Can We Ever Be Holy Enough?

Wednesday, May 30th 2007
May/Jun 2003

MR: In a recent article in the journal First Things, you defended the notion that Christians need the doctrine of purgatory. Can you briefly explain why you believe the doctrine of purgatory is necessary for Christians?

JW: Well, the doctrine of purgatory addresses an issue that any theological system must face, namely, how does God deal with the moral and spiritual imperfection that remains in the lives of most (you would probably say all) believers at the time of death? There are four broad possibilities here. Such believers could go to hell; they could go to heaven with such imperfections intact; God could unilaterally and instantly perfect such believers; or God could continue the process of sanctification until it is complete, with the free cooperation of believers. Both of the latter two options are versions of purgatory. In the former, it just happens very quickly with no cooperation on the part of the believer.

MR: As you explain in the article, your interest in the doctrine of purgatory is partly due to your Wesleyan heritage. Why should Wesleyan pietism find the doctrine of purgatory attractive?

JW: As an evangelical Anglican, Wesley’s soteriology focused on transformation, on how God works in our lives to change us so that we actually become righteous, love him and the like. This is the understanding of salvation that C. S. Lewis characterized as “mere Christianity,” especially in book four of his work of that title. Although Wesley resisted the idea of purgatory, perhaps partly because it was so much associated with controversies with the Roman Church in his day, it meshes quite naturally with a transformational soteriology, especially one that emphasizes the importance of our free cooperation for our sanctification. Later evangelical Anglicans like Lewis have recognized this and affirmed a version of purgatory.

MR: In the article, you imply that Protestants who view salvation as an essentially forensic matter cannot fully appreciate the importance of a holy life as indispensable to salvation. How would you distinguish and relate justification and sanctification?

JW: If the essence of salvation is forgiveness and God will unilaterally and instantly perfect us when we die, whether or not we have made any significant progress in sanctification, then yes, holy living is optional so far as salvation is concerned. The doctrine of purgatory insists to the contrary that holiness is not optional. Justification is initial sanctification since to trust Christ for salvation is to acknowledge our sin and to begin to see it for what it is. In justification we are forgiven and accepted by God and enter into a saving relationship with him. But this is just the beginning of what God desires for us. The deeper relationship that God desires with us is depicted in Scripture with familial and nuptial imagery rather than forensic imagery. Sanctification is the deeper transformation that inevitably occurs as this relationship grows in depth and intimacy. The more we grow in our knowledge of God, the sort of relational knowledge the Bible speaks of when it speaks of knowing God, the more we come to love God and grow into his likeness. As Alister McGrath has shown, it was a Protestant innovation to understand justification as a matter of being declared righteous as opposed to actually being made righteous. While justification can be distinguished from sanctification in terms of systematic theology, there is no justification in the end without sanctification.

MR: What are the means by which you believe Christians are sanctified either here on earth or in purgatory?

JW: We grow and are completed in sanctification when we fully own the truth about God and about ourselves and allow the Holy Spirit to work this truth fully through our character. The truth about God and ourselves is revealed in Scripture. So one of the central ways we grow in sanctification is by immersing ourselves in Scripture. Of course, God must do the work of sanctification. As Jesus prayed “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17). The other traditional means of grace accomplish the same sort of thing. As we engage in worship, and ascribe proper worth to God, we come more clearly to see “the Holy One of Israel” to see “God high and lifted up.” When we see God in this fashion, we, like Isaiah, see ourselves as sinful and unclean in a way we cannot otherwise. It is then that we can truly cry out to God to cleanse and purify us. In the same way, when we see with clarity the love of God as revealed in the incarnation and death of Christ, we are made holy. Nothing brings into sharper focus both our sinfulness and God’s holy love than the broken body of Christ on the cross. To plead Christ’s atonement is to acknowledge the truth both about ourselves and God. That is part of the reason why faith, properly understood, transforms and sanctifies us. We cannot honestly plead the atonement and simultaneously be willing to remain the same sort of person whose sins led to the death of Christ. To honestly plead the atonement, we must acknowledge the Lordship of Christ and desire to live in a way that expresses proper gratitude for such amazing love. Similar points could be made about prayer, Holy Communion, and other means of grace. These are the means God uses to bestow the grace that sanctifies us and makes us truly holy.

MR: In order for purgatory to be acceptable to many Protestants, several serious objections must be overcome – but chiefly the objection that the doctrine of purgatory implies that our good works are meritorious and that Christ’s imputed righteousness is not entirely sufficient for salvation. How would you begin to answer these concerns?

