Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Reclaiming Halloween

Jack O' Lanterns for All Hallows Eve
Halloween is the popular vernacular term for "All Hallows Eve," which is the old English way of saying "All Saints Evening."  All major Catholic celebrations always begin at sundown the night before, such as Christmas Eve and the Easter Vigil for example.  So All Hallows Eve begins at sundown the night before All Hallows, or All Saints Day.  The word "hallow" itself is an old English way of saying "holy."  We say it all the time in the Lord's Prayer: "Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name..."

All Hallows Eve is a Catholic celebration -- 100% Catholic!  This video explains it in detail, so I won't dive too deeply into it in this article.  Please watch it HERE.  You'll be glad you did.

I've already covered the concept of Purgatory in a previous article this month which you can read here.  In short, All Hallows was a feast day created by the Catholic Church on November 1st to combat the Pagan practises of fear and darkness that were once typically celebrated in Europe around this time of year.  Actually, two days were created eventually.  The first is All Saints (or All Hallows) on November 1st, and the second is All Souls on November 2nd.  They are both very important days to Roman Catholics, and the evening before the first one -- All Hallows Eve -- should be a special time of fun, celebration and preparation for All Saints and All Souls. Like Christmas, we should get the kids in on the action, and let them have a good time.

All Saints, or "All Hallows," on November 1st, is the celebration and remembrance of all the Christians who have gone to heaven before us.  This is their day, and All Hallows Eve, on October 31st, is their night.  We Christians, especially Catholic Christians, need to reclaim this day and own it!

Now before becoming Catholic, my wife and I used to be Evangelical Protestants, and we were quite fundamentalist at that.  We were of the persuasion that Halloween is "evil" and the "devil's holiday."  We swore we would never let our kids practise that, and we spent our Halloween nights indoors, with no outside lights turned on, and ignoring the occasional knocks at the door.  All I can say is thank God we didn't actually have any kids until we became Catholic, because by that time we put this foolishness behind us, and dressed our kids up for "trick or treat."

Running and hiding is actually the WORST THING POSSIBLE for a Christian to do, especially if one sees problems with the modern way in which Halloween is celebrated.  Christians are the Church Militant, and that means we are to engage this world and sanctify everything about it -- including time and space. That means Halloween too, and indeed All Hallows Eve was created specifically for this purpose.  The Catholic Church gave us this tool specifically to combat the Pagan teachings of magic, occultism and darkness.  So let's use it!

The first and most important thing we can do to reclaim, and own, Halloween is to start calling it "All Hallows Eve" and start calling the next day (November 1st) "All Hallows."  This will naturally invite questions as to why we use this terminology, and that in turn creates an opportunity to explain the Catholic Christian significance of this celebration.  Remember, All Hallows is our day!  It doesn't have much significance outside of Catholicism.  The next thing we should do is have fun.  By that I mean carve some jack o' lanterns, decorate the home, and even light a bonfire (if it's legal and you have a safe place).  We may also want to get some safe outdoor candles and even some biodegradable Chinese lanterns.  I'll explain more below.

This may sound a little odd at first, but it makes perfect theological sense.  How about a midnight mass, in a parish chapel, using the propers for All Saints on All Hallows Eve?  Better yet, how about another midnight mass, on the following night (November 1st), using the propers for All Souls, in a Christian cemetery? Sound creepy?  Well it would only be for those who don't know what's going on, but for Catholic Christians (who have a clue) the whole thing would be a celebration of eternal life in Jesus Christ and prayer for the souls in purgatory.  I think it would be really neat.  Imagine the scene on Halloween night, after traditional 'trick or treat' celebrations, where Catholics gather at a local parish for a midnight All Saints mass.  Church bells are rung at midnight, just to let everybody know something is going on.  The ceremony is by candle light, with incense and chant.  Come on!  You know this would be fun.  Even more so, it would generate some real questions.  Such as; "Why do Catholics worship at midnight by candlelight on Halloween?"  and "Why do Catholics worship by candlelight in a cemetery the day after Halloween?" Or maybe I'm just looking for more questions to write a sequel to my book. ;)  Now in addition to that, I'm going to discourage closed in, church or parish "alternate Halloween" celebrations on All Hallows Eve.  These are fine for other nights, but not All Hallows Eve.  Here is the reason why.  We Christians are called to combat the culture not hide from it.  We are called to capture it, redeem it and sanctify it.  Enclosed church Halloween alternatives practically function as larger family Halloween boycotts, like some Evangelicals who hide in their homes on Halloween night.  Granted, at least with the church function, the kids are having some fun, but nobody is engaging the culture here.  The culture continues to go to "hell in a hand basket" while Christians hide in their church buildings to celebrate an "alternative."  I say, do the alternative celebrations a different night, and let the families celebrate All Hallows on October 31 in a Christian way -- fully engaging the culture like they're supposed to.  The All Hallows mass should be reserved for midnight, after all the 'trick or treating' is done. Finally, the last thing we can do is introduce some common sense into the celebration, especially in regards to costumes.  Some Catholic children are starting to dress up as their favourite Saint for All Hallows Eve.  Some are going as angels and Bible characters and such.  This is all very admirable, but at the same time, we need not get dogmatic about this.  It's okay to have a little ghoulish fun.  Remember, we are Catholics.  We dig things like gargoyles on cathedrals, because Christ has conquered death.  Death has lost its sting.  So it's okay to poke fun at these things.  However, let's keep it reasonable and Christian please.  We shouldn't do things, or dress up as things, that make people nauseated or want to sin.  So maybe rethink the costume of the dude with the bloody axe in his head, or the costume of the sexy French maid.  Do you understand what I mean?  A little ghost, goblin, or creepy monster is one thing.  A costume that glorifies sex or violence is something else.  Use some common sense folks, and remember who you are in Jesus Christ. Costumes that glorify or encourage sin are probably not the best choice.

What about fake haunted houses or zombie apocalypse tours and such?  I don't think these add or detract anything from the celebration of All Hallows, but I do think we should stop and consider what our focus should be. An occasional horror tour is all in good fun. Everybody likes a scare once in a while.  However, if all you're doing is visiting these attractions, I must ask, were is the "All Saints" in your celebration?

All seances and occult practises are out -- period -- don't even think about it.  It's a grave sin and a violation if the first commandment.  Ignore anyone who does this stuff.  Ignoring is the best medicine, and puts such practises where they belong -- in a place of irrelevance.  You have to remember, the Catholic Church gave us All Hallows as a tool to combat these very things.

