Agur Didn’t Believe in Purgatory

We finished our Saturday compelled to thank the Father for the day He’d provided. We spent the morning with friends who live on the top floor of our apartment building. Having consumed the obligatory espresso (me) and cappuccino (Johanna) we took a passegiata (a stroll); a very Italian activity. As we meandered along, making our way to the park, Alessandro kept steering the conversation back to the Catholic Church and true faith.

Now, first impressions aren’t everything. People can feign interest in the things of God, the same way that saving faith can be feigned (Jn. 2:24; Acts 8:13). But, the few times we have been together he has shown a real curiosity about the truth. Over dinner at our place he commented that he found it absurd that priests tried to tell people how to conduct themselves in marriage or as parents since they have no experience in either area. When I told him that the Bible knows nothing of a priest in the Roman Catholic sense, and read him some of the elder qualifications from 1 Timothy 3, he was floored. I emphasized the fact that an elder must be, “the husband of one wife,” and “one who manages his own household well, keeping his children under control with all dignity” (1 Tim. 3:2, 4).

In light of previous conversations like that one, I was hopeful I’d have another opportunity to contrast the religious world he’s always known with the Scriptures. At some point, in a conversation that traversed the emptiness of externalism and the need for a God-provided new heart, purgatory came up. I mentioned, almost in passing, that purgatory isn’t taught anywhere in the Bible. He was startled to say the least. In fact he said that he was really sconvolto, which means, “Gravely distraught, profoundly shaken/affected.” He turned and called out to his wife, who was walking with Johanna and the girls a ways back, and said, “You won’t believe this, but there’s no purgatory in the Bible!”

Adding to the Bible is somewhat of the Catholic Church’s specialty. It isn’t as if Roman Catholic doctrine came into existence all together at one moment in history. Although some Catholics strain to show that their doctrines are ancient, the fact remains that doctrines like Papal Infallibility and the Assumption of Mary were only made official in 1870 and 1950 respectively. Further, there is nothing that would keep the Catholic Church from continuing to create new doctrine today.

Purgatory itself is an important piece of the Roman Catholic doctrinal system. As long as you believe in an unbiblical view of justification: that a person can be justified but not totally cleansed, and an unbiblical view of sin: that there is a distinction between mortal and venial sins and that there are temporal punishments which we must do something about ourselves, purgatory makes sense.[1] To believe in purgatory (and all the connected doctrines) is to reject the Bible as absolute authority, because the only way to reach these conclusions is to believe something that isn’t in the Bible and that is contrary to its teaching.

I think Agur can help us here. This often underappreciated sage is quoted as saying, “Do not add to His words Lest He reprove you, and you be proved a liar” (Prov. 30:6). The statement, significant on its own, is all the more powerful in context. Agur is reflecting on the two most essential elements of theology: who we are (30:2-4), and who God is (30:5-6). A real submission to the authority of the Word of God is the truest expression of a high and glorious view of God. However, there is nothing more arrogant and God belittling than adding to God’s Word. The way we handle God’s Word tells us what we really think about God, and what we really think about ourselves.

With language no one would accuse as beating around the bush, Argur provides this self-assessment: “Surely I am more stupid than any man, And I do not have the understanding of a man. Neither have I learned wisdom, Nor do I have the knowledge of the Holy One.” (30:2-3). Agur is a brute on his best day. This isn’t feigned humility or self-pity, but rather a refreshingly honest articulation of biblical anthropology. What’s he getting at? We are utterly inadequate to account for life on our own or to understand our existence in a meaningful way by ourselves. It’s no coincidence that a life lived in attempted autonomy ultimately yields only confusion, frustration, pain, sadness and never clarity.

How does Agur arrive at vv. 2-3? Don’t miss verse 4. Our ability to answer the questions in verse 4, determines our viability as autonomous creatures in God’s universe. A high view of ourselves is only legitimate or realistic if we can answer ‘me’ to these questions: “Who has ascended into heaven and descended? Who has gathered the wind in His fists? Who has wrapped the waters in His garment? Who has established all the ends of the earth? What is His name or His son’s name? Surely you know!” (30:4). Our self-conception is appropriately dwarfed any time we cross-examine out hearts with the questions from verse 4.

Only by owning verses 2-4 do we come to point where we can understand that God and His Word are what we aren’t. The dead end of our attempts at independence leaves us needy for God’s help. “Every word of God is tested; He is a shield to those who take refuge in Him” (v. 5). God’s Word is free from even the slightest imperfection (cf. Psalm 12:6). Flaws are the only things that can be added to a word that is flawless. Acknowledging the surety of His Word leads to a trust in the security only His character can provide.

To summarize: Our willingness to embrace additions to the Word of God is connected to our view of ourselves and of God. Belief in Purgatory necessitates belief in a distorted view of God and of man, and so a distorted Gospel. Sadly people like my neighbor Alessandro are told by religious authorities, who supposedly speak for God, that Purgatory is a real place. This results in someone who thinks they believe what God teaches, but in reality guarantees a distorted view of mankind, God and the only true connection between God and man: the Gospel.

Agur didn’t believe in Purgatory. I think next time I see Alessandro I’ll tell him about Agur. I want to keep pushing Him back to God’s Word as the only acceptable absolute authority. This in turn will give me opportunity to press him to rethink the way he conceives himself and God. As long as his view of himself and God are distorted (the two always go together) he won’t be able to see his need for a Savior. A bit later in chapter 30 Agur goes on to give us a taste of what happens when someone rejects his theology. Perhaps the scariest is in verse 12: “There is a kind who is pure in his own eyes, Yet is not washed from his filthiness.”

[1] James White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, 182.

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