1 Corinthians 3:12-15 ESV Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— (13) 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. (14) If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. (15) If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
You may have heard of what is often called the “carnal Christian” teaching. Essentially it maintains that the Bible acknowledges that a genuine Christian may/can continue to walk in sin. To live in sin without repentance. Carnal – led by and characterized by the flesh.
This notion has often been used to excuse the sin of wicked people who parade as Christians, maintaining that we must not doubt that they are really saved. After all, does not the Apostle Paul say that “if wnyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire”?
You can see how this all would play into the schemes and to the benefit of the abuser who continues to abuse but insists that he is a Christian, and expects everyone else to believe his claim. And, it seems, most other Christians and pastors and churches buy into the thing! You may have heard it put into statements like this that parade as pious, holy thinking:
“Now, you know, the Bible tells us that we can judge a person’s actions, but not their heart.”
So what does Paul mean? We know very well from mountains of other Scriptures that anyone who claims to love God, who calls themselves a Christian, and yet who does not obey the Lord and continues to “sin that grace may abound,” is a liar. Remember, we are not talking here about some kind of Christian perfectionism that claims a Christian can achieve perfect sinlessness in this life. That is a wrong-headed and unbliblical teaching. But what we mean here is the proposal that Paul’s words in 1 Cor 3 allow for a regenerate (born again) person to be characterized by a life of sin without repentance. Such an idea cannot be reconciled with Scriptures like:
Romans 8:3-5 ESV For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, (4) in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (5) For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.
What, then, do we do with “if anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire”?
The key to proper Bible interpretation (“cutting it straight” as Paul says to Timothy) always begins with read the context of the passage. After all, I bet that we could take some email or letter that any of us wrote, pull one sentence out of it so that it stands alone, and claim that you said something that you did not mean at all. So, what is the context of Paul’s statement here?
1 Corinthians 3:1-3 ESV But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. (2) I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, (3) for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
Way back at the very beginning of this letter, Paul addresses the Corinthian believers this way:
1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours:
This doesn’t mean that every single person in that church was necessarily a genuine Christian, but he is addressing them as who they claimed to be and as he believed at least most of them were – saints, those who call upon the Lord’s name, the church of God, sanctified in Christ.
He then goes on in the rest of chapter one and on into chapter two to admonish them. There was quarreling and factions. “I am of Cephas, I am of Apollos,” and so on. And then on through chapter 2 he teaches them that the wisdom and ways of God are in total opposition to the “wisdom” and ways of the world.
Now, check this out:
1 Corinthians 1:11-12 ESV For it has been reported to me by Chloe’s people that there is quarreling among you, my brothers. (12) What I mean is that each one of you says, “I follow Paul,” or “I follow Apollos,” or “I follow Cephas,” or “I follow Christ.”
1 Corinthians 3:1-4 ESV But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. (2) I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, (3) for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (4) For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?
Understand? At chapter 3, Paul is resuming the same subject he opened with in chapter one. In fact, he never left it off. It is impossible to properly understand chapter 3 if we do not deal with it in this context.
1 Corinthians 3:9-10 ESV For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. (10) According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it.
What kind of person is Paul particularly addressing here? He is specifically speaking to people who are claiming to be preaching the gospel. Ministers. Pastors. Evangelists. To people who are setting out to build God’s church. To be the planters and waterers. And he is warning them that they must not do this work the way the world builds things. They must not use “superiority of speech” as their building tool –
1 Corinthians 2:1-5 ESV And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. (2) For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. (3) And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, (4) and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, (5) so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.
Understand? False methods produce a false church. If the foundation of the gospel is askew, if it is put off angle, everything that is built upon it is going to be worthless. It will be the product of man’s “wisdom,” not the increase that only the Lord can give.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 ESV According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. (11) For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
(12) Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— (13) 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. (14) If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
(15) If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
This brings us to clarity, doesn’t it? Paul is not talking about a Christian continuing in unrepentant sin but who is still really saved, though he will have no reward. No. He is talking about and warning against Christians who employ the world’s thinking and methods to do Christ’s work. All that they “build,” will be torched on the Day when Christ comes with His reward for His people. Wood, hay, and straw don’t do very well in a furnace! Gold, silver, and precious stones do.
It does not take very long if we think about this to come up with plain examples of exactly what Paul is warning against. How many local churches today, pastors, evangelists, individual Christians – are using the world’s methods to build the church? Lots of them!! In fact, the thing seems to be the norm today. Genuine Christians, truly regenerate people, the new birth – cannot be pulled off by man or any of man’s gimmicks.
John 1:12-13 ESV But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, (13) who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
This is why I maintain that most Christians, aren’t. And it is why victims of abuse are so often (even typically) further oppressed by their churches while their abuser is embraced with welcoming arms! A false church, a counterfeit built upon a foundation that is not Christ, is inevitably going to love the world and embrace people who are of the world. And that includes abusers.