The ultimate question facing us is how we can obtain forgiveness of sins. The Bible teaches that God has achieved a work of salvation for men and women and now offers forgiveness of sin through the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the main message of the gospel and the major reason why it means ‘good news.’ Throughout history, the fact that Christ has successfully completed a work of salvation has never been disputed in the Christian Church. Since the time of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Christ has been set forth as Redeemer, Teacher, Example, Mediator, Lord and Saviour of mankind. But while the Roman Catholic Church has held to orthodox teaching about the person of Christ, it has wandered far from that teaching on how the benefits of the work of Christ are appropriated.
Over time, the Roman Catholic Church has abandoned biblical teaching on faith and on God’s means of communicating saving grace and established instead a full blown sacramental system as the means by which salvation comes to man. The Council of Trent’s decree in 1547 is explicit about the importance of the sacraments:
According to the Roman Catholic Church, there are seven sacraments given by God for the salvation and nurture of the Church. These sacraments consist of baptism, confirmation, the eucharist, penance, ordination, marriage and extreme unction. The precise number of sacraments was a source of great controversy in the Church for many hundreds of years, until the seven were finally established in the twelfth century.
In the following two chapters we will examine in detail these sacraments which the Roman Catholic Church claims are the means by which salvation is brought to the individual, then in chapter nine we will go on to explore the alternative, biblical view that a person is justified (made right) with God through faith alone.
What was the historical position of the early Church and the Fathers on this fundamental issue?
ORDINATION AND THE PRIESTHOOD
In the New Testament and the writings of the Apostolic Fathers there is no mention made of a special group of men set apart to minister as priests. The New Testament specifically teaches that Christ has become the fulfilment of the Old Testament priesthood and he is now the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). The New Testament unambiguously states that the human priesthood which God established under the Mosaic law was set aside once Christ came. This is the truth drawn in the parallel between Christ and Melchizedek in the seventh chapter of Hebrews:
Scripture teaches that the old system has been set aside because it was imperfect and could not accomplish what God required, but now that Christ has come he has perfectly fulfilled the requirements for salvation. He, himself, has become the ultimate and perfect sacrifice and priest. So there is no need for continuing sacrifices because he has done the work of sacrifice by his one death, and there is no need for a continuing priesthood because he is a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek:
Christ is an eternal priest because he lives in the power of an indestructible life, and the writer to the Hebrews goes on to point out that it is also an exclusive priesthood — its functions cannot be transferred to anyone else: ‘But He, on the other hand, because He abides forever, holds His priesthood permanently’ (7:24). The word ‘permanently’ is the Greek word which means ‘unchangeable, not liable to pass to a successor’ (Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon, p. 54). As Philip Hughes has commented:
The clear and explicit teaching of these passages is that Jesus Christ could not have instituted a new order of human priesthood through the disciples because Scripture teaches that his priesthood has displaced the old order and he now exercises an exclusive and eternal priesthood, the prerogatives of which can be transferred to no one else. Accordingly the Scriptures teach that men now have direct access to God through Jesus Christ. They no longer need a human priesthood nor further sacrifices, for he has become our sacrifice and our priest.
In the New Testament the two major human offices which are mentioned for the ongoing oversight of the Church are distinctly different from the priesthood which had gone before. These offices are those of ‘elder’ and ‘deacon’. The ‘elder’ or ‘overseer’ is designated as the one who is called by God to teach and rule, and the ‘deacon’ is called to minister in a practical serving capacity. There are two terms used for ‘overseer’ in the New Testament — presbuteros and episkopos: although these are translated ‘elder’ and ‘bishop’ respectively, they are used interchangeably in the New Testament.3 Paul and Peter, for example, both use the terms elder and bishop to describe the same office. The word presbuteros or ‘elder’ describes the position, while episkopos describes the function of the elder as one who rules or oversees. And the New Testament exhorts believers to be submissive and obedient to the elders God has placed in authority over them (cf. 1 Pet. 5:5; Heb. 13:17). The New Testament does not use the term priest — hiereus — to refer to a separate office of Christian ministry.
Similarly, in the early writings of the Church no mention is made of priests in Christian ministry. There is a parallel sometimes drawn between the offices of the New Testament and the ministerial functions of the priesthood in the old dispensation — as found in the writings of Clement and Ignatius, for example — but they do not teach that New Testament ministry and ministers are the same as in the Old Testament. Clement in 1 Clement 40-41 uses the Old Testament priesthood as an illustration of a principle of divine calling and orderliness. At that time, God specifically called and appointed certain men to perform a specified ministry which was to be done in a particular way. He then applies that principle to his readers under the New Testament dispensation, to warn them that God still calls and appoints men to fulfil the role of pastor, elder and deacon, and that believers must be careful to submit to the authorities that God has established in the Church.
