This blog is inspired by a conversation I had with a friend recently. He mentioned that non-Catholics sometimes bring up Jer 31:34 (and it’s counter-quote in Heb 8:12) when trying to refute the doctrine of Purgatory. Personally, I have never come across this exact argument, but I have come across similar arguments. So, I thought that it would be a good opportunity to blog on the topic.
The verse that is raised says:
“...for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”
Based on this verse the argument basically claims that Purgatory goes against the Bible because in Purgatory there is a “remembering of sins”.
There may be a few ways to refute this “anti-Purgatory” argument, but really the argument fails on two basic levels:
1) Firstly, Jer 31:31-34 must be read in context. The book of Jeremiah was originally intended for the remnant of Israel (i.e. the Southern Kingdom of Judah). Just like the Northern Kingdom had gone into exile under the Assyrians because they were unfaithful to God; now God was about to do the same to the Southern Kingdom because they had broken His covenant (particularly by the sins of idolatry and false worship). The prophecy was fulfilled when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem, destroyed Solomon’s Temple, and led the people into captivity.
So, what does this have to do with Jeremiah’s words in Jer 31:31ff? Basically, Jeremiah is saying that because Judah had been unfaithful by not remembering God’s covenant, He was about to impose the covenant curses upon them by “remembering their sins” and sending them into exile (Jer 31:32). In exile they would be free to worship the false gods that they had forsaken the true God for (cp Ezek 20:32).
But Jeremiah’s words are not all doom and gloom. Part of God’s message to His people is that there is hope. In His rich mercy, God does not completely forsake His people. Instead He makes the promise of a New Covenant (Jer 31:31ff) which would by far surpass the Old Covenant. And part of what would make the New Covenant better than the Old was that under the New Covenant, God’s people would no longer break covenant with Him because He would inscribe His law on their hearts (v33).
The New Covenant came into effect with the Crucifixion of our Lord Jesus Christ, and was formally instituted on the night before His death when, in the Eucharist, He gave His Body and Blood to His Twelve Apostles (as representatives of the New Twelve Tribes of Israel). And so it is that the Church, built upon the foundation of the Apostles, is the New Covenant people that Jeremiah was talking about. And what Jeremiah is saying in Jer 31:31-34 is that the New Covenant Church would never break covenant with God again by virtue of the fact that His law would be inscribed on their hearts (which St. Paul tells us is the work of the Holy Spirit e.g. 2 Cor 3:3). In this way, God would never have to “remember the sins” of His people again. Our Lord Jesus said the same thing but in different words when He said that He would send His Spirit to guide the Church into all the truth (Jn 16:12); and elsewhere that the Gates of Hell would never prevail against His Church (Matt 16:18).
2) Secondly, in light of the above, the argument fails because Purgatory is not for individuals who have broken covenant with God (e.g. through mortal sin); rather, the Catechism tells us that Purgatory is for those who “die in God’s grace and friendship” but are still not completely or perfectly purified. So, whilst we haven’t broken covenant with God, there may still be venial sins that haven’t been confessed (or that we aren’t even aware of – because sins of ignorance are still sins despite the fact that culpability is lessened).
In addition, there is also the issue of making reparation for our sins. Forgiveness of sins is one thing, but reparation is still necessary. For example, if someone confessed to me that they had stolen $20 out of my wallet, I would gladly forgive them, but justice requires that they would still need to make amends by restoring the $20 to me. The forgiveness precedes the restoration of the money, but it doesn’t negate it. In this sense Purgatory is also about making reparation for sins which have been confessed and forgiven, but complete reparation has not yet been made.
If we acknowledge that God is so completely holy that He cannot look upon sin, then it follows that it is necessary to have some form of purgation after we die to cleanse us completely from sins that haven’t yet been confessed before our death and/or to make reparation for the demands of God’s righteous justice where we haven’t sufficiently done so whilst alive on earth.
Purgatory is thus a complete purification so that we “may attain the beatific vision of God”. Even C.S. Lewis, an Anglican theologian widely renowned by Protestants of all denominations, believed in Purgatory saying that any Christian who had a right understanding of the holiness and justice of God, and our own unworthiness because of our sin, would gladly welcome the doctrine of Purgatory as a preparation and purification so that we could enter the Most Holy Presence of God.
In summary, an anti-Purgatory argument based on Jer 31:31-34 and Heb 8:12 does not stand because it misrepresents what the Catholic Church ACTUALLY teaches about Purgatory, and it also fails to take into context what Jeremiah was actually saying.
On the contrary, Jer 31:31ff actually proves to be one of the many passages of Sacred Scripture which affirms that the Catholic Church is the true Church which will NEVER fall because it is the New Covenant Church founded by our Lord Jesus Christ Himself. And, unlike Israel of old, the New Israel of God will especially never break covenant with God by idolatry and false worship (despite what Protestants have to say about Catholic worship and devotion).
So let us thank God for His Holy Catholic Church which has stood through the ages by His good grace; and let us never cease to praise Him for the wonderful gift of gathering us into this Glorious Body of Christ so that He can continue to pour His grace into our lives by means of the Sacraments.