Number 559
September 1, 2020


Question: In 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 how can a person’s works be burned up but he himself can still be saved as by fire and indwelt by the Holy Spirit?

The local congregation of the church, also the universal church which is made up of all congregational groupings of Christians, can be defiled and rendered unfit to serve as a temple of God and His Holy Spirit. It may be the result of corporate action by the congregation itself, but it can be done by individual members. Both are common threats to which many who profess to be Christians, members of local churches and/or denominations, though sincere and earnest are ignorant and blind. Without intending it, and often without knowing it, the individual or the group can make it impossible for God to accept them and dwell in them. That danger – that reality – is the focus of this part of our answer to a question stated in Part 1 of the essay, concerning Paul’s warning in 1 Corinthians 3:15-16. To discuss it properly we have to note the context, 3:9-17. Paul uses two metaphors of the Christian and the church.

The first is straightforward: one plants, others water, but increase and growth of the plant is from God. So, “We (ministers) are laborers together with God, and you (Christians, the church) are the husbandry (field, planting, garden, crop) of God” (1 Cor. 3:5-9a).

The second idea is much more complicated and difficult. “…You (Christians, the church) are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9b-15). The church is not a physical structure. It is composed of Christians, human members placed together as “living stones” built into a “spiritual house” (1 Peter 2:5) in which God can dwell. Paul makes a similar statement: You are the temple of God … the Spirit of God dwells in you (1 Cor. 3:16).

The word used for temple here is NAOS, the inner sanctuary of the old tabernacle and temple, the “holy of holies,” the place where God dwelt in the midst of His people. The word is consistently used of the NT church. The old temple, the physical building was rejected by God and would be literally destroyed at some time after Paul wrote (see the prediction of Jesus in Matthew 24, etc). When Paul wrote the temple had been replaced by the body of Christians, the church of Christ (Eph. 2:18-22, compare 1 Cor. 12:12-14). This building, the church, is the work of God and His Christ (in Matthew 16:18 Jesus said, “I will build my church.” A different metaphor, city, is used in Hebrews 11:10 “a city … whose builder and maker is God”.

Note: “God does not dwell in temples made by hands of men” (Acts 17:24). It is true that the Lord built and builds up the church, that only He can add the saved to it (Acts 2:41, 47), and that one is immersed into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). But one does not become a part of the building against his own will, and each one is responsible for the quality of his own Christian life – one must consciously and willingly put off the old character and ways of the unconverted sinner, “the old man”, and put on the new character and new ways of the converted person, the Christian, “the new man” one has become in Christ (Eph. 4:11-25, Col. 3:1-15). Each one must build himself and allow others to help build him into Christ and be built up in the faith (Jude 20), on the foundation of Christ himself laid by the apostles and prophets (Eph. 2:20). The Lord’s church is not built by men, but – this is important – is built up and built into by human builders; we build each other up in the faith (Jude 20). This is Paul’s point in our current text, 1 Corinthians 3:10-17.

Paul did not consider himself or other apostles and prophets to be part of the foundation he laid, built upon, and asked others to build upon. Christ himself is the only proper foundation (1 Cor. 3:11), laid for the church by words, doctrines, and teachings including several similes and metaphors taught by Jesus, apostles, and various prophets instructing how to be saved and how to live a faithful life as the saved people of God.

Paul refers to himself as a builder, working under the direction of God (3:10). His primary task was to lay a proper foundation – Christ. Paul did not see himself as part of the foundation but rather as one who laid the foundation. Nor did he see other apostles and prophets as being the foundation or even parts of it. Ephesians 2:20-22 should be read carefully here. “[You] are built upon the foundation of [laid by] the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ being the chief cornerstone.” We are not to think of the church as a literal building constructed of physical materials. It cannot be a physical building that God desires us to build as a dwelling place or temple for Him. Remember God does not dwell in temples made by the hands of man (Acts 17:24). God has set Christians as living stones into his building, his spiritual temple, the church, with Christ being the head of the corner (1 Peter 2:5-9). Paul makes it clear that the church, founded and built by Christ is built upon and built into by others, like himself.

