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Martin Luther rejected many dogmas and doctrines of the Catholic Church. What was his belief concerning Purgatory? Did he accept it or reject it?

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Luther's beliefs on purgatory evolved over time. A quick search on the Internet will find people claiming he accepted purgatory, offering quotes to prove it, and others saying he rejected it, also offering quotes to prove it. As such, a thorough investigation into his belief during different time periods is warranted.

95 Theses

Any investigation into what Luther believed about purgatory, must start at the beginning of the Reformation - Luther's composition of 95 Theses against corruption in the Catholic Church in 1517. Among the 95 points, more than a dozen are about purgatory, including:

Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation. (#16)

Furthermore, it does not seem proved, either by reason or by Scripture, that souls in purgatory are outside the state of merit, that is, unable to grow in love. (#18)

As a matter of fact, the pope remits to souls in purgatory no penalty which, according to canon law, they should have paid in this life. (#22)

They [the papacy] preach only human doctrines who say that as soon as the money clinks into the money chest, the soul flies out of purgatory. (#27)

Who knows whether all souls in purgatory wish to be redeemed, since we have exceptions in St. Severinus and St. Paschal, as related in a legend. (#29)

Luther is disagreeing on some points about the nature of purgatory and certain is condemning claims that people can buy a quick pass through of purgatory for the dead, but he is not doubting its existence in any way. It seems quite clear that he takes its existence for granted at that time. Indeed, in his own Explanation of the Ninety-five Theses, he said he was unsure of the exact nature of purgatory but affirmed "I am positive there is a purgatory."

Continued belief, but not as a matter of doctrine

In Defense and Explanation on All the Articles (1521), Luther wrote:

The existence of a purgatory I have never denied. I still hold that it exists, as I have written and admitted many times, though I have found no way of proving it incontrovertibly from Scripture or reason. I find in Scripture that Christ, Abraham, Jacob, Moses, Job, David, Hezekiah, and some others tasted hell in this life. This I think was purgatory... in short, I myself have come to the conclusion that there is a purgatory, but I cannot force anybody else to come to the same result.

Here, Luther is saying it is a matter of personal judgment. He, himself, believes in purgatory, but won't hold it against anyone who comes to a different conclusion. Likewise in Against Latomus (1521), he argues for purgatory while admitting that it cannot be proven by scripture.

In a 1522 sermon for the Festival of Epiphany, Luther said the spirits of the dead do not seek help from the living and said one is not a heretic for denying purgatory since "The Scriptures know nothing of it."

Expressed doubts

In a letter to his friend Nicholas von Amsdorf later that year, Luther wrote that he was unsure what happened after death but felt that "with few exceptions all sleep without possessing any capacity of feeling," waiting to the resurrected at a later date. He further said that the existence of purgatory was uncertain and that he wasn't convinced that all those not in heaven or hell were in purgatory.

The 1522 version of Luther's Personal Prayer Book contain the petition "Have mercy upon all poor souls in purgatory," but the petition was removed in the 1524 edition.

Rejects the idea

In Confession Concerning Christ's Supper (1528), explicitly stated for the first time that purgatory was a false teaching. However, he did say there was no real harm in praying for the dead since scripture didn't speak against it. He said those who wished to do so could say "Dear God, if this soul is in a condition possible for mercy, be thou gracious to it."

Two years later, in "Exhortation to All Clergy Assembled at Augsburg" Luther condemned the doctrine of purgatory and wrote that falsely claiming the ability to free souls from purgatory had brought great shame but "lots of money" for the church. Also in 1530, he wrote Revocation of Purgatory, a tract denouncing the doctrine of purgatory.

From 1535-1545, Luther wrote and lectured extensively on Genesis. These lectures were compiled and published shortly after his death in 1546. In this work, he found several occasions to comment on the idea of purgatory. For example, on chapter 4 he writes:

had we held Baptism and the holy Supper of our Lord in that esteem in which we ought to have held them, we should never have become monks. Nothing concerning purgatory, nothing concerning the sacrifice of the mass, nothing about those other like iniquities, would ever have been taught and handed down to us in the Church. But after the light of the Word had been put out by the wicked Popes, it was easy enough to thrust upon men all these abominations.

Thus calling the teaching of purgatory an "iniquity" taught by "wicked Popes".

Summary

When Luther wrote his 95 Theses in 1517, he firmly believed in purgatory. By 1521, he wrote that belief in purgatory was a matter of personal choice, but said that he personally continued to believe in purgatory. Beginning in 1522, he began to express doubts in the doctrine and removed a prayer for souls in purgatory from his prayer book in 1524. In 1528, Luther explicitly rejected the idea of purgatory for the first time, a position he apparently held until his death.


Note: All information is available in primary sources, which can be found in the collected works of Luther, Luther's Works published in 55 volumes by Concodia from 1958-1973

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    Well written and dispassionately objective. – Matt Cremeens Oct 1 '15 at 4:07
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Reading through Martin Luther's sermons, it appears he clearly rejected purgatory as early as 1524, with doubts beginning as early at 1522

Luther on Purgatory A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil of 1522.

