Tag Archives: indulgences

The Reformation of Purgatory

Our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation continues.   One of the most important Reformers in the Low Countries was Guido (or Guy) de Brès.  Martyred in 1567, we remember him primarily as the author of the 1561 Belgic Confession.  Today let me share with you a little known fact about de Brès:  he reformed the doctrine of purgatory.

This came out when he was in prison in Tournai.  He and another Reformed pastor (Peregrin de la Grange) were initially imprisoned there and then shortly afterwards transferred to Valenciennes.  While awaiting transfer, de Brès and de la Grange were visited by many people.  He had become a celebrity.  He wrote, “…I was visited by a large number of gentlemen, women, and young girls, who said that they wanted to see me because they had heard so much of Guy de Brès, and had never seen him before.”

Among those visitors was Monsieur de Moulbay, the commander of the Tournai castle where de Brès was imprisoned.  He came looking to debate points of theology with the pastor.  They first tried to argue with de Brès about the invocation of Mary and other saints.  De Brès stumped them with quotations from Scripture and Augustine.  Their next attack came with the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary, Jesus’ mother.  De Brès affirmed that he believed that she was always and still is a virgin — not an uncommon position among sixteenth century Reformers.  The answer surprised his accusers.

Then de Moulbay alleged that de Brès did not believe in purgatory.  By that, he meant the Romanist idea that most believers, after they die, would have to go to a place of fiery cleansing.  Purgatory was an unpleasant experience necessitated by the fact that most believers were going to die with unconfessed and unforgiven sin.  De Moulbay thought that de Brès rejected this teaching.  This was the response of de Brès and the follow-up:

Pardon me, sir, I do not belong to those who deny a purgatory.  For I hold the blood of the Son of God to be the purgatory of the sins of those who repent and embrace this benefit by faith.  But I do not recognize the burning and roasting of souls as held by the fables of the priests.  Then he answered me in anger, saying that I might as well deny that there is a hell.  But I said that I held that there is a hell for the sinful and wicked, just as the Word of God teaches us, but that I did not hold to such a purgatory as the priests had invented because the Scriptures teach us nothing about it.  Then they said that I should find out if there is a hell, when I would be damned.  To which I responded to him that I have my Judge in heaven and he would judge altogether different — and concerning that I was confident because of his Word.

We read nothing of anything further between de Brès and de Moulbay.  Immediately after this, de Brès and de la Grange were shipped out of Tournai on their way to Valenciennes.

It is possible that de Brès’ thinking about purgatory was influenced by John Calvin.  In Institutes 3.5.6, Calvin wrote:

For what means this purgatory of theirs but that satisfaction of sins is paid by the souls of the dead after their death?  Hence, when the notion of satisfaction is destroyed, purgatory itself is straightway torn up by the very roots.  But if it is perfectly clear from our preceding discourse that the blood of Christ is the sole satisfaction for the sins of believers, the sole expiation, the sole purgation, what remains but to say that purgatory is simply a dreadful blasphemy against Christ?

Notice how Calvin speaks about Christ’s blood as “the sole purgation” (or the only cleansing).  That’s similar to how de Brès answered de Moulbay.

However, there is a late medieval letter which may be an earlier influence.  Wessel Gansfort was a Dutch theologian who lived about a century before de Brès.  He was writing to Jacob Hoeck, another theologian.  They had been arguing about the role of tradition and Scripture, specifically with regard to the issue of indulgences.  Indulgences were the church’s means for reducing the believer’s time in purgatory.  Hoeck had asserted that the Bible said nothing for or against indulgences.  Gansfort completely disagreed.  He wrote,

In my opinion it was not the first Pope, Peter, but the Holy Spirit through Peter who issued the one and only permanent bull of indulgence.  Peter testifies that this bull is permanent because it provides ample entrance into the kingdom of God and of our Saviour Jesus Christ.  And Peter further testifies that the bull is the only one and adds, ‘Whoever lacks these things [the ten things enumerated in 2 Peter 1] is blind and feeling his way by hand and has forgotten that he was cleansed from his old sins.’  Therefore no other bull is to received or authorized which does not include this.  Every other bull is superfluous and, therefore, Scripture does speak about indulgences, because it refers to ample entrance into the kingdom. (Forerunners of the Reformation, ed. Heiko Oberman, 103).

