We get a regular flow of email questions about eternal rewards. And rightly so. Today’s question comes to us from Sung, asking: “Pastor John, regarding 1 Corinthians 3:10–15, what does this mean our work done in Christ will be tested by fire and will get rewarded accordingly? What of our works will burn up? What’s the difference between what this burning leaves unburned and what is consumed?”
It’s probably important that we read this. In fact, maybe go back a little farther than verse 10, because the context here matters to get things oriented correctly.
It’s possible to have some distorted view of truth and mislead the church with those teachings, and still be saved.
This text — people can test this now when I read it — is not first or mainly about the general good works of all believers, though I think the implication is going to be there. But it’s first and mainly about service in the word to the church and how she is built up, putting stones in place, and building the church with right teaching. Let me read it, and you look for that: whether or not some teachings are combustible straw, and some teachings are precious stones. I’m going to start at verse 5, not verse 10, of First Corinthians 3:
“What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5–6). Comment: He’s starting with the analogy of farming, but he’s going to shift to the analogy of architecture and building in just a minute, so be alert to that change when it comes.
“Neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor” (1 Corinthians 3:7–8). Comment: He’s talking about rewards, these wages that you’re going to get. He’s talking about rewards for how he and Apollos planted and watered; that is, how they ministered the word of God for the planting and the growth of the church.
“For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building” (1 Corinthians 3:9) There’s the transition from farming to architecture and building. “According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder” — so, he’s fully into the new metaphor now — “I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (1 Corinthians 3:10). Comment: So, you can see that the context is building on the foundation of Christ with kinds of teaching, which of course is interwoven with kinds of living, because what you teach is aimed at producing a new way of life.
“For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones” — here wood, hay, and straw come in (1 Corinthians 3:11–12). Following the flow of the thought, I take gold and silver and precious stones to be faithful, biblical, apostolic, edifying truth that you’re building on gospel foundations with, while wood, hay, and straw refer to teachings that are either false or distorted or out of proportion or self-serving or contrary to the gospel in some way or contaminated with sinful thoughts or ways.
“Everybody needs to be vigilant with how we build: how we teach others and how we build ourselves with teaching.”
“Each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:13–15). Here are four implications I’m going to draw out of that text and that comment.
1. It is possible to be a true Christian and for various reasons have a distorted view of some truth in the Bible, and actually mislead the church with those teachings that are not fully biblical, and be saved — go to heaven. Those teachers will be saved, according to 1 Corinthians 3:15, though their work will be “burned up,” or at least part of it will be burned up. We should be thankful. Oh my goodness. Think of it. Think of all the denominational differences among us. Think of inside our denominations how many ways we interpret Scripture sometimes and how many different things we view.
If we had to be flawless and perfect in our teaching, pastors, small group leaders, parents, in order to be truly Christian, there’d be no hope, right? God is merciful, and willing to forgive. I’m tempted to point out all the errors other people make instead of me. I’m sure we’re all going to have our knuckles wrapped significantly by the Lord that we couldn’t see more clearly in the Bible, but not every mistake is a damning mistake. So, that’s the first observation.
2. That should not make us careless about the Scriptures, because this is real loss. We suffer loss when our teaching works get burned up. There are real rewards that we will not have if we teach error, and even more serious than the loss of rewards, if we’re cavalier about our teaching, as if it doesn’t matter. That might be a sign that we really are not standing on the foundation of Christ and are not Christian teachers at all. It does come to that with some teachers. That was the kind of thing Jesus had to say about the Pharisees. They were professional teachers and had fundamentally failed to understand the Old Testament — and were not part of God’s faithful remnant.
3. When you try to think through what it really means that the works are burned up, it seems likely to me that this refers not just to a false teaching being exposed and excluded from heaven, but it says in 1 Corinthians 3:14 that the teachers’ work will be burned up. That is, he’s built something with his teaching, and what he’s built may just go poof in the judgment. Things he thought he had constructed with teachings will be found to be worthless.
The scary thing is that may include people and ministries. It may include the lives of people that he thought he’d brought to Christ and built up in the faith. And it proves that they weren’t Christians at all, because they didn’t understand the gospel, because it was so clouded by what he taught, though he himself was a Christian. The whole ministry he may have built on his clouded view just goes poof in the fires of judgment.
4. The last implication I would draw out of this is that in 2 John 8, we have everything echoed again: “Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.” I think that suggests that even though the main focus of 1 Corinthians 3 is not generally works of believers, but true and false teaching, it does imply that application. In other words, there’s an implication here that the lives of Christians in general are also instructed. Paul says, for example, in Ephesians 6:8, “Knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” Everything, every good is going to get its reward. It isn’t just teachers who need to be vigilant over what they teach, but all Christians need to be vigilant over what they do, or what they do with what they are taught — whether they themselves build themselves up in their most holy faith with what they hear (Jude 20).
“Stand on the one foundation, Jesus Christ, and build yourself and others into a faithful, growing church.”
When it comes to the impact on the building of the church, the building, the effect would be the same if a false teaching produced a false disciple, or a true teaching produced a true disciple, because the disciple himself hardened his own heart and rejected the truth that he was faithfully taught. In either case, the church is damaged. In either case, the living stones that were supposed to be built into a holy temple for the Lord would prove to be no living stones at all. In one case, that might be owing in part to bad teaching. In another case, it might be owing to a failure to live out good teaching. So, everybody needs to be vigilant with how we build: how we build others and how we build ourselves with what others teach us.
The final upshot of the text for all of us, I think, is that it’s a call to teachers and learners, every Christian, to stand on the one foundation, Jesus Christ, and build ourselves and build others as living stones into a faithful, growing church where Christ dwells, and to do it with as much truth as we can see.