Christmas Eve service

THE APPEARING OF THE GRACE OF GOD.

Many depend upon purgatory, living as it pleases them to the end and expecting to profit by vigils and soulmasses after death. Truly, they will fail to receive profit therein. It were well had purgatory never been conceived of. Belief in purgatory suppresses much good, establishes many cloisters and monasteries and employs numerous priests and monks. It is a serious drawback to these three features of Christian living: soberness, righteousness and godliness. Moreover, God has not commanded, nor even mentioned, purgatory. The doctrine is wholly, or for the most part, deception; God pardon me if I am wrong. It is, to say the least, dangerous to accept, to build upon, anything not designated by God, when it is all we can do to stand in building upon the institutions of God which can never waver. The injunction of Paul to live rightly in this present world is truly a severe thrust at purgatory. He would not have us jeopardize our faith. Not that I, at this late day (when we write 1522), deny the existence of purgatory; but it is dangerous to preach it, whatever of truth there may be in the doctrine, because the Word of God, the Scriptures, make no mention of a purgatory.

Sermon for the Epiphany

A Sermon by Martin Luther; taken from his Church Postil of 1522.

However, should it be said: In this way purgatory will also be denied, I will answer: You are not a heretic for disbelieving in purgatory, as there is nothing said about it in the Scriptures. And it is better not to believe that which is outside of the Scriptures, than to depart from that which is in the Scriptures. Let pope and Papists here rage as they please, who have made purgatory an article of faith because it has brought to them the wealth of the earth but also countless souls to hell, souls that depended and relied on good works for redemption from it. God gave no command concerning purgatory, but he did command us in no way to consult the dead nor to believe what they say. Consider God more truthful and trustworthy than all angels, to say nothing of the pope and the Papists who, as all their work is but lying and deceiving, awaken but little faith in purgatory. However, if you want to pray for the dead, I will not interfere. I am of the opinion that purgatory is not so general as they say, but that only a few souls will enter it. Still as I have said, it is without any danger to your soul if you do not believe in a purgatory. You are not called upon to believe more than what the Scriptures teach.

But should they advance also the sayings and comments of Gregory, Augustine and other saints concerning purgatory, then remember that I have already told you how far these saints are to be followed and believed. Who will assure us that they did not err and were not deceived here as in many other things.

Easter Tuesday, or Third Easter Day

A Sermon by Martin Luther; Taken from His Church Postil, 1524

But the Scriptures do not say, nor give any example, that such are the souls of dead persons walking among the people and seeking help, as we, in our blindness and deluded by the devil, have heretofore believed. Hence the pope has, also, invented purgatory and established his shameful annual market of masses. We may well see in this false doctrine and abomination as a fruit, that the foundation on which it is built, namely the doctrine of the migration of souls, comes from the father of lies, the devil, who has deluded the people in the name of the dead.

  • Welcome to Christianity.SE. For a quick overview, please take the Site Tour. Thanks for offering an answer here, complete with quotes from Luther's works. I have formatted them as quotes for clarity. If it doesn't appear as you want it to appear, feel free to re-edit. For some tips on writing good answers here, please see: What makes a good supported answer? And for more about this site, see: How we are different than other sites. – Lee Woofenden Nov 21 '16 at 0:03
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Before one asks the question, "what did Luther believe" about a given topic, it's good to ask a different question first: "When did Luther believe?" I mention this because, in many ways Luther was alone. Sure, there were many, many church fathers who often erred and contradicted each other (as he spoke at the Diet of Worms). But he was alone in sorting out the good, biblical voices from the less-than-helpful ones. I mention this because there were areas in which Luther grew over time (e.g. he started out with a less than savory evaluation of James. But, by the end of his life he was fine with it). There is evidently a tug of war in this issue in Luther's life. For example, in the 95 theses he writes:

    1. When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.
    1. They ask, e.g.: Why does not the pope liberate everyone from purgatory for the sake of love (a most holy thing) and because of the supreme necessity of their souls? This would be morally the best of all reasons. Meanwhile he redeems innumerable souls for money, a most perishable thing, with which to build St. Peter’s church, a very minor purpose.

Even though Luther in 1517 had much to learn about the bible, he knew enough to know that what was going on across the river as Tetzl sold indulgences from purgatory was directly against the bible.

Towards the end of his life Luther wrote the Smalkald Articles. They are a sort of Last will and testament of Luther as to what he believed. And they are among the official documents of the Lutheran church. In them he gives his final judgment on purgatory:

Confession worked like this: Each person had to enumerate all of his or her sins (which is impossible). This was a great torment. Whatever the person had forgotten was forgiven only on the condition that when it was remembered it still had to be confessed. Under these circumstances people could never know whether they had confessed perfectly enough or whether confession would ever end. At the same time, people were directed to their works and told that the more perfectly they confessed and the more ashamed they were and the more they degraded themselves before the priest, the sooner and better they would make satisfaction for their sin. For such humility would certainly earn the grace of God.104

Here, too, there was neither faith nor Christ, and the power of the absolution was not explained to them. Rather, their comfort was based on the enumeration of sins and humiliation. It is not possible to recount here what torments, rascality, and idolatry such confession has produced.105

Satisfaction is truly the most intricate of the three because no one could know how much should be done for each individual sin, to say nothing of all sins. Here they came up with the following solution: they imposed a few satisfactions that a person could easily fulfill, such as saying the Lord’s Prayer five times, fasting for a day, etc. For the penance that remained people were directed to purgatory.

