Wednesday, August 23, 2017

The Amazing Secret of the Souls in Purgatory, or...How We Are Justified by Grace through Faith in Christ

Read how Roman Catholics and the ELCA have "moved from the divisions of
Martin Luther's 95 theses to 32 statements of agreement" in this
National Catholic Register story by Peter Jesserer Smith from 2016.
With all the talk of Lutheran/Roman Catholic unity going on out there, one might get the impression that the Reformation is obsolete. It was an important part of the history of Western Civilization, but the curtain has closed on that scene a long time ago. Today, we can look back at the Reformation as a period during which medieval people argued about medieval issues, and sometimes tried to kill each other as a result (not that we modern, enlightened people could relate to that situation at all). Indeed, this why the Vatican is commemorating the Reformation – because it is dead. It is over. Finished. Kaput. You don’t commemorate something that is still alive, vital, and relevant. You celebrate that. You commemorate something that has passed away, like the anniversary of the death of a loved one.

The reason this is such a big deal now, is because 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation. This is because history has chosen to designate the date that Dr. Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, October 31, 1517, as the official beginning of the Reformation.[1] For the last year, and even longer, Christians of all stripes have been getting ready for 2017. Confessional Lutheran groups, like the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, have been preparing for the anniversary by emphasizing the things that were taught during the Reformation: That man is justified before God by grace, through faith alone in Jesus Christ. Liberal Lutherans, like those in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, have chosen a different path. These Lutherans have been working for unity with the Roman Catholic Church. These two churches have been meeting, issuing statements, and signing declarations since at least 1999 to achieve this end.[2] The Vatican has even issued a commemorative Reformation stamp.[3]

Not that I’m against unity. I am not. I would love nothing more than for Christendom to be truly united in one church body, under its head, Christ. I am against a false and contrived unity.

As much as some groups might try to say that the differences between the Roman Catholic Church and Confessional Lutheranism (what resulted from the Reformation, and is codified in the Book of Concord) are now so insignificant that we could join together in communion, it simply is not the case. Theologically liberal Lutherans who disregard the Lutheran Confessions may like to hold hands with theologically liberal, academically enlightened, Roman Catholics, stroking each other’s feelings, and cooing to each other in the language of Higher Criticism about how Holy Scripture is faulty. Their confessional counterparts, however, have made no such concessions. The argument between Wittenberg and Rome – or Augsburg and Trent, if you like – is about how man is justified before God. It has not yet been resolved, and is not likely to be, in my opinion, before Christ returns.

The main issue surrounding the posting of the 95 Theses, in a nutshell, was that of purgatory and indulgences. Luther wanted to debate the subject, so he posted the Theses, written in Latin, on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. This was not some act of defiance or vandalism. Lacking the modern means of communication, this was normal practice at the university. The Theses were quickly reprinted, translated, and distributed throughout Germany and Europe. Luther addressed the issue of indulgences from a number of angles[4]: The Pope doesn’t have the power he claims over the souls in purgatory; The Pope can only release people from punishments that he has imposed; Every truly penitent Christian already has pardon for his sins; Indulgences discourage works of mercy. Probably most famously, Luther talks about the Pope’s claim to control the so-called treasury of merit,[5] by asking why he does not simply grant indulgence to all the souls in purgatory:

Why does not the pope empty purgatory, for the sake of holy love and of the dire need of the souls that are there, if he redeems an infinite number of souls for the sake of miserable money with which to build a Church? The former reasons would be most just; the latter is most trivial.[6]

While this may have been a pressing issue in the 16th Century, the selling of indulgences isn’t really a “thing” anymore, right? Well, yes and no. The Roman church doesn’t actually sell indulgences in the way they did when the Pope was trying to raise money for building St. Peter’s basilica. There is no man like Johannes Tetzel, wandering the countryside, frightening people with the prospect of thousands of years of torture in purgatory, to get them to part with their money. Indulgences, however, still play a large and important role in the Roman Catholic religious system. The system of indulgences was modified in 1968 from a system of specific time periods (hours, days, weeks, months, years, etc.) to one of “partial” and “plenary” indulgence.[7]

An indulgence is a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church which, as the minister of redemption, dispenses and applies with authority the treasury of the satisfactions of Christ and the saints. An indulgence is partial or plenary according as it removes either part or all of the temporal punishment due to sin. Indulgences may be applied to the living or the dead.[8]

