Do You Have Any Good Material You Can Give that Addresses the Subject of Purgatory?

I’ve been searching online for something to help you concerning purgatory, and I’m not happy with anything I’ve found. Some are brief, but too brief, don’t cite sufficient Scripture, and are just too shallow.  

If what I provide from a couple of old systematic theologies below isn’t sufficiently helpful, or if the theology and writing style is too obscure, I would recommend Googling these words, together in one search: purgatory Bible Christian grace evangelical. Then start checking the articles. I checked a number in a different search, but as I said, I wasn’t happy with what I found.

The good news is, I did find in some off-line research the following material from Augustus Strong’s Systematic Theology, and a quite lengthy portion that follows it, from Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology (which are now within the public domain). In my opinion, both are quite good,  but they are not always easy reading. You can try skimming until you get to what you’re looking for, then stop and move slowly through it. I’m not sure how much you want to get into it, but if you’re up to wading through some old—but good—theological treatises, here you go.

From Augustus Strong’s Systematic Theology:

B. The passages first cited refute, on the other hand, the view that the suffering of the intermediate state is purgatorial.

According to the doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church, “all who die at peace with the church, but are not perfect, pass into purgatory.“ Here they make satisfaction for the sins committed after baptism by suffering a longer or shorter time, according to the degree of their guilt. The church on earth, however, has power, by prayers and the sacrifice of the Mass, to shorten these sufferings or to remit them altogether. But we urge, in reply, that the passages referring to suffering in the intermediate state give no indication that any true believer is subject to this suffering, or that the church has any power to relieve from the consequences of sin, either in this world or in the world to come. Only God can forgive, and the church is simply empowered to declare that, upon the fulfillment of the appointed conditions of repentance and faith, he does actually forgive. This theory, moreover, is inconsistent with any proper view of the completeness of Christ’s satisfaction (Gal. 2:21; Heb. 9:28); of justification through faith alone (Rom. 3:28); and of the condition after death, of both righteous and wicked, as determined in this life (Eccl. 11:3; Mat. 25:10; Luke 16:26; Heb. 9:27; Rev. 22:11).

Against this doctrine we quote the following texts: Gal. 2:21—”I do not make void the grace of God; for if righteousness is through the law, then Christ died for nought“; Heb. 9:28—”so Christ also, having been once [or, ‘once for all’] offered to bear the sins of many, shall appear a second time, apart from sin, to them that wait for him, unto salvation“; Rom. 3:28—”We reckon therefore that a man is justified by faith apart from the works of the law“; Eccl. 11:3—”if a tree fall toward the south or toward the north, in the place where the tree falleth there shall it be“; Mat. 25:10—”And while they went away to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage feast: and the door was shut“; Luke 16:26—”And besides all this, between us and you there is a great gulf fixed, that they that would pass from hence to you may not be able, and that none may cross over from thence to us“; Heb. 9:27—”it is appointed unto men once to die, and after this cometh judgment“; Rev. 22:11—”He that is uprighteous, let him do unrighteousness still: and he that is filthy, let him be made filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him do righteousness still: and he that is holy, let him be made holy still.“

Rome teaches that the agonies of purgatory are intolerable. They differ from the pains of the damned only in this, that there is a limit to the one, not the other. Bellarmine, De Purgatorio, 2:14—”The pains of purgatory are very severe, surpassing any endured in this life.“ Since none but actual saints escape the pains of purgatory, this doctrine gives to the death and the funeral of the Roman Catholic a dreadful and repellent aspect. Death is not the coming of Christ to take his disciples home, but is rather the ushering of the shrinking soul into a place of unspeakable suffering. This suffering makes satisfaction for guilt. Having paid their allotted penalty, the souls of the purified pass into Heaven without awaiting the day of judgment. The doctrine of purgatory gives hope that men may be saved after death; prayer for the dead has influence; the priest is authorized to offer this prayer; so the church sells salvation for money. Amory H. Bradford, Ascent of the Soul, 267–287, argues in favor of prayers for the dead. Such prayers, he says, help us to keep in mind the fact that they are living still. If the dead are free beings, they may still choose good or evil, and our prayers may help them to choose the good. We should be thankful, he believes, to the Roman Catholic Church, for keeping up such prayers. We reply that no doctrine of Rome has done so much to pervert the gospel and to enslave the world.

For the Romanist doctrine, see Perrone, Prælectiones Theologicæ, 2:391–420. Per contra, see Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3:743–770; Barrows, Purgatory. Augustine, Encheiridion, 69, suggests the possibility of purgatorial fire in the future for some believers, Whiton, Is Eternal Punishment Endless? page 69, says that Tertullian held to a delay of resurrection in the case of faulty Christians; Cyprian first stated the notion of a middle state of purification; Augustine thought it “not incredible“; Gregory the Great called it “worthy of belief“; it is now one of the most potent doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church; that church has been, from the third century, for all souls who accept her last consolations, practically restorationist. Gore, Incarnation, 18—”In the Church of Rome, the ‘peradventure’ of an Augustine as to purgatory for the imperfect after death—’non redarguo’, he says, ‘quia forsitan verum est,’—has become a positive teaching about purgatory, full of exact information.“

Elliott, Horæ Apocalypticæ, 1:410, adopts Hume’s simile, and says that purgatory gave the Roman Catholic Church what Archimedes wanted, another world on which to fix its lever, that so fixed, the church might with it move this world. We must remember, however, that the Roman church teaches no radical change of character in purgatory—purgatory is only a purifying process for believers. The true purgatory is only in this world—for only here are sins purged away by God’s sanctifying Spirit; and in this process of purification, though God chastises, there is no element of penalty. On Dante’s Purgatory, see A. H. Strong, Philosophy and Religion, 515–518.

