So as by Fire
I keep thinking that one of these days I'm going to write up a whole booklet on the Gospel, salvation, grace, and the judgment. However, because it is so much easier for me to write something at one sitting, even when I do get started I'm always compelled to start over when next I sit down. So I have decided to give the whole topic of salvation a series of articles, which I think will serve both myself and the readers much better than one large booklet, anyway.
Yesterday I was privileged to read A Theology of the New Testament by George Ladd. I took a couple hours and read rather large portions of it. It was a remarkably interesting read! I enjoyed—and I think benefitted from—his interpretations of the parables of the kingdom of God in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and I was thrilled to read such a thorough examination of the words translated righteousness and justification in the New Testament, including a comparison of similar words in Hebrew. In my opinion, it was very well done. I have read several other NT theologies, and I would not say that of any of them.
However, despite his thorough education and study, and despite what I consider to be remarkable insight, I was disappointed to read his handling of 1 Corinthians 3:15. He handled it in the common way, discussing "anyone's work" as though it were "anyone's works," but this is clearly inaccurate. Personally, I think it's an important issue.
1 Corinthians 3:8-15 discusses the building of the church. There is a "we" and a "you" used in that passage. "We" is the workers, such as Apollos and Paul. In v.9, Paul says, "We are laborers together with God." "You" is the Corinthians. They are the work. Paul writes in the same verse, "You are God's field, God's building." Paul has laid a foundation in God's building (v.10), which as he has just said, is the church in Corinth. Others are building on it (v.10), which in context is Apollos, Peter, and others like them. He warns these workers to take heed how they build on it. In v. 11 he tells us that the only foundation that can be laid in the church is Jesus Christ, which Paul has already laid. In v. 12 he discusses what sort of material might be built on top of that foundation. He mentions gold, silver, and precious stones, and he also mentions wood, hay and stubble.
Now let's pause for a minute. Obviously, we can see that Paul is talking about Apollos, Peter, and others building on the foundation that Paul has already laid in the Corinthians. He is not talking about works like feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and visiting the sick and imprisoned. He is talking about work, specifically the work of teaching the Corinthians and building the church there. Yet, what context have you heard wood, hay, and stubble discussed in? Haven't you always heard it discussed as though it were a reference to the works in your own life? That is the only way I have ever heard it. But this passage is not talking about works, but about the work of being sent to a church and building it up. Therefore, Paul uses "work" and not "works" as we go on.
In v. 13, Paul says that each man's work (not works) will be tried by fire on "the day," an obvious reference to the day of judgment. In verses 14 and 15 he tells us what the rewards and punishments are as a result of that trial by fire. If a person's work is gold, silver, or precious stones, it will survive the fire, and the worker—whether Paul, Apollos, Peter, or some other one—will receive a reward. If what he has built is wood, hay, or stubble, then his work will be burned up, and he will suffer loss. He himself will be saved, but his work will be a complete loss.
This is only right. Should someone prove to be an inept worker, he will suffer loss and be saved only "as by fire." However, since this is not a judgment of his works, but of his work, he should not have to face condemnation for it. Being an inept worker is not enough that you will not be saved. You cannot be condemned, according to this passage, for your work.
This is much different than what is said about your works. You most certainly can be condemned for your works (Matt 25:45,46; Jn 5:27-29; Rom 2:6,7; 2 Pet 1:5-11. Both Paul and Peter tell you to fear the judgment of works that we will all face (Rom 11:20,21; 2 Cor 5:10,11; 1 Pet 1:17; cf. 2 Pet 1:5-11).
I don't think this is questionable. I think the context is 1 Cor. 3 is very clear, and I think the use of the word "work" rather than "works" just seals the conclusion that was already obvious. If your work, the things you have built in others, proves not to be solid, you may still hope to be saved so as by fire. If, however, your works are found suspect, beware! "Not everyone that says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' shall inherit the kingdom of heaven, but only those that do the will of my Father in heaven...Then I will say to them, 'I never knew you! Depart from me, you who work iniquity!'"Home