Protestants and Purgatory
by Fr Alvin Kimel
Protestants and Purgatory do not go together. Of course, there are exceptions—C. S. Lewis immediately comes to mind—but as a rule, Protestant Christians firmly reject the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. Many reject it because they do not find it clearly taught in Holy Scripture. Others reject it because they believe that it contradicts the Reformation doctrine of justification. But does it contradict this doctrine? must it? It all depends, suggests Wesleyan philosopher Jerry Walls, on how we relate justification to sanctification. This relationship has been a matter of intractable dispute between Catholics and Protestants but also between Protestants and Protestants. Walls believes, though, that if we begin our reflection with Heaven we may discover possibilities for resolution.
“Salvation, such as it shall be in the world to come, shall itself be our final happiness,” declares St Augustine. Eternal life with God is the goal and fulfillment of our existence. God is our supreme good, consummation, and end. We were made to live with him and to find in him satisfaction and joy. “This point,” insists Walls, “must be emphasized: Salvation itself is our final happiness. There is a tight, integral connection between moral renewal, salvation, and human fulfillment and happiness. … Salvation is much more than mere morality. It is finally a matter of knowing God as fully as we are capable of knowing him and thereby experiencing the fullness of life” (Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy, pp. 37-38).
But we are not presently the kind of persons capable of Heaven. We are at war with our Creator and at war with our selves. In our fallen condition we are not disposed to love and worship God. We are inclined, rather, to self-centeredness, ingratitude, and disobedience. Our salvation therefore requires our personal transformation and the healing of our disordered desires. We must become persons who love God as their supreme good, who believe that he is infinitely praiseworthy, who desire to be eternally united to him in mutual self-giving. Becoming persons who find their ultimate felicity in Heaven is the heart and center of salvation:
The joy and happiness of heaven is precisely the joy and happiness of salvation. Salvation is essentially a matter of loving God and being rightly related to him. This relationship is the source of our deepest delight and satisfaction. Heaven is not a place that could be enjoyed apart from loving God in the way made possible by salvation. There is no question of “going to” heaven if one is not the sort of person who has the sort of desires and affections for God that heaven satisfies. (p. 40)
Walls is thus critical of forensic construals of justification that neatly cordon off sanctification. “The essence of salvation,” he explains, “is the real transformation that allows us to love God and enjoy fellowship with him. The element of forgiveness, although crucial, is secondary to this” (p. 50). To be declared righteous but never to become righteous is no salvation at all. The best in Reformation theology has always recognized the inseparable union of justification and sanctification, but this unity is often broken, he avers, in popular preaching and piety. The result is a portrayal of faith in Christ that “seems magical and void of moral and intellectual seriousness” (p. 41). Justification and sanctification cannot be divorced. We cannot honestly plead the atoning sacrifice of Christ and simultaneously refuse to become the kind of persons we are called by God to be, to become the kind of persons who are capable of enjoying Heaven. “To plead the atonement,” Walls continues, “we must acknowledge God as God. We must own his purposes for our lives and recognize them as good. That is, God’s purposes for us are indeed for our well-being and ultimate happiness and satisfaction. But we cannot merely ask God’s forgiveness and proceed with our purposes apart from God. To attempt to do this is to operate with a false valuation of both ourselves and of God” (p. 51). Human cooperation with grace would therefore seem to be indispensable in the process of salvation. We cannot by our own powers convert and heal ourselves. God must convert and heal us; yet he must do so, and does do so, in a way that elicits our free cooperation and involvement. In the words of Augustine: “But He who made you without your consent does not justify you without your consent. He made you without your knowledge but He does not justify you without your willing it.”
