, they ask, pray for departed saints? What did they pray for? Others suggest the official doctrine of purgatory came in the sixth century under Pope Gregory the Great.
Regardless, the Second Council of Lyons in 1274 said, “We believe…that the souls, by the purifying compensation are purged after death.” Notice the words, “purifying compensation.” In other words, there is something we need to do to pay for our salvation. Sins not completely cleansed will be paid for by the sufferer in purgatory.
Just in case you think purgatory is an outdated doctrine only held in the dark ages, the Second Vatican Council of 1962 said, “The doctrine of purgatory clearly demonstrates that even when the guilt of sin has been taken away, punishment for it or the consequences of it may remain to be expiated or cleansed. They often are. In fact, in purgatory the souls of those who died in the charity of God and truly repentant, but who had not made satisfaction with adequate penance for their sins and omissions are cleansed after death with punishments designed to purge away their debt.” Purgatory is payment for a debt.
Now, you should know time spent in purgatory can be remarkably reduced in a number of different ways. First, suffering in the present is one way to receive the grace of cleansing. So, when you suffer here, you won’t have to suffer as much there. Therefore, it’s taught many Christian martyrs have immediately bypassed purgatory and gone straight to heaven. They paid the ultimate price, you see. But for most of us, it’s purgatory.
Second, time spent in Purgatory can be shortened by prayers and masses said by the living for the dead. Such a mass is called a Requiem Mass. According to the Council of Florence in the fifteenth century, “If they have died repentant for their sins and having love of God, but have not made satisfaction for things they have done or omitted by fruits worthy of penance, then their souls, after death, are cleansed by the punishment of Purgatory… The suffrages of the faithful still living are efficacious [or effective] in bringing them relief from such punishment, namely the Sacrifice of the Mass, prayers and almsgiving and other works of piety which, in accordance with the designation of the Church, are customarily offered by the faithful for each other.” So, the Mass, prayers, giving and works of piety by the living can effectively cleanse the dead in their punishment of purgatory.
But that takes so much effort. So, another way to shorten your or another’s time in purgatory is through the use of indulgences. This became particularly popular during the Middle Ages, and were largely responsible for the Protestant Reformation.
An indulgence is “the remission or limited release from the temporal punishments one must suffer in this life or in purgatory for the sins a person has committed.” This is how it works. When Jesus lived on earth, by His life and death, He was really good – so good He stored up in heaven what is called a Treasury of Merit. Basically, He earned extra points. And other really godly saints added to that storehouse as well. And those points are available for purchase, at the discretion of the Church. So, the Pope, usually to finance a war or building project, such as St. Peter’s Basilica, would grant the sale of indulgences. In fact, there is one kind of indulgence – a plenary indulgence – which would not just reduce your time in purgatory, it would eliminate it altogether – because it removes all the punishment for your sin.
But alas, those are only for past sins. So, any sins committed subsequent to said purchase will require further purchases. Well, John Tetzel, among others, would travel from town to town selling such indulgences, raising money for the Catholic Church, and reducing time in purgatory – for you or a deceased loved one. When Tetzel traveled near Wittenberg in 1517, he infuriated this German monk. Luther subsequently posted his 95 Theses on the church door. In the document, he wasn’t leaving the Church – he was simply challenging what he saw as an abuse of indulgences. You see, it wasn’t until about 13 years later he abandoned his belief in indulgences and purgatory in a published work called, Denial of Purgatory.
As you well know, this month marks the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. So this month, in recognition and celebration of that singular event, we are studying The Five Solas of the Reformation, that is, the five statements that summarized the theological commitments of the Reformers. We’ve already studied two: Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus – Scripture Alone, and Christ Alone.
You’ll remember the problem was the Church had elevated itself to the level of Scripture, claiming to be the inspired, inerrant authority over Christians. The Reformers said, no, Scripture alone is our inspired, inerrant authority. As proof, they demonstrated many popes and councils in the past had erred. More than that, many teachings of the church were in direct conflict with the Scripture. So, who were the people to believe – the church or the Bible? But it was really no problem since the people didn’t have a Bible. But the Reformers did, which they translated and made it available to people, because, the Reformers said, the Bible is our final rule of faith and practice. The church receives its authority from the Bible, not the other way around.