Luckock, After Death, is an argument, based upon the Fathers, against the Romanist doctrine. Yet he holds to progress in sanctification in the intermediate state, though the work done in that state will not affect the final judgment, which will be for the deeds done in the body. He urges prayer for the departed righteous. In his book entitled The Intermediate State, Luckock holds to mental and spiritual development in that state, to active ministry, mutual recognition, and renewed companionship. He does not believe in a second probation, but in a first real probation for those who have had no proper opportunities in this life. In their reaction against purgatory, the Westminster divines obliterated the Intermediate State. In that state there is gradual purification, and must be, since not all impurity and sinfulness are removed at death. The purging of the will requires time. White robes were given to them while they were waiting (Rev. 6:11). But there is no second probation for those who have thrown away their opportunities in this life. Robert Browning, The Ring and the Book, 232 (Pope, 2129), makes the Pope speak of following Guido “Into that sad, obscure, sequestered state Where God unmakes but to remake the soul He else made first in vain; which must not be.“ But the idea of hell as permitting essential change of character is foreign to Roman Catholic doctrine.

Strong, A. H. (2004). Systematic Theology. “The present work is a revision and enlargement of my Systematic Theology, first published in 1886.”—Pref. (1000). Bellingham, Wa.: Logos Research Systems, Inc.


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This following lengthy portion is from Charles Hodge’s Systematic Theology. Here particularly you might try skimming to see where you want to land and dive into the detail:



According to Romanists, all those who die in the peace of the Church, but are not perfect, pass into purgatory; with regard to which they teach, (1.) That it is a state of suffering. The commonly received traditional, though not symbolical, doctrine on this point is, that the suffering is from material fire. The design of this suffering is both expiation and purification. (5.) That the duration and intensity of purgatorial pains are proportioned to the guilt and impurity of the sufferers. (3.) That there is no known or defined limit to the continuance of the soul in purgatory, but the day of judgment. The departed may remain in this state of suffering for a few hours or for thousands of years. (4.) That souls in purgatory may be helped; that is, their sufferings alleviated or the duration of them shortened by the prayers of the saints, and especially by the sacrifice of the Mass. (5.) That purgatory is under the power of the keys. That is, it is the prerogative of the authorities of the Church, at their discretion, to remit entirely or partially the penalty of sins under which the souls there detained are suffering.


This doctrine is deeply rooted in the whole Romish system. According to that system, (1.) Christ delivers us only from the “reatus culpa,” and exposure to eternal death. (2.) For all sins committed after baptism the offender must make satisfaction by penance or good works. (3.) This satisfaction must be complete and the soul purified from all sin, before it can enter heaven. (4.) This satisfaction and purification, if not effected in this life, must be accomplished after death. (5.) The eucharist is a propitiatory sacrifice intended to secure the pardon of postbaptismal sins, and takes effect according to the intention of the officiating priest. Therefore, if he intends it for the benefit of any soul in purgatory, it inures to his advantage. (6.) The pope, being the vicar of Christ on earth, has full power to forgive sin; that is, to exempt offenders from the obligation to make satisfaction for their offences.

Möhler, and other philosophical defenders of Romanism, soften down the doctrine by representing purgatory simply as a state of gradual preparation of the imperfectly sanctified for admission into heaven, making no mention of positive suffering, much less of material fire. Cardinal Gousset does not go so far as this, yet he says: “It is of faith, (1.) That the righteous who die without having entirely satisfied divine justice, must make satisfaction after this life by temporary pains, which are called pains of purgatory; (2.) That the souls in purgatory are relieved by the prayers of the Church. This is what the faith teaches; but it stops there. Is purgatory a particular place rather than a state, or a state rather than a particular place? Are the pains of purgatory due to fire, or are the pains those which arise from the consciousness of having offended God? What are the severity and duration of those pains? These and other questions of like kind, are not included in the domain of Catholic doctrine. These are questions about which there exists no decision or judgment of the Church. Nevertheless it should be known that in the opinion of the majority of theologians the torments of purgatory consist in part in those of fire, or, at least, in such as are analogous to the pain produced by fire. We will add that, according to Saint Augustine and Saint Thomas, whose opinion is generally adopted (dont le sentiment est assez suivi), the pains of purgatory surpass those of this life: “pnna purgatorii,” says the angelic Doctor, “quantum ad pnnam damni et sensus, excedit omnem pnnam istius vitae.”

Cardinal Wiseman in his lecture on this subject, speaks in the mildest terms. He says nothing of the pains of purgatory except that they are pains. The satisfaction for sin demanded by the Church of Rome, to be rendered in this world, consists of prayers, fastings, almsgiving, and the like; and we are told that if this satisfaction be not made before death, it must be made after it. This is all that the Cardinal ventures to say. He has not courage to lift the veil from the burning lake in which the souls in purgatory are represented as suffering, according to the common faith of Romanists. Although it is true that the Church of Rome has wisely abstained from any authoritative decision as to the nature and intensity of purgatorial sufferings, it does not thereby escape responsibility on the subject. It allows free circulation with ecclesiastical sanction, expressed or implied, of books containing the most frightful exhibitions of the sufferings of purgatory which the imagination of man can conceive. This doctrine, therefore, however mildly it may be presented in works designed for Protestant readers, is nevertheless a tremendous engine of priestly power. The feet of the tiger with the claws withdrawn are as soft as velvet; when those claws are extended, they are fearful instruments of laceration and death.

 Arguments used in favour of the Doctrine.