Let me tell you my vision of Halloween, and maybe someday it can become reality, if Christians (especially Catholic Christians) put their mind to it.  I envision a future Halloween that is almost universally called by its rightful name "All Hallows Eve."  The day is set up for preparation, with traditional decorations, jack o' lanterns, scarecrows, some light-hearted spooky stuff (just for fun, nothing too scary), and perhaps some statues or posters of favourite Saints placed in front lawns, or in the windows of homes.  In addition, there is nothing wrong with a some fog machines and eerie mood music -- if you're into that sort of thing.  The evening begins with some good ol' fashioned 'trick or treat.'  Children wear costumes that are fun, and if adults want to participate, they wear costumes that are tasteful.  As the night darkens, candles are seen flickering from the tombstones of graveyards, symbolising the light of Christ, and placed there by their surviving loved ones.  Up in the air, orange Chinese lanterns begin to fill the sky, symbolising the flight of departed souls into heaven.  Late that night, as sleepy young children go to bed (presumably watched over by their grandparents), their parents and older siblings, attend a candlelight midnight mass for All Saints in a local Catholic parish chapel.  The next day the celebration continues in a more solemn way, as graves of loved ones are visited, ancestors are respected, and more candles are placed on their tombstones for the evening.  On the night of All Hallows (November 1st), a midnight mass is celebrated again, using the propers for All Souls (Nov. 2nd), this time in a cemetery, presuming one is available, the weather is not inclement, and the groundskeepers are agreeable to it. This extends the celebration of All Hallows out over two days, instead of just one, and doubles the time we spend on it.  It will effectively render occult observations of the day obsolete and irrelevant.  The Halloween I envision is a beautiful one, filled with celebration of life, light, a little harmless ghoul and tasteful make believe.  It is followed by the celebrations of All Hallows the next day, and All Souls the day after, wherein candles continue to be lit on the tombstones of departed loved ones.  I envision a Halloween where Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, have taken it back and own it.  I envision and "All Hallows Eve" wherein Christians, particularly Catholic Christians, freely discuss the Catholic meaning behind the celebration, and it is well known to the general public.  In my vision of All Hallows, the marketing of the occult, sex and violence has become obsolete and irrelevant, simply because not enough people are into that any more.

How long would something like this take?  Not long at all.  In fact, with the speed of the Internet, it could happen in just a few annual celebrations.  Maybe you could help by sharing this article with some friends. Below, at the bottom of this article, you will see some share icons.  I invite you to use them.  :)


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Highly recommended by priests and catechists, "Catholicism for Protestants" is a Biblical explanation of Roman Catholic Christianity as told by Shane Schaetzel -- an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism.  The book is concise and formatted in an easy-to-read Question & Answer catechism style.  It addresses many of the common questions Protestants have about Catholicism. It is ideal for Protestants seeking more knowledge about the Catholic Church, and for Catholics seeking a quick refresher course on fundamental Catholic teaching. It's an excellent book for Catholics and Protestants alike!

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Monday, October 28, 2013

Prayer In School

A parish Priest instructs children at St Mark's Church, Victoria Docks, Silvertown, London, England, UK, 1944
In the early 1960's, the United States Supreme Court, in two landmark cases, Engel v. Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v. Schempp (1963), ruled against state sponsored prayer in public schools. From this point on, public schools could no longer engage in school-initiated prayer, Bible reading, or any other religious activities on public school campus during school hours.  This is widely regarded as the time when the U.S. federal government "kicked God out of public schools."

Prior to these cases, practises varied from state to state, even from school district to school district.  However, as a general rule, going back to the late 1800's, public school children in the United States were required to read from Protestant Bibles and recite Protestant prayers, while in class, even if some of the children were Catholic, Jewish or Mormon.  The Protestant nature of American public school policy was quite obvious, and was contested by Catholic parents as far back as 1890 (Weiss v. District Board).

Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton (1774-1821) was
an Anglican convert to Catholicism, and
the first native-born American to be canonized
by the Roman Catholic Church. She was the
founder of America's Catholic school systems.
The religious state of affairs in public schools prior to the 1960's was anything but blissful.  I suppose if one was a Protestant parent, it was all rather convenient, having a public school that would reinforce on weekdays what was taught in your Protestant church on Sundays.  Catholic parents were not nearly as pleased.  This is because Catholic school children were frequently the targets of Protestant proselytism, not only from their peers, but also from teachers at times.  Bible readings and prayers, crafted to neatly fit Protestant theology, served as powerful tools in the gradual religious deconstruction of Catholic public school children.  It is in this environment, the "go along to get along" mentality was formed in the minds of young Catholic Americans, which explains a great deal of liberal "Cafeteria Catholicism" in America's culture today.  Let us not forget the infamous Blaine Amendments, which were designed to cut off any potential public funding of Catholic schools.  Thirty-eight of fifty states, including my home state of Missouri, adopted these heinous legislative instruments of discrimination, which at the time were specifically directed against Catholic families who opposed the Protestantising of their children in America's public schools.  The idea behind them was to insure that no public funding, or any kind, could ever be directed toward a "sectarian" (read "Catholic") school.  So this made it even more difficult for working Catholic parents to pull their kids out of public school and place them in Catholic school.  The way the Blaine Amendments were originally set up, in many states, public funding could possibly go to non-religious private schools, or even to nondenominational Protestant schools, but not to Catholic schools, because those were considered to be "sectarian."

Then in 1962 and 63, everything changed.  The U.S. Supreme Court effectively ruled that public schools were to become a "religious-free zone."  Schools could no longer organise prayers or Bible reading. Suddenly the Blaine Amendments went from being specifically anti-Catholic to becoming anti-Christian and anti-religion in general.  America's Protestantised public schools had just abruptly come to an end, and the gradual transformation into militant secular institutions was under way.  Within just thirty years, public schools went from promoting Protestantism to opposing all religions -- especially Christianity.

Now I came of age in the 1980s, and I remember seeing television evangelists decry the 1962 and 63 Supreme Court rulings as a harbinger of the apocalypse.  I remember them calling upon their viewers to write their congressmen demanding a change in the law to go back to the way things were.  It never came about. So by the 1990s, these same television evangelists were content to simply call for a "moment of silence" every morning, so public school children could take it upon themselves to pray - quietly.

Being a person who tries to accept information for what it is, and not somebody who wants to hold out hoping for the impossible, I'm afraid I have some bad news for my fellow Christians out there.  The secularisation of America's public schools is now complete and permanent.  So long as the United States federal government exists, there will never be any trace of organised Christianity in public schools -- never again...  Never.  It's over people.  Give it up.  This battle is lost.

Occasionally, I still see a Christian, here or there, blurt out the old mantra -- "We need to get prayer back in schools!"  It's a nice thought, but it's also a futile one.  If there is every going to be organised prayer in school again (which I seriously doubt), then it will be some kind of generalised non-specific prayer that has nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever.  If there is anyone out there still holding out hope for "putting God back in public schools," you're dreaming a fairy tale.  It's not going to happen and you're wasting your time.

It seems to me a great deal of time and energy has been spent in the Evangelical Protestant world to lift the anti-religion restrictions in public school. Many of the nation's problems are often linked to these Supreme Court cases in the sermons of these television evangelists.  Maybe they're on to something.  Maybe they're right, but as I said, it really doesn't matter, because as long as Washington D.C. exists, there will never again be anything resembling Christianity taught in public schools.

