Q&A: Purgatory vs. New Birth

Purgatory vs. New Birth

Question

I just read this argument in which the author rejects purgatory on the basis of the new birth. Do you agree with what is said here?

  1. To spend eternity with the Lord, one must be reborn (John 3:3-8; 1 Pet. 1:23).
  2. There is a law of works ... and a law of righteousness. The law of righteousness overrides the law of works (Rom. 9:31-32; 2 Cor. 3:6; Gal. 2:16,21; 3:23-25).
  3. Reborn people have already been perfected. Our bodies do not go to heaven or to hell. Our spirits do. Our bodies have the law of sin in them ... and will have until they return to the dust from whence they came. When one receives the new birth, the Holy Spirit quickens our spirit and brings it to 'chaim' ... LIFE. He 'births' a new spirit in us. Hence the term ... born again ... or the new birth. If something is born from the flesh it is corrupted. If it is born from the Spirit ... it is holy and righteous. This is why our bodies cannot go into eternity. Something that has been spiritually created by the Holy Spirit is holy and righteous and DOES NOT NEED PERFECTING ... by anything. The work of perfection has been accomplished. No need for a purgatory of any kind. "It is finished." (Eph. 4:21-24; 1John 3:8-9)
  4. After the "new birth," the law of sin in your body takes up a battle against the law of righteousness which has been created in your new spirit (Rom. 7:15-8:1).

Answer

Reading this out of context, I'm having a bit of trouble following the relationship to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory, but this doesn't seem to be the focus of the argument anyway. I assume that this person was arguing against purgatory on the basis that our bodies do not go to heaven.
  1. Regarding the first point of the argument (one must be reborn to go to heaven): This part is straightforward and true.

  2. Regarding the second point of the argument (there is a law of works and a law of righteousness): This point is a bit more complicated than the argument here makes it look. Actually, the Bible speaks of many kinds of "law," and many of them are synonyms for the Mosaic Law. Others are merely principles rather than codes of statues. In any case, the phrases "law of righteousness" and "law of works" are not parallel -- at least not in the way they are normally used. The relationships of the prepositional phrases ("of righteousness" and "of works") to the word "law" is different. In the context of Romans 9, the "law of righteousness" is a law which produces or results in righteousness. On the other hand, the phrase "law of works" (which by the way does not appear in any of the proof texts provided), is not a law which produces or results in works, but rather a law which requires works as the basis for reward (as in the phrase "by the works of the law" which does appear in the proof texts).

    The point being made here is ill-founded first because it compares apples to oranges. Law can be both "of works" and "of righteousness" at the same time. For example, Jesus kept the law perfectly and thus earned for himself the promised rewards, which included righteousness. Thus, the law was both a law of works (it required works as the basis for reward) and a law of righteousness (it resulted in the reward of righteousness).

    Second, it is also ill-founded because in Romans 9:31 the "law of righteousness" is not a good thing, but the argument in question presents the "law of righteousness" as something true and powerful which "overrides the law of works." In Romans 10:1-6, we find that the law of righteousness mentioned in Romans 9:31 was the Jews' attempt to create their own righteousness by doing good works -- but this is exactly what Paul condemns. Concerning believers, "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness" (Rom. 10:4). The contrast here is not between "law of works" and "law of righteousness," but rather between righteousness based on obedience to the law ("law of righteousness") and righteousness based on faith in Christ (Rom. 10:6). As presented in Romans 9-10, "law of righteousness" and the "law of works" are synonymous. Interestingly, the point I am arguing here is actually confirmed by one of the proof texts provided in the argument: Galatians 2:21.

  3. Regarding the third point of the argument (our bodies do not go to heaven): This point is absolutely false -- it contradicts the explicit teaching of Scripture. In fact, this is exactly the heresy that Paul refuted in 1 Corinthians 15 -- read this chapter in full, it presents a wonderful case for the eternal bodily resurrection of believers. In that chapter, Paul attacked the viewpoint that our bodies would not be resurrected. He argued that just as Christ was resurrected in his body, so we will be resurrected in our bodies. In fact, he pressed the matter so as to say that if our bodies are not also going to be resurrected, then not even Christ was resurrected, in which case we are all going to hell because the gospel is false (1 Cor. 15:12-14). For Paul and the other New Testament writers, the eternal bodily resurrection of believers, which will take place when Christ returns for the final judgment, was a foundational truth of the gospel (see also Matt. 22:23-32; Mark 12:18-27; Luke 20:27-38; John 5:28-29; 11:24-26; Acts 17:30-31; 23:6-8; 24:14-15; Rom. 6:5; Rom. 8:23-25; Phil. 3:10-11; 2 Tim. 2:18).

    In the context of arguing against the resurrection of believers, the argument in question also says that reborn people have already been perfected. This is also plainly false. The most obvious reason is that our bodies, which are part of us and which will be saved in the resurrection, have not yet been perfected. Paul makes this point explicitly in Romans 8:23-25. In Romans 6:1-8:39, one of the things he argues is that the spirits of believers have already been regenerated (believers have been born again), but that believers still await the redemption/resurrection of their bodies. If God had already finished saving and perfecting us, we would never sin, and we would already have our resurrected bodies.