1. Romanists make comparatively little use of Scripture in defence of their peculiar doctrines. Their main support is tradition and the authority of the Church. Cardinal Wiseman cites but two passages from the New Testament in favour of the doctrine of purgatory. The first is our Lord’s saying that the sin against the Holy Ghost shall never be forgiven either in this world or in the world to come. This is said to imply that there are sins which are not forgiven in this life which may be forgiven hereafter; and therefore that the dead, or at least a part of their number, are not past forgiveness when they die. This is a slender thread on which to hang so great a weight. The words of Christ contain no such implication. To say that a thing can never happen either here or hereafter, in this world or in the world to come, is a familiar way of saying that it can never happen under any circumstances. Our Lord simply said that blasphemy of the Holy Ghost can never be forgiven. The other passage is from Revelation xxi. 27, where it said that nothing that defileth shall enter heaven. But as very few, if any of the human family, are perfectly pure when they die, it follows that, if there be no place or process of purification after death, few if any of the sons of men could be saved; or, as Cardinal Wiseman puts the argument, “Suppose that a Christian dies who had committed some slight transgression; he cannot enter heaven in this state, and yet we cannot suppose that he is to be condemned forever. What alternative, then, are we to admit? Why, that there is some place in which the soul will be purged of the sin, and qualified to enter into the glory of God.” But does not the blood of Christ cleanse from all sin? Were not the sins of Paul all forgiven the moment he believed? Did the penitent thief enter purgatory instead of paradise? To minds trained under the influence of evangelical doctrine, such arguments as the above cannot have the slightest weight.

2. Great stress is laid upon the fact that the custom of praying for the dead prevailed early and long in the Church. Such prayers take for granted that the dead need our prayers; and this supposes that they are not in heaven. But if not in heaven where can they be except in a preparatory or purgatorial state? To this it may be answered, (1.) That praying for the dead is a superstitious practice, having no support from the Bible. It was one of the corruptions early introduced into the Church. It will not do to argue from one corruption in support of another. (2.) Those who vindicate the propriety of praying for the dead are often strenuous opposers of the doctrine of purgatory. Dr. Pusey, for example, says: “Since Rome has blended the cruel invention of purgatory with the primitive custom of praying for the dead, it is not in communion with her that any can seek comfort from this rite.” The early Christians prayed for the souls of Apostles and martyrs, whom they assuredly believed were already in heaven. It was not, therefore, for any alleviation of their sufferings, as Dr. Pusey argues, that such prayers were offered, but for the augmentation of their happiness, and the consummation of their blessedness at the last day.

3. The argument of most logical force to those who believe the premises whence it is derived, is drawn from the doctrine of satisfaction. The Romish doctrine on this subject includes the following principles: “(1.) That God, after the remission of sin, retains a lesser chastisement in his power, to be inflicted on the sinner. (2.) That penitential works, fasting, alms-deeds, contrite weeping, and fervent prayer, have the power of averting that punishment. (3.) That this scheme of God’s justice was not a part of the imperfect law, but the unvarying ordinance of his dispensation, anterior to the Mosaic ritual, and amply confirmed by Christ in the gospel. (4.) That it consequently becomes a part of all true repentance to try to satisfy this divine justice by the voluntary assumption of such penitential works as his revealed truth assures have efficacy before Him.” In connection with this is to be taken the doctrine of indulgences. This doctrine, we are told, rests on the following grounds: (1.) “That satisfaction has to be made to God for sin remitted, under the authority and regulation of the Church. (2.) That the Church has always considered herself possessed of the authority to mitigate, by diminution or commutation, the penance which she enjoins; and she has always reckoned such a mitigation valid before God, who sanctions and accepts it. (3.) That the sufferings of the saints, in union with, and by virtue of Christ’s merits, are considered available towards the granting this mitigation. (4.) That such mitigations, when prudently and justly granted, are conducive toward the spiritual weal and profit of Christians.”


We have thus a broad foundation laid for the whole doctrine of purgatory. God in the forgiveness of sin remits only the penalty of eternal death. There remain temporal pains to be endured in satisfaction of divine justice. If such satisfaction be not made in this world, it must be rendered in the next. The Church has the power of regulating these satisfactions, of directing what they shall be, of mitigating or commuting them in this life, and of lessening their severity or duration in the life to come. The infinite merit of Christ, and the superfluous merits of all the saints, gained by works of supererogation, form an inexhaustible treasury, from which the Pope and his subordinates may draw at discretion for the mitigation, or plenary dispensation, of all the satisfaction due for sin in the way of penance in this life, or the pains of purgatory in the life to come. Now when it is considered that the pains of purgatory are authoritatively and almost universally represented by Romanists to be intolerably severe, it will be seen that no such engine of power, no such means of subjugating the people, or of exalting and enriching the priesthood has ever been claimed or conceded by man. Men really invested with this power, of necessity, and of right, are the absolute masters of their fellow men; and those who wrongfully claim it, who assume without possessing it, are the greatest impostors (consciously or unconsciously) and the greatest tyrants the world ever saw.

