But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord, as in days gone by, as in former years.
Scripture speaks of a purging which happens throughout the life of the faithful which will be completed at Christ’s return. It is ongoing in this life; no one ever arrives to perfection in the here and now. And from what scripture says as well as what we read in our experience, sadly enough it doesn’t always seems to be occuring in the life of a believer. If such would be the case entirely, I would think that believer is in danger of not keeping the faith. Even when there may be a major problem that the person is not addressing in their life, such as an affair, pornography, greed, etc., if they belong to Christ, God will still be at work not only to bring them around, but in other ways to move them toward the goal of conformity to Christ, I would think, based on both my reading of scripture and experience.
In the passage from Malachi quoted above, the Lord’s’ coming, probably understood in some kind of literal sense of God becoming King once again over his people (and ultimately over the world) would result in a purifying which would leave no sin behind, so that those set apart to God could carry out their service to him and to the people. The beginning of this was fulfilled, I take it, when Jesus came with the announcement that the kingdom of God was near and even in their midst in and through the presence of the King: him. The Lord had indeed returned, though most of God’s people didn’t recognize that. But a remnant did. So begins the process of sanctification, or being set apart and made holy, in the sense of purification from sin in the lives of all who believe and follow.
Purgatory is the first stage of heaven in the teaching of some Christians (including C. S. Lewis) in which original sin is purged or eradicated (taken out), and the process involves fire, figuratively speaking, a spiritual, purging fire. Though I don’t see that as heretical or beyond possibility, I don’t see scriptural warrant for it. Maybe it occurs (as I think Pope Benedict suggested) when we see Christ as he is, the fire in his eyes burning out the evil in us (1 John 3:2; Revelation 1:14).
To know what our experience includes can be half the battle. So that when life seems like a pressure cooker, we don’t have to melt down or escape. But we can remain in there, faithful to the truth and love, to Christ himself. Knowing that this is the way of the Lord in his purifying of us for his service even in this life to his glory.