Saved But Only As Through Fire

by Mike Ratliff

And I, brothers, was not able to speak to you as spiritual but as of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not food, for you were not yet able. But, you are still not able, for you are still fleshly. For while there is jealousy and strife in you, are you not of the flesh and according to the ways of man? When one says “I indeed am of Paul,” and another, “but I am of Apollos,” are you not being mere men? (a personal translation of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4)

I received a private request from a friend to compare 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 with the life and ministries of men like Charles Finney and Rick Warren. The concern was if these two men were examples of those who built upon the foundation of Christ with wood, hay, and stubble, and would, in the end, see all their works be consumed in the fire of judgment, suffering eternal loss, but themselves being saved, “but only as through fire” (1 Corinthians 3:10-15). As I studied this passage I did what I always do, I put it into context. The immediate context of vv10-15 would be 1 Corinthians 3:1-23 in which Paul addressed the issues and the cause of divisions in the Corinthian church. However, we must remember, that this must also be put into the larger context of Paul’s entire message of this Epistle. A good break down of 1 Corinthians would place chapter 3 right in the middle of a section that runs from 1:10 through 4:21 in which Paul specifically addressed Disunity in the Church. In fact, chapter 3 would be contained in the subsection of that breakdown that would probably best be titled something like “The Need for Unity.” Therefore, with that in mind, we will focus in this post on 1 Corinthians 3:1-15 alone which focuses specifically on divisions in the Church. Within this, we will also address my friend’s question very well about vv10-15 and any questionable “Christian leader.” 

I placed my own translation of the first four verses from 1 Corinthians 3 at the top of this post. Read it carefully. Notice that there are problems in this church that have to do with a decided lack of spiritual maturity. How do we know that? There is jealousy and strife in the local body. This is a marker of people being controlled by their flesh rather than by the Spirit of God. How do truly spiritual people behave?

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:9-21 ESV)

Notice that the focus is not “self.” In any case, this is the opposite of what was running rampant in the Corinthian church and that is why Paul wrote 1 Corinthians. Carnality produces the attitude of envy, a severe form of selfishness, which produces the reaction of strife and subsequent divisions. Also, the fact that they were acting as “mere men” was Paul’s way of saying they were being acting as unsaved men. In any case, Paul answers his own rhetorical question from 1 Corinthians 3:1-4 with more rhetorical questions followed by a humble yet accurate description of his and Apollos’ true role in the Corinthian’s salvation and spiritual growth.

Who then is Apollos? Who is but Paul? Servants through whom you believed, and to each as the Lord gave. I planted, Apollos watered, but God grew; so that neither the planting or watering are anything, but only God gives the growth. The one planting and the one watering are one, and each will receive his wage according to his own labor. For we are God’s co-workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. ( a personal translation of 1 Corinthians 3:5-9)

It is the Lord alone who can give the faith to the spiritually ignorant as we have seen in our Bible studies on this blog over and over again clearly taught in Scripture. People do not “decide” via their own abilities to be saved. It is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8,9). Salvation  is God’s work of grace to whom He chooses to give it. In vv8,9 we see that all human instruments God uses to produce salvation life are equally considered and rewarded for their willingness to be used by God. However, all the glory goes to Him, who alone saves. Paul, Apollos, Peter, and all ministers are equal workers in the field, but the spiritual life from that field is entirely by God’s grace and power. Now we come to the moving from the analogy from the field to the building. Here is vv10-15 from the Greek text and the ESV.

10 Κατὰ τὴν χάριν τοῦ Θεοῦ τὴν δοθεῖσάν μοι ὡς σοφὸς ἀρχιτέκτων θεμέλιον ἔθηκα, ἄλλος δὲ ἐποικοδομεῖ. ἕκαστος δὲ βλεπέτω πῶς ἐποικοδομεῖ·

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.

11 θεμέλιον γὰρ ἄλλον οὐδεὶς δύναται θεῖναι παρὰ τὸν κείμενον, ὅς ἐστιν ᾿Ιησοῦς Χριστός.

11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.

12 εἰ δέ τις ἐποικοδομεῖ ἐπὶ τὸν θεμέλιον τοῦτον χρυσόν, ἄργυρον, λίθους τιμίους, ξύλα, χόρτον, καλάμην,

12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw–

13 ἑκάστου τὸ ἔργον φανερὸν γενήσεται· ἡ γὰρ ἡμέρα δηλώσει· ὅτι ἐν πυρὶ ἀποκαλύπτεται· καὶ ἑκάστου τὸ ἔργον ὁποῖόν ἐστι τὸ πῦρ δοκιμάσει.

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 εἴ τινος τὸ ἔργον μενεῖ ὃ ἐπῳκοδόμησε, μισθὸν λήψεται·

14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.

15 εἴ τινος τὸ ἔργον κατακαήσεται, ζημιωθήσεται, αὐτὸς δὲ σωθήσεται, οὕτως δὲ ὡς διὰ πυρός.

15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

In v10 the ESV translates σοφὸς ἀρχιτέκτων as “skilled master builder.” Paul is describing God working through him to design and build spiritual foundations (cf. Romans 15:20). The word σοφὸς or sophos describes a wise and skillful expert. The word ἀρχιτέκτων or architektōn is the root for the English word “architect.” However, an ἀρχιτέκτων contains the idea of a builder, as well as designer. Paul was used by God to establish the groundwork for churches in Asia Minor, Macedonia, and Greece. Timothy and Apollos (among others of course) built the churches up from his foundations. That God used him in that way was all of grace and Paul knew it (cf. v7; 15:20; Romans 15:18; Ephesians 3:7, 8; Colossians 1:29).