Simultaneously, I've noticed another glaring problem.  I live in Springfield Missouri, which boasts itself to be the "buckle" of the Bible Belt.  In Springfield Missouri, there are more churches per capita than in most cities in America.  Yes, that's right.  If you measure religion by the number of churches, then Springfield Missouri ranks, hands down, as having one of the highest number of churches (per person) of all American cities. Using that standard alone, we could say that Springfield Missouri is one of the most religious cities in America.  There are literally over a thousand churches in a city of only about 160,000 people.  That's a church per capita ratio of about 1 church for every 114 people (or 1:114).  Now of all those churches I can tell you there are exactly seven Catholic churches in the city (if we include the local SSPX chapel).  Seven out of over a thousand churches isn't much, so you can begin to get a feel for how heavily Protestant the region is.

Now of those seven Catholic churches, four of them have grades K-8 schools.  There is also one Catholic high school in town, which serves as a (grades 9-12) hub for all the Catholic elementary schools.  Now let's stop and think about this.  There are seven Catholic parishes, and five Catholic schools (including the high school).  That means that the Catholic school-per-parish percentage is over 70%.  For every seven Catholic parishes, there are five Catholic schools.  That's a pretty high ratio!  Now cost an affordability of these schools is another thing.  Granted, the Catholic school district does offer financial aid to Catholic families who cannot afford it, but that doesn't always meet the full amount of aid needed to actually make attendance possible for every Catholic family.  This is a serious problem that needs to be worked on, but it's not for lack of effort.  There is no easy solution, they are trying, and those in charge should be given credit for that.

I am aware of at least one Lutheran school in Springfield and a handful of Evangelical Christian schools, however, when you consider the number of churches per capita in the city, Springfield has a serious problem. I'm using my city as an example here, because the same story can be repeated in just about every other city of reasonable size.

In Springfield, we have a handful of mega-churches.  I'll go ahead and name some.  There is James River Assembly, which actually exists outside the city limits, but most of the members are Springfield residents. There is also James River West Campus, which is affiliated with the former, also outside the city limits, but with a majority of Springfield members.  There is Second Baptist Church, within the city limits on the east side of town.  There is Ridgecrest Baptist Church also within the city limits on the south-west side of town. There is Central Assembly of God up near the city hall.  There is Northpoint Church on the north side of town.  There are many, many more of similar size.  All of these would qualify as mega-churches, even by the standards of a large city.  To the best of my knowledge however, (and somebody correct me if I'm wrong), none of these mega-churches have a (K-8) full-time school.  None of them, to the best of my knowledge, have a full-time (9-12) high school. None of them!  Not a single one!  They certainly have the money to do it.  Funding is not an issue at all.  That I am sure of.  So am I the only person who sees a problem with this?

At some point, churches, especially mega-churches, have to ask themselves what they're giving back to the community.  It irritates me to no end when I see a mega-church pastor tell his congregation that we need to get prayer back in school, when he himself refuses to get school back in church!

Prayer in school?  How about school in church?  Isn't that the way it should be anyway?  It seems to me that a lot of Evangelical Protestants want it both ways.  They want to have their high-dollar mega-churches on the one hand, and then have the state reinforce their religious values on the other hand.  Look, I think it's awful what the Supreme Court did in 1962 and 1963.  I think it's terrible they took religion out of school, even if it was (for the most part) Protestant religion.  Protestant religion is infinitely better than no religion at all, and I wouldn't have a problem with Protestant organised prayers and readings if that was still available in public school.  Even though I currently send my children to a Catholic school, I wouldn't even have a problem sending my children to a Protestant church school, if it was economically advantageous to do so.  (It's not, but if it were, I would consider it.)  I can handle the Protestant thing.  Heck!  I used to be one for the first thirty years of my life.  I just find it shocking that a city, which boasts no less than three Protestant universities, has an abysmally low number of Protestant elementary and high schools.  Then some of the pastors of these Protestant churches have the audacity to say, "we need to get prayer back in public schools."  Hey, I've got a better idea.  Why don't you get your kids out of public schools, and start a religious school at your local church.  Then they can pray all they want, and you can lead the prayers, Bible readings and religious instruction. How's that for an idea?

Here is a good example of what I'm talking about.  My mother-in-law attends a Baptist church in Battlefield Missouri.  It's called First Baptist Church of Battlefield.  It is by no means a "mega-church."  It's not very big at all.  I would say it's about "average" size. However, this "average" size Baptist church, in a small suburban bedroom community, has managed to start a K-12 school that is full-time, and supplies a diploma that is comparable to just about any private or religious school.  Pastor Ray Smith informed me that the program implemented at First Baptist Church of Battlefield is a comprehensive Christian program, that is fully duplicable, and "just about anyone could do it."  He also told me he would be willing to share information to help any pastor in the region start his own similar school program.  Now, if you ask me, this is one Protestant church that is doing it right, and I applaud them!  I am very impressed with what they're doing and it is a perfect example of what we need to see more of in the Springfield Missouri area -- or anywhere in America for that matter.  I highly recommend this church's model as one possible example of how it could be done.

Let's face it, when churches own up to their responsibility of educating children, the whole "prayer in school" thing becomes a moot point.  It's tragic that things happened the way they did in America's public schools but it doesn't have to end in tragedy.  The secularisation of public schools is a GRAND OPPORTUNITY for America's churches to step up to the plate and take back what was rightfully theirs to begin with.  The beauty of the whole thing is; it won't require any election, no political action, and no protests or civic action.  All it requires is churches to be both churches and schools again -- just like it was in the "good ol' days."  All it takes is a little will power, prayer and commitment.  I hope this article will be viewed not as a condemnation of any particular church or denomination, but rather a call-to-action for all churches of all denominations.  It's time to stop preaching and do something!


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Highly recommended by priests and catechists, "Catholicism for Protestants" is a Biblical explanation of the Roman Catholic faith as told by Shane Schaetzel -- an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism.  The book is concise and formatted in an easy-to-read Question & Answer catechism style.  It addresses many of the common questions Evangelical Protestants have about Catholicism. It is ideal for Protestants seeking more knowledge about the Catholic Church, and for Catholics seeking a quick refresher course on fundamental Catholic teaching. It's an excellent book for Catholics and Protestants alike!
Publisher Direct | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Kindle | eBook | iBookstore

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Salvation by Faith Alone?

The Conversion of Saint Paul
Antonio Tempesta (1555 – 1630) 
I was asked by my daughter the other day "what is a Protestant?"  My answer was simply this. A Protestant is simply a Catholic who "protests" various teachings of the Catholic Church, but retains core Catholic teaching, such as the Trinity, Incarnation, and Atonement through Christ's sacrifice on the cross for example. I stopped there as the answer seemed to be satisfactory to her young ears.

Yes, Catholics and Protestants have these core teachings in common, but where we start to diverge is on the issue of Atonement, and in particular, what that Atonement of Christ's sacrifice means in practical everyday terms. The issue of salvation has for the last five centuries been the core issue fuelling the rift between Catholics and Protestants. Now, let us have just a little review here before we get started. 