Here, as well, there was only pure misery and destitution. Some imagined that they would never get out of purgatory because, according to the ancient canons, each mortal sin carried with it seven years of penance.106 Still, confidence was placed in our work of satisfaction and, if the satisfaction could have been perfect, confidence would have been placed totally in it, and neither faith nor Christ would have been of any use. But such confidence was impossible. If they had done penance for a hundred years in this way, they would still not have known whether they had been penitent enough. This means always doing penance but never arriving at repentance.

At this point, the Holy See of Rome came to the rescue of the poor church and established indulgences. With these the pope forgave and remitted the satisfaction, first for seven years in a particular case, and then for a hundred years, etc. He also distributed indulgences among the cardinals and bishops, so that one could grant a hundred years and another a hundred days. However, the pope reserved for himself alone the right to remit the entire satisfaction.107

Once this practice began to bring in money and the market in bulls became lucrative, the pope devised the jubilee year — which offered the forgiveness for all penalties and guilt108 — and attached it to Rome. The people came running, because everyone wanted to be set free from this heavy, unbearable burden. This was called “finding and digging up the treasures of the earth.”109 Immediately, the popes rushed headlong and established many jubilee years, one after another. The more money he swallowed, the wider his gullet became. Therefore, through his legates he dispatched his jubilee years across the lands, until all the churches and every home were overflowing with them.110 Finally, he stormed into purgatory among the dead — first with Masses and the establishment of vigils; after that, with indulgences and the jubilee year. In the end, souls became so cheap that one could be sprung for a nickel.111

Even this did not help at all. For although the pope taught the people to rely on and trust in such indulgences, he himself once again made the process uncertain when he asserted in his bulls, “Whoever desires to partake of the indulgence or the jubilee year should be contrite, go to confession, and give money.”112 We have heard above that such contrition and confession are uncertain and hypocritical among them.113 Similarly, no one knew which soul was in purgatory, and, of those that were supposedly there, no one knew which had been truly contrite and had confessed. Thus, the pope took the money, comforted people with his authority and indulgence, and nevertheless directed them once again to their uncertain works.

Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, eds., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Accordance electronic ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 315-316.

Summary Luther grew in his understanding of the bible. Luther begins, early on questioning purgatory. Then there's a tug of war. Finally, for almost the last 20 years of his life he was clearly and definitely against purgatory (as the quote from the Smalcald Articles shows).

Pastor Steve Bauer (http://stevebauer.us)

  • Your quote from the 95 theses doesn't seem to me to suggest that he rejected the doctrine of purgatory. And ThaddeusB's answer includes some quotes that seem to pretty clearly show that he did accept it in 1521. Do you dispute those quotes? – Nathaniel Dec 5 '15 at 21:54
  • No, I don't dispute the quotes from the few years following the 95 theses. As we look back we find a struggle, a tug-of-war in this doctrine. The quote in Luther's 'defense' shows a clear acceptance of purgatory. The problem though is that, in the Theses he shows a real questioning of the need and use of purgatory. So there was a back-and-forth going on through Luther's life. But the other reason I made the comment was to clear up and solidify the fact that Luther's rejection was not something that he apparently held until the end, but instead, definitely held to until the end. – Steve Bauer Dec 5 '15 at 22:20
  • Sorry for the lack of clarity in my answer. I realize its weaknesses, looking back. – Steve Bauer Dec 5 '15 at 22:21
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Martin Luther rejected Purgatory. His primary objection that officially started the Protestant Reformation in 1517 was directed to the abuses in the church in general and the Pope and the sale of indulgences in particular. When he wrote about indulgences, he stated:

“There is no divine authority for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately the money clinks in the bottom of the chest”

Some claimed that since he only argued against the sale of indulgences, he may still have believed in purgatory. However, as the teaching of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone) became more defined, he later wrote in particular regarding purgatory:

"Of purgatory there is no mention in Holy Scripture; it is a lie of the devil, in order that the papists may have some market days and snares for catching money. . . We deny the existence of a purgatory and of a limbo of the fathers in which they say that there is hope and a sure expectation of liberation. But these are figments of some stupid and bungling sophist."

(Thanks to Pastor Jeff Robinson,Ph.D., Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Credo Magazine and the book, 'Roaming Catholics: ending the wandering to embrace the wonder" by this author, Chapter 18: Purgatory - Dust on the chalkboard)

  • 1
    Welcome to Christianity.SE! For a quick overview of what this site is about, please take the Site Tour. Thanks also for offering an answer. Can you provide references to where Luther said these things? That would improve the answer. Even if you got them from a third party source, that source should provide the references. I do hope you'll stick around! – Lee Woofenden Sep 29 '15 at 21:55

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