But how does God transform us in the depths of our being without violating our freedom and personhood? Here Walls appeals to the reflections of Eleonore Stump. If we understand the human self as a unity of hierarchically ordered desires, then we can distinguish between first-order and second-order desires. First-order desires are our basic desires; second-order desires are our desires about our desires. Stump cites the character of Rosamond Lydgate in George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch. Rosamond is selfish and manipulative. How, speculates Stump, might God effect her conversion without compromising her personhood? Rosamund must begin to see the wickedness of her actions and the disorder of her primary desires. She must form, in response to grace and in grace, second-order desires that God will change her first-order desires and bring them into conformity with his will. This transformation, as we know from personal experience, simply takes time. Our sanctification is not completed the instant we form a second-order desire to be sanctified. Our volition at this point is vague, says Stump, and insufficiently powerful to effect an immediate conversion of our primary desires:
It consists in a general submission to God and an effective desire to let God remake one’s character. But a willingness of this sort is psychologically compatible with stubbornly holding on to any number of sins. … Making a sinner righteous, then, will be a process in which a believer’s specific volitions are brought into harmony with the governing second-order volition assenting to God’s bringing her to righteousness, with the consequent gradual alteration in first-order volitions, as well as in intellect and emotions. (Quoted on p. 56)
We may broadly desire to be made holy. We may desire that God would change one or more of our primary desires. But it is possible for us to desire all of this and yet not recognize all of our sins as sins or “perceive their destructiveness to the point of truly wishing to be delivered from them” (p. 56). We must grow into this knowledge and freedom. It takes time for grace to penetrate into the deepest recesses of our characters. It takes time for us to pierce the levels of our selfishness and self-deception and to accept the truth of ourselves and, most importantly, to accept the full-range of God’s will for us.
Our free response to grace is necessary for our transformation. God does not impose himself. He does not coerce our acceptance of his gift of love, nor does he overrule our wills in the process of sanctification. God respects our constitution as free beings and graciously guides us into full communion with him. “God enables our transformation each step of the way,” Walls writes, “but our cooperation is necessary for our sanctification to go forward” (p. 55). But what if we die imperfectly sanctified? If in this life God respects and works within our freedom, is it not reasonable to think that he will continue to do so in the next? Walls suggests that the point needs to be made even stronger: “If God is willing to dispense with our free cooperation in the next life, it is hard to see why he would not do so now, particularly in view of the high price of freedom in terms of evil and suffering” (p. 55). Hence Walls believes there are good reasons for Protestants to reconsider the doctrine of Purgatory (also see “Purgatory for Everyone).
Walls finds unconvincing the Protestant claim that death itself effects an immediate movement into immaculate sanctity. Such a radical conversion would seem to violate our nature as temporal beings. Would we even recognize ourselves after such a dramatic change? If I were to wake up tomorrow perfectly and completely holy, would I in fact be the same person? No doubt friends and family would welcome the change, but might I not experience myself as a stranger, given the absence of historical and personal continuity? This does not mean that time after death must work in the same way as time in our world; yet it does seem appropriate that God would provide a way, transcending our present understanding, for the process of sanctification to continue in an intermediate state. Walls is particularly critical of the quasi-gnostic assertion that we are liberated from sin merely by being delivered from our present bodies and given new bodies. The most deadly sins are spiritual, and they are not cured by resurrection alone. Sanctification is never a purely passive affair. There are no short-cuts to holiness.
Is Purgatory, therefore, compatible with a forensic understanding of justification? Absolutely, answers Walls. Since forensic justification is concerned with our acceptance by God, and not with our being internally made righteous, it does not, in principle, provide a basis for objecting to the proposal of purgatorial sanctification.
The words of C. S. Lewis provide a fitting conclusion:
Our souls demand purgatory, don’t they? Would it not break the heart if God said to us, “It is true, my son, that your breath smells and your rags drip with mud and slime, but we are charitable here and no one will upbraid you with these things, nor draw away from you. Enter into the joy”? Should we not reply, “With submission, sir, and if there is no objection, I’d rather be cleansed first”? “It may hurt, you know.”—“Even so, sir.”
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