Clement never uses the term ‘priest’ to describe a Christian minister. This is true of all the writings of the Apostolic Fathers. Polycarp, Ignatius, Clement and The Didache all use the terms ‘bishop’ or ‘presbyter’ and ‘deacon’ when referring to those responsible for Christian ministry. These are the terms employed by the New Testament itself. When these and other writers do use the Greek term for ‘priest’ (hiereus), it is always in reference to the Old Testament or to the person of Christ. The first use of the word to refer to Christian ministers is from the writings of Origen the third century Greek Father. Clement of Alexandria, writing in the latter part of the second century, uses the word to describe all Christians in general.
It is with the fourth century Greek Fathers that we find the word hiereus universally applied to describe a Christian minister.4 And it is with Tertullian in the West that the beginnings of a sacerdotal function in the Christian ministry began to become evident, for he uses the Latin term sacerdotium (priesthood) to describe a Christian minister. It is clear that by the beginning of the third century Christian ministers were beginning to be viewed as priests similar to those of the Old Testament. The Greek term presbuteros had apparently shifted in meaning from its original usage and become identified with a priestly ministry — though not entirely one characterized by what later developed into the Roman Catholic system. After sifting the evidence of the early development of the priesthood, Richard McBrien concluded that:
By the time of Tertullian there was a clear differentiation between laymen and what McBrien calls ‘the priesthood’. Having a separate order of men set apart for ministry is not contradictory to the biblical pattern, as we have seen, but what is contradictory is the application to this order of a sacerdotal function. It was Cyprian who crystalized this application by drawing a direct parallel between Judaism and the New Testament ministry. He directly applied the position and functions of the Old Testament priesthood to the officers of the Christian Church, and in doing so, forged the ‘sacerdotal conception of the Christian ministry as one of a mediating agency between God and the people.’6
In the Roman Catholic view, ordination to the priesthood confers upon the individual the ability and the authority to administer the sacraments and to teach and govern the Church. It is a solemn sacrament apart from which the individual would not be able to fulfil his role as priest, for this sacrament supposedly places an indelible mark upon the individual which he can never lose. This teaching was first enunciated by Augustine, but for many years ordination was not even considered to be a sacrament. This view of ordination and the sacerdotal ministry evolved as the whole concept of salvation and sacramental grace was developed in the Church, so that eventually only an authorized priest, set apart by God as in the Old Testament, could administer the sacraments of baptism, the eucharist, confession and penance, and thereby deliver salvation to people.
It is clear from the New Testament that there is a concept of ordination for Christian ministers — the public recognition and setting aside of an individual specifically called by God to assume the role of a pastor or elder. Ordination is the public recognition by the Church of a gift sovereignly given by God and independent of any work of man. But such a role has nothing to do with an exclusive priesthood, for, as mentioned above, the New Testament teaches that all Christians have been set apart as spiritual priests in the kingdom of God.
Christ could not have instituted a new priesthood along Old Testament lines, for that function of mediation has been abrogated now that he has made a perfect sacrifice for sin.
The doctrine of baptism is one of the few teachings within Roman Catholicism for which it can be said that there is a universal consent of the Fathers. The Council of Trent declared that baptism is the sacrament which effects remission of sins and regeneration. According to Roman theology, it is the means whereby a sinner is brought into the kingdom of God, cleansed from the guilt of original sin, given a new nature, and forgiven for all sins committed up to the point of baptism. From the early days of the Church, baptism was universally perceived as the means of receiving four basic gifts: the remission of sins, deliverance from death, regeneration, and the bestowal of the Holy Spirit.
If we compare this doctrine with the teaching found in the New Testament, however, we can see some significant differences. In the New Testament, baptism was instituted by Christ as a sacrament and commanded by him for all who would become his followers. Baptism signifies the believer’s identification with Christ in his death, burial and resurrection to new life. It is a public declaration that he has repented of his sins, turned from the world and embraced Jesus Christ in self-surrender and trust as his Lord and Saviour. In other words, it signified that an individual had responded to the message of the gospel and had come to Christ. Baptism in the New Testament is always aligned with repentance and faith — it is never divorced from them. The Scriptures teach that through the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit and the gifts of repentance and faith, a person is united to Christ, forgiven for all sin, accepted by God, adopted into the family of God and given the gift of eternal life. Baptism is the outward sign of the inward reality of these spiritual truths and a seal to the believer of their reality.
Scripture does not teach that water baptism is the means of regeneration and forgiveness of sins, and the early Church’s rapid slide into believing that it does reflects the same error of the Jews under the Old Testament dispensation when, as the people of God they had taught that an individual entered into God’s covenant through the rite of circumcision. What may be called sacramental regeneration is the very mistake Paul clearly addressed in the epistle to the Romans. In chapters two to four he exposed the distinction between an outward, physical circumcision and a spiritual circumcision which takes place in the heart by the Spirit of God. He pointed out that though one may be physically circumcised as a Jew, this did not mean that one was spiritually circumcised. True circumcision of the heart, he wrote, would result in moral changes and in righteous living. Physical circumcision apart from the inner circumcision of the heart which results in a transformation of life was meaningless and empty — and could lead to the blaspheming of God because the life that was lived denied the profession that was made.
