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February 27, 2009 / vivator

Luther on Purgatory

It is interesting to know that Luther did believe in purgatory, though he was not able to find any support from Scripture.  He therefore argued that purgatory should not be considered as Church’s dogma, i.e. those who do not believe in it are not heretics. Below is what he wrote on purgatory (emphasis in bold is mine):

The existence of a purgatory I have never denied. I still hold that it exists, as I have written and admitted [Unterricht auf etlich Artikel. WA 2, 70] many times, though I have found no way of proving it incontrovertibly from Scripture or reason. I find in Scripture that Christ, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, David, Hezekiah, and some others tasted hell in this life. This I think was purgatory, and it seems not beyond belief that some of the dead suffer in like manner. Tauler [c. 1300 to 1361, Dominican monk who, under the influence of his teacher Meister Eckhart, taught at Strassburg a deeply mystical piety] has much to say about it, and, in short, I myself have come to the conclusion that there is a purgatory, but I cannot force anybody else to come to the same result.

There is only one thing that I have criticized, namely, the way in which my opponents refer to purgatory passages in Scripture which are so inapplicable that it is shameful. For example, they apply Ps. 66[:12], “We went through fire and through water,” though the whole psalm sings of the sufferings of the saints, whom no one places in purgatory. And they quote St. Paul in I Cor. 3[:13-15] when he says of the fire of the last day that it will test the good works, and by it some will be saved because they keep the faith, though their work may suffer loss. They turn this fire also into a purgatory, according to their custom of twisting Scripture and making it mean whatever they want.

And similarly they have arbitrarily dragged in the passage in Matt. 12[:32] in which Christ says, “Whoever speaks blasphemy against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this world or in the world to come.” Christ means here that he shall never be forgiven, as Mark 3[:29] explains, saying, “Whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit never has forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin.” To be sure, even St. Gregory [Gregory the Great, Dialogorum Libri, IV, chap. 89. Migne 77, 396] interprets the passage in Matthew 12 to mean that some sins will be forgiven in the world to come, but St. Mark does not permit such an interpretation, and he counts for more than all the doctors.

I have discussed all this in order to show that no one is bound to believe more than what is based on Scripture, and those who do not believe in purgatory are not to be called heretics, if otherwise they accept Scripture in its entirety, as the Greek church does. The gospel compels me to believe that St. Peter and St. James are saints, but at the same time it is not necessary to believe that St. Peter is buried in Home [Rome] and St. James at Compostella [Santiago de Compostella, a famous place of pilgrimage in Spain] and that their bodies are still there, for Scripture does not report it. Again, there is no sin in holding that none of the saints whom the pope canonizes are saints, and no saint will be offended, for, as a matter of fact, there are many saints in heaven of whom we know nothing, and certainly not that they are saints, yet they are not offended, and do not consider us heretics because we do not know of them. The pope and his partisans play this game only in order to fabricate many wild articles of faith and thus make it possible to silence and suppress the true articles of the Scripture.

But their use of the passage in II Macc. 12[:43], which tells how Judas Maceabeus sent money to Jerusalem for prayers to be offered for those who fell in battle, proves nothing, for that book is not among the books of Holy Scripture, and, as St. Jerome says, it is not found in a Hebrew version, the language in which all the books of the Old Testament are written. [Jerome, Preface to the Books of Samuel and Malachi. Migne 28, 600ff] In other respects, too, this book deserves little authority, for it contradicts the first Book of Maccabees in its description of King Antiochus, and contains many other fables which destroy its credibility. But even were the book authoritative, it would still be necessary in the case of so important an article that at least one passage out of the chief books [of the Bible] should support it, in order that every word might be established through the mouth of two or three witnesses. It must give rise to suspicion that in order to substantiate this doctrine no more than one passage could be discovered in the entire Bible; moreover this passage is in the least important and most despised book. Especially since so much depends on this doctrine which is so important that, indeed, the papacy and the whole hierarchy are all but built upon it, and derive all their wealth and honor from it. Surely, the majority of the priests would starve to death if there were no purgatory. Well, they should not offer such vague and feeble grounds for our faith!

Career of the Reformer II, Luther’s Works, Vol. 32



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  1. Pr. St. Jean / Oct 25 2013 3:53 pm

    You make a fatal mistake of using early writings of Luther which he warns against as still being filled with Roman error. Here is what he wrote as to purgatory!