Martin Luther (the 16th century father of Protestantism) was spurred to act by abuses within the Catholic Church during his time. The abuses were real, and they were also not really Catholic. Had Luther opposed these abuses on purely Catholic teaching, he might be revered as a "Saint Martin of Wittenberg" today. That however, didn't happen, namely because he chose to take matters into his own hands. Rather than opposing abuses of Catholic doctrine on Catholic grounds, he chose to become his own re-interpreter of Scripture even when it meant opposing a thousand years of historical Christian tradition. Thus "Saint Martin of Wittenberg" was never to be, and so Martin Luther, became a controversial man -- the chief proponent of a movement that would fracture Christendom into a half-dozen pieces in his own time, and literally thousands of denominations and sects in the centuries to follow.

Luther had many problems with Rome, and Catholicism in general, but chief among them (or at least the issue that started the whole thing) was the issue of salvation.  These issues can be confusing to both Catholic and Protestant lay people today.  So to better understand, we must look at some important terms...
  • Salvation = A general term that refers to our acceptance into heaven and eternal life with God.
  • Atonement = This is what Jesus Christ did on the cross for us. His bloody sacrifice makes our salvation possible by paying the penalty for our sins. It literally means to bring two things together as one -- "at-one-ment." Christ, through is sacrifice on the cross, brings God and man together -- "at-one-ment."
  • Justification = A more specific term dealing with salvation that describes how we are saved. Because of what Jesus Christ did on the cross (the Atonement) we are justified = made "just as if" we never sinned.
  • Sanctification = A specific term that comes from the Latin word sanctus meaning "holy."  This means to be made holy, which again is done by what Jesus did for us on the cross (the Atonement).
  • Grace = The favour of God's life in us.
  • Faith = Belief in God, his Son, and his Atonement on the cross.
  • Works = Actions of goodness in accordance with God's will and the Church's teaching.
  • Original Sin = the sin of our first parents (Adam and Eve) which gives humanity a spiritual and genetic disposition to desire sin.
  • Actual Sin = the sins we do in our own lives.
  • Merit = the property of a good work that deserves recognition or reward
  • Free Will = the God given ability of human beings to choose to cooperate with God's grace or reject it.
The Catholic Church has always taught that our salvation comes through the merit of Jesus Christ's atonement on the cross which forgives our sin (original sin and actual sin), and that as a result of this grace, we are given faith and works by the Holy Spirit, which can increase our own merit, cooperating with Christ's full merit toward our salvation and increase in glory. This cooperation between man and God, in the form of man choosing to follow Christ and live within him, follows our justification by grace from all sin (including actual and original sin) and is our sanctification as well. For "Justification is not only the remission of sins, but also the sanctification and renewal of the interior man." -- Catechism 1989. To be clear, the merit of Christ is the operative grace here. It is his work, and his work alone, that saves us. However, God allows us to cooperate in justification (and sanctification) with our own free will.

Okay, so now that we have defined Catholic teaching on salvation, let's examine what was going on in Northern Europe at the time of Martin Luther.  A common misconception was spreading at the time that good works, alone, created merit for justification. Now remember, this isn't what the Catholic Church officially taught, but in practical application, some local pastors and evangelists were effectively teaching that error by their abuse of the doctrine of purgatory.

Now purgatory (read my article on purgatory here) is a real teaching of the Church with Biblical support (Matthew 5:48, Revelation 21:27; 1st John 5:16-17, Matthew 5:26; Matthew 12:32; 2nd Maccabees 12:44-46; 1st Corinthains 3:10-15; 1st Corinthians 15:29-30; 1st Timothy 1:16-18), but it was never designed to imply that one "earns" his own salvation, nor the salvation of another, by doing good works. Rather, the teaching of the Church is that one attains justification entirely through the merits of Christ's atonement by cooperating with the Holy Spirit.  However, if the fullness of one's sanctification (holiness) is not yet complete upon death, the prayers and sacrifices of those still alive can be applied toward those souls already justified in purgatory, and awaiting their eternal award. Again, please read my article on purgatory to gain a better understanding of this.  Now, what was happening in Northern Europe at the time of Luther was a little sickening. Typically, it all comes down to money. I don't know how else to say this, but sadly, the Church's teachings on purgatory and indulgences were being abused by local evangelists in such a way to serve as a fundraising campaign...

"As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!" It is unknown if he actually said it, but this saying was attributed to Johann Tetzel, who was Martin Luther's main opponent during the Reformation period. In all fairness to Tetzel, while it did appear that he was effectively teaching an over-simplified heterodoxy on purgatory, which he mistakenly believed to be accurate, even Martin Luther admitted that many of the scandals surrounding Tetzel really had nothing to do with Tetzel himself. That being said it's fairly safe to say that a good number of Catholics in Northern Europe were under the false impression that their works (through monetary sacrifice), by their own merit, could attain salvation for their departed love one's soul in purgatory and even for themselves. Thus the term "sale of indulgences" was born. This is what Martin Luther rightly and vehemently opposed. The only problem was, he took it too far. In his zeal he "threw the baby out with the bath water" as the saying goes. He went against over a thousand years of historical Church teaching and denied the doctrines of purgatory and indulgences entirely, and in exchange, formulated his own doctrine on salvation that would later be emulated (in various forms) throughout all of the Protestant world.  

I think the simplest way to understand the difference between the Catholic understanding of salvation, and the common Protestant understanding of salvation is to look at it in terms of time. You see, because of the problems related to purgatory and indulgences in the 16th century, a doctrine of instantaneous salvation was formed.  Luther never said this, but he unwittingly laid the ground work for it with the concept of "faith alone." This was later amplified through the teachings of John Calvin, and then redefined and reformulated hundreds of different ways within Protestantism in the centuries to follow. Be that as it may, Luther and Calvin are the progenitors of this teaching, with Luther being the unwitting founder and Calvin being the refiner. For the sake of brevity I'll not get into the details of their two theologies, and those familiar with them will probably breath a sigh of relief here, as they can be really quite complex. Suffice it to say, both Luther and Calvin subscribed to a split between justification and sanctification, separating the two, wherein justification eventually became a one-time event that happens instantaneously upon having faith in the atonement of Jesus Christ. Sanctification, so the common Protestant teaching goes, comes later and is entirely separate. One can be justified and have no sanctification whatsoever. Case in point, one example often given is the thief on the cross, who Christ forgave and brought with him into heaven. For the Protestant, justification centres around faith and faith alone. Having faith in Jesus Christ and his atonement on the cross is what makes one justified and that equals salvation. Works are not necessary to salvation, but they are a product of it. Thus, according to the common Protestant mindset, one can determine if one is already saved or not depending on one's sanctification (holiness). A Christian who shows little or no evidence of good works is not sanctified, and therefore, must not have been justified either. His faith is a false faith, or he was never saved to begin with. Now remember, this doesn't accurately describe every single Protestant's belief on this issue, as that would be impossible to do, since there are literally hundreds (if not thousands) of different Protestant denominations and sects, each teaching their own version of the story. Nevertheless, this is a general synopsis of the Luther-Calvinian world view that has evolved throughout the last five centuries. It is the perception held by a majority of Evangelical Protestants today. It all centres around time, and it has to do with a one-time instantaneous event, wherein one makes a conscious choice to believe and trust in Jesus Christ. Once that choice is made -- presto! -- justification (and thus salvation) has just occurred, and the evidence of that will be made manifest later in time with sanctification (holiness). To be clear though, the Protestant mindset is that salvation occurs with justification (faith alone) and sanctification (good works) is just a sign that justification has already occurred.