New life, Paul claimed, was not the result of a physical rite. In Romans 4 he used the Jewish patriarch Abraham as evidence to support his argument. Forgiveness of sins is appropriated not by good works or religious rites, but by faith: for Abraham was justified before circumcision was ever established by God. Circumcision was merely the seal or outward testimony to the reality of that God-given righteousness. Consequently, circumcision was not the cause of forgiveness or the means of appropriating it, but an outward sign of a spiritual reality of the heart. This was exactly what baptism in the New Testament dispensation is intended to signify. Physical circumcision identified one outwardly as being part of the visible Jewish nation. But it was the circumcision of the heart which made one a Jew spiritually, a child of God and recipient of the covenant promises. This is why Paul could say that not all Israel (recipients spiritually of the covenant promises) were descended from Israel (physical birth and circumcision). Just so, water baptism identifies one with the visible Church but it is regeneration which constitutes one a child of God and a true Christian in reality and not merely in profession. It is the Spirit-baptism in the heart and consequent union with Christ that is all important. The rite of water baptism, independent of repentance and faith, accomplishes nothing. It does not regenerate and has no special power of itself.
Although the post-apostolic Church lost the New Testament pattern for baptism, it never separated the sacrament from the exercise of repentance and faith. So while the Church came to teach baptismal regeneration, true conversion was still safeguarded by a biblical emphasis on repentance as turning from sin and the world, and faith as the giving of oneself to Christ in self-surrender and trust. Before individuals were allowed to be baptized they went through an extensive time of preparation (between two and three years) in which they were thoroughly indoctrinated in the essential elements of Christianity and the kind of life that they would be required to live.
Toward the middle of the fourth century, Cyril of Jerusalem wrote his Catechetical Lectures for those who were preparing for baptism. Here we find that after the time of major instruction had been completed they had forty days in which to prepare for baptism. In this preparation the individual would confess and repent of sin. This process was known as exomologesis (a term for confession derived from the verbs used in Matthew 3:6 and Acts 19:18). Cyril warned his readers that apart from a sincere and thorough repentance, baptism would be of no avail and forgiveness of sins would not be granted. At the time of baptism, the individual would profess faith in Christ and verbally and publicly renounce the devil and all his works, the world, and sin; then give himself to Christ, vowing to follow him in a life of commitment. The major emphasis of the early Church, therefore, was still on the heart, but the theological protection against the baptismal ceremony degenerating into a perceived means of salvation was already very weak.
At the beginning of the fifth century, Augustine wrote a treatise entitled Faith and Works, in defence of the extensive catechetical instruction that was still the practice of the Church in his day. His writing reveals that there were those in the Church who were critical of the heavy emphasis on repentance and the call for a holy life as a Christian. These people wanted to emphasize the sufficiency of faith and baptism to the exclusion of repentance. They felt that such instruction should come after one had become a Christian. They taught that heart repentance, which manifested itself in the forsaking of sin, was not necessary for salvation. Augustine vigorously opposed such ideas and set forth the biblical teaching on the necessity for true repentance to accompany faith if one is to come to a saving knowledge of Christ. It is clear that he was calling men to repentance not penance, but in time, because of the flimsy theological foundations of the Church’s baptismal doctrine, the differences between the two were blurred. Faith quickly degenerated into intellectual assent and repentance was displaced by penance, with the tragic result that millions of ‘believers’ through the centuries were given false hopes and a groundless assurance.
CONFESSION AND PENANCE
The Council of Trent taught that Christ instituted the priesthood for two primary functions: to forgive sins and to administer the sacrament of the eucharist. It declares that through confession of sin to a priest, and by his absolution and the performance of the prescribed penance, an individual can receive forgiveness of sins. The Roman Church teaches that sin requires that satisfaction be made to God and this is achieved through penance and good works; through the enduring of sufferings in purgatory; and through indulgences which are authorized by the pope. Penitential works are meritorious before God who accepts such works as a payment for the temporal punishment due to sin.7
Private confession to a priest (known as auricular confession); the repetitive nature of confession and penance for all known sin; the practice of private penance as a satisfaction for sin; and the necessity for the absolution of a priest are all defended by the Roman Catholic Church as the constant historical practice of the Church which can be authenticated by the unanimous consent of the Fathers. These teachings of the Roman Church can be traced back many centuries. However, a survey of the historical evidence reveals the following:
Let us document each of these points in detail.
