1 Corinthians 3:11-15 says:
For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
So often, these verses are taught by Pastors and Bible teachers to communicate to the church that their works will be judged.
The pastors teach that some of the works of church members will survive the judgment (gold, silver, precious stone), while the works of other church members will burn up in judgment (wood, hay, straw), though they will be saved, but only by escaping flames of the fires of judgment.
However, is this the context of the verses?
Are these verses for church members sitting in a church service?
Could it be the opposite?
Could it be the works being judged in these verses are actually what the pastor/Bible teacher taught to those in his church/class/audience?
To understand this set of verses, let’s take a closer look at the context.
In First Corinthians, the Corinthian believers were comparing different teachers of God’s truth to one another (1 Corinthians 2:10-12; 1 corinthians 3:1-4).
They were arguing over which teacher was the best.
Some preferred specific teachers over the others.
This caused divisions among them.
Paul wrote to correct their immature, infantile, fleshly behavior, with the goal of creating unity among them (1 Corinthians 1:10; 3:1-4)
Paul wrote that each teacher was given an assignment from the Lord…
...but God caused the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9)
Paul compared the teaching ministry area of each person to a field as one scatters seed upon the field, plants, and awaits a harvest.
He also compared each man’s teaching ministry to constructing a building (1 Corinthians 3:9)
Paul said he was an expert in laying the foundation of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 3:10).
He said he was a skilled builder of the foundation.
What message was Paul an expert in communicating which became a solid foundation?
What message was Paul skilled in delivering as he develop a solid foundation of truth?
He tells us in 1 and 2 Corinthians, as well as in Romans, Galatians, and Ephesians, that his message was the gospel, the cross, the ministry of reconciliation, the new covenant of grace (1 Corinthians 1:17-18; 2:2; 2 Corinthians 3:1-6:2).
Paul tells us this message was one where God no longer counts our sins against us, since all of our sins were counted against Jesus (2 Corinthians 5:18-19).
It is a message that tells us the old covenant of law - the Ten Commandments - was a ministry of condemnation and death (2 Corinthians 3:6-9).
It is a message that teaches us we are freed from the Ten Commandments through the Spirit of the Lord in our hearts (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
It is the message the Spirit writes upon our hearts as the Spirit searches God’s heart to teach us all that God has freely given to us in Christ (1 Corinthians 2:1-16; 2 Corinthians 3:3).
It is a message where the new covenant of grace, which is all that God has done for us in Jesus, brings righteousness, forgiveness, and life through Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:6-9; 5:18-19).
It is a message where we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus, apart from works so no one can boast (Ephesians 2:8-9).
It is a message were the person who has faith in Jesus is declared righteous by God, is under no condemnation from God, is at peace with God, and not under the law of God, and becomes a child of God who calls God “Abba, Father” (Romans 3-8; Galatians 4:4-6).
Why was Paul an expert in the message of grace, the new covenant?
Why was he skilled in the message of grace?
Because God made him competent in teaching the new covenant of grace (2 Corinthians 3:4-6).
Because he was trained by the best in delivering the message of grace.
And who was this?
The ascended Jesus!
Jesus taught Paul the truths of grace, the cross, the ministry of reconciliation, the new covenant of grace (Acts 26:15-18; Galatians 1:11; Ephesians 3:1-2).
It is the very covenant Jesus died to establish (Matthew 26:27-28; Hebrews 2:9; 7:22; 10:5-9).
He then gave Paul the assignment of taking the gospel of grace into cities, telling people about all that God had done for them in Christ, and establishing churches on the foundation of the good news of grace which God has given to us in Jesus (Acts 20:23-24; 26:15-18; 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2 Corinthians 4:15).
In many of the cites, Paul was the first missionary of the grace of Jesus.
As the first person to enter these cities and proclaim the good news of God’s grace to people, Paul laid a solid grace-based spiritual foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10).
Paul would then leave these cities and other teachers would come and build upon his foundation.
One of those who effectively built upon Paul’s foundation through his teaching ministry and who watered the seeds of grace Paul planted was Apollos (1 Corinthians 3:6).
Yet Apollos was not the only one who built upon the foundation Paul laid.
Other teachers would also build upon Paul’s foundation (1 Corinthians 3:10).
Paul taught that the work of those who built upon the foundation he laid would be judged (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).
The work of some teachers would prove to be genuine, authentic truths of the new covenant of grace, surviving the fire of judgment.
These teachers would be rewarded for the quality of their work, since it was based upon the gospel of grace, the cross, the work of Christ, the new covenant (gold, silver, precious stones) (1 Corinthians 3:8; 4:1-4).
The work of others would prove to be fake, untrue, not consistent with the truths of the new covenant of grace of Jesus - the foundation Paul laid.
Any of their teachings not based upon the new covenant of grace, the cross, the message of reconciliation would be burned up in judgment (wood, hay, straw).
These people would suffer loss of rewards, but they would be saved, but only as one escaping the flames of judgment (1 Corinthians 3:15).
With this contextual understanding of “escaping through the flames”, it seems that most of the sermons pastors have developed and delivered will be burned up in judgement (since many do not teach the new covenant but mix the covenants), being exposed as wood, hay, and straw...though they will be saved as one escaping the flames of judgment, and they will suffer loss of reward from the Lord.
The only pastors whose work (teachings/sermons) will be revealed as gold, silver, and precious stone are those who taught the new covenant of grace, the message of the cross, the message of reconciliation, our righteousness in Christ, our full forgiveness in Christ, the finished, full, and forever work of Jesus.
The works (teachings/sermons) of pastors who mix law and grace, and the old and new covenants will be burned up in judgement.
The works (teachings/sermons) of those who do not teach that the Ten Commandments is a ministry of death and condemnation and the new covenant is a ministry of forgiveness, where God does not count our sins against us, will be burned up.
The works (teachings/sermons) of those will be burned up in judgment who do not teach that the old covenant of the Ten Commandments is gone and the new covenant of grace has come to the new creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17).
So we see in context these verses (1 Corinthians 3:11-15) are not talking about the works of church members being judged, but the works of what their Pastors taught in their sermons that will be judged.
The works (sermons/teachings) of some of these pastors will be burned up in judgment like wood, hay, and straw...yet they will be saved as one escaping the flames of fire.