Now this is in contrast to the Catholic view of salvation, which according to Church teaching is a lifelong process that is not complete until death. In the Catholic view, God's grace is made manifest in the atonement of Jesus Christ's sacrifice on the cross, and this grace is applied by God's unmerited favour toward us. By his grace he chooses us, and gives us the opportunity to choose him. If we do, he again applies his grace in us, and that in turn can produce both strong faith and good works in us, if we are open to them, and do not stifle them by our sin. Therefore there is no real separation between justification and sanctification, as they both occur in the life of the believer simultaneously, and are not complete until that life is over. 

So in summary, in contrast with Catholicism, the common Protestant teaching, that has evolved over the last five centuries, is that salvation (justification) is a one-time event. This is totally separate from sanctification, which occurs slowly and is independent from justification. Whereas with Catholicism, salvation is a lifelong event wherein justification and sanctification are coupled together. Indeed, sanctification is part of justification.

So who is right?

Let's see what the Scriptures have to say...

"You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone." -- James 2:24  As you can imagine, this short little passage presents a pretty big problem for the Luther-Calvinian point of view on justification by "faith alone."  The only time the phrase "faith alone" appears in the entire Bible is here, in James 2:24, and it specifically says we are NOT justified (saved) by "faith alone," but instead includes works in our justification. Martin Luther had a problem with this passage, and for that matter, he had a problem with the entire Book of James! In the preface of his German translation of the Bible he referred to James as "an epistle of straw" and saw it on a lesser order than other Biblical books. He even relegated the Book of James to the category of New Testament apocrypha along with Hebrews, Jude and Revelation. For Luther, James could not be reconciled with his theology, so he was inclined to simply throw this portion of Scripture out. Luther here does what many Protestants have done since, pitting Saint Paul against Saint James, or at the very least, up-playing the writings of Saint Paul and down-playing the writings of Saint James. This is what happens when you put too much emphasis on one portion of Scripture at the expense of another. This is exactly what Luther did, and many Protestants have since followed in his footsteps, more or less.

However, to pit one apostle against another is a grave mistake, and completely unwarranted, for even Saint Paul himself goes right along with Saint James in writing: "Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for God is at work in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure." -- Philippians 2:12-13.  What we have in these two apostles is two sides of the same coin. Saint Paul simply emphasises the faith side of justification-sanctification, while Saint James simply emphasises the works side of justification-sanctification, but neither denies the other. Both of them view salvation (justification-sanctification) as a process, not a one time event. Neither attempts to separate (bifurcate) justification and sanctification. Again, just like faith and works, the two go hand-in-hand. This is the Catholic point of view. But as we can see in this passage above from Saint Paul, he reveals something very important to remember: "for God is at work in you, both to will and to work." Herein we have the revelation of God's grace. It is his doing not ours. God gives us faith as a gift, if we are willing to receive it. Simultaneously, God gives us works as a gift, if we are willing to receive them. They are both part of the same package. You can't accept one without accepting the other. For Saint James puts it clearly: "But someone will say, 'You have faith and I have works.' Show me your faith apart from your works, and I by my works will show you my faith." -- James 2:18.  Again, it all falls back on God's doing not ours. Faith and works are a package deal, and they both come as a singular gift from God's grace alone.  As Saint Paul says above, God gives us the will (faith) and God gives us the works. They both come from him, by his grace and mercy. Their merit is his merit, because he dispenses them both together. God, by his grace, made our atonement possible through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. God, in his grace, makes our faith possible, and God, in his grace, makes our works possible, when we open ourselves up to believing and obeying him. The only thing we have to boast of is our free will (our ability to choose), which was again, given to us by God.

A good example of this comes from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus addressed a large crowd...
And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’ -- Matthew 13:3-9
After this his disciples complained a bit about his speaking in parables to the masses, so he proceeded to explain to them what the parable meant...
When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’ -- Matthew 13:19-23
From this parable, and its explanation, we clearly see Jesus' teaching on salvation as anything but a one-time instantaneous event, but rather something that occurs over time, and can be undone by the cares of this world.  What does that mean in laymen's terms.  It means simply this.  We receive God's grace through hearing the word of God and his sacraments. When we are old enough to do so, we make a free-will conscious choice to have faith in him, trust him, and do what God says. This is made possible only because God gives us the strength and favour to make it happen.  In other words, everything we have, our faith and our works, comes to us from God. He gives us these gifts, and when we choose to exercise them, he rewards us simply for accepting and using the gifts he gave us. In other words, in a very real sense, God rewards what he gave, and crowns his own merit in us. Everything comes from him and returns to him for reward. We human beings are merely conduits of God's grace (expressed through faith and works), because we have the choice to either let them flow through us, or stifle them through our stubbornness and pride (sin), which is usually caused by our attachment to things of this world. The only thing we human beings really have, that is of our own, is choice!  We choose yes or no.  In choosing yes or no, we choose whether we are saved or damned.  And this choice is a choice we make every day.  Our salvation happens when we let God's grace flow through us. Our damnation occurs because we spend a lifetime refusing to let that happen. Just as damnation is not a one time event in our lives, neither is our salvation. It is something that happens through the whole course of our lives in Christ. When God looks at our lives, at the end of our lives, he looks to see if we have accepted his grace and allowed it to flow through us (both in faith and works). Or have we, by disbelief and sin, refused his grace, and done everything we can to stop it from flowing through us?

