The Lutheran Church and Purgatory, Pt. 1


This is our pastor’s newsletter article for the June 2016 issue of our congregational newsletter.

Last month, we looked the body’s resurrection and the intermediate state of our souls being in heaven until Jesus calls forth our bodies on the Last Day.

The Roman-Catholic Church also believes in an intermediate state of existence for heaven-bound souls called “purgatory,” coming from the Latin purgatorium in the 12th century, meaning a “means of cleansing or purging.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches:

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.  [Section 1030]

Catholicism understands purgatory to be “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’” (Section 1032).

The verse above comes from 2 Maccabees 12:45.  The context is a battle now finished and the Israelite General, Judah Maccabee, finds slain soldiers wearing amulets to pagan gods.  Distraught, he sends money to the Temple in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices for their sins (remember they are dead); he also prays for their souls.  The reason he prayed for them was “if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead” (2 Maccabees 12:44).

Some would retort, “Well, 2 Maccabees isn’t Scripture, so who cares what it says.”  Here is how our Lutheran Confessions responded to praying for the souls of the dead.  We responded using a literary device called a “litotes.”  A litotes expresses something affirmative by stating the negative of the contrary (“not a bad singer” or “no small riot”).

So, what do our Confessions say about praying for those who have died in the faith?  Referring to a false teacher in the early Church who said prayers for the dead are useless, our Confessions respond, “We do not support Aerius [Arius].”  For us, “prayers for the dead” are not “useless” (AP, XXVI, The Mass, para 96).  Through litotes, our Confessions say such prayers for the dead are useful.

Even more, our Confessions call 2 Maccabees “Scripture” (AP XXI, The Invocation of the Saints, para 9).  So, why do we disagree with purgatory if 2 Maccabees is Scripture and we aren’t against praying for the dead?  Well, if you want to know what Lutherans believe, read their Confessions.

We cannot understand which punishments are partly forgiven by the power of the keys [Jesus gave His Apostles the power to forgive sin (Matthew 16:19, John 20:23)], unless they [the Roman-Catholic Church] say that a part of the punishments of purgatory is forgiven, from which it would follow that satisfactions would only be punishments that deliver from purgatory.  [AP, VII, Repentance, para 118]

In other words, if Jesus gave His Church the power to forgive sins through His pastors (which He did!), is such forgiveness full or partial?  If full, then penance after confession and purgatory are false doctrines.  If forgiveness is partial and conditional, then penance after confession and a further cleansing of sin after death make perfect sense.

What purgatory reveals is a different worldview between the Roman-Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church.

Martin Chemnitz, in his Enchiridion, lists in sequence why we oppose purgatory.  Chemnitz was the “second Martin,” who laid out Lutheran doctrine in the 1500s in a systematic way.  I quote part of what he wrote.

The Word of God teaches first, that there are only two ways in this life and out of this life; one of them leads to life eternal, the other to eternal condemnation (Matthew 7:13-14; Mark 16:16; John 3:18, 36).

…after death, before the Last Day, there are only two different places in which the souls of the dead go, namely, the place of comfort of the blessed and the place of torment of the damned (Luke 16:25).

…they that die in faith in the Lord are immediately, from that time on, blessed, and at rest (Revelation 14:13), in such a way that they shall be touched by no torment (Wisdom 3:1 [book of the Old-Testament Apocrypha]).  For they shall not come into judgment, but shall pass through death into life (John 5:24). [Section 320]

Why does our stance against purgatory even matter?  It matters because purgatory takes away from the full and free forgiveness Christ gives to us through His Church in Word and Sacrament.  If God only forgives you in part, penance after confession and having your sins purged after death when your sinful flesh is no longer part of you make sense.  For Lutherans, purgatory is no small matter (did you catch the litotes?).

Jesus said: “I assure you: Everyone who sins is a slave of sin.  The slave does not remain in the household forever, but the son belongs to it forever.  So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:34-36).  Jesus links the freedom He gives to the forgiveness He grants.  Being free is being forgiven.  You’re either free or not; you’re either forgiven or you’re not.  Purgatory flies in the face of Jesus’ understanding of forgiveness.

Remember, Judah Maccabee was a distraught general grieving the death of his men.  He responded in grief, not as God’s prophet but as a military general.  We don’t base Church doctrine on what he did.  In the same way, we don’t base Church doctrine on Gamaliel’s words in the book of Acts: If something “is from God, you will not be able to stop them” (Acts 5:39).  Just because something exists in this world does not mean “it is from God.”  Is Islam from God?

I thought I would write only one article on purgatory.  But still left untouched are the New-Testament passages the Catechism of the Catholic Church uses to support such their after-death, soul-cleansing doctrine.  Next month, we’ll take such a look.


Click here to go to part two of thie article.


  1. Rich, this might help to understand our position a little better. 1. Opusculum contra errores Graecorum, and 2. Summa Theologica both written by St. Thomas Aquinas.

    A little deep for me, but good reading for you on a rainy day, which we have had plenty of.

    • Acquinas? He’s a bit “new” for my liking, at least for reading Church fathers (non-Lutheran, that is). But I may take a look. Thanks.

      I also left a lot out to keep the article a reasonable length and accessible.