Martin Luther on the doctrine of Purgatory
By Jeff Robinson–
When the Protestant Reformation broke out in 1517, the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church was the focal issue that ignited what flamed into the greatest revival of the Gospel since Pentecost, but a related issue which has received less ink was also at play for the reformers: the doctrine of purgatory.
The connection between the two issues is expressed in Johann Tetzel’s infamous sales pitch: “When in the coffer the coin rings, out of purgatory the soul springs.” In his famous 95 Theses, Martin Luther was directly attacking indulgences and, by good and necessary inference, he was also fomenting against the “unbiblical fiction” Rome called purgatory.
In theses 27 and 28, Luther directly addressed Tetzel’s avarice-driven slogan: “There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest” and “It is certainly possible that when the money clinks in the bottom of the chest avarice and greed increase; but when the church offers intercession, all depends in the will of God.”
Some historians have argued that Luther, because he did not directly deny the existence of purgatory in the theses, may have been in solidarity with Rome on the issue. Luther, who busied himself during the early portion of his career articulating and defending justification by faith, continued to develop doctrinally and later made clear his opposition to purgatory in a series of lectures on Genesis that commenced in 1535. Purgatory, Luther argued, is not only unbiblical, but undermines the doctrine of salvation sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christos. Luther wrote,
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.
One will search the Scriptures in utter futility to find such a doctrine, he argued. Thus, Luther concludes, it is a doctrine conjured up from the depths of hell itself:
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. . . 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.
Jeff Robinson (Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Senior Pastor of Philadelphia Baptist Church. Jeff is the author of the forthcoming book, The Great Commission Vision of John Calvin.
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