    Also, the argument that whatever is born of flesh is corrupted and incapable of being saved is totally false. Adam and Eve were created with bodies, and their bodies were not corrupted (even though they were corruptible). Jesus' himself was raised from the dead in the flesh, and his body is perfect and with him in heaven (Acts 2:31-33; 1 John 4:2-3). Note also that even though the bodies of fallen men are corrupted with sin, this is also the case with their spirits. Just as God is able to save our spirits, he is able to save our bodies. No one argues that unredeemed bodies spend eternity in heaven. The argument is that we have redeemed, perfected, sinless bodies in heaven.

    Perhaps the strangest part of this section of the argument is the proof texts (Eph. 4:21-24; 1 John 3:8-9). Neither of these texts mentions our bodies. The author of the argument seems to think that in Ephesians 4:21-24 "the old man" refers to our flesh/bodies, while "the new man" refers to our spirits. However, this idea is found nowhere in the text of Ephesians (I suspect the author of the argument imported the idea from Rom. 7:14-25). In Ephesians, Paul's point is not that our bodies are being corrupted while our spirits are being saved. Rather, his point is that we should not act the way we used to act before we were saved. The "old man" is the person you used to be before you were saved (see Eph. 4:17-19), and the "new man" is the new person you have become and are becoming (Eph. 4:20-24). This is why Paul begins this section by saying that Christians should "no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking" (Eph. 4:17), and why he emphasizes this by mentioning it again in Ephesians 4:22 ("your former manner of life," or "former conversation" in the KJV [not a great translation at this point]).

    The author of the argument seems to quote 1 John 3:8-9 in order to prove that believers no longer sin, at least not with/in their spirits. This passage speaks strongly of the new lives of believers, but it says nothing about our bodies versus our spirits. In fact, the Greek word for "body" (soma) does not appear in this letter at all. The word for "flesh" (sarx) appears twice, once with a negative connotation ("lust of the flesh" [1 John 2:16]), and once with a positive connotation ("Jesus Christ has come in the flesh" [1 John 4:2]). Moreover, while John states in 1 John 3:1-10 that believers do not sin, in the beginning of the letter he says that they do sin (1 John 1:7-2:2). The most consistent way to reconcile these passages is to note that in 1 John 1:7-2:2 John seems to be speaking of the occasional commission of sins ("if anyone sins" [1 John 2:1]). This is the same thing John mentions in 1 John 5:16 when he says that Christians should pray for one another when they see each other sin. In 1 John 3:1-10, however, John is speaking of a lasting lifestyle of blatant sin, one which is sufficient to demonstrate that the person definitely does not have the Holy Spirit. There are grammatical reasons that make it possible to translate 1 John 3:1-10 as referring to people who continually live a sinful lifestyle, and contextual reasons (e.g. 1 John 1:7-2:2; 5:16) to prefer this translation. In any event, the passage is teaching the difference between believers and unbelievers, not between the bodies and the spirits of believers.

  4. Regarding the fourth point of the argument (the law of sin in our bodies fights the law of righteousness in our spirits): This text does not mention a "law of righteousness," though it does mention a "law of God." Here the problem seems to be the author's theological conclusions and confusing vocabulary, not so much his understanding of the text of Romans 7:14-8:1. The "law of God" here is the law which is in accordance with God's standards and which comes from God -- this is not the same thing as the "law of righteousness" in Romans 9-10 (see point 1 above). Nevertheless, I believe that the author of the argument has sufficiently understood Paul's position in Romans 7:14-8:1 (but not in Romans 9-10). I think Paul really is saying that, as believers, our spirits are regenerate and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. As a result, in our spirits we want to behave righteously. At the same time, sin still indwells our flesh (which includes but is not limited to our bodies), and sin loves to sin but hates to do righteousness. The sin in our bodies/flesh wars with our spirits in an attempt to get us to sin, while the Holy Spirit inspires our spirits to struggle to do righteousness (compare Rom. 8:10; Gal. 5:17). The reason Paul identifies himself with his spirit rather than with his flesh/body is that his new identity in Christ is the same as his indentity in his spirit. Paul's spirit represents the first fruits of who he is becoming (Rom. 8:23).

    The problem with the argument in question is that Romans 7:14-8:1 does not in the least support the idea that our bodies will not be saved. In fact, while it demonstrates that they are not now saved, it also shows hope that they will be saved. Specifically, Paul cries out, "Who will save me from the body of this death?" (Rom. 7:24). Then he responds with thanks to God (Rom. 7:25), indicating that God will in fact rescue him from this dilemma. Lest we think that salvation from "the body of this death" means separation from our bodies, Paul goes on to demonstrate in the next chapter that God will ultimately accomplish this salvation by renewing our bodies and raising them from the dead (Rom. 8:11,23). Our bodies are not yet redeemed, but they will be.
In conclusion, there are some good things in this argument, but also some very bad things. The argument that we won't go to purgatory because we won't have bodies is a very bad argument because in its denial that our bodies will be saved, it fundamentally denies the gospel. While I reject the doctrine of purgatory as unscriptural, I also must oppose this particular argument against purgatory as similarly unscriptural.

Answer by Ra McLaughlin

Ra McLaughlin is Vice President of Finance and Administration at Third Millennium Ministries.