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“If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames” (1 Corinthians 3:15).
Catholics use this scripture to teach purgatory. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, Purgatory is “a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God’s grace, are not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.” To summarize, in Catholic theology Purgatory is a place that a Christian’s soul goes to after death to be cleansed of the sins that had not been fully satisfied during life.
But this verse is using an illustration of things going through fire as a description of believers’ works being evaluated and judged. If our works are good “gold, sliver, costly stones,” they will pass through the fire without burning, and we will be rewarded for them. On the other hand, if our works are evil “wood, hay, and straw,” they will be burned by the fire, and there will be no reward.
This verse does not say that believers go through the fire, but rather that a believer’s works burn through the fire. It refers to the believer “escaping through the flames,” not “being cleansed by the flames” as taught in the purgatory teaching.
Catholics fail to understand that Jesus’ once-for-all sacrifice was perfectly sufficient to redeem us from all sin (Hebrews 7:27). Catholics see meritorious works as contributing to salvation. And thus they rely on Purgatory for cleansing from sin. But this is contrary to what the Bible teaches about salvation being free “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9). Salvation is not effected by human effort. Works are not a cause but an effect of salvation (Rom. 3:31).
In His service,