Gansfort was speaking about a different (but related) issue, yet we find him using the same polemical method as de Brès about a hundred years later:  co-opting your opponent’s terminology.  Had de Brès read Gansfort?  It’s impossible to say.  More likely, both Gansfort and de Brès were using a method of argument that had been developed by someone else in an earlier period.  Regardless of where it came from, de Brès rejected the Romanist doctrine of purgatory and insisted that, if we are going to speak about the purging of sin, it must be done only in connection with the blood of Christ shed on the cross.  That’s the only way to reform purgatory.


Pillars of the Reformation

The Reformation started 500 years ago with a protest against indulgences.  Rome had adopted the idea that there is a place called purgatory where believers must spend time before they can expect to arrive in heaven.  Purgatory is a place of torment where the believer  is “purged” (cleansed) from his or her remaining sins.  But one’s time in purgatory could be shortened through the purchase of an indulgence from the church.  Buying this certificate, one allegedly received access to the treasury of merit achieved by Christ and the saints.  It was a win-win for everyone — the church made extra money for the building of St. Peter’s cathedral in Rome and the believer could reduce purge time for himself or loved ones.  But a German monk named Martin Luther would have none of it — he published the 95 Theses in 1517, a protest against indulgences.  That was just the start of the Reformation in the early 1500s.

As the Reformation progressed, it became evident that there were five main issues in debate.  We sometimes call these the five pillars of the Reformation — they’re also known as the five ‘solas.’  Let’s review them.

Sola Scriptura — by the Bible alone.  Rome taught that the Bible is authoritative for believers.  But Rome also taught that tradition and the Church are also authoritative.  The Reformation maintained that the Bible alone is the ultimate authority for what we believe and how we live.

Sola Gratia — by grace alone.  Rome taught that believers need God’s grace to be saved.  But Rome also taught that believers need to cooperate with God’s grace in order to be saved.  Salvation is by grace plus good works.  The Reformation maintained that salvation comes by God’s grace alone.  When it comes to the basis of our salvation, we do not merit anything, indeed, we cannot merit anything before God.

Sola Fide — by faith alone.  This has to do with justification.  Rome taught that justification is a life-long process.  At the end of your life, God will make his judgment about you based on what you did, particularly your good works.  The Reformation maintained that justification is an event whereby God declares that the sinner is righteous through Jesus Christ.  Justification is received through faith alone.  In justification, faith is simply receiving Jesus Christ as your righteousness.  Good works are not part of the equation (though they certainly flow forth in the justified person’s life as a fruit).

Solus Christus — Christ alone.   Rome taught that every believer needs Jesus Christ.  However, the papacy also taught that one needs the Virgin Mary and the saints.  Christ is not enough.  Against that, the Reformation maintained that everything we need for our salvation is in Jesus Christ alone.

Soli Deo Gloria — to God alone be the glory.  Rome taught that God ought to be praised for salvation.  However, they included good works in the basis of salvation.  They gave a place to Mary and the saints alongside Christ as the Redeemer.  Human beings had to cooperate with God’s grace for justification and salvation.  The inevitable conclusion is that God gets praise, but so do human beings.  The Reformation objected.  The Reformation upheld the biblical teaching of Psalm 115:1, “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory..”  All the credit, all the glory, all the praise, goes to God for our salvation.

These five pillars continue to be vitally important for the church today.  Rome still teaches what it always has.  But perhaps of more relevance is the fact that our natural human tendency is to drift away from each of these teachings.  The natural human inclination is not to give God his exclusive due.  We’re bent towards taking credit for ourselves and not acknowledging God’s exclusive authority in our lives.  Pride is our default mode.  The five pillars put us in a proper posture of humility before God.  Therefore, Christians today neglect the five pillars to their own detriment and, more tragically, to a degradation of God’s glory.  As we celebrate the Reformation, let’s be thankful for these teachings and continue to maintain them.