This isn’t simply some forgotten dogma in the Catechism of the Catholic Church that goes untaught. There are scores of pamphlets, popular books, and devotionals written about the souls in purgatory, and how to gain indulgence for them, and for one’s self. In one such booklet, Maria Simma talks about what Purgatory is, how she has been visited by souls being purified there, and what she does to gain for them indulgence:

What exactly is Purgatory? I’d say that it’s a marvelous invention of God...Suppose that one day a door opens, and a splendid being appears, extremely beautiful, of a beauty that has never been seen on earth. You are fascinated, overwhelmed by this being of light and beauty, even more so that this being shows that he is madly in love with you – you have never dreamed of being loved so much. You sense too that he has a great desire to draw you to him, to be one with you. And the fire of love which burns in your heart impels you to throw yourself into his arms. But wait – you realize at this moment that you haven’t washed for months and months, that you smell bad; your nose is running, your hair is greasy and matted, there are big dirty stains on your clothes, etc. So you say to yourself, “No, I just can’t present myself in this state. First I must go and wash; a good shower, then straight away I’ll come back.” But the love which has been born in your heart is so intense, so burning, so strong, that this delay for the shower is absolutely unbearable. The pain of the absence, even if it only lasts for a couple of minutes, is an atrocious wound in the heart, proportional to the intensity of the revelation of the love – it is a “love-wound.” Purgatory is exactly like this. It’s a delay imposed by our impurity, a delay before God’s embrace, a wound of love which causes intense suffering, a waiting, if you like, a nostalgia for love. It is precisely this burning, this longing which cleanses us of whatever is still impure in us.[9]

Maria goes on to describe how, when she was a little girl, she saw visions of people in her bedroom at night. She told her priest about the occurrences, and he confirmed to that she was being visited by the souls in purgatory. Maria described the reason for their visits:

In most cases, they ask to have Masses celebrated and that one be present at these Masses; they ask to have the rosary said and also that one make the Stations of the Cross...We must do a great deal for the souls in Purgatory, for they help us in their turn. We must have much humility; this is the greatest weapon against evil, against the Evil One. Humility drives evil away.[10]

This teaching about how the guilt of sin is remitted by our human works is contrary to God’s Word. God the Father, out of his mercy, and because of the death of Jesus on the cross, forgives sinners. We have redemption through the blood of Christ. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins.

In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace...And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (Ephesians 1:7; 1 John 2:2).

In fact, Scripture teaches that God declares sinners righteous for Christ’s sake. Our sins have been “credited” to Christ, and his righteousness has been credited to us. When we believe the Gospel, this message of reconciliation, our faith is credited to us as righteousness.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek...Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law...But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness (Romans 1:16; 3:28; 4:5).

The Lutheran Confessions boldly confess the Scriptural teaching on man’s justification, the doctrine by which the Church stands or falls:

Our churches teach that people cannot be justified before God by their own strength, merits, or works. People are freely justified for Christ’s sake, through faith, when they believe that they are received in to favor and that their sins are forgiven for Christ’s sake. By His death, Christ made satisfaction for our sins. God counts this faith for righteousness (Romans 3:21-26; 4:5).[11]

This is what the Roman Catholic Church has to say, officially, about the doctrine of Justification:

If any one saith, that by faith alone the impious is justified; in such wise as to mean, that nothing else is required to co-operate in order to the obtaining the grace of Justification, and that it is not in any way necessary, that he be prepared and disposed by the movement of his own will; let him be anathema.[12]

The canons on Justification  from the Council of Trent make for some interesting reading. They systematically anathematize the Gospel. That word anathema, incidentally, means “cursed”. So, what Canon IX, quoted above, is saying, is that anyone who believes that they are justified before God by faith alone, without an act, or movement, of their own will (works), is cursed. This is official teaching of the Roman Catholic Church, and has never been modified, or rescinded.

The only Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have come to agreement on the doctrine of Justification are the Lutherans and Roman Catholics who have abandoned Holy Scripture and the teachings of their churches.