4. With Romanists themselves the greatest argument in favour of the doctrine of purgatory is tradition. They claim that it has always been held in the Church; and in support of that claim they quote from the fathers all passages which speak of purification by fire, or of praying for the dead. They usually begin with the 2 Maccabees xii. 43, where it is said that Judas Maccabeus sent “2,000 drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice, to be offered for the sins” of the dead. They cite Tertullian, who advised a widow to pray for her husband, and to offer oblations for him on the anniversary of his death; Cyprian, who says that if a man committed a certain offence, “no oblation should be made for him, nor sacrifice offered for his repose;” Basil, who says of Isaiah ix. 19, “The people shall be as the fuel of the fire,” οὐκ ἀφανισμὸν ἀπειλει, ἀλλὰ τὴν κύθαρσιν ὐποφαίνει, that is, “it does not threaten extermination, but denotes purification;” Cyril of Jerusalem, who says: “Deinde et pro defunctis sanctis patribus et episcopis, et omnibus generatim, qui inter nos vita functi sunt, oramus, maximum hoc credentes adjumentum illis animabus fore, pro quibus oratio defertur, dum sancta et tremenda coram jacet victima;” that is, “Then we pray for the holy fathers and the bishops that are dead; and, in short, for all those who are departed this life in our communion; believing that the souls of those for whom the prayers are offered, receive very great relief while this holy and, tremendous victim lies upon the altar;” Gregory of Nyssa, who says that in this life the sinner may “be renovated by prayers and by the pursuit of wisdom;” but when he has quitted his body, “he cannot be admitted to approach the Divinity till the purging fire shall have expiated the stains with which his soul was infected;” Ambrose, who thus comments upon 1 Corinthians iii. 15, “He....shall be saved, yet so as by fire.” The Apostle says, “‘Yet so as by fire,’ in order that his salvation be not understood to be without pain. He shows that he shall be saved indeed, but he shall undergo the pain of fire, and be thus purified; not like the unbelieving and wicked man, who shall be punished in everlasting fire;” Jerome, who says: “As we believe the torments of the devil, and of those wicked men, who said in their hearts, ‘There is no God,’ to be eternal; so, in regard to those sinners, impious men and even Christians, whose works will be proved and purged by fire, we conclude that the sentence of the judge will be tempered by mercy;” and Augustine, who says: “The prayers of the Church, or of good persons, are heard in favour of those Christians who departed this life not so bad as to be deemed unworthy of mercy, nor so good as to be entitled to immediate happiness. So, also, at the resurrection of the dead, there will some be found to whom mercy will be imparted, having gone through those pains to which the spirits of the dead are liable. Otherwise it would not have been said of some with truth, that their sin ‘shall not be forgiven, neither in this world, nor in the world to come,’ unless some sins were remitted in the next world.” And again: “If they had built ‘gold and silver, and precious stones,’ they would be secure from both fires; not only from that in which the wicked shall be punished forever, but likewise from that fire that purifies those who shall be saved by fire. But because it is said ‘shall be saved,’ that fire is thought lightly of; though the suffering will be more grievous than anything man can undergo in this life.” “These passages,” says Cardinal Wiseman, “contain precisely the same doctrine as the Catholic Church teaches;” they may be found in great abundance in all the standard works of Catholic theologians.

With regard to this argument from the fathers, it may be remarked, (1.) That if any one should quote Dollinger, Dupanloup, Wiseman, and Manning in favour of any Christian doctrine, it would have more weight with Protestants than the same number of these early writers; not only because they are, speaking generally, men of far more ability and higher culture, but because they are in more favourable circumstances to learn the truth. The fathers looked at everything through an atmosphere filled with the forms of pagan traditions and ideas. The modern leaders of the Church of Rome are surrounded by the light of Protestant Christianity. (2.) All the ancient writers, quoted in support of the doctrine of purgatory, held doctrines which no Romanist is now willing to avow. If they discard the authority of the fathers when teaching a Jewish millennium, or sovereign predestination, once the doctrine of the universal Church, they cannot reasonably expect Protestants to bow to that authority when urged in favour of the pagan idea of a purification by fire. (3.) The witnesses cited in support of the doctrine of purgatory come very far short of proving the universal and constant belief of the doctrine in question. And, according to Romanists themselves, no doctrine can plead the support of tradition that cannot stand the crucial test, “quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus.” (4.) That purgatory is, what Dr. Pusey calls it, “a modern invention,” has been demonstrated by tracing historically its origin, rise, and development in the Church.

 Arguments against the Doctrine.

1. The first, most obvious, and, for Protestants, the most decisive argument against the doctrine is, that it is not taught in the Bible. This is virtually admitted by its advocates. The most that is pretended is, that having adopted the doctrine on other grounds, they can find in Scripture here and there a passage which can be explained in accordance with its teachings. There is no passage which asserts it. There is no evidence that it formed a part of the instructions of Christ or his Apostles.

2. It is not only destitute of all support from Scripture, but it is opposed to its clearest and most important revelations. If there be anything plainly taught in the Bible, it is that if any man forsakes his sins, believes in the Lord Jesus Christ as the eternal Son of God, trusts simply and entirely to Him and his work, and leads a holy life, he shall certainly be saved. This the doctrine of purgatory denies. It rests avowedly on the assumption that notwithstanding the infinitely meritorious sacrifice of Christ, the sinner is bound to make satisfaction for his own sins. This the Bible declares to be impossible. No man does or can perfectly keep the commandments of God, much less can he not only abstain from incurring new guilt, but also make atonement for sins that are past.

The doctrine moreover assumes the merit of good works. Here again it is clearer than the sun that the New Testament teaches that we are saved by grace and not by works; that to him that worketh, the reward is a matter of debt; but to him who simply believes, it is a matter of grace; and that the two are incompatible. What is of grace is not of works; and what is of works is not of grace. There is nothing more absolutely incompatible with the nature of the Gospel than the idea that man can “satisfy divine justice” for his sins. Yet this idea lies at the foundation of the doctrine of purgatory. If there be no satisfaction of justice, on the part of the sinner, there is no purgatory, for, according to Romanists, purgatory is the place and state in which such satisfaction is rendered. As the renunciation of all dependence upon our own merit, of all purpose, desire, or effort to make satisfaction for ourselves, and trusting exclusively to the satisfaction rendered by Jesus Christ, is of the very essence of Christian experience, it will be seen that the doctrine of purgatory is in convict not only with the doctrines of the Bible but also with the religious consciousness of the believer. This is not saying that no man who believes in purgatory can be a true Christian. The history of the Church proves that Christians can be very inconsistent; that they may speculatively adhere to doctrines which are inconsistent with what their hearts know to be true.

