One of the distinct Catholic beliefs commonly misunderstood by non-Catholics is purgatory. Why there is purgatory in Catholicism is related to the Church’s teaching on Justification. The Catholic Church views Justification as intrinsic or through Justification the righteousness of God through Christ is infused (by the Holy Spirit) in us. This means the outcome of Justification is we are made righteous as the righteousness of God becomes inherent part of us. Protestants and “Bible only” Christians, on the other hand, consider Justification as extrinsic. They believe through Justification the righteousness of Christ is imputed on us and as a result we are declared righteous. This means we use external (or alien) righteousness of Christ to cover our unrighteousness.
Using simple analogy would help us to better understand the difference in Justification. Suppose our state before knowing Christ is like wearing dirty robe – the dirt on our robe represents our sins. By ourselves we are unable to clean our robes. Catholics, Protestants and “Bible only” Christians are aware that because of these sins we are not entitled to enter heaven. Scripture says: who commits sin is of the devil (1 John 3:8) and nothing unclean shall enter heaven (Revelation 21:27). In Protestant’s Justification Christ will cover our dirty robe with His spotless robe, if we believe in Him as our Lord and Saviour. When God looks at us to justify whether we can enter heaven or not, He will see us wearing external spotless robe of Christ and declares us clean. In Protestants forensic language, Justification is judicial declaration that we are righteous on account of Christ righteousness imputed on us. Under this concept, purgatory is not required because Christ already covers up our unrighteousness. Purgatory, as they would generally say, will make what Christ has done insufficient. After all, did He say on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30, RSV)?
Catholics, on the other hand, believe that God through Christ will help us to clean our dirty robe. The first washing happens through Baptism (if we have chance to do so). To Catholics Baptism is neither symbol nor public declaration of one’s faith in Christ (neither of them has biblical support) – it really changes us inwardly and makes us reborn as new persons. After Baptism we will sin and make our robe dirty again. Christ will continue helping us to clean it through Sacrament of Penance and the process is repeated through-out our life. Note that Catholics believe it is God’s Grace that first moves us to repent and to go for confession – using our freedom we cooperate with that Grace. When we die with our robe still stained with venial (non-mortal) sins, then it will cleansed (or more correctly, purified) through purgatory. We will then enter heaven wearing our own clean robe. Revelation 19:8 uses fine linen to symbolize the righteous deeds of the saints – it would not say so it their righteousness is external and imputed on them. Those who die with their robe still stained with mortal sin will go to hell. Scripture does say there are mortal (or deathly) and non-mortal sins (1 John 5:16-17).
Other than final purifying from our venial sins, purgatory has something to do with punishment of our sins. Catholics believe all sins carry punishment and if we do not undergo our punishment for our venial sins in life, then we do it in purgatory (the punishment for our mortal sin is cancelled through Sacrament of Penance). This is something that all Protestants and “Bible only” Christians will find hard to swallow. The reason is they are accustomed to their forensic (courtroom) style Justification. God is the judge and we stand in courtroom as criminals unable to pay the penalty of our crime (i.e. sin) and are about to be thrown to jail (i.e. hell). We are in totally hopeless situation but God offers the only solution – He sent His Son, Christ, to step down and if we believe in Him as Lord and Saviour, He will pay the penalty of our sins (on the cross). Justification is therefore a legal exchange; we get Christ’ righteousness while He got our sins and bore them on the cross. If this is the case, why are we still punished for our sins? It does not make sense or, as they would say, it is unscriptural. Catholics, on the other hand, do not view Justification as something forensic. Our Justification does not take place in courtroom but inside the family of God. God is our heavenly Father and we are His adopted children. We become His children through our faith in Christ (John 1:12, Romans 8:15, 23, Galatians 4:5 and Ephesians 1:5). Those with children are aware that from time to time they need to discipline their children. Any child will misbehave because of either external influence (friends, media etc.) or unawareness (when we are still babies, we are tolerated for peeing on bed but as we grow older we must learn where and how to do it properly). Good parents need to discipline their children for their own good. Discipline, while it may carry some form of punishment, is not torture (while few parents may physically or even sexually abuse their children God is our perfect Father in heaven). Scripture says: For the Lord disciplines him whom he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives (Hebrews 12:6, RSV). The same Greek verb for “to chastise” is used in Matthew 10:17, Matthew 20:19 and Acts 22:25, translated as to whip or to scourge (a form of punishment).