[1] The Augsburg Confession, not the 95 Theses, is the primary confession of faith of the Lutheran Church and one of the most important documents of the Lutheran Reformation. The Augsburg Confession was written in both German and Latin and was presented by a number of German rulers and free-cities at the Diet of Augsburg on June 25, 1530. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V had called on the Princes and Free Territories in Germany to explain their religious convictions in an attempt to restore religious and political unity in the Holy Roman Empire and rally support against the Turkish invasion. It is the fourth document contained in the Lutheran Book of Concord. Central to the document and its subsequent Apology is its explanation of the Biblical doctrine of Justification. Confessional Lutherans teach forensic, or "legal", justification. This means that God declares the sinner to be "not guilty" (justified) because Christ has taken his place, living a perfect life according to God's law and suffering for his sins. For Confessional Lutherans justification is in no way dependent upon the thoughts, words, and deeds of those justified through faith alone in Christ. The new obedience that the justified sinner renders to God through sanctification follows justification as a consequence, but is not part of justification. For these reasons, if I were in charge of picking a date for the start of the Reformation, I would choose June 25, 1530, rather than the conventional October 31, 1517. Joseph Klotz, “Augustana,” The Hodgkins Lutheran, April 25, 2013,

[2]The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification (JDDJ) is a document created, and agreed to, by the Catholic Church's Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (PCPCU) and the Lutheran World Federation in 1999. It states that the churches now share "a common understanding of our justification by God's grace through faith in Christ.” “Joint Declaration of the Doctrine of Justification,” Wikipedia, accessed August 22, 2017,

You can read the document here:

[3]Jan Bentz, “Breaking: Vatican to issue stamp featuring Martin Luther,” LifeSiteNews, January 17, 2017. The Vatican office charged with issuing stamps, known as the Philatelic and Numismatic Office, confirmed Tuesday to LifeSiteNews that Luther, who broke away from the Catholic Church in a schism 500 years ago, will be celebrated with a postage stamp in 2017. The office is in charge of the annual commission of stamps, coins, and other commemorative medals.

[4] Martin Luther, Disputation of Doctor Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, trans. Adolph Spaeth, L.D. Reed, Henry E. Jacobs, et. Al., (Philadelphia: A. J. Holman Company, 1915), Vol.1, pp. 29-38. Accessed August 22, 2017.

[5]  The Treasury of Merit, as concisely defined by Merriam Webster, is the superabundant satisfaction of Christ for human sins and the excess of merit of the saints which according to Roman Catholic theology is effective for salvation of others and is available for dispensation through indulgences. “Treasury of Merits,” Merriam-Webster, accessed August 22, 2017.

[6] Theses 82, ibid.

[7] “The Divine Mercy Devotion,” EWTN, accessed August 22, 2017,  A plenary indulgence means that by the merits of Jesus Christ, the Blessed Virgin Mary and all the saints, the full remission of the temporal punishment due to sacramentally forgiven sins is obtained. The person becomes as if just baptized and would fly immediately to heaven if he died in that instant. A partial indulgence means that a portion of the temporal punishment due to forgiven sin is remitted. Partial indulgences are received either by doing some act to which a partial indulgence is attached (e.g. praying a partially indulgenced prayer), or by the incomplete fulfillment of the conditions attached to a plenary indulgence.

[8] Catechism of the Catholic Church. New Hope, KY: Urbi et Orbi Communications, 1994.

[9] Medjugorje, Sister Emmanuel. The amazing secret of the souls in purgatory. Santa Barbara, CA: Queenship Pub. Co., 2005.

[10] ibid. p. 7-8, 14.

[11] AC IV 1-3.

[12] “On Justification,” The Council of Trent, accessed August 22, 2017,

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Have you stopped beating your wife? or…Is Baptism Necessary for Salvation?

When you testify in court for the prosecution, it is important to remember that the defense attorney is trying to discredit you. The better ones know how to back a witness into a corner without them realizing it. That’s why the witness should always remember, whenever possible, to give short, direct answers, which are unambiguous. Along with that, the witness should not immediately rush to answer the question. Defense attorneys will sometimes ask a series of short, simple questions, for which they want either a “yes” or a “no,” in rapid succession, in order to get the witness to feel comfortable answering quickly and without thinking. This is a set up for the last question in the series, which is a “gotcha.” Your name is Officer Klotz? Yes. Your badge number is 140? Yes. You’re working day shift now? Yes. You were working day shift when you stopped my client for speeding? Yes. You had your radar unit repaired before going out on the street that day? Um…

The scenario is awkward and contrived but serves to make the point. The question being asked isn’t really the question being asked. It’s like asking someone if they have stopped beating their wife. If you answer yes, you have just admitted to beating your wife. If you answer no, well, you are an actively abusive husband. It’s better not to assent to the premise of the question. In the scenario, that would be the time for the witness to pause and look to the prosecutor to raise an objection.

Is baptism necessary for salvation? [Pause]

Scripture and The Confessions say yes.

Jesus answered, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit (John 3:5-6).

