Purification By Fire

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In the essay on the Pentecostal/Charismatic view of the baptism of the Holy Spirit we noted that there are two groups who share a conviction that a believer needs further interaction with God, subsequent to conversion: the Pentecostal/Charismatics and the ancient Catholic/Orthodox monastic contemplatives. This essay looks at fire in the contemplative pathway for knowing God.

Purification is the first stage in the monastic triad of “purgation, illumination and union”. The idea of “fire” in this process is usually linked to the idea of a burning away of everything less than God, with a resultant pure core remaining. So, for example, there are a few Old Testament references such as Proverbs 25:4 “Take away the dross from the silver, and there shall come forth a vessel for the finer, or Malachi 3:2 “But who may abide the day of his coming? And who shall stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire, and like fullers’ soap.” Another commonly cited reference is Isaiah 4:4 “When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning”.  In the New Testament we can cite 1 Peter 4:12-13 Beloved, think it not strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though some strange thing happened to you; but rejoice, inasmuch as you are partakers of Christ’s sufferings; that, when his glory shall be revealed, you may be glad also with exceeding joy”.

In fact, however, the majority of the biblical references to “fire” are referring to either the use of fire in animal sacrifice (the burnt offerings) or to the wrath of God against sin. The actual biblical teaching on the fire of purification stems from the revelation of God’s holiness and the revelation that He wants His people to share in His holiness.

Thus, the “fire of purification” is more of a voluntary cooperation with Holiness, a yielding to truth, that is long and painful, and involves many fiery trials, but it is not a sudden violent burning work. The idea is that voluntary cooperation with the revealed nature of God is pleasing to Him and allows Him to advance a person through a slowly formed relationship rather than a series of dramatic episodes of chastening and trial. In essence, by cooperating with God’s desire for purity in His people the person who works on the purification of his/her own heart is avoiding the judgment of God. As it says in 1 Corinthians 11:31, “If we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged”. The holiness of God, the fire of His anger, the purity of Jesus and the mercy of God all combine when a person yields to purification.

Therefore the monastic model of purification says that there must be an inward purification in order to see God. The teaching is that it is not easy to become pure. If you compare a faith based Protestant approach with a Catholic works based approach to purification you would come up with something like this: (Protestant) “Just yield to the Holy Spirit”. You can obey because you are a “new creature” in Christ. Therefore (Romans 12), I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service. And be not conformed to this world: but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God”. In contrast, the Catholic (and Orthodox) monastic method requires that the believer make the effort commanded by faith. Something along these lines: (James 4: 8-10) “Draw nigh to God, and he will draw nigh to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded. Be afflicted, and mourn, and weep: let your laughter be turned to mourning, and your joy to heaviness. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord, and he shall lift you up”.

The truth is both are correct. Not either or, but both. We want living faith and living works. Not dead faith or dead works.

At any rate, the Catholic/Orthodox monastic teaching is that if a person cooperates with God and yields his/her will to God’s will (that they be sanctified) then that person will be placed on a pathway of purification, illumination and union. This pathway will be long and difficult but will allow the person to experience what is otherwise merely a legal imputed state.  This experience brings a personal knowledge of God that goes far beyond a mere mental knowledge of God and will transform the person.

We therefore look next at Stage One of Monastic Purification.