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1 Corinthians 3:12–15

“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” (vv. 14–15).

Christ Himself, in His person, works, and words, constitutes the foundation of the church. Thus, we must take great care about the church so that we remain true to this foundation (1 Cor. 3:10–11). To do otherwise would be to contribute to something that cannot endure. This applies in some way to all Christians, for all God’s people have a role to play in the growth and maturing of the church as we are fit together as stones in the Lord’s spiritual house (1 Peter 2:4–8). However, Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 3 have particular application to the elders and teachers of Christ’s church. In equipping the people of God for the work of ministry (Eph. 4:11–14), church leaders have a great impact on the body of Christ—for good when they follow Jesus and for ill when they sin.

Paul warns and encourages us regarding building on Christ’s foundation in today’s passage as he reminds us that a day is coming in which our construction efforts will be evaluated. He speaks of different building materials that can be used—“gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw”—before noting that fire on the last day will be used against our building efforts and materials, with only the worthy and sound things remaining (1 Cor. 3:12–13). The Apostle does not intend for us to read these materials allegorically and figure out what corresponds to each thing listed. His basic point is that some things, the things of great value, will pass through judgment just fine, perhaps even being refined, while others will be burned up and destroyed. Some builders—those who build with the fine things that last—will be rewarded. The others who build with perishable goods, with methods not true to Christ, will still be saved, but they will have no additional reward (vv. 14–15). Labors for the gospel do not save us; only the righteousness of Christ can do that (1:30). But our Creator is so generous that He rewards us for the work that we do in building on Christ’s foundation to thank Him for His great salvation.

Roman Catholic theology has tried to find in today’s passage support for the doctrine of purgatory, where we allegedly suffer punishment for sin that we did not atone for through penance before we died. But it should be evident that this is not the point at all. Believers are not punished after death, for since in Christ we are the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21), there is nothing left to punish. But our works will be evaluated. Only what is done for Christ, according to Christ’s commands, will survive.

Coram Deo Living before the face of God

John Calvin comments that the church is rightly built only “when Christ alone is set forth for righteousness, redemption, sanctification, wisdom, satisfaction and cleansing; in short, for life and glory.” All other efforts, including the self-seeking factionalism of Christians in first-century Corinth and today, cannot survive. Let the knowledge that God will evaluate our service encourage us to do works that will last.

For Further Study
  • Psalm 18:20–24
  • Matthew 25:14–29
  • Mark 9:49
  • Revelation 20:11–15

The Church’s One Foundation

Destroying God’s Temple

Keep Reading Providence

From the February 2021 Issue
Feb 2021 Issue