Yesterday, I read an article by John G. Stackhouse called “The Hard Work of Holiness” in The Christian Century about purgatory and how some protestant pastors are reconsidering the doctrine. As the article makes clear, these protestant theologians aren’t ready to give up one of the hallmark doctrines of the Reformation. Instead, they are thinking of purgatory in a new way. The article points to a book by Jerry Walls, an evangelical philosopher at a Baptist seminary, entitled Purgatory: The Logic of Total Transformation as an example of how we might reconsider the important process of sanctification in this life. Maybe purgatory is where we are right now.
Although I’m not willing to jump on that bandwagon just yet (the reader will be comforted, I know, to hear that my adherence to the 39 Articles is still intact), this Sunday’s epistle lesson (Romans 6:1b-11) got me wondering about the whole justification/sanctification process. Paul writes,
Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin go on living in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.
I love logic. I live by logic. Paul is as logical as any other New Testament author. But I must admit that the whole baptism, sin, justification, sanctification thing confuses me a little bit. Yes, Paul, we are baptized into Christ’s death. Yes, Paul, through that baptism we are changed—we die to sin and are already raised to new life. Should we go on sinning? No. But do we? Of course. So what do we make of it?
If I am free from sin—if I have died to sin through my baptism into Christ’s death—then why do I keep on sinning? As Paul writes elsewhere, why do I do the very thing I hate? If sin really has no consequence in this life, then why does it seem to be such trouble? Is there really an ontological change experienced in baptism—is the stain of original sin really washed away? Or is baptism merely psychological—a reminder of God’s saving love?
Even though it doesn’t answer all my questions, I like how Paul describes it as this week’s passage concludes. We are set free from slavery to sin. Sin no longer has dominion over us. Our lord is now Jesus Christ. “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin.” We are freed. That’s a different image that I usually think of. Instead of worrying about still sinning, maybe I should think of sin’s powerlessness over me.
In the divine economy of salvation, dying to sin means that sin has no more power over us in the eternal sense. Do I struggle with sin? Yes. We all do. But does sin have any power to affect my relationship with God once I have died with Christ? No, I don’t think it does. It might feel like it, but God has already justified me—I have already been made right with him. The sanctification process, then, is me figuring out how to live the rest of my life fully conscious of God’s justification. Call that purgatory? Probably not. But it is a struggle.