I think the fear many Protestants have is that if we include works as part of the salvation package, then we run the risk of becoming engrossed in works-related righteousness. This can lead some people to work feverishly for righteousness, fearing that God will damn them to hell if they don't. It produces a kind of slavery, wherein works are no longer done for the sake of love, but simply to earn one's way into heaven. Conversely, works-related righteousness can also produce a false sense of pride, wherein those who have done great works of good might think of themselves more righteous than others and look down upon others as the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. Often, the Catholic Church is accused by Protestants of engaging in this very sort of thing, wherein it is falsely believed the Catholic Church actually teaches of gospel of works-related righteousness. This is an unfortunate error on their part, because the Catholic Church nowhere teaches that. In fact, both Martin Luther and John Calvin accused the Catholic Church of this very thing, and in response to their accusations, the Catholic Church issued the following decree from the Council of Trent...
Canon 1. "If any one says, that man may be justified before God by his own works, whether done through the teaching of human nature, or that of the law, without the grace of God through Jesus Christ; let him be anathema." -- Council of Trent (1545 - 1563 AD)
This canon from the Council of Trent says a lot in a little space. Let us consider the context of Saint Paul's teaching. Saint Paul started out as Saul of Tarsus, and he was a Pharisee of the Jews. He spent a lifetime dealing with Pharisees because he was one of them. Among his peers he was known as Rabbi Saul and he studied at the feet of the greatest rabbis in Palestine at that time. Rabbi Saul was a religious zealot, who firmly believed in works-related righteousness. He subscribed to the Pharisaical notion that it is only by our own obedience (works-related righteousness) to the Law of Moses that we can be saved. So Rabbi Saul went out and zealously persecuted the followers of Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus Christ) for multiple reasons. First, because they believed Rabbi Yeshua (Jesus Christ) is God. The Pharisees considered that blasphemy and apostasy right there. Second, because they were teaching that Gentiles could be saved even if they didn't follow the Law of Moses. Again, another blasphemy if you believe in works-related righteousness as the Pharisees did. Third, because they were teaching that salvation came through God's grace and not through the Law of Moses at all! That was the ultimate blasphemy for a Pharisee. Now, I assume that everyone reading this knows about Rabbi Saul's conversion story on the road to Damascus, and how he became Saint Paul, so I just want to put his ministry in context here. The primary motivator in Rabbi Saul's life leading up to the road to Damascus was works-related obedience to the Law of Moses. No naturally, in the years following the road to Damascus, the converted Saint Paul is going to spend a lot of time talking about the Law of Moses and what it really means in the finished work of Jesus Christ. He speaks of the Law of Moses quite a bit, and in those passages he talks about the superiority of faith in Christ over strict obedience to the Law. He instructs us that the Law was given as a tutor to teach us right from wrong, point out that we are incapable of keeping the law on our own, and directs us toward Jesus Christ as our Messiah, Saviour, High Priest and King -- the fulfilment of the Law. Saint Paul tells us much about superiority of faith over the Law, but he nowhere says we are saved by faith alone. Go ahead and look! It's not in his writings. Nowhere, anywhere, does Saint Paul indicate that good works done in Christ (sanctification) are completely disconnected from salvation. Lest there should be any doubt, let Saint Paul speak for himself on the capacity for one to lose his salvation after having first attained it. It helps to remember that Saint Paul often used the word "love" (meaning "chairty") to describe good works...
"You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." -- Galatians 5:4 
"For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love." -- Galatians 5:6   
"And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing." -- 1st Corinthains 13:2
"I punish my body and enslave it, so that after proclaiming to others I myself should not be disqualified." -- 1st Corinthians 9:27 
"So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall." -- 1st Corinthians 10:12 
"More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus." -- Phillipians 3:8-14 
"Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons." -- 1st Timothy 4:1
If we should question Saint Paul though, let us defer to Saint Peter, just as Paul did at the Council of Jerusalem recording in Acts 15. Paul, like all the apostles, yielded to Saint Peter, and likewise, so should we. The following are the words of Saint Peter himself on this issue...
For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would have been better for them never to have known the way of righteousness than, after knowing it, to turn back from the holy commandment that was passed on to them. It has happened to them according to the true proverb, 'The dog turns back to its own vomit,' and, 'The sow is washed only to wallow in the mud.'" -- 2nd Peter 2:20-22
Saint Paul, in many of his apostolic letters to congregations made up of sizeable Jewish converts, was in many cases, correcting the previous errors of Rabbi Saul.  In doing so, he was preaching to his Jewish Christian brethren, and warning them about the pitfalls facing those accustomed to following the Law of Moses. Now, Saint Paul also addressed Gentile Christians as well, and indeed considered himself an apostle to the Gentiles, but you can never separate Saint Paul the Apostle from Rabbi Saul the Pharisee.  They are one in the same man. As the canon from Trent points out above, we cannot say that our justification comes from our own good nature or personal obedience to the Law of Moses. It is the work of Christ, which begins on the cross at Calvary and continues to flow through us in both faith and works as our free-will permits.


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Highly recommended by priests and catechists, "Catholicism for Protestants" is a Biblical explanation of the Roman Catholic faith as told by Shane Schaetzel -- an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism.  The book is concise and formatted in an easy-to-read Question & Answer catechism style.  It addresses many of the common questions Evangelical Protestants have about Catholicism. It is ideal for Protestants seeking more knowledge about the Catholic Church, and for Catholics seeking a quick refresher course on fundamental Catholic teaching. It's an excellent book for Catholics and Protestants alike!
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Sunday, October 13, 2013

What Is Purgatory?

An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory
Ludovico Carracci, circa 1610
The subject of purgatory is a very difficult one for Protestants to grasp, namely because in their view, it just doesn't make any sense.  From the typical Protestant perspective, a person is either saved, or not saved, at the moment of death. If saved, the person's soul should go immediately to heaven, right? If not saved, that soul should go immediately to hell, correct? So what is this deal with purgatory?

Over the centuries, many artists have tried to depict the concept of purgatory in a pictorial way. Such as we see here with Ludovico Carracci's 1610 painting entitled: "An Angel Frees the Souls of Purgatory." For a Catholic, this is a beautiful (and totally non-literal and symbolic) representation of something that cannot really be accurately envisioned with human eyes. For a Protestant, this is just more confusing than ever. If the painting is to be taken literally, what are we to think?

The typical Protestant misunderstanding of Purgatory goes like this. When a soul dies, the Catholic believes that it goes to one of three places -- heaven, hell or purgatory. Heaven is a place of eternal reward for the saved, while hell is a place of eternal punishment for the damned. Purgatory, on the other hand, is a place of "second chance" for those who were neither saved nor damned, but just sort of in-between. Then, these souls might be freed from this unfortunate place by the prayers and sacrifices of those here on earth. That is, if they are fortunate enough to have people praying for them here on earth. Protestants then, quite correctly, point out that such a concept is totally non-Biblical and foreign to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The truth is, if that's what purgatory was, I wouldn't believe in it either.

The problem arises from two areas. The first involves abuses of the doctrine of purgatory during the 16th century Reformation era, and the visceral Protestant response to those abuses. That response have been dutifully passed down through generations. The second involves artwork such as we see here, and the inability of many Catholics to explain their beliefs to Protestants on this matter. So allow me to try my hand at this. Later this month I will publish an article dealing with salvation and the Reformation doctrine of "Faith Alone." Hopefully, this article on purgatory will serve as a good primer to that.

What is purgatory? Well to answer that question we first have to know what the Catholic Church actually teaches about it.  For all of the speculation that swirls around the topic, the Catholic Church only officially teaches two things.
  1. It exists.
  2. Our prayers help those who go through it. 
Here is the actual teaching on purgatory from the Catechism of the Catholic Church...
1030 All who die in God's grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven. 
1031 The Church gives the name Purgatory to this final purification of the elect, which is entirely different from the punishment of the damned. The Church formulated her doctrine of faith on Purgatory especially at the Councils of Florence and Trent. The tradition of the Church, by reference to certain texts of Scripture, speaks of a cleansing fire: 
As for certain lesser faults, we must believe that, before the Final Judgement there is a purifying fire. He who is truth says that whoever utters blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will be pardoned neither in this age nor in the age to come. From this sentence we understand that certain offences can be forgiven in this age, but certain others in the age to come.
1032 This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: "Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin." From the beginning the Church has honoured the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God. The Church also commends alms giving indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job's sons were purified by their father's sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them.
There you go.  That's the whole dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church on purgatory.  Pretty much everything else is up to speculation. Now that being said, let me tell you how today's top Catholic theologians are describing it...