    “Purgatory is the greatest falsehood, because it is based on ungodliness and unbelief; for they deny that faith saves, and they maintain that satisfaction for sins is the cause of salvation. Therefore he who is in purgatory is in hell itself; for these are his thoughts: “I am a sinner and must render satisfaction for my sins; therefore I shall make a will and shall bequeath a definite amount of money for building churches and for buying prayers and sacrifices for the dead by the monks and priests.” Such people die in a faith in works and have no knowledge of Christ. Indeed, they hate Him. We die in faith in Christ, who died for our sins and rendered satisfaction for us. He is my Bosom, my Paradise, my Comfort, and my Hope.” (Luther on Genesis 25:5; AE 4).

    “Of purgatory there is no mention in Holy Scripture; it is a lie of the devil, in order that the papists may have some market days and snares for catching money. The sophists agree with the pope because of Thomas.” (Luther on Genesis 50:1; AE 8).

    “We deny the existence of a purgatory and of a limbo of the fathers in which they say that there is hope and a sure expectation of liberation. But these are figments of some stupid and bungling sophist. For that very hope and expectation would afflict them, according to the statement in Prov. 13:12: “Hope deferred makes the heart sick.” Thus we suffer in hope, although we are not confounded. But that people of God is without the suffering caused by longing and sleeps in most peaceful sleep and rest, as Christ says: “This girl is not dead; she is alive; she is resting” (Matt. 9:24).” (Luther on Genesis 50:1; AE 8).

    Luther rejected purgatory. Don’t

    • vivator / Oct 25 2013 8:43 pm

      Nope, I did not make fatal mistake. Many libraries have 50+ volumes of Luther’s Works – you can go and double check it yourself. His statement about purgatory I quoted can be found in Vol. 32 from his work: “Defense and Explanation of all the Articles”. He wrote it in 1521 as response to papal bull, Exsurge Domine, issued by Pope Leo X on June 15, 1520. What you quote is his later statement from his other works: “Lectures on Genesis”, which he wrote from 1535 to 1536 and can be found in Vol. 1 to 9. I am not surprised that you never heard about the former (the one I quoted) as most, if not all Protestants, tend to hide his controversial statement and expose only those that portrait the Catholic Church negatively. What I can learn here is within 14 years he changed his mind on doctrinal matter. But why I should be surprised? It was not the only time he did such thing. For example every Protestants are aware that he taught salvation by faith alone but later he taught that works are necessary for salvation in his work: The Disputation Concerning Justification, written in 1536. In 1519 he wrote a trilogy on three Sacraments: Penance, Baptism and Lord’s Supper. Just one year later, in 1520, he omitted Sacrament of Penance and accepted only the remaining two. Most Protestant and “Bible only” churches further reduced the number of sacraments from two into zero – i.e. there is no sacrament, Baptism and Lord’ Supper are only symbol or ordinance.
      Coming back to purgatory, since your authority is supposed to be the Bible alone, not what Luther believed or wrote, why don’t you open and read your Bible (i.e. the one with sixty-six books)? Scripture refers God as refiner’s fire (Malachi 3:2) who refines some (i.e. not all) as one refines silver (Zechariah 13:8-9).

      • Utopia / Nov 1 2013 8:15 pm

        Your reply to “Pr. St. Jean” essentially agrees with him. He is correct, you wrongly use Luther’s early writings to build a fallacious case for purgatory.

        As to Luther’s alleged later acceptance of faith + works.. totally spurious. You have been corrected on this more than once. No expert on Luther would agree with your interpretation of Luther’s work, The Disputation Concerning Justification.

        Finally, the scripture citations you use in support of purgatory are about clearly about end times, not purgatory. Chapter 14 of Zechariah makes clear the context of Zechariah 13, and Malachi 3:2 is clearly eschatological.

      • vivator / Nov 2 2013 1:57 pm

        I agree that mis-read his comment. Here what he wrote in the beginning: “You make a fatal mistake of using early writings of Luther which he warns against as still being filled with Roman error”. So what Luther wrote earlier was still being filled with Roman error which he corrected later in 1536. Fine, but then the same principle should apply with what he wrote, also in 1536, in The Disputation Concerning Justification, i.e. he simply corrected his earlier error. You wrote “No expert on Luther would agree with your interpretation of Luther’s work, The Disputation Concerning Justification”. Who do you mean by expert? Those who are in your side for sure will disagree and will “correct” me – but they are not expert. Here what he wrote, which according to you requires “experts” to understand correctly:

        Works are necessary to salvation, but they do not cause salvation, because faith alone gives life. On account of the hypocrites we must say that good works are necessary to salvation. It is necessary to work. Nevertheless, it does not follow that works save on that account, unless we understand necessity very clearly as the necessity that there must be an inward and outward salvation or righteousness. Works save outwardly, that is, they show evidence that we are righteous and that there is faith in a man which saves inwardly, as Paul says, “Man believes with his heart and so is justified, and he confesses with his lips and so is saved” [Romans 10:10]. Outward salvation shows faith to be present, just as fruit shows a tree to be good.

