What does it mean to be conformed to the image of Christ?
Jesus is everything like His Father who is Holy Love itself. God is Holy, Holy, Holy (Cf. Isaiah 6:3) and God is Love (1 John 4:8). Therefore, when God says that He wants to conform us to the image of His Son, it means that through the work of Holy Spirit God is unceasingly molding, shaping, and purifying us into the image of His Son – Holy Love.
I’ve actually met a few people who are arrogant or blind enough to tell me that God is done conforming them to the image of Christ Jesus – that, right now, they are just as holy and loving as our Lord; that essentially they are sinless and no longer sin. Then there are the rest of us who actually can relate to the words of the men of Beth-shemesh who said, “Who is able to stand before the LORD, this holy God? And to whom shall He go from us?” (1 Samuel 6:20). Moreover, because God needs to conform us into something else means that something is fundamentally wrong with us – we are deformed. In regards to purgatory, that work of making us perfecting/conforming us may not be completed here on earth before our death. Purgatory has been our way for the last nearly two thousand years of saying that, we are “confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
By Purging and Purifying us God makes us Holy as He is Holy:
The glorified image is a God is so pure that He has always had to condescend to us in terms that we can relate to and in conditions that wouldn’t destroy us by their presence; such as ark, a bushing bush, as a cloud, an infant born of a virgin, as consecrated bread and wine. John the Baptist said, “No one has ever seen God. The only Son, God, who is at the Father’s side, has revealed him” (John 1:18). Indeed, whatever absolute Holiness comes into contact with it transforms – whether it was Moses coming down from the mountain with God and it face was aglow (Cf. Exodus 34: 29 – 35) or Jesus exorcising demons from people – light and darkness cannot permanently occupy the same space. The Spirit of God cannot coexist with the spirit of evil (Cf. Genesis 6:3). It is foolish on our part to believe that in our sinful state we can truly be one with God in Heaven.
Therefore, if there is a Hell into which we direct ourselves into by rejecting God and there is Heaven into which we God directs us into through our cooperation with Him, then it follows that there must also be a state/process of readiness for Heaven that rids us of any imperfections that we had before our death. We freely ready ourselves for Hell while we are on earth by rejecting God, and we ready ourselves for Heaven by co-operating with the grace of God, but because many of us fail to cooperate perfectly, we remain attached to sins (known and unknown) that prevent us from immediately dwelling in the presence of our Father. That work of purging us from what separates us from Him is called the purgation – it is the final of the Potter when it puts His clay in a kiln.
At the moment of your death you may have still been attached to some sin (known or unknown) that God will not tolerate you having in Heaven and He needs to purge you of that desire, and purgatory is that state/process of God purifying you from those attachments to sin; thereby freeing you to love only Him for eternity. Purgatory is Catholic’s way of saying that even after we die, God still may not be done conforming us to the image of His Son. It is our way of saying that we will arrive in Heaven more like Christ Jesus than we were at the moment we died.
What the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about Purgatory:
- Para No. 1030: All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.
Para No. 1032: This teaching is also based on the practice of prayer for the dead, already mentioned in Sacred Scripture: “Therefore [Judas Maccabeus] made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin” (2 Maccabees 12:46). From the beginning the Church has honored the memory of the dead and offered prayers in suffrage for them, above all the Eucharistic sacrifice, so that, thus purified, they may attain the beatific vision of God (Cf. Council of Lyons II (1274):DS 856). The Church also commends almsgiving, indulgences, and works of penance undertaken on behalf of the dead:
Let us help and commemorate them. If Job’s sons were purified by their father’s sacrifice, why would we doubt that our offerings for the dead bring them some consolation? Let us not hesitate to help those who have died and to offer our prayers for them. (St. John Chrysostom, Hom. in 1 Corinthians 41,5:PG 61,361; cf. Job 1:5).
Paragraph #1032 is essentially proving the point that if the dead were in no need of prayers then why have the people of God always prayed for the dead? The reason why we pray for the souls in purgatory is that inasmuch as we know that they are on the way to Heaven, our prayer is that God will’s will be done and that He will bring them into His eternal bliss soon. Even as St. Augustine prayed for his mother Monica after her death:
- I know that she acted mercifully, and from the heart forgave her debtors their debts; do Thou also forgive her debts, whatever she contracted during so many years since the water of salvation. Forgive her, O Lord, forgive her, I beseech You; enter not into judgment with her. Let Your mercy be exalted above Your justice, because Your words are true, and You have promised mercy unto the merciful; which You gave them to be who wilt have mercy on whom You will have mercy, and wilt have compassion on whom You have had compassion. (Confessions, IX 10. 397/398 C.E.)
Other Scriptures that Refer to God’s Purging us of Sin and Purifying Us through Fire:
“See, I have refined you like silver, tested you in the furnace of affliction.” Isaiah 48:10
“Then I said, “Woe is me, I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!” Then one of the seraphim flew to me, holding an ember which he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with it. “See,” he said, “now that this has touched your lips, your wickedness is removed, your sin purged.” Isaiah 6:5-7
“The souls of the just are in the hand of God, and no torment shall touch them. They seemed, in the view of the foolish, to be dead; and their passing away was thought an affliction and their going forth from us, utter destruction. But they are in peace.
For if before men, indeed, they be punished, yet is their hope full of immortality; chastised a little, they shall be greatly blessed, because God tried them and found them worthy of himself. As gold in the furnace, he proved them, and as sacrificial offerings, he took them to himself.
In the time of their visitation they shall shine, and shall dart about as sparks through stubble; they shall judge nations and rule over peoples, and the LORD shall be their King forever. Those who trust in him shall understand truth, and the faithful shall abide with him in love: because grace and mercy are with his holy ones, and his care is with his elect.” Wisdom 3:1-8
“If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, the work of each will come to light, for the Day will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire (itself) will test the quality of each one’s work. If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:12-15
Either Purgatory is true or not true, and if you don’t believe in it does not mean that it isn’t true – it just means that you don’t believe in it. But the fact of the matter is that if you have responded to your call to follow Jesus Christ and you have been Baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit then right now, at this very moment, the grace of God is working in your life to make you holy as He is Holy, otherwise Jesus was a charlatan for commanding us to be holy as the Father is Holy, without providing us to means to cooperate in that great work (Cf Matthew 5:48). And you may or may not be fully cooperating with the grace of God and the work of the Holy Spirit to free you from all sin and attachments to this world, but nonetheless, we are “confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Philippians 1:6).
I pray that you do make Heaven your goal, by never settling for sin, but also that you know that God loves you beyond measure and that He will go to every means possible to purify your love for Him in this life or after your death. Indeed, you will be tested by the purifying fire in this life and you may even encounter it after your death, but the purifying fire of God is as beneficial to you as it was to the lips of Isaiah (Cf. Isaiah 6:5-7) and as the tongues of fire at the first Pentecost (Cf. Acts 2:3).
Purgatory is God’s way of saying, ‘I’m trying to be reasonable with you people here. You can do this the hard way or the easy way – it is completely up to you.’ Therefore, embrace whatever purifying fire that comes and knows that God has brought it for you to make you better, not worse.
It is true, God brought us the fire of purification so that we might avoid the fire of damnation.