JW: It is worth noting that my article in First Things was adapted from a longer chapter entitled “Heaven, the Nature of Salvation, and Purgatory” that appears in my book Heaven: The Logic of Eternal Joy (Oxford University Press, 2002). In that chapter I spell out what is involved in a transformational soteriology and show how those who hold this view believe that salvation is by grace through faith. But those who hold a transformational soteriology emphasize that Christ’s righteousness is not only imputed, it is also imparted. It is imparted righteousness that changes us in such a way that we actually love God and can enjoy being in his presence and take true delight in a relationship with him. A person who is not actually changed in this way cannot enjoy the presence of God, even if he is declared righteous in the legal or forensic sense. Until we are changed in this way, we cannot really experience what salvation is all about, namely, a restored relationship with God in which we take true delight in being in his presence. Being changed in this way is not a matter of works or of our deserving salvation or anything of the sort. Rather, being changed in this way is salvation itself. But we do not have either the will or the power to change ourselves without the help of God. So it is all a matter of grace. God enables, elicits and effects the transformation with our free cooperation. All of this is shown in a powerful and memorable way in C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce. In that book, a group of people from hell are given a bus ride to heaven and allowed to stay. But in their present condition, they do not enjoy heaven, and even find it painful. They are assured, however, that if they are willing to stay, and are appropriately transformed, they will come to love it and be fully at home. Imparted righteousness is what “fits us for heaven” so we can joyfully stay. In Lewis’s book, by the way, those who choose to stay in heaven and undergo transformation are told that they can call the place from which they came “purgatory.” To those who return, it is hell.

MR: If we can be sanctified by good works, either here on earth or in purgatory, what does that tell us about the nature and extent of sin?

JW: If we could be sanctified by good works it would tell us that sin is not nearly as serious a problem as Scripture tells us it is. If sin can be solved by human effort, it is not the deadly matter Paul describes for us. We clearly need the grace of God to regenerate and transform us before we can do any sort of works that will elicit his approval. But Paul makes clear that such good works are an essential sign of God’s grace in our lives and of true faith (Eph. 2:8-10; Titus 3:4-8).

MR: Protestants have traditionally understood the Bible to teach that our souls are perfected in the painful experience of succumbing to the final enemy of death and our bodies in the Resurrection. This perfection is not the result of our good works, but is worked out by God on the basis of the imputed righteousness of Christ. It seems, according to your view, that we need something more than Christ’s righteousness to make us perfect. Is Christ’s righteousness somehow inferior to that righteousness which we, ourselves, must earn, either during this life or in purgatory?

JW: I am not aware of any biblical text that clearly teaches that our souls are perfected by the painful experience of succumbing to death, although this is close to the view of Wesley, who believed that most Christians are entirely sanctified at the moment of death. Perhaps this can be inferred from certain biblical texts, and if so, it would be a defensible position in my view. Indeed, I think such inference is inevitable in matters of eschatology, where Scripture does not present us with a lot of detail. Here, we cannot but engage in a certain amount of inference and speculation if we are going to say anything substantive. Such speculation must, of course, be constrained by what is clear in Scripture. But my point is that Scripture simply does not settle this matter for us. The best we can do is to offer what makes best sense, given our overall theology, especially our soteriology. However, I see no reason in Scripture to believe that the pain of death has the power to sanctify us. Indeed, death is an enemy of God, so it is unlikely that that it can do the work of making us holy! Only faith in Christ can sanctify us. The experience of death may focus our faith and allow us to trust Christ in a deeper way than we otherwise could, especially if we know we are facing an imminent death. But death often happens suddenly and without warning, and it is hard to see how it could further our sanctification in such cases. I hope it is clear from what I have said that I do not believe that we earn righteousness or that anything could be superior to the righteousness of Christ.

MR: In your piece you argue that sanctification is essentially a temporal process that cannot be completed in an instant, not even by God. Yet Scripture portrays our transition from imperfection to perfection as taking place in an instant, indeed “in the twinkling of an eye” (see 1 Cor. 15:50-53 and Luke 23:43). How do you respond to verses like these?

JW: Actually, I very much do believe that sanctification can be completed in an instant when we have the faith to receive it. However, sanctification typically involves a longer process leading up to that instant. The essential reason for this is because growth in understanding, acceptance of truth, and the consequent character development are essentially temporal matters. Given both our finite minds and our freedom in embracing truth, character development is very much a dynamic thing that occurs over a period of time. I understand 1 Corinthians 15:50-53 as an account of bodily transformation. This text describes how our frail decaying bodies that are fit for this finite age will be changed to be fit for the age to come, an age in which we will never die. But it says nothing of relational or moral perfection. Luke 23:43 is Christ’s promise to the thief on the cross that he would be with him in paradise “today.” I see no reason why paradise could not involve further growth, purging and the like. Indeed, all who love Christ and want to grow closer to him should experience as joy any purging that has this effect. Understood as such, purgatory is a gift of grace to be received with gratitude by all who aspire to know God as fully as possible.

Wednesday, May 30th 2007

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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