It is, however, not only the doctrine of satisfaction, but also the absolutely preposterous doctrine of supererogation which must be admitted, if we adopt the creed of the Church of Rome in this matter. The idea is that a man may be more than perfect; that he may not only do more than the law requires of him, but even render satisfaction to God’s justice so meritorious as to be more than sufficient for the pardon of his own sins. This superfluous merit, is the ground on which the sins of those suffering in purgatory may be forgiven. This is a subject which does not admit of argument. It supposes an impossibility. It supposes that a rational creature can be better than he ought to be; i. e., than he is bound to be. Romanists moreover strenuously deny the possibility that Christ’s righteousness can be imputed to the believer as the ground of his justification; and yet they teach that the merits of the saints may be imputed to sinners in purgatory as the ground of their forgiveness.

Another anti-scriptural assumption involved in the doctrine is that the pope, and his subordinates, have power over the unseen world; power to retain or to remit the sins of departed souls; to deliver them from purgatorial fire or to allow them to remain under its torments. This is a power which could not be trusted in the hands of an angel. Nothing short of infinite knowledge and infinite rectitude could secure it from fatal abuse. No such power we may be assured has ever been committed to the hands of sinful men.

There are two entirely different things involved in this priestly power to forgive sins. There are two kinds of punishment denounced against sin. The one is the sentence of eternal death; the other is the temporary punishment to which the sinner remains subject after the eternal penalty is remitted.With regard to both the priest interferes. Neither can be remitted without his intervention. The eternal penalty is remitted in the sacrament of penance. The latter is exacted, mitigated, or dispensed with at the discretion of the Church, or its organs. As to the remission of the eternal penalty the intervention of the priest is necessary because he alone can administer the sacrament of penance, which includes contrition, confession, and satisfaction. All are necessary. It is not enough that the sinner be penitent in heart and truly turn from sin unto God; he must confess his sins to the priest. The Church “maintains that the sinner is bound to manifest his offences to the pastors of his Church, or, rather, to one deputed and authorized by the Church for that purpose; to lay open to him all the secret offences of his soul, to expose all its wounds, and in virtue of the authority vested by our Blessed Saviour in him, to receive through his hands, on earth, the sentence which is ratified in heaven, of God’s forgiveness.” Christ also “gave to the Church power of retaining sins, that is, of withholding forgiveness, or delaying it to more seasonable time.” “Here is a power, in the first place, truly to forgive sin. For this expression ‘to forgive sins,’ in the New Testament, always signifies to clear the sinner of guilt before God.” “The Apostles, then, and their successors, received this authority; consequently, to them was given a power to absolve, or to cleanse the soul from its sins. There is another power also: that of retaining sins. What is the meaning of this? clearly the power of refusing to forgive them. Now, all this clearly implies—for the promise is annexed, that what sins Christ’s lawful ministers retain on earth, are retained in heaven—that there is no other means of obtaining forgiveness, save through them. For the forgiveness of heaven is made to depend upon that which they forgive on earth; and those are not to be pardoned there, whose sins they retain.” This is sufficiently explicit. It is to be remembered the power of forgiveness here claimed has reference, not to the temporary punishment imposed in the way of penance or satisfaction, but to the remission of “the eternal debt.” Now, as to the temporary punishment, which, as we have seen, may last thousands of years and exceed in severity any sufferings on earth, Romanists teach, (1.) That “they are expiatory of past transgression.” (2.) That they are of the same nature with the penances imposed by the discipline of the early Church. That discipline was naturally. perhaps necessarily, very severe; the Church was then surrounded by heathenism, and many of its members were heathen converts. What tendencies, and what temptations to unchristian conduct, were unavoidable under such circumstances, may be learned from the state of the Church in Corinth as depicted in Paul’s epistles. The great danger was that Christians should be involved, intentionally or unintentionally, in the idolatrous services to which they had been accustomed. As the worship of idols in any form, was a renunciation of the Gospel, it was against that offence the discipline of the Church was principally directed. One party contended that the “lapsed” ought never to be restored to Christian fellowship; another, which allowed their readmission to the Church, insisted that they should be restored only after a long and severe course of penance. Some were required “to lay prostrate for a certain period of months or years before the doors of the Church, after which they were admitted to different portions of the divine service; while others were often excluded through their whole lives from the liturgical exercises of the faithful, and were not admitted to absolution until they were at the point of death.” These penances Romanists pronounce “meritorious in the sight of God,” they “propitiate his wrath.” This is the doctrine of satisfaction; and such satisfaction for sin is the necessary condition of its forgiveness. (3.) As these pensees or satisfactions are imposed by the Church, they can be mitigated or remitted by the Church. (4.) As the pains of purgatory are of the nature of satisfactions, “expiatory,” “meritorious,” and “propitiatory,” they are as much under the control of the Church, as the penances to be endured in this life.

This is the true, and it may be said, the virtually admitted genesis of the doctrine of purgatory in the Church of Rome. It is a perversion of the ecclesiastical discipline of the early Christians. To be sure, the genesis, or birth, is spurious; there is no legitimate connection between the premises and the conclusion. Admitting the fact that the early Church imposed severe penances on offenders before restoring them to fellowship; admitting that this was right on the part of the Church; admitting that such penances were of the nature of satisfactions, so far as they were designed to satisfy the Church that the repentance of the offender was sincere; and admitting that these penances being matters of Church discipline were legitimately under the power of the Church, how does all this prove that they were “expiatory in the sight of God,” that “they satisfied divine justice,” or that they were the necessary conditions of forgiveness at his bar? Satisfactory to the Church as evidences of repentance, and satisfactory to God’s justice, are two very different things, which Romanists have confounded. Besides, how does it follow, because the visible Church has control of the discipline of its members, in this life, that it has control of the souls of men in the life to come? Yet Romanists reason from the one to the other.

