The Catholic Understanding of Justification and Purgatory


So, as is probably evident if you’ve perused my blog, I’ve been studying Catholic theology as of late. In two former posts I’ve examined the Catholic teaching on justification, and the Catholic teaching on faith / works, in contrast to the Protestant teachings (read HERE and HERE).

This has been beneficial to me, as I can say with conscience that Catholics are brothers and sisters in Christ; although Protestants and Catholics have some big differences in their theology. As I stated in my first post, Catholics believe that “justification” is not merely God’s declaration over the sinner; rather, justification in the Catholic sense is a sort of “corporeal” inclusion in the righteousness of Christ. That is to say, justification includes an “infusion” of Christ’s righteousness, not an imputation. What this means, is that final eschatological justification depends not merely on faith (though it certainly does), but also on cooperation with Christ’s righteousness. What I mean, is that by inclusion into Christ, the Catholic believer, now “owning” the righteousness of Christ, must live out that righteousness. He must live out Christ’s infused righteousness, in other words. And his final justification depends on the believer, who ever grows in union with Christ, cooperating and living out the merits of Christ.

Hans Urs von Balthasar, in his Theo-Drama IV: The Action (Part III, C, 4, b — his excursus on communion on the saints), says that believers become “incorporated into Christ’s obedience, [and thereby]… become obedient with him”. In other words, Jesus infuses his obedience into the believer (and the believer is incorporated into Him), thereby allowing him to “merit” eternal life by and in his life. Balthasar explains,

Christ’s fruitfulness “overflows” onto the members of his Body [believers], so that the latter are enabled to bring forth fruit for eternal life on the basis of a power that is their own yet comes to them in a secondary way, from Christ. Accordingly, we should not say “that we merit eternal life because of our works,… but that we merit eternal life by”… [the gift of Christ’s merit within]

Balthasar contrasts this understanding of justification to the Protestant definition, saying,

[Protestants] suggest a “double righteousness”, that is, a real but insufficient righteousness on man’s part that needs to be supplemented by the all-sufficient righteousness of Christ; this means that both righteousnesses are external to each other

What Balthasar is critiquing here, is the thought that the Christian has “two types of righteousness”: one which is alien to him by the merits of Jesus, and one that is intrinsic or actual to him by the power of the Holy Spirit. The former, this alien righteousness, is what merits eternal life for us and without us. The latter, is what comes through us as a result of the former.

Martin Luther actually used this title, “two righteousness”, in an early sermon; he says,

There are two kinds of Christian righteousness, just as man’s sin is of two kinds [natural and actual sin]. The first is alien righteousness, that is the righteousness of another, instilled from without… This [second] righteousness consists in love to one’s neighbor, [and is] the product of the righteousness of the first type, actually its fruit and consequence…This righteousness goes on to complete the first for it ever strives to do away with the old Adam and to destroy the body of sin (full quote)

Luther distinguishes between “salvific” or “imputed” righteousness and “actual” righteousness.

Catholics have never made this distinction. They see Christ’s righteousness and the believer’s as one and the same thing. By virtue of corporeal union with the “mystical body of Christ”, Christians receive the merits of Jesus infused, and thereby merit for themselves eternal life by that same righteousness. Balthasar clarifies (again in The Action, his explanation of the communion of the saints),

The merits of Christ are attributed to us, since God regards Christ and us as a single mystical Person, and, in part, they overflow upon us, granting us, who are the living members of the vine, a share in its power of fruitfulness (that is, Christ’s merit)

Now, this is a very important thing to understand when it comes to the Catholic teaching on “purgatory”. Purgatory is generally understood by Catholics to be a place of cleansing or “purging” after death. It is a place where sins that still “cling” to the believer are expiated.

Now, why would cleansing be necessary? From a Protestant point of view, the suffering of Christ is enough. The reason is because in Protestant theology, Christ suffered in the place of the believer, and his righteousness is “accredited” in full through faith. Justification is, in the Protestant scheme, “closed” and complete precisely because it is “accredited” or “imputed”.

However, as has been covered, Catholics view justification as an infusion of of corporeal righteousness, not as an imputation; and the believer “merits heaven” by that infused righteousness.

But, if the believer dies with “unrighteousness” still present before they go to heaven, they enter into a purification stage whereby their still-remaining sins are “purged”. This purging cleanses the believer from any clinging sins which had not been repented of, or expiated in their life, so that they can enter into heaven.

The Catholic Catechism states that,

All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified [by Christ’s infused righteousness], 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 (CCC, 1030)

Taylor Marshall says,

Purgatory is a place only for those on their way to Heaven. It is the final purification of those who die in fellowship with Christ… [However,] Christ died to make us actually and really holy… “Be holy as I am holy.”… Purgatory is this final transformation by which our Christ-centered actions are acknowledged and our sinful affections are burned away… (source).

Catholics see this as a place associated with fire, with pain, because as Marshall says, “we must let go of the desires of the flesh and face our failings”. In other words, it is a place where God finally “purges” away the areas in the believer’s life that are not righteous as a result of their union with Christ.

Hopefully you can see how the Catholic idea of Purgatory is directly related to the doctrine of “infused” righteousness. The righteousness given to the believer is meant to cause a life meritorious of heaven. Yet, if the believer hasn’t reached complete righteousness before heaven, purgatory is mean to cleanse them before entering. In this way, Catholics see purgatory as merciful. We cannot overstate that. Purgatory is not hell in the Catholic scheme. Rather is God stripping away any sins which would exclude the Christian from heaven.

Joseph Ratzinger himself (Pope Benedict XVI), claimed that purgatory was the sinner’s collision with Christ himself. He said, “encounter with the Lord is this transformation” of purgatory. The closer the sinner comes into actual fellowship with Jesus, the more his sin expiates; the more it “burns away”. Therefore, the pain is the sinful soul’s collision with the sinless Christ.

In contrast, Protestants see the “two righteousness” model as sufficient, and find no place for purgatory in “justification”. When we die, though we will not be “saints” in the actual sense of the word, Christ’s perfect “record” is what merits our way into heaven.


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