The difficult question which has been posed to us here arises from 3:13-15. How can one’s works be burned but he himself saved, yet so as by fire. Does this refer to the individual Christian and the personal affairs of his own life, or to something else? If we can determine the identity and nature of the temple/building and the foundation upon which it is built, and if we can determine who the builders are and what they build, then we can surely make the correct application of this scripture to ourselves and to the church. Paul is instructing us how to be proper builders – how to build up ourselves and how to build into and onto the foundation of Christ those who are to be member parts of the building, the ‘living stones’ temple in which Christ and God and the Spirit can live and dwell and work. The particular works he envisions here are the members of the church, those we instruct and bring to Christ and encourage to obey him and be added by him to his church.

The building/temple is made up of people, saved people, in whom God dwells by His Spirit. The building materials named in 3:12 must refer then to people who become part of the temple, part of the building. The builders are those who bring others into the fellowship of the church – teach them and assist them in obeying the gospel.

Each builder’s works will eventually be made manifest as to what kind and quality they are. It is not a test of the church and its doctrines and works but of the individual members, of their character and works. The day will come and the fire will test it (3:13). The day mentioned here may be the day of God, the day of the Lord, the day of judgment at the return of Christ. However, it may also be any day of testing and trial, or fiery persecution, etc (1 Peter 1:6-7 and 4:12). If one builds good and valuable materials – spiritual persons equated with gold, silver, precious stones – into the church, they will abide and he will be rewarded (3:14). The reward is joy at seeing one’s children in the faith walking faithfully in the Lord (2 John 4, 3 John 3-4). The eventual reward may be enhanced by seeing them in heaven, but does not impact one’s own salvation or one’s status in heaven. It should be comforting to know that the reward of God’s approval for one’s efforts does not depend upon the response of those who hear, nor even upon the faithfulness of those who respond initially to one’s teaching. It depends solely upon whether or not as the teacher one has taught the truth and carried out his own commission (1:17, compare Mt. 25:21, 23ff), how well he has lived his own faith, not how well others have lived theirs.

If those one builds into the church on the foundation of Christ as taught by his apostles and prophets and the Holy Spirit are or become unspiritual persons who can be equated with wood, hay, and stubble they will fail the test and be destroyed by the fire. The builder himself can be saved even though his works/converts fail the test. If his work is burned he shall suffer loss (3:15a). One feels sorrow at the failure of any Christian to stay faithful and to stay saved (1 Cor. 5:2). One feels a sense of personal loss when those he has taught turn out to be unfaithful, when they fall away and are lost, burned – how dreadful to think it may be an eternal loss. But he himself (the builder) will be saved, yet so as by fire (3:15b-c). His reward for faithful work and faithful living will not be lost, even though others are lost. His own salvation does not depend upon the number or faithfulness of his converts. His own status in the judgment and in eternity is not affected by the failure of his converts (Mt. 10:12-14). If he has lived and told the truth he can say, “I am innocent of the blood of any man” (Acts 20:26).

A builder’s faith can be tested by the response of those he has taught. The assumption here is that he stands the test, that he himself is not shown to be made of inferior stuff that cannot stand the strain, etc. The builder should try to make sure that the convert is gold, silver, precious stones – spiritual, able to stand the test without giving up or being destroyed. The convert must be built upon the proper foundation – the undivided and indivisible Christ. No one can replace Christ as the foundation, and none can share with Christ in or as the foundation upon which to build (3:11, 1:13). He must be properly indoctrinated, taught the truth – the fullness of truth – which is from the Spirit of God, not the wisdom or persuasive eloquence of uninspired men (1:21-2:5).

CONCLUSION to Part 2. The question to ask now is, what kind of building material are you? What kind of builder are you? Are you wood, hay, stubble – natural, carnal, unenlightened, unwilling to hear God? Are you gold, silver, precious stones – spiritual, hearing and accepting God’s word? What are you trying to bring into or build into the church/temple of God?