As we have seen, the apostles taught that if men were to experience salvation they must repent and believe. The word ‘repent’ or ‘repentance’ is the Greek word metanoia and it means ‘a change of mind’ — in biblical usage meaning a fundamental change of mind and heart towards God, Christ, sin and the world. True repentance is always evidenced by a life that is lived under the will of God and marked by holiness. Such a life, however, is not one of perfection, and although the Scriptures exhort believers to holiness they also recognize that there will be a continuing need to deal with sin. Scripture, therefore, gives very clear instructions on receiving forgiveness of sins after one has become a Christian and is part of the Church.
The Roman Catholic Church claims that Christ established the priesthood for the specific purpose of dealing with men’s sins through private confession, absolution, and the assigning of penances to satisfy God’s justice. For biblical evidence for these claims appeal is made to Matthew 9:6, where Jesus clearly declares his right to forgive sins; Matthew 16:19, 18:18 and John 20:23, where, it is claimed, Jesus invests his followers with this same authority; and John 17:18 and 20:21, where Jesus says that as the Father had sent him into the world so he was sending the apostles into the world. Since Jesus was sent by the Father to forgive sins, it is argued, he has granted his followers this same authority through the powers of binding and loosing, and of exercising a ministry of reconciliation through the sacrament of confession and penance (2 Cor. 5:18-20). The Roman Church also appeals to James 5:16 and 1 John 1:9 which commands Christians to confess their sins.
The argument looks convincing, yet its logic is flawed for it rests on a false foundation and a false interpretation of Scripture.
First, we have seen that Scripture teaches that the whole order of priesthood has been completely eliminated since Christ himself has assumed that position. The authoritative office in the New Testament is now that of an elder or pastor (presbuteros) who functions as an overseer (episkopos), and not as a priest.
Second, we have seen that the major passages relating to binding and loosing teach that Jesus was granting a declarative authority to the apostles to proclaim the gospel of Christ and offer the free forgiveness of sins to men if they would come to him in repentance and faith — not the authority to hear confession and grant absolution. This is the ministry of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-20) which has been given to the apostles and the followers of Christ.
Jesus has authority, as God, to forgive sins and he exercised that prerogative as a personal right. But when he sends the apostles out into the world as the Father sent him, we must make a clear distinction between what Christ can do as God and what he has authorized his followers to do in his name. For example: Christ also came to make atonement for sin and was sent by the Father for that purpose. But it would be a blasphemy to claim that the apostles were likewise given authority to make an atonement for sin. Christ was also sent by the Father to proclaim the gospel and the free forgiveness of sins on condition of repentance and faith (Luke 4:18; Mark 1:15) — it is in this sense that the apostles are sent into the world as Christ was sent into the world. The authority granted to the apostles is strictly related to the proclamation of the gospel.
Third, the passages which call for personal confession have nothing to do with priestly confession and absolution. Men are called upon to confess their sins directly to God, through Christ alone as their priest, and to rest in the finished work of Christ as a payment for those sins. Hebrews 10:19-22 clearly states that men can go directly to God in confession of sin and receive forgiveness directly from him without going through a priest and without doing penances to make satisfaction for their sins:
This should be clear as well from an analysis of the priesthood in the Old Testament. There is not the slightest hint that these priests heard the people’s sins and judicially absolved them from their sins. Men confessed their sins directly to God on the basis of an atoning sacrifice which was slain in their place. God has never ordained that confession of sin be made to a priest or the performance of penance to receive forgiveness.
The heart of any true confession of sin is the element of repentance. This is completely different from the idea of penance as personal works by which a man earns forgiveness for sins. This is not taught in Scripture. Forgiveness is based solely on the work of the Lord Jesus Christ and his finished work in making a complete atonement for all sin. To teach that a man can gain forgiveness through works of penance is to pervert the gospel of grace by teaching that man’s work must somehow supplement the work of Christ. Scripture does teach that men are to bring forth fruits in keeping with repentance (Acts 26:20; Matt. 3:8) but what the Word of God means is that the life must demonstrate true repentance by the fruits of holiness.
We are also enjoined to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16; Matt. 5:23-24). This means that we are to confess to a brother or sister where we have sinned against them and be reconciled with them, and also to open our hearts to fellow believers that they might pray for us and we for them. Christians are to deal very seriously with sin, for the Church is a holy body and the bride of Christ. Jesus and Paul both teach that the Church leadership is to confront sin and deal with it in the lives of those who are guilty. For example, Jesus gives the following specific instructions for dealing with sin in the Church:
The objective in confronting such an individual is to bring repentance and restoration in the person’s relationship with God. The seriousness of the danger of condoning sin within the body of the Church is clearly shown by Jesus’ injunction on the power to bind and loose. If the individual in question refuses to repent, then Jesus says that person is to be excommunicated from the fellowship of the Church and be treated as an unbeliever. The judgment rendered by the Church will be likewise rendered in heaven, for the Church here is simply passing a judgment upon an individual which has already been passed in heaven. Binding and loosing here is a public matter which is strictly disciplinary in nature — it has nothing to do with private confession to a priest with judicial power to absolve men from sin.