The word "purgatory" comes from the word "purge" meaning to purge one of sin. Purgatory is not so much a place as it is a process. If it were to be described as a place, (which is kind of pushing the envelope), then we could describe it as heaven's front door. Imagine, if you will, the pearly gates of heaven before you, and between those gates there exists mighty flames of "fire." Now the "fire" is not real fire mind you, it is rather the "fire" of Christ's burning love for us. It is in effect, God's love we are talking about here, but in his mercy he allows we poor sinners to participate in his work of salvation. He does all the "heavy lifting" of course. We just add little details. Now in order to get to the fullness of heaven, on the other side of the gate, you must pass through the "fire" in between. As you do, this "fire" burns away all of your sinful attachments to this world. Maybe you drank too much, or were lazy, or perhaps you had a short temper in your earthly life. Whatever the case, you died in a state of grace, but your soul was far from perfect. Purgatory is just the process God puts our souls through as he brings us into heaven. Here he applies the full merit of Christ's atonement, as well as the merits of prayers and sacrifices of the saints on earth, to make one's soul fully and completely ready for the joy of heaven.

As I said, describing purgatory as a place is pushing the envelope a bit, but sometimes it helps to give people a mental picture. In reality, it is just something that happens to a saved person's soul on the way to heaven. It is a process of decreasing pain and increasing joy, as the sinful attachments to this world are let go, while the fullness of heaven is gradually embraced. No one goes to purgatory unless one is already saved, and no, purgatory is not a "second chance." The soul in purgatory doesn't need a second chance. He's already on his way to heaven. We could even say the soul in purgatory is already in heaven, but just isn't experiencing the fullness of it yet.

I think Pope Benedict XVI explained it best in December of 2011 when he described purgatory as follows...
"Purgatory is an interior fire. The soul is aware of God's immense love and perfect justice; as a consequence, it suffers for not having responded to that love perfectly, and it is precisely the love of God Himself which purifies the soul from the ravages of sin."
Is there any Biblical support for this? Yes there is. Probably the best description of purgatory comes from Saint Paul...
"According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire." -- 1st Corinthians 3:10-15
This is a word-picture given to us by Saint Paul to describe the process (not necessarily a place) of purgatory. Here, Paul calls it "the Day" and this is a reference to judgement. Purgatory (purgation of purging) is in a very real sense connected to the particular judgement each and every soul receives from God at the moment of death. If we were to imagine the judgement of God as a cleansing fire of love, we might begin to grasp the process of purgatory. Ironically, my first encounter with the concept of purgatory did not come from the Catholic Church. It actually came from a small Evangelical group in Southern California that consisted primarily of small-group house churches. Once a month these house churches from all over the L.A. valley would come to meet in this old chapel in Pomona. It was here I heard their main pastor speak. He instructed the congregation that when we die, we will encounter God face to face. Then a great fire will gush out from his fixed gaze upon us, and immediately all of our sinful attachments to this world will be burned away. We will be transformed, and all that will remain is that which is pure and holy. Now this Evangelical pastor in no way referred to this process as "purgatory," but his teaching was remarkably similar to what many Catholic theologians are saying about purgatory today. This Evangelical pastor seemed to imply that the whole process was rather quick, lasting only a few seconds. While the Catholic Church seems to teach that such a process takes a bit longer. Of course, one has to ask, what is "time" to a dead person? Does the disembodied soul experience time in the same way we do? I have no idea. Nobody knows. Also, the Evangelical pastor did not include the merits of the saints. This is purely a Catholic teaching which comes to us from our spiritual ancestry in ancient Judaism...
"For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin." -- 2nd Maccabees 12:44-46
Of course the Second book of Maccabees is not contained in most Protestant Bibles, and this only further exacerbates the problem Protestants have with purgatory. (I discussed why Protestants removed books from the Bible in a previous article here.) However, if most Protestants read a complete and unabridged Bible, they wouldn't have to struggle so much with the concept of purgatory and indulgences. In the passage above from 2nd Maccabees, we can clearly see that ancient Jews, before and during the time of Jesus, not only believed in the concept of purgatory (though they may not have called it that), but they also believed in the concept of indulgences, referring to them as prayers and "atonement" (meaning animal sacrifices) for the dead. This belief was clearly documented in the Greek version of the Jewish canon (Septuagint), which happened to be the canon of Scripture most commonly quoted by the apostles in their own writings. This Jewish belief transferred into the early Christian communities, dominated almost entirely by Jews in the early years, and later tapered off to predominately Gentiles by the end of the second century. We see that Saint Paul again makes reference to this, in one very obscure passage, that Protestants often find unexplainable....
"Otherwise, what will those people do who receive baptism on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptised on their behalf?" -- 1st Corinthians 15:29
Okay, this is a funky passage if their ever was one. The language is strikingly familiar to that of 2nd Maccabees cited above, and I think it would be safe to say that Saint Paul was probably thinking about 2nd Maccabees when he wrote it. But what on earth is Saint Paul talking about here!?! Surely, he can't be referring to the "baptism by proxy" tradition that is commonly performed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (Mormonism). Are we to believe Saint Paul was a Mormon?

Okay, before we get carried away here, we need to take in a few contextual things. First, Paul never condones the practise.  Read the verse again. Nowhere does he say this practise is a good thing, and people should do it. Second, he refers to those who practise baptism for the dead in the third-person "those people." He's clearly talking about somebody else here, some other group, not necessarily connect to Paul's ministry or those he is writing to. He doesn't condemn the practise, but then he doesn't condone it either. If anything, he uses it as an example of an indulgence. What was going on here? Apparently, back in the first century, some groups of Christians were engaging in their idea of an indulgence for those Christians who had been killed before they had the opportunity to be baptised. Like the Jewish practise of offering prayers and animal sacrifices for the dead, referenced in 2nd Maccabees above, and the Catholic practise of offering prayers and the sacrifice of the mass for the dead, this particular group of first-century Christians was performing baptisms by proxy as well, for those Christians who died before being baptised. The practise was well-meaning but misguided, and eventually eliminated as the doctrinal teaching of the Church became more cohesive and stabilised over the following century. It wasn't until 1,800 years later that an American Protestant named Joseph Smith read this obscure verse, and formulated a whole new practise for a whole new religion called Mormonism, that would break with both Catholicism and Protestantism on a great many things.

Is there Biblical evidence for purgatory and indulgences? Yes, there most certainly is. It's not plainly spelled out in those words, but then, neither are the doctrines of the Trinity and Incarnation. Yet no Protestant would dare deny those.

