Some thoughts on the act of dying
Evangelical preaching of salvation through and in Jesus Christ makes clear that after death we go to one of two places/spheres - heaven or hell. And the decision for this eternity is made here and now. If we turn away from the world, the flesh and the devil and receive the Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and Lord in this life, then by the grace of God we go to heaven when we die (or after the Last Judgment); but, if we remain in the service of the world, the flesh and the devil in this life, then we go to hell when we die (or after the Last Judgment).
Many "born again" people, who are influenced by such preaching, seem to think that Roman Catholics and high Anglicans, who teach that the baptized go to purgatory after death, actually believe that Catholic teaching does not insist that the final decision as to eternity is made in this life but actually allows for there to be a second chance after death to make the decision to receive the Lord Jesus Christ.
Let us be clear. The doctrine of purgatory or purgation teaches that at death the Christian soul, because it is not yet fully sanctified, needs to go through a period and process of cleansing and renewal and that, at the end of this, there is only one exit and that is into heaven to be with the Lord Jesus Christ for ever. No one in purgatory goes to hell, even if his progress toward heaven because of his resistance to being purged is slow and delayed.
In fact, it has been said that to be in purgatory is to be with Christ, but to be with Christ as the One who cleanses the soul from the stain, pollution and disease of sin. This is a painful process for all but especially for those who do not wholly and fully cooperate with Him; but it is to be with Him all the same even in great anguish.
Thus traditional R C preaching of the Gospel does make it very clear that we are in this life to hear and receive the Gospel, to repent of sins and to believe on the Name of the Lord Jesus, to be baptized and to enter His Church. If we do not receive the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and choose other gods then we shall be condemned at death and in the Last Judgment by the pure justice of God to hell.
So the difference between the conservative, evangelical Protestant and the traditional Roman Catholic or high Anglican is not concerning the eternal destiny of those who accept or reject the Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour. It is whether or not at death the soul of the believer has to/needs to go through purgation and cleansing before it is ready to receive the resurrection body of glory and to be with the Lord forever.
Evangelical Protestants hold that by the wonderful, omnipotent grace of God, the souls of believers, imperfect and sinful as they are, are marvellously and gloriously made holy and full sanctified in the act of death so that the soul, which goes to be with Christ in glory, is wholly perfected and truly sanctified, and is thus ready to be with the Lord of glory in the kingdom of heaven waiting for the resurrection of the dead. That is, total sanctification which has not happened in years of Christian living, is achieved in a flash in the act of dying.
In contrast, Catholics, truly aware of the depth of inbred sin and of the imperfections of the Christian soul, believe that before the soul (the baptized person) will be ready to be with the Lord forever and also to receive his resurrection body of glory, it/he must be purged, cleansed and purified of inbred, innate & original sin. Only after this process is completed is he ready to be with the Lord for ever. (Of course there are the few saints who by the grace of God go directly at death, often through martyrdom, to be with the Lord.)
It is regrettable that Catholics over developed this doctrine of purification and purgatory and, especially in the late Middle Ages, gave the impression that the works and prayers and masses of people on earth can speed up the progress of the soul through purgatory. The massive reaction in the Protestant Reformation to the whole idea of purgatory was very much energized by the existence everywhere of excesses and practical applications of the doctrine that were so obviously contrary to the plain sense of Scriptural teaching and of sound reason. Had the Protestant Reformers encountered the doctrine of purgation as known say in the year 500 rather than as it existed in 1500 then their reaction would probably have been very different indeed! And the history of the Church would have been different.
One can hardly over-estimate the importance of the doctrine of purgatory and the cultus and practices associated with it in the late Middle Ages, for the way that Protestantism developed.
But let us turn to the present day.
What I fear is that too many modern-day Evangelicals have been encouraged by the nature of their doctrine of the immediate placement of the soul of the believer with Christ at death to discount the enormity and the depth of sin in the soul of the believer when he/she dies. The older Protestant teaching placed great emphasis upon the reality of indwelling sin in the soul and the need for mortification of sin and holiness of life. In preparation for death one cast oneself upon the great mercy of the Lord looking for total deliverance by grace and by grace alone. In contrast, the newer Protestant teaching seems to make it all very straightforward and simple - just believe on Jesus and all will be fine and do not worry much about the state of your soul, Jesus will take care of that! The route to heaven is all too easy now, it seems.
And, I must add, many Catholics have also minimized the nature and reality of the pollution of sin in the soul of the baptized believer and thereby say little if anything of the need for purgation after death before entering the presence of the Lord of glory. They too seem to speak of an easy path to be with the Lord of righteousness and grace.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America