Paul in 1 Corinthians 5 also states that Church members whose lives are characterized by certain sins are to be excommunicated from the fellowship of the Church. Only when they have demonstrated true repentance by forsaking their sin are they to be restored. He says absolutely nothing about restoration being conditional on the performance of penance because the idea of repentance as penance was anathema to him (see Eph. 2:8-10).
Similarly, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers are full of exhortations to holy living and appeals to the readers to prove the validity of their faith by good works. These writings clearly teach that true saving faith is evidenced in good works and a holy life, but that good works are in no way meritorious in salvation. Clement of Rome, for example, clearly states that forgiveness and salvation are gifts of God given completely independently of human works:
Clement’s teaching is a fair summary of the writings of the Apostolic Fathers as a whole. There is no mention in the writings of Ignatius, The Didache, Clement, Polycarp, Justin Martyr or Irenaeus of confession of sins to a priest or anyone other than God himself, of penance, purgatory or indulgences. The whole system of sacramental forgiveness devised by the Roman Church can find no confirmation in these early writings.
However, by the end of the second century there had developed a penitential discipline in the Church known as confession or exomologesis. But it had a very distinct meaning and character: it was done for only a certain type of sin; it was generally public; the works of penance were strictly a public affair which could only be done once; and there was no judicial absolution. Let us examine each of these points more closely.
The early Church dealt severely with those sins among its members that it considered to be very grave such as adultery, fornication, murder, heresy and denying Christ in persecution. Such sins would be dealt with by excommunication. Sins were therefore classified according to their gravity quite early in the life of the Church, but it was Tertullian in the latter half of the second century who introduced the distinction of mortal and venial sins. The Church adopted this teaching and it was then applied universally. For those individuals who had committed mortal sin, in order to be forgiven and restored to the Church it was necessary for them publicly to confess their sins and submit themselves to an extensive penitential discipline of personal humiliation. This could only be done once in any individual’s lifetime. They would be excluded from communion and undergo weeping, fasting and other disciplines requiring protracted ascetic and religious exercises.
Some kind of private consultation with the bishop or presbyter was not uncommon in which the individual would admit his sin and the nature of the public penance would also be assigned, but the primary idea behind the actual confession of sin was that it was a personal acknowledgement of sin in prayer to God himself. This is the teaching of Cyprian and he states specifically that priests did not grant remission of sins but were responsible for consulting with offenders of grave sin and assigning the proper penance:
By the time of the Council of Nicea, this penitential discipline had been systematized into categories of penitents (Canon 11) in which the degree of exclusion from the worship services and the exact nature of the penance was regulated by the class of penitent one was designated.10 If an individual, after penance, committed the same grave sins again, there was no forgiveness available through the Church and he was excommunicated. The lighter sins which Christians committed were not subject to this confession but were dealt with on a personal basis through personal prayer, good works and private penance. These sins were never confessed privately to a priest and absolved by him, but were confessed directly to God.
That there was only one occasion for repentance made available through the Church for grave sins is also affirmed by the writings of The Shepherd of Hermas, Origen, Tertullian, Clement of Alexandria, Ambrose, Pacian and by numerous canons of different councils of the Church. These writings range from the immediate post-apostolic age until the sixth century, demonstrating that the practice of the Church for many centuries was very different from that which was decreed by the Council of Trent. The severity of this process of confession, repentance and penance perhaps inevitably generated pressures for it to be ameliorated or reduced. Over time there was a gradual change in this practice, so that eventually no matter how often an individual might sin he could seek reconciliation through the presbyter.
This trend toward a lenient view of sin and its forgiveness relative to the practice of confession and penance in the Church became so pronounced that the third Council of Toledo (589 A.D.) felt duty-bound to condemn outright the practice of frequent confession and penance. In Canon 11 it stated that:
Regardless of the protests and attempts of certain parts of the Church to retain the ancient practice, the penitential discipline did change. By the later Middle Ages penance had developed into a very regulated affair in which certain punishments were prescribed for specific sins. These were written down in penitential books which document for us the penitential practice of the Church from the seventh century onwards. As McNeil and Gamer have noted, these clearly chart an important shift:
The introduction of penance as a vital element of true repentance gradually corrupted the biblical concept of repentance so that it degenerated into an external, legalistic system of works by which an individual made reparation to God for his own sins. Thus what was initially seen as the evidences or fruits of true repentance was eventually viewed as efficacious in their own right. It was a small step from this position to one where any kind of good works were believed to accrue merit before God. Tertullian was one of the first to teach that human works such as fasting, alms-giving etc. rendered satisfaction to God and merited forgiveness for sins which were not mortal.13 His disciple, Cyprian, further amplified this doctrine by stating that sins after baptism were not forgiven through the atoning work of Christ alone but through the works of penance. He maintained that such works appeased the wrath of God and merited forgiveness and the restoration of lost grace and eternal life.
