Not many today, I think, would advocate a penal purgatory, but it is important to get that straight before going on to the point that many still do advance, which has to do with our actual sinful state. What happens to us, our sinful selves, when we die? Are we not still in need of some serious sorting out and cleaning up? Do not our spirits, our souls, still leave a great deal to be desired? If we have made any spiritual growth during the present life, does this not leave us realizing just how much further we have to go? Do we not feel, in our small steps towards holiness here and now, that we have only just begun to climb, and that the mountain still looms high over us?
Yes, we do. Those are, I think, sound and normal Christian instincts. But what the standard argument fails to take into account is the significance of bodily death. We have been fooled, not for the first time, by a view of death, and life beyond, in which the really important thing is the ‘soul’ something which, to many people’s surprise, hardly features at all in the New Testament. We have allowed our view of the saving of souls to loom so large that we have failed to realize that the Bible is much more concerned about bodies concerned to the point where it’s actually quite difficult to give a clear biblical account of the disembodied state in between bodily death and bodily resurrection. That’s not what the biblical writers are trying to get us to think about even though it is of course what many Christians have thought about to the point of obsession, including many who have thought of themselves as ‘biblical’ in their theology. But what should not be in doubt is that, for the New Testament, bodily death itself actually puts sin to an end. There may well be all kinds of sins still lingering on within us, infecting us and dragging us down. But part of the biblical understanding of death, bodily death, is that it finishes all that off at a single go.The central passages here are Romans 6:6-7 and Colossians 2:11-13, with the picture they generate being backed up by key passages from John’s Gospel. Both of the Pauline texts are speaking of baptism. Christians are assured that their sins have already been dealt with through the death of Christ; they are now no longer under threat because of them. The crucial verse is Romans 6.7: ‘the one who has died is free from sin’ (literally, ‘is justified from sin’). The necessary cleansing from sin, it seems, takes place in two stages. First, there is baptism and faith. ‘You are already made clean’, says Jesus, ‘by the word which I have spoken to you’ (John 15.3). The word of the gospel, awakening faith in the heart, is itself the basic cleansing that we require. ‘The one who has washed’, said Jesus at the supper, ‘doesn’t need to wash again, except for his feet; he is clean all over’ (John 13.10). The ‘feet’ here seem to be representing the part of us which still, so to speak, stands on the muddy ground of this world. This is where ‘the sin which so easily gets in the way’ (Hebrews 12:1) finds, we may suppose, its opportunity.
—N.T. Wright, For All the Saints
This is simply breathtaking. Ponder what Bishop Wright is saying here and then give thanks to God for his great mercy.