I’m still haunted by the memories of how the nuns taught us about heaven and hell in parochial school. The curriculum must have been part of “Nunery Teaching 101,” and it went along these lines: the teacher drew a circle on the chalkboard and would open with “This is your soul.” Then she would make several little marks on our souls, which she stated signified venial sins. Now venial sins were pretty easy to commit, especially as a young child, and you could stockpile these without even trying. The problem was that the consequence of dying with even one venial sin on your soul will immediately condemn you to Purgatory.
Then the nun would use chalk to color the entire soul and proclaim, “This is a mortal sin,” and “even one mortal sin will send you to hell.” The upshot of all this was that we were less concerned with mortal sin and going to hell than we were with even one venial sin and going to Purgatory. Even the sound of the word “Purgatory” all but gave us post-traumatic stress disorder.
The next thing I knew, we were all buying Scapulars, which are stamp-sized cloth front and back necklaces with the words “Whoever dies wearing this Scapula shall not suffer eternal fire” embroidered on one side. Wearing it day and night, the Scapula didn’t age well; imagine what a 12-year-old’s tee shirt would look like if it were worn continuously for a year. Additionally, in hindsight, apparently, there were several other caveats that needed to be followed for this promise to be fulfilled. We now understand that as “the fine print.” In any event, the Scapula at least provided some temporary relief from the threat of Purgatory for many pubescent Catholic students.
How did Purgatory come about? According to one Catholic apologist, in the Second Book of Maccabees 12:39-46, Judas Maccabeus prays for his fallen comrades who had died in battle while wearing amulets dedicated to pagan idols. Maccabees 12:46 concludes as follows: “It is, therefore, a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.” Granted, Maccabees is only in the Catholic Apocrypha Bible and is never supported in the rest of the Bible, but the concept of Purgatory exploded.
It was not, however, until 1563 at the Council of Trent that the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory was formally defined and affirmed as a “great value of praying for the deceased.” By that time, Martin Luther, in 1518, had nailed his “95 Theses” on the “Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” detailing what he saw as the abusive practices of clergy selling indulgences to earn relief from Purgatory, and the Reformation was well underway. Even now, little kids probably still buy Scapula indulgences in Parochial Schools after their nun’s “this is your soul” lesson.
But, Purgatory misses the point! Yes, at least it was an escape hatch for Catholics dying with only venial sins. And yes, throughout history, there have been abuses in selling indulgences. But Purgatory is really a diversion; what should be articulated is salvation and eternal destiny, and it’s worthwhile to understand how various religions address these two events.
All religions, but one, hold that salvation and eternal destiny are based on works. For example, Jehovah’s Witnesses believe salvation is earned by “door-to-door” work. Mormonism believes salvation is by works, including faithfulness to church leaders, baptism, tithing, secret temple rituals (i.e., underwear), and church membership. Islam looks at the balance between good and evil deeds as a determinant of salvation. Others tie salvation to reincarnation, such as Hinduism, which believe in cycles of reincarnation that can take many lifetimes based on good and evil works. Finally, Unity believes people are reincarnated until they learn truths and become perfect through works.
Roman Catholics believe in salvation through Grace, which “is the gratuitous gift that God makes to us of His own life, infused by the Holy Spirit into our soul to heal it of sin and to sanctify it” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1999). While Biblical Christians believe in salvation through Grace which is imputed by the Holy Spirit.
Infused and imputed, are we just talking semantics? No! There are some very real distinctions.
Infused refers to the initiation and ensuing progression of salvation. One so infused maintains their salvation through good works and can, through evil works, such as mortal sin, lose their salvation or, through venial sin, delay their salvation in purgatory upon death.
On the other hand, imputed refers to a forensic declaration of salvation that can neither be lost nor delayed. Salvation is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Additionally, good works are a byproduct of salvation and are never efforts needed to produce or maintain it.
The critical distinction is; does God save you once for all time (imputation), or does God just kickstart salvation and leave it up to your works to maintain and not lose or delay it (infusion)?
Another interesting point is the fact that in Catholicism, your imperfections (human venial sins) are responsible for committing you to purgatory, yet, others with the same types of imperfections (humans with venial sins) are somehow capable to pray or pay you out of purgatory. So, we can’t get to heaven because we’re sinners, but other sinners can somehow get us there. How does that work?
The Bible has several verses that specifically describe this imputation and the gifts of grace and faith without works. Perhaps the most succinct is Ephesians 2:8-9, which states, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Romans 3:28 adds, “For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from works of the Law.” And finally, Romans 11:6 emphasizes, “But if it is by grace, it is no longer of works; otherwise grace is no longer grace.”
Biblical Christianity professes grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from any good works that a believer might perform. All other religions add works to salvation.
Unfortunately, that unmistakable difference has eternal consequences.