3. Another decisive argument against the doctrine of purgatory is drawn horn the abuses to which it has led, and which are its inevitable, being its natural consequences. It is a priori evident that a power committed to weak and sinful men which is safe in no other hands but those of God Himself, must lead to the most dreadful abuses. The doctrine, as we have seen, is, (1.) That the priest has power to remit or retain, the penalty of eternal death denounced against all sin. (2.) That he (or the appropriate organ of the Church) has power to alleviate, to shorten, or to terminate, the sufferings of souls in purgatory. That this power should fail to be abused, in the hands of the best of men, is impossible. Vested in the hands of ordinary men, as must be generally the case, or in the hands of mercenary and wicked men, imagination can set no limit to its abuse; and imagination can hardly exceed the historical facts in the case. This is not a matter of dispute. Romanists themselves admit the fact. Cardinal Wisexnan acknowledges that “flagrant and too frequent abuses, doubtless, occurred through the avarice, and rapacity, and impiety of men; especially when indulgence was granted to the contributors towards charitable or religious foundations, in the erection of which private motives too often mingle.” The reader must be referred to the pages of history for details on this subject. The evils which have in fact flowed from this doctrine of purgatory and of the priestly power of retaining or remitting sin, are such as to render it certain that no such doctrine can be of God.

4. Romanists, however, confidently appeal, in support of their doctrine, to the express declaration of Christ, “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted unto them; and whosoever sins ye retain, they are retained.” (John xx. 23.) To the same effect it is said, in Matthew xvi. 19, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven.” The first remark to be made on these passages is, that whatever power is granted in them to the Apostles, is granted in Matthew xviii. 18 to all Christians, or, at least, to every association of Christians which constitutes a Church. “If thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he neglect to hear them, tell it unto the Church: but if he neglect to hear the Church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican. Verily, I say unto you, whatsoever ye shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever ye shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” This power, therefore, of binding and loosing, whatever it was, was not vested exclusively in the Apostles and their successors, but in the Church. But the true Church to which the promises and prerogatives of the Church belong, consists of true believers. This is not only the doctrine of the Bible and of all Protestants at the time of the Reformation, but would seem to be a matter of course. Promises made to the Apostles were made to true apostles, not to those who pretended to the office, and were false apostles. So the promises remade to Christians ate made not to nominal, pretended, or false Christians, but to those who truly are what they profess to be. If this be clear, then it is no less clear that the power of binding and loosing, of remitting or retaining sin, was never granted by Christ to unregenerated, wicked men, no matter by what name they may be called. This is a great point gained. The children of God in this world are not under the power of the children of the devil, to be forgiven or condemned, saved or lost, at their discretion. Therefore, when Luther was anathematized by the body calling itself the Church, as Athanasius had been before him, it did not hurt a hair of his head.

Secondly, the power granted by Christ to his Church of binding and loosing, of forgiving or retaining sin, is not absolute, but conditional. The passages above quoted are analogous to many others contained in the Scriptures, and are all to be explained in the same way. For example, our Lord said to his disciples; They who hear you, hear me. That is, the people were as much bound to believe the gospel when preached by the disciples, as though they heard it from the lips of Christ Himself. Or, if these words are to be understood as addressed exclusively to the Apostles, and to include a promise of infallibility in teaching, the meaning is substantially the same. Men were as much bound to receive the doctrines of the Apostles, as the teachings of Christ. For what they taught He taught. St. John, therefore, says, “He that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God, heareth not us.” (1 John iv. 6.) Nevertheless, although Christ required all men to hear his Apostles as though He himself were speaking; yet no man was bound to hear them unless they preached Christ’s gospel. Therefore St. Paul said, “Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” (Gal. i. 8.) If the Apostles taught anything contrary to the authenticated revelation of God, they were to be rejected. If they undertook to bind or loose, to remit or retain sin on any other terms than those prescribed by Christ, their action amounted to nothing; it produced no effect. In teaching and in absolution their power was simply declarative. In the one case, they, as witnesses, declared what were the conditions of salvation and the rule of life prescribed in the gospel; and in the other case, they simply declared the conditions on which God will forgive sin, and announced the promise of God that on those conditions He would pardon the sins of men. A child, therefore, may remit sin just as effectually as the pope; for neither can do anything more than declare the conditions of forgiveness. It once required the heroism of Luther to announce that truth which emancipated Europe; now it is an every-day truth.

There is, of course, a great difference between the Apostles and other Christian teachers. Christ bore witness to the correctness of their testimony as to his doctrines, and sanctioned their declarations, by signs, and wonders, and gifts of the Holy Ghost, thus giving the seal of infallibility to their teachings as uttered by the lips and as we have them recorded in the Bible. And, there is also a difference between the official ministers of the gospel and other men, in so far as the former are specially called to the work of preaching the word. But in all cases, in that of the Apostles, in that of once-bearers in the Church, and in that of laymen, the power is simply declaratory. They declare what God has revealed. What difference does it make in the authority of the message, whether the gospel be read at the bed of a dying sinner, by a child, or by an archbishop? None in the world.

There is another class of passages analogous to those under consideration. When our Lord says, Ask and ye shall receive, whatsoever ye ask in my name I will do it, no one understands these promises as unconditional. No one believes that any prayer of the Christian is ever heard, if it be not for something agreeable to the will of God. When then it is said, “Whosoever sins ye remit, they are remitted,” why should it be inferred that no condition is implied? The language is not more explicit in the one case than in the other. As no man’s prayers are heard unless he asks for things agreeable to the will of God; so no man’s sins are remitted unless he truly repents and truly believes in the Lord Jesus Christ. One man has no more power to forgive sins, than another. The forgiveness of sin is the exclusive prerogative of God.


