You know that thing where someone thinks they don’t believe in something, but then, once they’ve heard it explained properly, they realize that they actually do believe in that something? Yeah? That’s what this is about.
Whenever we say, “Protestants believe X...”, we are generalizing. I know that. You know that. There are exceptions...most of the time (Ain’t no Protestant who believes in the authority of the Catholic Magisterium). So, please, excuse the forthcoming generalizations (as accurate as they may be).
Protestants believe in forensic justification. Now, they don’t call it that (usually). They simply call it justification, but it is forensic justification because it is contrasted with actual justification. Actual justification is exactly what it sounds like: the making just of a person, taking them actually from a state of being at odds with God and making them right with God. Forensic justification isn’t that. Forensic justification is the declaring as just one who is actually still at odds with God.
To express this on a (slightly) more practical level: in actual justification, the sinner’s corrupt nature is corrected by rebirth (usually called baptism). In forensic justification, the sinner retains his corrupt nature, his stain of original sin, but he’s “marked down” as having his debt paid. Thus, this version of justification is forensic in the sense that the legal debt is removed, even while the reality is unchanged. You find this pithily denoted in the common expression that when one is justified it is “just-as-if-I’d never sinned”.
That this is the predominant Protestant theology is pretty easily verified. You can’t throw a stone on the campus of a “Bible college” without hitting a Protestant who holds that 1) man is born with the stain of original sin, 2) baptism is inefficacious, 3) all men die with that stain of original sin.
Now, if we took a deeper look at the soteriology (study of salvation) of these Christian groups, we’d find a fair bit of divergence, but we don’t need to bother with that. What matters at this junction is those first three principles enumerated above and a fourth — namely, that 4) some men go to heaven. Oh! And 5) Nothing impure may enter heaven. Number 4 should need no explanation, and neither should 5 (but, hey, how about some Scripture? Rev. 21:27 - “Nothing impure will enter heaven”).
Let’s narrow this down for simplicity’s sake. According to Protestant theology:
I imagine you can already see where this is going, but let’s flesh it out, shall we?
Time for some visuals! A quick Google image search yields exactly the results one would expect. Here are a few examples:
In this view, justification is instantaneous and unchanging from the moment of conversion; hence, forensic justification. The sinner isn’t fully purified at that moment, but he is declared just. (That nothing can change this is what Protestants mean by “eternal security”.) Sanctification (the action of being made pure and holy) begins at conversion, but is never completed in this life. Check it out though — physical death brings the fulfillment of sanctification.
What?! Where’s that in the Bible? Let’s hold off on that for a second and check out two more charts from our Google search.
Ooh. This one’s busy! Notice what’s totally consistent though: forensic justification as represented by the “believer’s eternal relation with God”, justification means “declared righteous”, and sanctification/purification is imperfect and incomplete until — you guessed it — death.
Want something even simpler? This last one actually comes from one of the (if not THE) most popular systematic theology textbooks in use at American Protestant colleges — Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology.
I think you get the picture.
Let’s make this slightly less abstract though. Joey is born with the stain of original sin. Joey “accepts Jesus as Lord and Savior”; here his purification begins. But Joey is never at the apex of sanctification during his earthly life. Joey grows old. He takes his last breath and dies. BOOM! Joey is pure.
Now, that “BOOM” is what’s concerning. Where did it come from, and what does it consist of? This isn’t a trick or semantic device. We don’t need to call the event a “boom”. We must, however, recognize the existence of an event. In one moment Joey is impure, and in the next he is pure. The dividing line between those two states is death, but there is nothing in divine revelation expressing that the act of physically dying is a sanctifying event, much less that it instantly catapults the deceased to perfect holiness. In fact, as every Protestant would confess, God alone has the power to perfectly sanctify a person; the separation of the spirit from the body doesn’t have that power.
So, that event, that final purifying event that truly completes an individual’s sanctification, is what we Catholics simply refer to as the ‘purifying’. Since we prefer to use Latin, we call it purgatory. Purgatory means ‘purifying’.
So, like it or not, Protestants believe in purgatory for those who die in God’s grace, a final purifying event which rids the person of all remaining sinfulness. It is a logical necessity within their theological framework.
The major difference, of course, is that Catholic theology, in accord with Scripture, holds that nobody will see heaven who has not received the grace of baptism, the removal of original sin, prior to physical death. That always happens in valid baptisms, but God is also free to impart that grace to whomever he pleases.