Further, the Church claimed to be the custodians of grace, and through their sacramental system, people could earn the infused righteousness of Christ and thereby justifying grace. Keep the sacraments, and you’ll earn grace resulting in ultimate salvation. There was a Catholic theologian of the 15th Century who clarified this teaching. His name was Gabriel Biel (1420-95), whose work entitled Canon of the Mass became part of Luther’s education. Biel wrestled with how a person could attain a state of grace, and formulated the idea of a pactum – that is, a pact between God and man. The idea was God committed to bestow grace on those who “did what was in them.” That is, they did their best. Do your best in the sacraments, and God will do His part and bestow grace. God helps those who help themselves.
The Reformers said no. Christ and His finished work alone is our salvation. It is not to be earned by keeping sacraments – Christ alone in His perfect life, death, burial and resurrection, as the Son of God, provided the all-sufficient means of our justification. Concerning this, Martin Luther wrote in Thesis 16 of the 95 Theses, “The person who believes that he can obtain grace by doing what is in him adds sin to sin so that he becomes doubly guilty.”
Which brings this morning to Sola Gratia, or Grace Alone. Following our outline for each week:
- The 16th Century Context of Sola Gratia
- The Biblical Basis of Sola Gratia
- The 21st Century Context of Sola Gratia
Now, it’s probably becoming obvious by now these Five Solas overlap – they’re interconnected. Of course…because you’ll remember I said a couple weeks ago, the central issue of the Reformation was justification – how is a person justified – how is a person made right before God? The Roman Catholic Church was, and frankly still teaches works through their sacramental system in order to be saved. To be clear, if you ask a Catholic – do you believe the grace of Jesus Christ is necessary for salvation, they will say yes. But, it is their definition of grace that presents the challenge. They suggest by His work on the cross, Jesus provides the grace you need in order to perform the sacraments in order to receive the infused righteousness of Christ and thereby, justification. Catch the difference: the Reformers said Jesus did everything we need – it’s Christ alone because of His unique identity as the Son of God, and His all-sufficient work on the cross by which we are saved.
So, while we may use the same words, while we may both say we are saved by grace, there is a vast difference in our understanding of grace. We’ve already talked about the 16th Century context: the Church taught you receive grace in order to cooperate with the work of Christ in order to be justified. Of course, you can’t do enough works of satisfaction, so it’s purgatory for you where you will pay for the remainder of your debt. The Reformers said, there’s no way you can pay your debt. It is only through God’s free gift – notice, free gift of grace alone through faith alone in the all-sufficient work of Christ alone.
Now, before we get to the biblical basis of grace alone, let me say this. (21st Century) Even though we as Protestants deny purgatory, it’s not to be found in the Bible, I would suggest many, perhaps some of you, still have your own version of Protestant Purgatory. What do I mean? You live under doubt and uncertainty about your sins. Putting yourself through purgatory on earth, some of you are plagued and suffer with the following questions:
- Has Jesus really forgiven me of all my sins, past, present and future?
- I’ve felt sorry for my sin, but have I felt sorry enough?
- Have I been cleansed, or do I need to pay or be punished in some way?
- Have I asked forgiveness for all my sins? Have I forgotten some? What if I have?
- Is there some kind of Protestant Penance I must make to get Him to really forgive me? I know I’ve asked a hundred times to be forgiven for this or that – how many times does it actually take?
- Does God hold my past against me?
- Are there sins I’ve committed that Jesus won’t forgive? What about the unforgiveable sin – have I done it?
- And, is it possible to commit some sin or live in such a way so as to lose my salvation? And therefore have to pay for my sin?
- Given my sinful life, can I really have the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life? Meaning, I don’t really struggle with the idea of purgatory – I struggle with God really forgiving me. I struggle with the prospect of eternal purgatory, called hell.
The answers to those questions are all answered in The Five Solas of the Reformation – more importantly, in the Bible. You see, the Reformers are not our ultimate authority, either – the Scripture is. But, these biblical, theological convictions, consistent with Scripture, decidedly answer these questions.
