There is no doubt that Dr. R.C. Sproul is a highly trained theologian. One of the many things I appreciate about him is his ability to simplify issues without distorting them. Very few people are able to accomplish this as well as he does.
If you have ever been to a Ligonier Ministries Conference, you will know that one of the highlights is when Dr. R. C. Sproul (either alone or with an expert panel alongside him) has a Question and Answer session. Usually the questions relate to the theme of the Conference and the answers given are often extremely helpful and insightful.
In a recent CD release called "Ask R.C." (from Ligonier Ministries), Dr. R. C. Sproul fielded questions and provided answers on a wide range of biblical and theological issues. One of the questions concerned the doctrine of purgatory and I have transcribed the verbal interchange below. - JS
Questioner: Could you explain the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory and whether or not it is a truthful doctrine?
R.C. - Thank you for that. I will try to deal with that as briefly as I can and I want to be accurate with it. The doctrine of purgatory is an integral doctrine to the Roman Catholic understanding of redemption has been modified just in the last year or so with respect to infants but purgatory is defined by Rome as a purging place. It is a place where the vast majority of even professing Christians go upon their death. As recently as the Roman Catholic Catechism, the Church declares that if a person dies with any spot or blemish or stain on their soul â€“ any impurity â€“ instead of going directly to heaven they must first go to this place of purging which is this intermediate state between earth and heaven. And in purgatory, which is not hell, it is not a place of the punitive wrath of God, but it is a place for the corrective wrath of God (as it were), where the sanctifying process is continued through the crucible of fire (as it were).
Now in purgatory, as I said, the vast majority of people experience this time; they may be there for two weeks or they may be there for two hundred million years â€“ in fact at the heart of the controversy in the 16th century Reformation had to do with the sale of indulgences, and on the external situation there, particularly in Germany when Tetzel was selling the indulgences to the peasants, he distorted seriously the Roman doctrine. The Roman Catholic Church has held for many, many centuries that the grace of justification is infused into a person at baptism, and that that grace of justification remains intact until or unless a person commits a mortal sin. That mortal sin is called mortal because it is so serious that it destroys the justifying grace in the soul. And so a person who commits mortal sin, in other words, has to be re-justified, brought anew into a state of grace. In the 16th century, the Council of Trent declared that the sacrament of penance is the second plank of justification for those who have made shipwreck of their souls.
That is why today in the Roman Catholic Church if a communicate member of the Church commits a mortal sin (and there are many of those as defined by the Church) they are required to come to confession because confession is an integral part of the sacrament of penance. They are not required to be baptized again, but in order to be restored to a state of grace they have to go through this second plank, which is the sacrament of penance, and there are several aspects to that sacrament, the final aspect being the making of works of satisfaction. Those works of satisfaction may include alms giving. And so the Church said in the 16th Century, when they were trying to build St. Peterâ€™s Basilica there in Rome, that if people out of a true heart and a true penitent spirit donated to the Church (gave alms to the Church) that would get for them indulgences. And again, that is what was being distorted by this local peddler who was trying to sell salvation and was saying â€œyou want to get your parents or grand parents out of purgatory, let me give you a ticket for that, you put your coins in the kettle.. as often as a coin in the coffer rings a soul from purgatory springs.â€
Again that was a distortion, but what was not a distortion was that the Roman Catholic Church then and now still has the concept of indulgences, where the Church which has the power of the keys, has the power to shorted a personâ€™s sentence or duration in purgatory and getting them into heaven sooner.
Again, if youâ€™ve been to Rome, if youâ€™ve been to the Lateran Church there where the sacred stairs are there, besides that staircase there is a bulletin on the wall that tells you exactly how many indulgences you can gain today by going up that set of stairs on your knees and reciting the our Father, the hail Mary, and so on. So that the doctrine of purgatory is still integral to the Catholic Church, even though the doctrine of limbo with respect to infants who die without baptism has been modified recently.
Now, the question of the biblical basis of it, that is also been a matter of serious dispute. One of the most important texts that the Roman Catholic Church appeals to, I believe is in one of the books of the Maccabees, where it talks about praying for the dead, and yet in the canonical Scriptures that we recognize (as Protestants), we do not see prayers for the dead advocated. You have that somewhat cryptic statement about baptisms for the dead that Paul speaks of to the Corinthians that the Mormons practice, but apart from that thereâ€™s really not much of a biblical foundation for purgatory. We are told that it is appointed for man to die once and then the judgment. The Protestants view is that there is no intermediate state whereby somebody can improve their condition after this life. If they are not ready to go to heaven now they wonâ€™t ever be. Again the whole difference between the doctrine of justification is that the Protestant view which was recovered by Luther is that the moment a person puts their trust (true faith) in Jesus Christ, at that moment they have passed from death to life and their passing into heaven is a matter of certainty. They still go through the whole process of sanctification in this world, but when they die they will receive the benefits of the justification that they experience the moment they put their trust in Christ. Those who are justified (right now) have peace with God and access into His presence.
And so that point of purgatory is a cardinal point of tension (I donâ€™t mean any pun there) â€“ a serious point of tension historic Protestantism and the Roman Catholic Church.