Concerning Baptism, our churches teach that Baptism is necessary for salvation (Mark 16:16) and that God’s grace is offered through Baptism (Titus 3:4-7). They teach that children are to be baptized (Acts 2:38-39). Being offered to God through Baptism, they are received into God’s grace (AC IX).[1]

But first, I think we have to make sure we know precisely what question is being asked before we begin the discussion. What does the questioner mean when he asks, is baptism necessary for salvation? This, as does every question regarding baptism, boils down to what you believe baptism to be. Is baptism God's work, or man's? In other words, who is doing the baptizing? Is it God? Is it the minister? Is it the person being baptized? If baptism is the work of man, then it is by no means necessary. If baptism is done as a result of a man's decision, it is nothing more than a good work, and good works are not necessary for salvation. Indeed, we know that scripture teaches that it is impossible to earn our salvation through our own works. If baptism is, as scripture describes it, a life-giving water of regeneration that saves us by washing away our sins, then it is absolutely necessary. As always, most of these issues are made clear when we see who is doing the verbs.

So, does the questioner mean to ask, "Is baptism, which is a human work of obedience, done after making a decision by a man's will, necessary for salvation?" Or, are they asking, "Is baptism, which is a work begun and completed by God, as a means of delivering to man the gifts faith and forgiveness God has promised him, necessary for salvation?"

American Evangelicals mean the first thing when they ask this question. Confessional Lutherans mean the second. It is a little like comparing apples and asteroids, though. American Evangelicals see baptism as something they do. First, you are convinced to make a decision to accept Christ into your heart. After you have done that, you do the work of obedience of being baptized. Your baptism is a public confession of your decision to become a Christian. It is purely symbolic, and there is no supernatural aspect to it.

Christian baptism is the immersion of a believer in water in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It is an act of obedience symbolizing the believer's faith in a crucified, buried, and risen Saviour, the believer's death to sin, the burial of the old life, and the resurrection to walk in newness of life in Christ Jesus. It is a testimony to his faith in the final resurrection of the dead. Being a church ordinance, it is prerequisite to the privileges of church membership and to the Lord's Supper.[2]

Confessional Lutherans are diametrically opposed to this view of baptism. It is clear that Confessional Lutherans do not view Baptism as a human work. The men who wrote the Book of Concord and said that Baptism is necessary for salvation spent a lot of time explaining, from Scripture, how man is not justified by doing good works, and how good works, when connected with justification, are harmful.

A disagreement about good works has arisen among the theologians of the Augsburg Confession. One side uses the following words and way of speaking: “Good works are necessary for salvation; it is impossible to be saved without good works.” Likewise, “No one has been saved without good works.” They say good works are required of true believers as the fruit of faith, and faith without love is dead, although such love is no cause of salvation. The other side argued that good works are indeed necessary – however, not for salvation, but for other reasons. The expressions mentioned above are not to be tolerated in the Church. (They are not in accord with the form of sound doctrine and with the Word, and have always been and still are used by the papists to oppose the doctrine of our Christian faith, in which we confess that faith alone justifies and saves.) This is argued in order that the merit of Christ, our Savior, may not be diminished, and the promise of salvation may be and remain firm and certain to believers (FC SD IV 1-2).[3]

Baptism is not something a person decides to have done to them; rather, it is something God does to a person. Rather than being a reaction to conversion, faith, and repentance, it is the means by which those things are given to a person by God, because Baptism is a means by which God delivers his saving word. Scripture says that baptism is a life-giving washing of regeneration that imparts the Holy Spirit, and saves us by washing away our sins.

Then Peter said to them, “Repent, and let every one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit…And now why are you waiting? Arise and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on the name of the Lord.’…Or do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life. For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin…For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ…Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to obey, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing all humility to all men. For we ourselves were also once foolish, disobedient, deceived, serving various lusts and pleasures, living in malice and envy, hateful and hating one another. But when the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life...For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit, by whom also He went and preached to the spirits in prison, who formerly were disobedient, when once the Divine longsuffering waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was being prepared, in which a few, that is, eight souls, were saved through water. There is also an antitype which now saves us—baptism (not the removal of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God), through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been made subject to Him (Acts 2:38; 22:16; Romans 6:3-5; Galatians 3:27; Titus 3:1-8; 1 Peter 3:18-22).

Sure, one might say, babies don’t decide to be baptized. This is true. Isn’t that, however, what those people are doing when Peter tells them to repent? Aren’t they making a decision to turn away from their sin and accept Christ? Not quite. As Jesus instructs us, baptism and teaching go together.[4] So, if we are dealing with a baby, we baptize first, and teach for the rest of his life. If we are dealing with an adult, we begin teaching, and then baptize, and continue teaching for the rest of his life.