Thirdly, there is another remark to be made about this power of binding and loosing. Christ has ordained that the terms of admission to the Church, should be the same as those of admission into heaven; and that the grounds of exclusion from the Church, should be the same as those of exclusion from heaven. He, therefore, virtually said to his disciples, Whom ye receive into the Church, I will receive into heaven; and whom ye exclude from the Church, I will exclude from heaven. But this, of course, implies that they should act according to his directions. He did not bind Himself to sanction all their errors in binding and loosing; any more than He was bound by his promise to hear their prayers, to grant all the foolish or wicked petitions his people might offer; or by his promise in reference to their teaching, to sanction all the false doctrines into which they might be seduced. If we interpret Scripture by Scripture, we escape a multitude of errors.

Fourthly, Romanists rest their doctrine of absolution and of the power of the keys over souls in purgatory, very much upon the special gifts granted to the Apostles and to their successors. In reference to this agreement it may be remarked,

1. That the Apostles never claimed, never possessed, and never pretended to exercise, the power assumed by Romanists, in the remission of sins. They never presumed to pronounce the absolution of a sinner in the sight of God. Christ could say “Thy sins be forgiven thee;” but we never hear such language from the lips of an Apostle. They never directed those burdened with a sense of sin to go to the priest to make confession and receive absolution. They had no authority in this respect above that which belongs to the ordinary officers of the Church. They could declare the terms on which God had promised to forgive sins; and they could suspend or excommunicate members, for cause, from the communion of the visible Church. In the case of the incestuous man whom the Church in Corinth allowed to remain in its fellowship, Paul determined to do what he censured the Church for not doing; that is, in virtue of his apostolic jurisdiction extending over all the churches, he excommunicated the offender, or, delivered him to Satan, that he might repent. (1 Cor. v.) When the man did repent, the Apostle exhorted the Corinthians to restore him to their fellowship, saying, “To whom ye forgive anything, I forgive also.” (2 Cor. ii. 10.) He claimed for himself no power which he did not recognize as belonging to them. It was a mere matter of Church discipline from beginning to end. This power of discipline, which all Churches recognize and exercise, the Romanists have perverted into the priestly power of absolution.

2. Admitting, what, however, is not conceded, that the Apostles had special power to forgive sin, that power must have rested on their peculiar gifts and qualifications. They were infallible men; not infallible indeed in reading men’s hearts, or in judging of their character, but simply infallible as teachers; and they had authority to organize the Church, and to lay down laws for its future government and discipline. These gifts and prerogatives, indeed, in no way qualified them to sit in judgment on the souls of men, to pardon or condemn them at discretion, but, such as they were, they were personal. Those who claim to be their official successors, and arrogate their peculiar prerogatives, do not pretend to possess their gifts; they do not pretend to personal infallibility in teaching, nor do they claim jurisdiction beyond their own dioceses. As no man can be a prophet without the gifts of a prophet, so no man can be an Apostle without the gifts of an Apostle. The office is simply authority to exercise the gifts; but if the gifts are not possessed what can the office amount to?

But even if the impossible be admitted; let it be conceded that the prelates have the power of remitting and retaining sin, as claimed by Romanists, in virtue of their apostleship, how is this power granted to priests who are not Apostles? It will not do to say that they are the representatives and delegates of the bishop. The bishop is said to have this power because he has received the Holy Ghost. If this means anything, it means that the Holy Spirit dwells in him, and so enlightens his mind and guides his judgment, as to render his decisions in retaining or remitting sin, virtually the decisions of God; but this divine illumination and guidance can no more be delegated than the knowledge of the lawyer or the skill of the surgeon. How can a prophet delegate his power to foresee the future to another man? It is impossible to believe that God has given men the power of forgiving or retaining sin, unless He has given them the power of infallible judgment; and that such infallibility of judgment belongs to the Romish priesthood, no man can believe.

It has already been urged as valid arguments against the Romish doctrine of purgatory, (1.) That it is destitute of all Scriptural support. (2.) That it is opposed to many of the most clearly revealed and most important doctrines of the Bible. (3.) That the abuses to which it always has led and which are its inevitable consequences, prove that the doctrine cannot be of God. (4.) That the power to forgive sin, in the sense claimed by Romanists, and which is taken for granted in their doctrine of purgatory, finds no support in the words of Christ, as recorded in John xx. 23, and Matt. xvi. 19, which are relied on for that purpose. (5.) The fifth argument against the doctrine is derived from its history, which proves it to have had a pagan origin, and to have been developed by slow degrees into the form in which it is now held by the Church of Rome.

 History of the Doctrine.

The details on this subject must be sought in the common books on the history of doctrine. Here only the most meagre outline can be expected. A full exposition on this subject would require first an account of the prevalence of the idea of a purification by fire among the ancients before the coming of Christ, especially among the people of central Asia; secondly, an account of the early appearance of this idea in the first three centuries in the Christian Church, until it reached a definite form in the writings of Augustine; and thirdly, the establishment of the doctrine as an article of faith in the Latin Church, principally through the influence of Gregory the Great.

Fire is the most effectual means of purification. It is almost the only means by which the dross can be separated from the gold. In the Scriptures it is frequently referred to, in illustration of the painful process of the sanctification of the human soul. In Zechariah xiii. 9, it is said, “I will bring the third part through the fire, and will refine them as silver is refined, and try them as gold is tried: they shall call on my name, and I will hear them: I will say, It is my people; and they shall say, The Lord is my God.” It is in allusion to the same familiar fact, that afflictions are so often compared to a furnace, and the trials of God’s people are said to be by fire. “The fire,” says the Apostle, “shall try every man’s work, of what sort it is.” With the ancient Persians fire was sacred. It became an object of worship, as the symbol of the divinity; and elemental fire was oven for the soul the great means of purification. In the Zendavesta, Ormuz is made to say to Zoroaster, “Thine eyes shall certainly see all things live anew—For the renovated earth shall yield bones and water, blood and plants, hair, fire and life as at the beginning.—The souls will know their bodies. —Behold my father! My mother! My wife! Then will the inhabitants of the universe appear on earth with mankind. Every one will see his good or evil. Then a great separation will occur. Everything corrupt will sink into the abyss. Then too through the fierceness of the fire all mountains shall melt; and through the flowing stream of fire, all men must pass. The good will go through as easily as through flowing milk. The wicked find it real fire; but they must pass through and be purified. Afterward the whole earth shall be renewed.”