The result of this teaching was that the concept of penance soon displaced the biblical meaning of repentance and the two became synonymous terms. The work of Tertullian and Cyprian laid the foundations of the whole system of penance and works which was later built on by the Roman Catholic Church. Today, the Catholic Church still claims that men and women can earn God’s favour. John Hardon, whose catechism was written in 1981 and has the official authorization of the Vatican, affirms this in these statements:
This dogma of penance is the antithesis of the biblical teaching of repentance, for it denies the very essence of the meaning of grace itself. Hardon states that penance merits grace while the biblical meaning of grace is that of unmerited favour. Repentance means a heart forsaking of sin and a turning to Christ for forgiveness by trusting in his finished work. Christ has made a full atonement for sin. He has borne the full wrath of God against it. We are, therefore, called upon to confess our sins directly to God and to recognize and appropriate the forgiveness already secured in the death of Christ. To add one’s own satisfaction for sin through one’s own works is to pervert the atonement of Jesus Christ.
We have seen that the early practice of confession in the Church gradually changed over time so that it became a common and private practice rather than a one time and public affair, but even as late as the twelfth century we find evidence of a continuing dispute about the sacrament of penance. For at that time Peter (the) Lombard revealed that there was considerable disagreement on a number of aspects relating to it, not least whether confession to a priest was essential for forgiveness (the bedrock doctrine of the Tridentine decrees). Peter accepted the prevailing view of the Church until then, which defined the absolution as merely a declarative announcement. Yet in the next generation Alexander of Hales would be one of the first theologians who pronounced the absolution a judicial sentence.15 In this instance, Alexander’s view would prevail.
The Council of Trent’s claims that from the beginning the Church has practised secret confession to a priest who administered judicial absolution for forgiveness of sins is unsupported by the historical evidence. It was not until the beginning of the eighth century that private confession began to displace the public form, and it did not become a universal practice until the Middle Ages. Similarly, the necessity of priestly absolution was not fully recognized until the thirteenth century.
This was all part of the drift of Christianity during the centuries after Christ’s death to an externalization of religious practice. Repentance became identified with outward acts which supposedly made expiation for sin — a trend which went hand in hand with the rise of asceticism in which men sought to achieve merit before God by living a life consisting of monastic withdrawal from the world, voluntary poverty, celibacy, and harsh treatment of the body. These works supposedly brought an individual into a higher state of spirituality and enabled him to earn or merit the grace of God and enter heaven on the basis of his good works.
With the rise in the belief that certain works could gain merit with God came the teaching, relatively late in Church history, of the ability of the saints and martyrs to gain extra merit above what was necessary for them personally to earn eternal life. These were called the works of supererogation. According to Roman Catholic theology, these merits are stored in a treasury from which the Church, by authorization of the pope, can draw and apply to individual Christians. Thus according to the Roman Church, the pope has the power to grant indulgences and remit the temporal punishment due to sin based on the accumulated merit of Christ and the saints. Generally, these indulgences are granted to individuals who perform a prescribed work or pay a certain sum of money as a substitute for works of penance. There are two kinds of indulgences: plenary and partial. A plenary indulgence removes all the temporal punishment due to sin; a partial indulgence removes only a portion of the temporal penalties still owed to God after he forgives our sins.
This teaching embraces a concept of vicarious atonement in which individual saints, in addition to the atonement of Christ, are able to make atonement for the sins of other believers. We should understand clearly that the official dogma of the Church is that indulgences do not forgive sins, they merely remit the temporal punishment due to them. Indulgences are not meant to be a substitute for confession, repentance and absolution.
But this theory of indulgences and of a treasury of merit developed very late in the history of the Church. It was not until the thirteenth century that the whole idea of a treasury first emerged. Ludwig Ott affirms this fact in this statement:
Indulgences were first introduced in the eleventh century and initially were granted on the basis of the Roman interpretation of the power of the keys and later there developed the theory of the treasury of merit. Popes began to offer them in order to raise money for personal projects such as building projects, or for the promotion of personal causes such as the Crusades or the extermination of heresy. They eventually became corrupted to the point where the Church taught that by the payment of money one could buy an indulgence and secure the release of souls in purgatory.