To better understand we have to look at the difference between venial and mortal sin. To simplify, a venial sin (meaning "forgivable sin") is basically a sin of habit. We do this sort of sin all the time, without thinking about it, and often don't even realise we are doing it. I'll make a confession to you here as an example. My father was a sailor -- literally -- and he had the mouth of a sailor. When I was a child I listened to that man work in profanity like an artist works in paint. It was amazing the combinations he would come up with -- some of them really quite imaginative. He's a "born again" Evangelical now, so he's really managed to clean up his mouth since then. I however, bear the scars of his, shall we say, "years of colourful metaphors." I'm not nearly as imaginative as he was, but I do (perhaps a little too often) blurt out some naughty words here and there. Is this a sin? Well, yes I'm afraid it is. Profanity is condemned in Scripture (Colossians 3:8; Ephesians 4:29). So let's say I someday have the misfortune of getting into a car accident that kills me. Just before I die, I blurt out some profanities in terror and pain. Now, that's a sin right? Of course it is. I don't have time to confess it because death comes upon me quickly. So am I going to hell?

Many Evangelicals deal with these tough questions with the consoling words: "Well, God knows your heart." That's very true, God does know my heart, and he knows it's the heart of a sinner, who desires only evil, and all that is good in me only comes from God himself. So I ask again, I've just blurted our a litany of "colourful metaphors" as I gasp my last breaths. Am I going to hell? The way Catholic theology deals with this problem is by pointing out the difference between venial and mortal sin. A venial sin is a little thing that is done habitually or without thinking -- like profanity for example -- which is more or less just the result of our fallen human nature. It's not okay to do. I really should try to clean up my mouth because God doesn't like it. However, if I do it without thinking, in an unintentional way, it really is a venial sin. It's a sin that damages my relationship with God, but it does not break it completely. A sin that breaks my relationship with God would be called a mortal sin. Is there Biblical support for this? There sure is...
"If you see your brother or sister committing what is not a mortal sin, you will ask, and God will give life to such a one—to those whose sin is not mortal. There is sin that is mortal; I do not say that you should pray about that. All wrongdoing is sin, but there is sin that is not mortal." -- 1st John 5:16-17
Basically the Bible tells us that there is such thing as a mortal sin, and a non-mortal (venial) sin. This means that some sins break out relationship with God, leading to spiritual death, and other do not. A mortal sin is a serious matter, which is a direct violation of one of God's commandments, and is done with full intention and consent. In other words, it is open rebellion against God. Case in point, murder is one such mortal sin. Adultery is another. So is fornication, stealing and lying to hurt another person. There are more, but you get the idea. If mortal sin is not repented of during a person's lifetime, it will lead that person's soul to hell.  No second chances, just straight to hell. Then there is venial sin, such as profanity, laziness, bad tempers, etc. These sins may not lead one to hell, because they do not break one's relationship with God, but they do damage our relationship with God, hindering it, and make things more difficult for us. These sins need to be repented of too, but if a person should fail to master these problems before dying, that does not mean that person is going to hell. It does mean however, that these attachments to sin may have to be taken care of before entering the fullness of joy in heaven. That's what purgatory is all about.

Now we are on to indulgences. As the passage in 2nd Maccabees above clearly demonstrates, Jews believed that their prayers and sacrifices helped those who died in a state of venial sin. This doesn't imply anything mystical or magical going on here. Rather, what this was all about was the mercy and compassion of God. Our Lord loves to see us repent, and when we do, he is inclined to grant us what we ask for at times, especially when such things are non-selfish and for the benefit of another. The ancient Jews held to the belief that if they repented of their sins, and offered prayers and sacrifices for those who had died in venial sin, then God would (totally in his mercy and compassion) upon request, apply the merits of their repentance toward those who had died. It was a way in which loved ones could mediate for their dead relatives. Now we all know that Jesus Christ is the final mediator, and nothing in this diminishes this role. Rather, we see instances in Scripture where one person mediates for another, even in Moses' case, where he mediates for the entire people of Israel. In a lesser sense, below the total mediation of Christ, God does allow us to mediate for one another. He does this purely in his compassion for us, so we are not powerless, and can do something to help others. He makes it possible, not us, but him working through us. In later centuries, the methods of indulgences would be more defined by the Catholic Church, namely to prevent abuse or misapplication. There were times when the Church did a poor job at this, as during the Reformation period for example, but through it all, the Church never officially taught anything that was non-Biblical. Rather it was local pastors and evangelists who did that all by themselves. This was the principle abuse that led to the Reformation in the first place.

I hope this article has been helpful in understanding the Christian teaching on purgatory. The teaching is most defined in the Catholic Church. Eastern Orthodoxy has mixed schools of thought on the matter. Protestantism, almost universally, rejects the Catholic definition of purgatory, but not all Protestants reject the concept of purification after death entirely. Much of the confusion around it comes from artistic depiction and literary descriptions from the Middle Ages, which are no longer applicable to the modern mind. These depictions, whether in art or literature, may have served their purpose at one time. However, since the Protestant Reformation, they have become somewhat antiquated and at times a bit confusing. We have to remember, these artistic and literary depictions are highly symbolic in nature. So long as they are taken that way, we can enjoy them for the beauty they convey. If we start to take them too literally however, we open ourselves up to all sorts of problems.


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Highly recommended by priests and catechists, "Catholicism for Protestants" is a Biblical explanation of the Roman Catholic faith as told by Shane Schaetzel -- an Evangelical convert to the Catholic Church through Anglicanism.  The book is concise and formatted in an easy-to-read Question & Answer catechism style.  It addresses many of the common questions Evangelical Protestants have about Catholicism. It is ideal for Protestants seeking more knowledge about the Catholic Church, and for Catholics seeking a quick refresher course on fundamental Catholic teaching. It's an excellent book for Catholics and Protestants alike!
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Monday, October 07, 2013

New Book Becomes Evangelistic Tool

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Reports are starting to come in now about my new book "Catholicism for Protestants," and this is from both Catholic and Protestant readers alike. What I am learning is that the book is being used as a evangelistic tool, as follow up for conversations with Protestants.  I am learning that some Protestants are reading through it very quickly, usually within a day or two, and one in particular read through it in just one hour! The information contained in this short book is explosive to those who are seeking answers. I have recently seen orders for as many as 50 books at one time! So it's definitely making the rounds.

WARNING, SHAMELESS PROMOTION COMING... This is how I have used apologetic materials in the past with some success. Suppose you have a Protestant friend who has a lot of misconceptions about Catholicism. You've corrected those misconceptions from time to time, but now you have a copy of my book in hand.  This is for your friend that you loan to him/her, asking him/her to look it over and get back to you later with his/her thoughts.  (Loaning works better than giving sometimes, because it prompts a person to actually read it quickly so he/she can get it back to you.)  This is probably the best method of reaching people with this material. It's showing signs of breaking down barriers and opening Protestants up to asking more questions with sincere curiosity.  Give it a try.