You see, faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God.[5] It is the Holy Spirit, working through the word, which works faith and repentance in an unregenerate person. God, in his infinite wisdom, had provided multiple ways for that word to get to those who need it, e.g. all mankind, from infant to aged. We have pastors who preach the word. We have Bibles in which we read the word. Can’t read, or hear and understand preaching? We have Holy Baptism and the Lord’s Supper so that the word can be delivered to us and received by us in connection with physical elements – water, bread, and wine – since we are physical beings who live in a physical world. It is God who converts us. It is God who “repents” us.[6] It is God who gives us faith.[7] He does these things through the word, and He uses means to deliver that word to men.

If that is what Baptism is, then it is most certainly necessary for salvation.

What about the thief on the cross? Wasn’t he saved without being baptized? Yes, he was. He also had Jesus, the Christ, God in human flesh, hanging on a cross next to him, telling him, in person, that He would save him. What the thief on the cross had, is what Baptism delivers to everyone who didn’t have the benefit of hanging next to Jesus at their death. Moreover, Jesus had not instituted Holy Baptism yet. That would come upon his ascension into Heaven. As John the Baptist is considered the last of the Old Testament prophets, I look at the thief on the cross as the last of the Old Testament saints. He was looking forward to the promise of Christ’s death and resurrection, just as Abraham and all the other Old Testament saints did.

The issue here really isn’t one of a person dying after conversion, but before being able to be baptized. After all, Scripture teaches us that only unbelief condemns a person. The issue is can a person who claims faith in Christ, continue to reject Baptism. The explanation to Luther’s Small Catechism explains that faith cannot exist in the heart of a person who despises and rejects Baptism against better knowledge. But those who believe the Gospel, yet die before they have the opportunity to be baptized are not condemned.[8] I am put in mind of the Ethiopian eunuch who, after reading of the Messiah in Isaiah, and being catechized by Phillip, says, “See, here is water. What hinders me from being baptized?”[9]

Finally, we must consider infants who die in the womb, or after being born but before being brought to the font. This is always a difficult subject because we have no scripture passage to which we can point, that says unequivocally, “Unbaptized babies automatically go to Heaven.” I must, however, rely on the fact that 1) God is love, 2) Scripture tells us that only unbelief condemns, and God is responsible for gifting man with repentance and faith, and 3) while God has bound us to the means of grace exclusively, he is able to do whatever he wants. In other words, God has commanded us to Baptize and to teach. He may save the unbaptized child in some other manner, but we have no promise in Scripture. It is certainly in His loving nature.

Scripture tells us that God wants all men to be saved. All people, from conception, need the new life God offers in Christ. Again, we go back to St. Paul, who writes, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of God.”[10] Adults who can hear and understand that spoken or written word receive the faith promised by the working of the Holy Spirit, when and where God wills. Praise be to God that he has also provided a means for his grace to reach all people, even infants, in the Sacrament of Baptism. For God has connected his promise of redemption in Christ with the waters of Baptism; Through Baptism, in a way that human minds cannot conceive, he delivers that word to infants, and to adults, by the same Holy Spirit. Baptism, as defined by Scripture, and not human reason, is certainly necessary for salvation.

[1] Paul T. McCain, et. al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[2] "Southern Baptist Convention." Southern Baptist Convention > The Baptist Faith and Message. Accessed August 01, 2017.

[3] Paul T. McCain, et. al., Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. A Reader’s Edition of the Book of Concord (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2005).

[4] Matthew 28:19-20

[5] So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God (Romans 10:17).

[6] And a servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will (2 Timothy 2:24-26). Paul instructs Timothy to be patient and to teach, hoping that God would grant repentance to Timothy’s opposition. It is God who “repents” a person, not a person who decides to repent.

[7]  If therefore God gave them the same gift as He gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” When they heard these things they became silent; and they glorified God, saying, “Then God has also granted to the Gentiles repentance to life” (Acts 11:17-18). Peter explains that God granted the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles; who was he to argue with God? The others then acknowledged that God granted the Gentiles the gift of repentance. Repentance, contrary to being something a person decides to do, is something God does to a person.

[8] Martin Luther, Luther’s Small Catechism with Explanation (Concordia Publishing House: St. Louis, 1986), 204-207.

[9] We can save the discussion on Acts 8:37 for a separate article.

[10] Romans 10:17