The theory and practice of indulgences and the treasury of merit certainly finds no sanction in the Scriptures or writings of the Church Fathers. It is non-existent in these sources and therefore can claim no biblical or historical validation. And the harm that indulgences have produced can scarcely be calculated. They became a ready source of income and a horribly corrupting influence on the papacy and the Church as a whole. Just as importantly, their influence on the individual Church member was equally corrosive spiritually, as men came to believe that they could, in effect, buy forgiveness of sins. Philip Schaff mentions that by the close of the thirteenth century indulgences were not only associated with remitting the temporal punishment for sin but also the guilt as well.16 The indulgence teaching is the logical outcome of a corrupt theology. It is a serious depreciation of the sufficiency and exclusive nature of the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Where the works of merit, penance, indulgences and the eucharist have been insufficient to deal with the temporal punishment due to sin, the Roman Catholic Church teaches that the sufferings of purgatory are required to ‘purge’ the soul from the last remnants of sin and thereby enable the individual to enter heaven.
There are three main passages of Scripture to which the Church of Rome appeals as a basis for its teaching on purgatory, but it is a passage from the Apocrypha which is the real foundation for this doctrine. We have already discussed the false claims of the Apocrypha to be considered as the Word of God in chapter one. But in actual fact, the existence of purgatory as defined by Roman Catholic doctrine cannot even be inferred from the relevant passage, 2 Maccabees 12:38-45. It tells the story of a group of Jewish soldiers, under the command of Judas Maccabaeus, who were slain in battle:
There are a number of important facts in this passage which are inconsistent with the Roman Catholic assertion that it teaches the existence of purgatory:
First, these soldiers were idolaters and it is explicitly stated that their deaths were a direct result of the judgment of God for idolatry. In Roman Catholic theology, this is a mortal sin which condemns an individual to hell. Consequently, these men could not be in purgatory, for purgatory is supposedly the abode of those who die in venial sin only.
Second, the Roman Church teaches that since Judas Maccabaeus offered sacrifice and prayed for the dead to be released from their sin, this must have been the accepted practice of the Jews.
But this cannot be supported from any other passage of Scripture. The Old Testament contains extensive and meticulous instructions to the Jewish people on the form and nature of the sacrifices God demanded, but nowhere did God ordain that sacrifice and prayers be made for the dead. Nor are they sanctioned by Jewish custom or law. What is evident from this account is that Judas was not doing the prescribed will of God in offering sacrifices and prayers for the dead soldiers. As the ‘main’ proof the Roman Catholic Church sets forth in support of its teaching on purgatory, this passage is extremely tenuous. Any rational believer would expect such a fundamental doctrine to be revealed and explained throughout God’s Word, and yet the Roman Catholic Church admits that there are only a handful of New Testament references which, it claims, ‘imply’ the doctrine of purgatory, and none which teaches the doctrine directly.
In 1 Corinthians 3:15, Paul writes that, ‘If any man’s work is burned up, he shall suffer loss; but he himself shall be saved, yet so as through fire’. That the apostle should be called as a witness for a doctrine which denies the completeness of Christ’s atonement is astounding, given what he has written elsewhere about the forgiveness of sins. The context of Paul’s statement makes his meaning clear. He has been discussing works and teaching carried out in the name of Christ. ‘Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labour.’ He specifically mentions reward for labour. And the labour has to do with ministry related to the Church. Paul says men can build on the foundation of Jesus Christ that which is acceptable to God or that which is unacceptable. He is warning those who labour in the teaching ministry to be very careful about how they build. They can build with wood, hay and stubble, or with gold, silver and precious stones. In a logical continuation of the argument, he then maintains that these works will be judged and rewards either withheld or dispensed on the basis of their passing the test of fire, which will consume all that is not glorifying to God. Paul says nothing here which implicitly or explicitly links fire with the issue of personal justification.
This concept of an individual Christian’s works being weighed, tested or judged is found elsewhere in Paul’s epistles. In 2 Corinthians 5:10 he writes: ‘For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be recompensed for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad.’ All believers will stand before Christ after death and their works will be judged. If their work is burned up they will suffer loss (of what kind we are not told), but Paul is clear that they themselves will be saved. It is not the man who suffers the fire of God’s judgment but his works and errors, and the fire is not purifying but destructive. This is completely different from the concept of Christians passing through purgatory.