So, what do we mean by grace alone? We’ve typically heard that grace is the unmerited favor of God. And that’s true – please notice it is unmerited – that is, unearned. There is nothing any of us can do to earn the favor, attention or grace of God. Grace is a free gift of God’s unearned favor, resulting in our salvation. Grace alone means nothing the sinner does commends him to the grace of God, nor does the sinner cooperate with God in order to merit salvation. Salvation, from beginning to end, is the sovereign gift of God to the unworthy and undeserving. (“I was mistakenly given an invitation to a place I don’t belong.”)
But now, don’t for a minute think because grace is free that it’s cheap. In his book Grace Alone, Carl Trueman tells of watching a news program where a prominent evangelical pastor was interviewed about his new book on grace. Trueman says this author spent about 8 minutes talking about grace, but never actually defined. In fact, he never mentioned the name of Jesus Christ. Here’s the question – is it possible to talk about grace apart from Christ?
Trueman says many would have come away from that interview having the impression that “grace is simply a divine sentiment, a decision or a tendency in God to overlook sin as an overindulgent parent might when dealing with a naughty child. Grace seems to be nothing more than God turning a blind eye to human rebellion. It’s as if grace is a free pass to do whatever one chooses.”
But, he concludes, “grace is far more than a mere attitude or sentiment in God. God does not turn a blind eye to human rebellion. In fact, He tackles it head-on in the person and work of His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Grace alone finds its definition, its basis, its fullness in Christ Alone. And the purchase of our eternal salvation was neither free nor cheap – it costs God the enormous price of the suffering and death of His own Son. Any discussion of the grace of God must begin and end with Jesus. Trueman says, “The supreme manifestation of God’s grace in history is Jesus Christ….Christ purchased this grace at a cost to which we cannot attach a price but at which we can only marvel in terrified awe.”
Grace is intimately connected to the fact human beings are fallen, and therefore deserve only the wrath and judgment of God. Grace is God’s response to our rebellion, whereby He chooses to bless those who have rejected Him. There is nothing in us to warrant that response – it is purely the grace of God. And yet, that response of grace does not lead Him to overlook sin – that would betray and contradict His own perfectly holy nature. He indeed feels holy anger and wrath toward sin and will not simply pardon our rejection of His Kingship and right to rule our lives. But, in grace, motivated by love and shaped by holiness, He deals with our sin at greatest cost to Himself. This is not man reaching up to God, this is God reaching down to man. Are we beginning to understand the nature of grace? Our understanding of grace must begin with a confession of the magnitude for our rebellious sin and God’s holy aversion to it.
So, what is the biblical basis for Grace Alone? A couple important passages:
First, Romans 3:23-25 says, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God [the manifest display of His glorious perfections], being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith.”
Everyone has sinned and finds themselves under the just condemnation of God. But, justification – that is, having a right standing before God, comes as a free gift by His grace. It is not something earned – it is something Jesus purchased for us. Notice, a gift of His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. Jesus paid the price to buy us out of the slave market of sin. Not only is there nothing we can do, but Jesus has already paid the price in full – through the all-sufficiency of His work. Having been publicly displayed as a propitiation – a sacrifice by which God’s righteous wrath was averted – in His blood.
It’s important we understand the flow of Paul’s argument here in the book of Romans. In chapter 1, he tells us he’s writing about the gospel – because it is the power of God for everyone who believes. We need the gospel, he says, because the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men. Who’s that? He spends the next three chapter proving it’s everybody – whether you’re an immoral, ungodly pagan or a moral person, or a religious person. There is none righteous – not one. He sums up his argument in chapter 3, verse 19 – every mouth is stopped and the whole world is accountable – guilty before God.
But now, the righteousness of God is revealed from heaven – a righteousness apart from keeping any law of doing good – a righteousness that is found through faith in Jesus Christ. For, the text I read a moment ago – all have sinned and fall short. But God’s righteousness is revealed from heaven in justifying sinners who by grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, are declared righteous by grace through faith. In other words, it’s not by what you do – even in cooperating with the works of Christ – because you cannot. It is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Ephesians 2 makes this abundantly clear:
1 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, (you were spiritually dead to the things of God – Paul’s point is there was nothing we could do about our condition)
2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience.