        Luther did write “faith alone gives life” and “it does not follow that works save” but this is the problem of his statement as he contradicted himself. If faith alone gives life then he cannot say works are necessary to salvation. If works are necessary to salvation then he cannot write “it does not follow that works save” and “faith alone gives life”. He wrote that “works are necessary” but “does not save on that account” but then wrote “works save outwardly”.

        Finally even Zech 13 & 14 talks about end-times it does not negate the fact that God will refine some through fire. Your argument is not convincing at all – you simply try to change the subject.

      • Utopia / Nov 2 2013 8:35 pm

        You misinterpret my comments as well as Luther’s. Nowhere do I say that one has to be an “expert” to rightly interpret Luther’s passage. Rather I was anticipating your charge of bias and appealing to the more objective scholarship on Luther, i.e.: the “experts.”
        Makes no difference to me whether the scholar is Catholic or Evangelical… you will be hard pressed to find a reasonable scholar willing to overlook the greater body of Luther’s work for one passage that you say contradicts it.

        But as they say, “to a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail.” The biased person sees the words “works,” “necessary,” and “salvation” – says “Gotcha!” – and won’t see the points that eliminate any charge of “contradiction” in Luther’s theology.

        1) The context is critical in this passage. Luther addresses the counterfeit believer whose faith is insincere and shows no evidence (works) of salvation – this is the “hypocrite” to whom Luther refers. This is what he means by “On account of the hypocrites we must say that good works are necessary to salvation.”

        2) Luther himself makes it clear that he is not contradicting himself. He distinguishes between justification “there is faith in a man which saves inwardly,” and sanctification which he describes as “works that save outwardly, that is, they show evidence that we are righteous…” Thus when Luther says “Works are necessary to salvation,” he means “necessary” only to “show evidence that we are righteous.”
        Luther adds “Outward salvation shows faith to be present, just as fruit shows a tree to be good.”

        No scholar worth his salt will deny that Luther remained steadfast in defending the doctrine of ‘righteousness by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.’ To Luther, meritorious works of cooperation have no role in the justification of a sinner. On that matter he is perfect agreement with the Word of God

      • vivator / Nov 2 2013 9:28 pm

        This is what you wrote “No expert on Luther would agree with your interpretation of Luther’s work, The Disputation Concerning Justification.” Does it imply that you believe only expert can interpret Luther’s work correctly and none of them agree with me?
        Your argument to defend Luther is classic. My question to you is (the same question I asked F): what is the MINIMUM frequency or amount of works you must do in order to produce ENOUGH evidence of your faith (otherwise you will be labeled hypocrite) or evidence that you are righteous (otherwise you are labeled not righteous)? This question may never cross your mind but once the word “necessary” is included in your salvation concept then you must set your cut-off point. Otherwise one person will say he will do good works, say, once a week, and claim he has enough evidence of his faith in Christ. You may agree or disagree with him and set your own criteria. You should realize that your salvation is faith AND work based! You can only correctly declare that justification by faith alone because to you (and Luther) justification is one-time event.

  2. agj / Mar 11 2015 4:14 pm

    It seems to me that all of you who are so willing to argue with each other so forcefully over what I will refer to as “secondary doctrines” (i.e. those not included in the creeds), your animosity apparent although you use Christian subject matter, betrays the fact that you miss some of the major points of the faith which is a bit sad. It’s a shame (literally) that you all feel so threatened by another brother in Christ’s “minor” beliefs that you would desire to cut his throat with your words.

    • vivator / Mar 11 2015 7:17 pm

      First it is not secondary doctrine. When we recite Apostle creed, one line says “believe in the communion of saints” – it implies communion of saints in heaven, on earth and in purgatory.
      Second, contrary to what you wrote I do not feel threatened by other brother in Christ and therefore I do not desire to cut his throat with my words. The content of the post is mostly the words of Luther, mine is only the first sentence in the beginning. I am not asking every reader to agree with Luther – what I did is pointed out the fact that Luther believed in such thing. Later one left a comment (you can find it by browsing earlier comments) telling me that Luther later changed his mind, i.e. he rejected purgatory.

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