Another classic example of the Roman Catholic Church reading a preconceived theology into a passage is its interpretation of Matthew 12:32: ‘And whoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him; but whoever shall speak against the Holy Spirit it shall not be forgiven him, either in this age, or in the age to come.’ Rome claims that Scripture implies here that some sins can be forgiven in the age to come — thereby indirectly supporting the doctrine of purgatory. Yet no mention is made of purgatory, and when this passage is compared with parallel ones from the other Gospels it is clear Jesus was talking about the extreme gravity of speaking against the Holy Spirit.18 All of the Gospel accounts show consistency and none of them give the slightest indication or implication that there are other sins which can be forgiven after death. The rest of the New Testament is similarly unequivocal: ‘It is appointed that men die once, and after death be judged’ (Heb. 9:27). Even Roman Catholic theologian Richard McBrien concedes that:
So is there any historical basis for this ‘traditional’ doctrine? For at least the first two centuries there was no mention of purgatory in the Church. In all the writings of the Apostolic Fathers, Irenaeus and Justin Martyr there is not the slightest allusion to the idea of purgatory. Rome claims that the early Church nevertheless believed in purgatory because it prayed for the dead. This was becoming a common practice by the beginning of the third century but it does not, in itself, prove that the early Church believed in the existence of a purgatory. The written prayers which have survived, and the evidence from the catacombs and burial inscriptions indicate that the early Church viewed deceased Christians as residing in peace and happiness and the prayers offered were for them to have a greater experience of these. As early as Tertullian, in the late second and beginning of the third century, these prayers often use the Latin term refrigerium as a request of God on behalf of departed Christians, a term which means ‘refreshment’ or ‘to refresh’ and came to embody the concept of heavenly happiness.20 So the fact that the early Church prayed for the dead does not support the teaching of purgatory for the nature of the prayers themselves indicate the Church did not view the dead as residing in a place of suffering.
The roots of the teaching of purgatory can be traced to pagan Greek religion and philosophy in such writings as the Roman poet Virgil’s Aeneid and especially through the influence of Plato, whose views were introduced into the Church through Clement of Alexandria and Origen. These two leading Greek Fathers of the second and third centuries were based in Alexandria, which at the time was the centre of Christian culture, and in particular a melting pot in which Christianity and Hellenism mingled and fused. Origen, who is considered a heretic by the Roman Catholic Church, is the true founder of the doctrine of purgatory, in that he was an influential promoter of the concept of purgation through suffering after death. These views had a major influence on such Fathers as Ambrose, Jerome and most importantly Augustine — who more fully developed the Roman Catholic teaching on purgatory. He, in turn, greatly influenced Gregory the Great and is the major authority appealed to by all subsequent Roman Catholic theologians. In fact, after Augustine, there is very little that is added by others to his basic teaching on the concept and nature of purgatory.
Apart from Greek philosophical influences, the idea of purgatory was promoted and embellished by two other major influences: apocryphal literature and the accounts of visions. For example, Le Goff refers to The Passion of Perpetua and Felicitas, written in the third century, which tells of a vision of a Christian martyr, Dinocratus, who had died and who was in a state of suffering in some intermediary place between heaven and hell. He is finally relieved due to the prayers of his sister, Perpetua.21 This tale greatly influenced Augustine and all who subsequently promoted the teaching of purgatory.
There were also a number of Jewish and Christian apocryphal writings from the end of the first to the middle of the third centuries, such as the Book of Enoch, the Fourth Book of Ezra, the Apocalypse of Peter, the Apocalypse of Ezra and the Apocalypse of Paul, which greatly influenced some of the early Church Fathers. The Fourth Book of Ezra is quoted by Clement of Alexandria and Ambrose, and the Apocalypse of Ezra and Paul were extensively quoted during the Middle Ages.22 Once the authority of Augustine established the theology of purgatory and it was given dogmatic expression by Gregory the Great, the teaching was promoted and embellished through the accounts of numerous visions which were accepted at face value. Much of the authority which Gregory the Great appeals to for the existence of purgatory are visions which he says were from personal experience or claims recounted to him. He gives a number of these examples in his Dialogues. As the centuries passed, the accounts of visions became commonplace and continued to lend supernatural credence to the reality of purgatory.
Interestingly, even though the idea of purgatory was first introduced by Greek theologians, the Greek Church never accepted the teaching and along with the papacy, the immaculate conception of Mary and the Filioque it has been a major point of contention between the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic Churches throughout the centuries. So the Roman Catholic Church cannot even claim a unanimous consent of the Fathers to the concept of purgatory (even though there is greater consensus among the Fathers than for other distinctively Roman Catholic doctrines).
Paul warns believers in Colossians 2:8 to beware of being taken captive by hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends upon human tradition and the basic principles of this world, rather than on Christ. Purgatory is a philosophical concept which finds its source in the teachings of men, rather than the Word of God. It stems from a perversion of the biblical teaching of the sacrifice of Christ and on the way forgiveness of sins is appropriated. Scripture teaches that a believer is complete in Christ and that the work of Christ is sufficient to deal with the entire penalty for sin. It is a contradiction of this to add the works of man and the idea of expiating sin through suffering as a basis of salvation.
William A. Webster is a business man, living with his wife and children in Battle Ground, Washington. He has already authored The Christian Following Christ as Lord and Salvation, The Bible, and Roman Catholicism, The Church of Rome at the Bar of History and just recently published (Sept. 2001) the three volume series, Sola Scriptura co-edited by David T. King. Mr. Webster is a founder of Christian Resources, Inc., a tape and book ministry dedicated to teaching and evangelism. You can visit his website at:
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