3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (This is the universal condition of humanity – all have sinned and fallen short of His glory.)
4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us,
5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),
6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus,
7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God;
9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.
Notice, it’s not the result of any works we have not – but salvation is a free gift of what God has done through His Son, Jesus Christ. We were condemned, we were cursed because we were in rebellion. But, Jesus took that from us – God made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. Romans 8 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” Christ died for our sins – taking the curse of the Law that was against us – and removed it such that there is now nor never can be any condemnation against us. So, the 21st Century context – our context – your context – consider some of those plaguing questions I asked earlier:
- Has Jesus really forgiven me of all my sins past, present and future? Well, when Jesus died on the cross for you 2,000 years ago, for which sins did He die? All of them. So that, when you were saved, your sins were removed – all of them. The reason we continue to confess sin when we sin is to restore the fellowship, not the relationship. The relationship is never broken. God is your Father, and always will be. Your sins are removed, you are clothed in the righteousness of Christ.
- I’ve felt sorry, but have I felt sorry enough? I want to be careful how I say this. I believe there is a place for contrition and repentance for sin. But, your forgiveness is not based on the depth of your sorrow, but on the work of Jesus Christ when He bore your sin.
- Have I been cleansed, or do I need to pay or be punished in some way? Jesus took your guilt, your corresponding punishment and condemned your sin in His flesh. It has been fully satisfied – what is left for you to pay? I won’t take time to answer all of the questions, but look at the last two:
- Is it possible to commit some sin or live in such a way so as to lose my salvation? I know there are godly people who disagree on this point, but I want to firmly say – since salvation is by grace through faith, how is it that since you didn’t do anything to get your salvation that you can do anything to lose your salvation? Your salvation is based on His work, not yours – and since your sins were forgiven – all of them, past present and future; since He took your sin and your punishment and condemned your sin – what is left for you to do that won’t be forgiven? That doesn’t lead to a life of sin – should we continue in sin that grace may increase? May it never be. Knowing we can’t lose our salvation doesn’t lead to a life of sin – it leads to a life of grateful, Spirit-filled obedience.
- Last: given my sinful life, can I really have the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life? I want to say to you by the authority of God’s Word and the finished work of God in the flesh on the cross – His offering for your sin was complete. By grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Your salvation is eternal. Irrevocable. Final. Rest in this truth – there is now and never will be any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
In 1515 and 1516, before he nailed the 95 Theses to the church door, Luther taught through the book of Romans in the University at Wittenberg. During that time, he wrote of Romans:
“The whole task of the apostle [Paul] and of his Lord is to humiliate the proud and to bring them to a realization of this condition, to teach them that they need grace, to destroy their own righteousness so that in humility they will seek Christ and confess that they are sinners and thus receive grace and be saved.” In other words, the condition for receiving the grace of God is coming to the realization that you are dead in your sins and can do nothing to merit God’s grace.
Remember I said early on, through his attempts to gain righteousness through his incessant, sacramental works of satisfaction, Luther hated the righteousness of God. But, as he taught through Romans, His life was forever changed. Through his laborious studies of the Scripture, Luther came to see the guilt that consumed him could not be lifted by more religion, and the God he dreaded so much was not the God that Christ has revealed. From the book of Romans (1:17), another thunderbolt crossed his path: “Night and day I pondered until I saw the connection between the justice of God and the statement that ‘the just shall live by his faith.’ Then I grasped that the justice of God is that righteousness by which, through grace and sheer mercy, God justifies us through faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise. The whole of Scripture took on a new meaning, and whereas before the ‘justice of God’ had filled me with hate, now it became to me inexpressibly sweet in greater love. This passage of Paul became to me a gate to heaven . . .”
God utterly saves those who realize they are utterly unable to do anything to save themselves. The bridge between God and man is grace, built solely by the cross of Christ. Grace alone.