Q. If Jesus died for our sins on the cross then why does the Catholic Church teach that we still need to be punished in Purgatory?
A. The non Catholic view of salvation says that Jesus died for our sins and if we repent and believe:
1 John 1:9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins …
End of story. However, we see in Sacred Scripture that there is more to the story. For instance, in this very verse it goes on to say:
.…and purify us from all unrighteousness.
This is the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory in a nutshell. We see in scripture and in our everyday life two aspects or dimensions of sin. By offending the eternal God we commit a sin that has eternal consequences. We being finite are completely unable to make reparation for the eternal consequences of sin. Only an eternal being is able to do this. So, God incarnate, suffered and died on the cross to save us from the eternal consequences of sin. And we appropriate this gift by baptism, faith, repentance of sin in general and particular etc.
However, there remains the temporal consequences of sin. All sin, large and small, has consequences. These consequences are more obvious at times than others. If I speed and suddenly notice red lights flashing in my rear view mirror, confessing and repenting of my sin of speeding does not make the police car disappear. I still get the ticket. I still suffer the consequences of my sin. If I have sex outside of marriage and get an STD, going to confession does not make the STD disappear. The consequences of other sins may not be as obvious. But they all need to be suffered by us either in this life or the next. This is how we are purified of the temporal consequences of sin.
As with all the stories of God dealing with His children, He does His part and His children do their part.
- God warned Noah about the Flood but Noah had to build the ark.
- God promised to make a nation out of the seed of Abraham but Abraham had to go.
- God told Moses He would set Israel free but Moses had to lead them out.
- God promised Israel the land of Canaan but Israel had to conquer it.
We clearly get a glimpse of the eternal and temporal consequences of sin in 2 Sam 12:13-14:
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the LORD ” And Nathan said to David, “The LORD has taken away your sin; you shall not die.14″However, because by this deed you have given occasion to the enemies of the LORD to blaspheme, the child also that is born to you shall surely die.”
In this passage David is confronted by the Prophet Nathan about his sin with Bathsheba and the murder of her husband Uriah. David, repents. And Nathan announces that God has forgiven him for this sin. But, his child would die as a consequence of his sin. So God’s forgiveness did not negate a temporal punishment for his sin.
UPDATE: And in the NT as a commenter pointed out:
“But the Lord said to Ananias, ‘Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.’”
Here is Saul who will be transformed into Saint Paul by Christ; who is promised suffering the moment of his conversion to Christianity. And the NT tells us many of these sufferings and Sacred Tradition informs us of his death by beheading. Remember he killed and persecuted many Christians before his conversion so he had much to suffer for his sin.
Martin Luther taught that we are covered over with the righteousness of Christ as a blanket of snow on a pile of dung and that is how we enter Heaven–still impure inside. However, the Catholic Faith teaches that we are completely purified of all sin, both temporal and eternal before we can enter into the presence of God in Heaven. So, using Luther’s analogy, when we enter the presence of God we are pure and white through and through.