Question: I would like for you to comment on I Corinthians 3:14-15, where it says, “If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
Answer: At the very outset I am frank to say that even though I have crossed the path of this scripture and studied on it a number of times, I have not come up with any answer that has been very satisfactory to me. Perhaps I have come closer to it now, while studying on it, than at any time. However, I will cheerfully submit to you what is the best light and understanding I have on it at the present time.
First, I will pick up the context of the entire passage, beginning with verse 10. “According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” (I Corinthians 3:10-15.)
In verse 10, Paul presents himself as a wise master builder by the grace of God given unto him for His purpose. As a wise master builder he laid a good foundation. Surely the first thing in a good, stable building is a good, firm, and stable foundation. “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord: is laid for your faith in His excellent Word.” Paul actually did this setting forth of Jesus Christ (verse 11) as the foundation upon which to build our Christian faith, our doctrine, pattern and standards. This means to obtain and maintain a solid experience of salvation and to construct our spiritual lives. Paul presented Jesus Christ as the only source of salvation and said that faith in Him alone, without the works of the law, is the only means of obtaining it. He said, “Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ,…and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” (Galatians 2:16.) Paul did not have any quarrel with the law as such, however he said in Romans 7:12, “Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.”
Paul was not opposed to circumcision, as such, either. We read in Acts 16:1-3 that he wanted to take Timothy with him in the work and he had him circumcised because his father was a Greek and there were many Jews in that area. Incorporating this into their salvation as a part of it, however, he stoutly opposed and denounced. Acts 15:1 tells of certain men who came down to Antioch from Judea and taught the Gentile converts that if they were not circumcised after the manner of Moses, they could not be saved. Paul and Barnabas stoutly resisted them which led to the apostolic council on this subject at Jerusalem. This man did not reject Christ as the foundation, but built on Him the ordinance of circumcision as part of salvation. This was the thing that Paul had conflict with everywhere and in all his work with the Gentiles and he denounced it as a perversion of the gospel in Galatians 1:7; II Corinthians 11:4; II Corinthians 2:17; Galatians 2:4; II Corinthians 11:26; and II Corinthians 11:13.
This perversion of the gospel and the corrupting of the Word of God consisted in their adding some human works (circumcision and the works of the law) to their faith in Christ as a part of their salvation. This was building on the foundation (Christ) “wood, hay, and stubble” combustible material that would not stand the test of the fire of God’s Word, and certainly not the fire of the Judgment. Unfortunately, that idea never died with those people, but has been the perpetual and continued curse and plague of professors of Christianity all down through the gospel age of time until now, and it is just as abominable and combustible now as it was then. All dependence and trust upon any good thing we do, or on any sacrifice we make to obtain forgiveness from God or any favor from Him, is abominable to Him. The only thing God recognizes is our faith in the merits of the shed blood of His Son Jesus, and the sacrifice He made. He said in Isaiah 64:6, “…All our righteousnesses are as filthy rags;…” Paul understood this and said in Philippians 3:9, “And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith.” “The righteousness which is of the law” is a righteousness of work and doing. (Romans 10:5.) Ephesians 2:8-9 declares that we are saved by grace through faith and not of works, lest any man should boast. This is the foundation Paul laid in all his ministry and for us to build upon it according to this principle, is to build gold, silver, and precious stones, all of which will stand the test of the fire of God’s Word and Judgment. The plague and curse that destroyed the Pharisee in the parable (Luke 18:9-14) was his own self-righteousness which he trusted in and depended upon.
To build a life and experience with this kind of material even upon the foundation of Christ, is to build wood, hay, and stubble, which will not stand the fire test. For us to teach any doctrine or standard which does not coincide with the plain teachings of the pure gospel of Christ is the same. Unscriptural teaching (whether it’s major doctrine or a minor point), even though it be done on this foundation and in the name of Jesus Christ, falls in the same category. There are more than just a few doing this.
Let us consider, in conclusion, the awful and dreadful pronouncement of verse 15. “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” It is certainly a crushing thing to think of the whole of a person’s work for his life-time being lost because he did not build solidly on the foundation which was because of some error and personal or private interpretation of Scripture he persisted in. God faithfully warns us that we will not be crowned unless we strive lawfully according to set rules of procedure. (II Timothy 2:5.)
The most sobering thought of all is the very narrow margin by which such people may be saved and not perish forever. It is said that he will be saved “yet so as by fire.” One translation says, “shall escape as through a wall of flames.” Feature a picture like this: a burning building in which a man is known to be. A crowd of people are milling around outside watching and waiting anxiously can he be rescued? Suddenly they catch a glimpse through the wall of fire and smoke of a fireman there with the man on his shoulder. The crown gasps and everyone holds their breath. Can they possibly get through? The fireman, well trained for such extreme emergencies, bends his body low and, with the man on his shoulder, dashes into the wall of flames and smoke, and plunges through to reach the outside gasping, staggering, and probably on fire but safe on the outside. This is somewhat the picture presented to us here of one in this situation being saved. If a person has willfully and knowingly persisted in some error or held onto some pet something of his own in his life, he cannot be saved when his works burn. He must be totally ignorant of the truth and God’s will on this point and totally innocent before God and he must have his attitude right, if he is to expect any mercy from God in this time.
Note: The text says, “If ANY man’s,” not “ALL men’s.” God is working on an individual basis and God makes a difference. He teaches us in Jude 22: “And of some have compassion, making a difference.” If He teaches us to make a difference, He surely must make the difference Himself.