”By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.”
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
The interpretation I have heard my whole life about this passage is that the Christian will be judged on the last day and therefore you better add good works to your salvation by faith. Otherwise, you will be saved and go to heaven but you won’t have anything else there. In other words, your reward will be less in heaven. I recently preached through the book of 1st Corinthians, and I am now convinced that this common interpretation is wrong.
First, in the big picture context of 1 Corinthians, Paul is worried about the church being rent asunder by divisions. In the first chapters Paul is greatly concerned that the church had broken up into parties based on which teacher they found the best. There was the Paul party, the Apollos party, the Peter party, etc. Our passage in chapter 3 is found right in the middle of Paul dealing with these divisions. See verses 3 and 4 where Paul says explicitly this is what is on his mind.
Secondly, the verses right before (5-9) and after (16-17) our passage can be read naturally as being about the church as a corporate body. In the verses before this passage, Paul talks about the church as a field and a building that he and other Christian leaders are working on or in. In the verses after this passage, Paul warns them about tearing apart the temple of God, the building Paul has been working on. In light of vs 3-4 and the overriding concerns of the early chapters of the book, Paul is telling them not to tear apart the church as a community, the very thing the Corinthians are doing.
If our passage is true to its context, it too is about how the church as a whole, not about the good works of individual Christians. Paul is concerned with the means and materials they are using to build the church as a corporate body. What are the good materials Paul wishes they were using and what are the bad materials that the Corinthians are currently using that will not withstand the day of judgment?
The key is the word Paul uses to describe his building skills in verses 10: wise. Many versions translate this world as “expert” or “master” builder. While those translations are possible, they do not fit the context of the book as a whole. Wisdom is a big theme for Paul in 1 Corinthians. Paul is constantly contrasting the wisdom of the world and the wisdom of the gospel that he preaches. The wisdom of this world is boasting about teachers and their intellect and their speaking skills. The wisdom of the gospel is boasting about Christ and him crucified, something the world thinks is utter foolishness (2:1-5).
Paul tells them that the foundation he laid for the church is Jesus Christ. He expects them to keep building the church by preaching Jesus Christ and him crucified. Instead, they have stopped preaching Christ and started preaching Paul, Peter or Apollos. Paul says the only thing that can survive the judgment of God is Christ who is our righteousness, our holiness our wisdom and our redemption (1:30). Putting one’s trust in Paul, Apollos or Peter will be worthless on the day of judgment because none of them died to save us (1:13).
The Corinthians are now trying to bring people into the church and to grow the church by saying, “look at our great speakers, look at their intelligence and eloquence.” Paul says people that come to the church on that basis and church growth that takes place on that basis will not survive the judgement of God. Christians who started out by believing in Christ will be saved, but all the work they did in trying to build up the church by promoting Paul, Apollos or Peter will not survive.
Let me apply this to the modern world. Suppose a group of Christians became Christians through believing in Christ and him crucified. In the beginning, they were united by their love for Christ despite that fact that they had come from very different backgrounds. But as they tried to build the church, they became caught up in things that were important in their cultural or personal backgrounds. Some wanted to say, “Come to our church because of its great musical program” because they loved music. Others said, “Come to our church because of the building” because they loved architecture. Others said, “Come to our church because of our children’s programing” because they loved kids. These different things became so important to the different groups that it begin to divide the church. No longer was Jesus the most important thing that united them. The things in their backgrounds became more important than Jesus. Paul is not saying these sorts of things are wrong in and of themselves, but they are not more important than Jesus. If people come to church because of them, they aren’t Christians. If church growth takes place because of these things, it’s not true spiritual growth that will survive the judgment of God.
Of course, the same application could be made about spiritual teachers. Some promote John Calvin or John Wesley more than they promote Jesus. Some boast in Charles Stanley or John Piper instead of boasting in Jesus. To the extent that they do this, they may be Christians themselves but the people they bring into the church may not be. Their converts may be converts to Calvin, Wesley, Stanley or Piper, but they never believed in Jesus and thus will not survive the day of judgement.
Let me make it clear that I think Christians should practice good works as evidence of their faith. 2 Peter 1 clearly teaches this. I just don’t think 1 Corinthians 3 is teaching this. Instead, I think Paul is concerned about whether the church is being built on Christ rather than secondary human and cultural preferences.
Practical applications include 1)This is a great warning to us who are tempted to de-emphasize the gospel because we perceive it is offensive or culturally irrelevant. Paul says it might help your church grow numerically but those people may perish on the day of judgment. 2) It is a warning to us who might be tempted to divide the church on the basis of our secondary cultural preferences. Paul says God will destroy him who destroys his church. We need to keep Jesus first and our preferences secondary so that the church can be unified. 3) We need to keep the ways we express the gospel secondary to the message itself. Neither a great speaker or a poor speaker, a great program or no program can convert a soul. Only the foolishness/wisdom of the gospel of Christ and him crucified can do that. 4) While Christian teachers can be a great help to us, they must never become more important to us than Christ himself. If they are mature Christian teachers, they would never want us to do that anyway.