What or who is the foundation of the Church? It is none other than ᾿Ιησοῦς Χριστός, that is, Jesus Christ. It isn’t man’s puny efforts. It isn’t gospel contextualizaton. It isn’t global dominionism. It isn’t Rick Warren. It isn’t the Purpose Driven Paradigm. It isn’t the Seeker Sensitive non-gospel. It isn’t the purpose driven non-gospel, nor is the merging of any of them. No, it is Jesus Christ alone. Paul says that no one can lay another foundation other than that which has already been laid, Jesus Christ. That is why all these religious empires men have built will all simply be burned up in the end.

Read vv12-13 together. The building is done by evangelists and pastors and all believers who are called to build the church through faithful ministry. The gold, silver, precious stones represent faithful, dedicated spiritual service to build the church. On the other hand, the wood, hay, and straw refer to shallow activity with no eternal value. These do not refer to evil activities, but religious works in the church. What is “the Day?” This refers to the time of the judgment seat of Christ so we know that those who will be judged there are ALL believers. No non-believers will be there.

The works done, the good works and the shallow works will be revealed by fire on “the Day” at this judgment. According to 2 Corinthians 5:10, the wood, hay, and straw are “worthless” things that do not stand the test of judgment fire. On the other hand, the works that do survive the test of fire are those which have been accomplished in God’s power and for His glory. These will survive. This is not a judgment for sin because Christ has paid the price on the Cross for all the sins of the elect (Romans 8:1). Therefore, no believer will ever be judged for sin. This judgment is only to determine eternal reward. Now we come to v15.

No matter how much is worthless, no believer will forfeit salvation. No non-believer will participate in this judgment. Theirs will be at the Great White Throne Judgment and that will be totally different.

Will wolves and apostates and false prophets be at the judgment seat being saved but only as through fire? I do not think so because these men are teaching what is evil. They pervert God’s Word. They are not building upon the Foundation of Christ, but are attempting to build on a totally different foundation. They exclude the Jesus Christ of the Bible and try to create one of their own for their own purposes. Therefore, I do not think these will be at this judgment, but, instead, will be amongst the goats on our Lord’s left who actually thought they should be amongst the sheep on His right. They will hear Him say, “depart from Me for I never knew you.” I believe this because of the foundation upon which they are building. It isn’t the foundation of Jesus Christ.

Therefore, we must all examine ourselves and our ministries. Are we truly building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ alone and not another of our own making? What about our works? If we are working in our ministries in the flesh then all of that is wood, hay and straw. No, the only eternal works that go with us into eternity are the gold, silver, and precious stones which are works done in God’s power for His glory alone.

Soli Deo Gloria!

10 thoughts on “Saved But Only As Through Fire

  1. Good post Mike! Wondered about this a few times. In fact, we were just discussing it the other day. Interesting you bring it up. The Holy Spirit is so good! BTW, we agree with your findings too.

  2. This is fascinating! I think I finally understand it.

    When I was an arminian (altought I didn´t know I was!) I thought that verse 15 ment that the “carnal” christian almost made it to heaven, like if passing through the flames of hell as a punishment for his sins or something like that. Just barely being saved…. Nonsense :D

    So this basically means our works, if our works are empty and not fully devoted to the Lord then our reward in heaven is therefore diminished altought we are saved still. Did I understand this right?

    Thanks Mike!

  3. Mike, if only those who are false teachers and false prophets would look here, and by Holy Spirit conviction realize that they won’t make it to the Judgment seat of Christ!

  4. Excellent teaching, Mike. A believer will build on the foundation of Jesus Christ as laid out by Paul, the master builder. So, once again, it comes back to doctrine. What does Paul teach? And yet, so many today want to put Paul’s teaching aside as if it isn’t very important. Well, let’s see: Paul was taught not by men but by the risen Christ Himself (Gal. 1:11-12). As the Body of Christ, this is our doctrine, given by the risen Christ to Paul, and through Paul to us. We must believe according to Paul’s Gospel. It is the foundation upon which we stand.

    Then the question is, how far can one stray from Paul’s doctrine concerning the Foundation and still be saved?

  5. YES! Very good. This is what we were taught and believe that this verse had to do with the “works” of the Christian, “Judgement Seat of Christ.
    IT IS SO VERY CONFUSING sometimes……one of the things which makes these False Prophets, FALSE is they claim to be something they are not ie, “Christians”. AND it comes down to, as Carol said, what gospel/doctrine are they teaching? It becomes, hard/confusing because we have to JUDGE whether a life lines up to the scripture, sometimes it is a life we are very involved with…… because everything, including our own lives, will be and should be judged by the scripture…….we can end up in some very uncomfortable situations in “church” and personal life. IF we do NOT JUDGE, then we are surrendering ourselves and our entire life to the idea that there is NO ABSOLUTES and compromising the very gospel of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. If we do judge we are often occused of being, “judgemental”, or “legalistic”, or “gossiping” or “dividing the brethren”.

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