With the Greek Stoics also, fire was the elementary principle and soul of the world, and they also taught a renovation of the world through fire. With the Stoics, “The universe is one whole, which comprises all things; yet contains a passive principle, matter, τὸ πάσχον, and an active principle, τὸ ποιουν, which is reason, or God. The soul of man is part of this divine nature, and will be reabsorbed into it and lose its individual existence. The Deity in action, if we may so speak, is a certain active aether, or fire, possessed of intelligence. This first gave form to the original chaos, and, being an essential part of the universe, sustains it in order. The overruling power, which seems sometimes in idea to have been separated from the Absolute Being, was εἱμαρμένη, fate, or absolute necessity. To this the universe is subject, both in its material and divine nature. Men return to this life totally oblivious of the past, and, by the decrees of fate are possessed of a renovated existence, but still in imperfection and subject to sorrow as before.” This is an inchoate form of the pantheism of the present day. The system as stated is not self-consistent; as it says that the souls of men are to be absorbed into the soul of the world, and yet that they are to return to this life, although oblivious to the past; which amounts to saying that there will be a new generation of men.

The idea of a purification by fire after death became familiar to the Greek mind, and was taken up by Plato, and wrought into his philosophy; he taught that no one could become perfectly happy after death, until he had expiated his sins; and that if they were too great for expiation, his sufferings would have no end. That this doctrine passed from the Gentiles to the Jews may be inferred not only from the fact already mentioned that Jndas Maecabeus sent money to Jerusalem to pay for sacrifices to be covered for the sins of the dead; but also from the doctrine of the Rabbins, that children, by means of sin offerings, could alleviate the sufferings of their deceased parents. Some of them also taught that all souls, not perfectly holy, must wash themselves in the fire-river of Gehenna; that the just would therein be soon cleansed, but the wicked retained in torment indefinitely. It was in this general form of a purification by fire after death that the doctrine was adopted by some of the fathers. Nothing more than this can be proved from the writings of the first three centuries. Origen taught first that this purification was to take place after the resurrection. “Ego puto,” he says, “quod et post resurrectionem ex mortuis indigeamus sacramento eluente nos atque purganté nemo enim absque sordibus resurgere poterit́ nec ullam posse animam reperiri quae universis statim vitiis careat.” And secondly, that in the purifying fire at the end of the world, all souls, and all fallen angels, and Satan himself, will ultimately be purged from sin, and restored to the favour of God. In his comment on Romans viii. 12, he says: “qui vero verbi Dei et doctrine Evangelicae purificationem spreverit, tristibus et poenalibus purificationibus semetipsum reservat, ut ignis gehennae in crueiatibus purget, quem nec apostolica doctrina nec evangelicus sermo purgavit.” This doctrine was condemned in the Church; but, as Flügge says: “This anathema was the less effective because the eastern views on this subject differed so much from the western or Church doctrine. The former, or Origen’s doctrine, contemplated the purification of the greatest sinners and of the devil himself; the Latin Church thought only of believers justified by the blood of Christ. The one supposed the sinner to purify himself from his desire of evil; the other, asserted expiation by suffering. According to the former, the sinner was healed and strengthened; according to the latter, divine justice must be satisfied.” It is not to be inferred from this, that the Greek Church adopted Origen’s views as to “the restoration of all things;” but it nevertheless maintained until a much later period the views by which it was distinguished from the Latins on the doctrine of the future state.

It was, therefore, in the western Church that the development of the doctrine of purgatory took place. Augustine first gave it a definite form, although his views are not always consistently or confidently expressed. Thus he says: It is doubtful whether a certain class of men are to be purified by fire after death, so as to be prepared to enter heaven; “utrum ita sit,” he says, “quaeri potest́ et aut inveniri, aut latere, nonnullos fideles per ignem quemdam purgatoriuḿ quanto magis minusve bona pereuntia dilexerunt, tanto tardius citiusque salvari.” In other places, however, he teaches the two essential points in the doctrine of purgatory, first, that the souls of a certain class of men who are ultimately saved, suffer after death; and secondly, that they are aided through the eucharist, and the alms and prayers of the faithful.

It was, however, Gregory the Great who consolidator the vague and convicting views circulating through the Church, and brought the doctrine into such a shape and into such connection with the discipline of the Church, as to render it the effective engine for government and income, which it has ever since remained. From this time onward through all the Middle Ages, purgatory became one of the prominent and constantly reiterated topics of public instruction. It took firm hold of the popular mind. The clergy from the highest to the lowest, and the different orders of monks vied with each other in their zeal in its inculcation; and in the marvels which they related of spiritual apparitions, in support of the doctrine. They contended fiercely for the honour of superior power of redeeming souls from purgatorial pains. The Franciscans claimed that the head of their order descended annually into purgatory, and delivered all the brotherhood who were there detained. The Carmelites asserted that the Virgin Mary had promised that no one who died with the Carmelite scapulary upon their shoulders, should ever be lost. The chisel and pencil of the artist were employed in depicting the horrors of purgatory, as a means of impressing the public mind. No class escaped the contagion of belief; the learned as well as the ignorant; the high and the low; the soldier and the recluse; the skeptic and the believer were alike enslaved. From this slavery the Bible, not the progress of science, has delivered all Protestants.

Hodge, C. (1997). Systematic Theology. Originally published 1872. (3:749). Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc.)

For more information on the subject of Heaven, see Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven.

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries