Oh Lord, I’m running….Trying to make a 100. Ninety-nine and a half won’t do! These are the words of an old African American spiritual. And ultimately they are rooted in a promise of God that we will one day be perfect.
Well, I’ll tell you, God’s been good to me and he’s brought me a mighty long way, but I’m not at 100, not even close. Because this “100” is not graded on some human curve or scale. The 100 is God’s 100! Jesus says, Be therefore perfect, as also your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48).
How about you? Are you there yet?
If we’re honest we all fall short, way short. But what then of God’s promise, if on the day we die, we haven’t reached God’s 100? Have you ever really known anyone who had God’s perfection? Really? We often speak of how holy some people are, and some have reached great heights, by God’s grace. But how many have you or I really known that had, not just human perfection, but the very perfection of God?
So what if we die unfinished? And most of us will.
Some say, oh well, God will just overlook all that and let us in anyway, “God loves me just the way I am.” But again then we must ask, “What of God’s promise that we would be perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect?”
And further, what of the descriptions of the just in heaven and the promises of perfection assigned to us? For example:
- But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect (Heb 12:22-23)
- I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband…..Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life (Rev 21:2,27).
- You know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, and lacking in nothing. (James 1:3-4)
- For now, we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away (1 Cor 13:9-10).
- God who has begun a good work in you, will bring it to perfection. (Phil 1:6)
So the promise and the need of perfection stand clear in Scripture. And God will not just overlook his promise and “love me just the way I am.”
What a callous and cruel thing to consign us to ultimate imperfection. The very thought of living in my present unseemly state forever would be awful. As I have said, God has been good to me, but for all of us, there are still too many disordered and competitive drives at work, too many unruly passions, and too many spiritual, emotional and physical irritants of many unknown and deep sources, for you and me to say we’d be happy to stay in this condition. Spiritual progress is the normal Christian state. But we are heading to a high and wondrous state beyond all imagining. This is the promise and I won’t be satisfied with anything less that the full promise of the Lord to make me perfect as the heavenly Father is perfect.
GK Chesterton, responding to a Critic of Purgatory said,
Purgatory may exist whether he likes it or not…..It may be obvious to us that [a person] is already utterly sinless, at one with the saints. It may be evident to us that [he] is already utterly selfless, filled only with God and forgetful of the very meaning of gain. But if the cosmic power holds that there are still some strange finishing touches, beyond our fancy, to put to his perfection, then certainly there will be some cosmic provision for that mysterious completion of the seemingly complete. The stars are not clean in His sight and His angels He chargeth with folly; and if [God] should decide….there is room for improvement, we can but admit that omniscience can heal the defect that we cannot even see. (G.K’s Weekly 4/11/1925)
Yes, even if we were to engage in the folly of thinking we ourselves, or someone else had reached perfection, the truth is we don’t really know what true, God-like perfection is. All I know is, that if I were to die today, God would have to bring to completion the good work he has begun in me.
The Protestants largely dismiss Purgatory because their first founders (Luther, Calvin et al.) tended to reduce salvation and justification to a legal act. The sinner was “declared” righteous, was “covered” in the blood of the Lamb. But this justice was a justitia aliena (an alien justice), a justice imputed, declared, or said of the sinner, but not intrinsic to them. They did not actually become righteous, they were merely said to be righteous and the Father overlooked their sin. They were, to use Luther’s supposed analogy, a dung hill covered with snow (but still a dung hill underneath).
But here too is a sad loss of the promise of the Lord who did not merely promise we would be considered perfect, but that we would actually BE perfect, by his grace. And in all the promises of scripture listed above, there is no notion of a mere declaration of perfection but, rather, an actual experience of real perfection, an actual and real transformation. And this experience, this transformation, begins now. But surely some finishing work is required for most all of us after death, if we take the scope of Godlike perfection seriously.
Purgatory just makes sense when we focus on the promises of God rather than merely to see it as a punitive place where we make up for our sins. Purgatory must also be a place of healing and of promise keeping. Likely there is suffering there, since to let go and be purged of things to which we have been clinging is probably not easy. But Oh, the healing too and weight that must be lifted and we finally shed years of accumulated “issues and baggage.”
Of those made fit for heaven the Scripture says that Jesus “Will wipe every tear from their eyes” (Rev 21:3). I, like you, have surely said goodbye to family, friends and parishioners who still had some tears in their eyes. And we know that they, like we, had things they could not bring to heaven: tears, sorrows, regrets, painful memories, unhealed hurts, and sins. But God, who is good, and a promise keeper, will not leave anything undone. He will wipe every tear from our eyes, every tear.
Purgatory has to be. God loves us too much to leave us in our present unseemly state.
I have written more on the Biblical Roots of Purgatory here: Purgatory – Biblical and Reasonable
Photo Credit: Spiritual Inspirations