I was googling a reference and this post, from a branch ministry of GotQuestions, popped up. I’m going to post it here because I think it shines light on one of those questions that always seem to be percolating. Happy Reading! ~Pastor Scott
What does 1 Corinthians 3:15 mean?
A fiery test is coming that will reveal the quality of the work of everyone who helps to build the church of Christ on earth. Paul’s metaphor pictures the church, the community of believers, as a structure that may be raised with either high-quality or poor building materials. He seems to equate these building materials with teaching that is true and helpful about the way of God versus that which is distorted and misleading (1 Corinthians 3:12–13).
Even structures built from cheap, weak materials may appear good and strong to casual view. Fire will reveal what the building is really made of. That fire will come with the judgment of Christ on the day of the Lord. This is a judgment of the work of Christians, not the Christians themselves (Romans 8:1). Non-believers must face a very different judgment (Revelation 20:11–15). Scholars disagree whether, in this case, Paul is describing the works of all believers or only of Christian leaders (James 3:1). In either case, all Christians will experience some judgment of their works (2 Corinthians 5:10).
We know this is not a judgment of whether a person is saved or not (Titus 3:5). It’s not God’s judgment on sin. Those who trust in Christ have been forgiven for their sin. Jesus already received God’s judgment for it. Paul made it clear at the very start of this letter that the Christians in Corinth, though many were still living “of the flesh” (1 Corinthians 3:3), would stand guiltless before God in the day of the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:8).
There will be loss, however. Those whose work is burned up, found to be worthless by Christ’s judgment, will suffer some unspecified loss. No detail is given, but it may be the simple loss of seeing all of one’s effort in this life revealed as nothing more than selfishness and wasted potential.
Even that person, though, with his or her sins covered by the blood of Christ, will be saved by God’s grace because of faith in Christ. Paul adds, though, that it will be as if they have gone through fire. Again, there is room for uncertainty about what this means.
First Corinthians 3:10–23 expands on Paul’s earlier point that it is God, not human beings, who are worthy. Each person must build their ”works” on a foundation of Christ. Those works will be subject to judgment, to see what has eternal value. Lasting works are based in valuable, durable, precious things like wisdom and truth. Cheap and fragile materials won’t stand the fire of God’s judgment.
Paul cannot call the Corinthian Christians ”spiritual” people. Though they are in Christ, they continue to live to the flesh. They are spiritual infants, not ready for solid food. Divisions among them prove they are still serving themselves, picking sides in a senseless debate between Christian teachers. Paul insists that both he and Apollos are mere servants of the Lord and co-workers. They are not in competition. Those who lead the Corinthians must build carefully because their work will be tested on the day of the Lord. Christian leaders who build the church will have their work judged by Christ to see if they have built on the foundation of Christ. All human wisdom will be shown to be futile and worthless.