Unrewarded Labor

Arthur Pink, 1932


1 Corinthians 3:10-15:
"By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his 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 man's work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames."

There are few verses in the New Testament which have been more misunderstood and misapplied (fatally so, in many cases, we fear), than the above. In circles where "dispensational truth" has been made prominent, the popular concept which obtains is that this passage teaches there is a class of Christians who have completely forfeited their "reward," yet, who will enter Heaven. That these have no "good works" to their credit, but are, nevertheless, truly saved.

This evil doctrine has been widely propagated the last two generations, and few indeed have been the voices raised in protest. It has been advocated by so many "Bible teachers" with a reputation for orthodoxy, and has met with such a general acceptance, that for anyone now to challenge it, is to court the being branded as a heretic. Notwithstanding, the servant of God must not fear the frowns of men, but proclaim that which he is assured makes most for the glory of God and the good of His people.

To affirm that 1 Corinthians 3:15 signifies there is a class of God's children whose works shall all be burned up, is to fly in the face of the Analogy of Faith. To insist this passage means that the lives of some who have been regenerated, who are indwelt by the Spirit, and led of Him (Rom 8:14), are, nevertheless, destitute of all good works--is to blaspheme the One who performed a miracle of grace in the hearts of His own people, and who makes the bodies of His people His temples.

We are far from saying that those who have advanced this dangerous delusion were conscious of the dreadful implications thereof, nevertheless, that was the vile motive of the great Enemy, who is the real author of it. And it behooves the watchmen on Zion's walls to sound the alarm and expose the designs of our foe.

Not only is the popular interpretation of 1 Corinthians 3:15 highly insulting to each person of the Godhead, but it is flatly contradicted by a number of plain passages in Holy Writ. Ephesians 2:10 declares that those who are saved by grace through faith are "His workmanship created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God has before ordained that we should [not 'ought to'] walk in them." What could be plainer than that? Those who are not walking in "good works" have never been born again.

In Philippians 1:6, the Christian is assured that, "He who has begun a good work in you will finish it." Whom God justifies, He sanctifies. Where He turns a heart toward Himself, He directs its possessor into the paths of righteousness. "But will you know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead" (James 2:20). Truly, there is nothing new under the sun. Even in James' days, there were men who imagined that they possessed a saving faith but who were without those works of obedience which are its inseparable and necessary evidence.

Is it not evident then, that 1 Corinthians 3:15 does not signify what is commonly supposed? God's holy Word does not contradict itself. It does not affirm in one passage that without holiness "no man shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:14)--and in another that a man may live an unholy life and yet be taken to Heaven.

The teaching of Scripture is uniform and harmonious, and if we are unable to see the consistency of one passage with another, the fault lies in us—prejudice or carnality is at work. We may know for certain that if our interpretation of any verse clashes with the plain meaning of another--then it is erroneous. O how much we need to "prove all things, and hold fast that which is good" (1 Thessalonians 5:21).

If, then, 1 Corinthians 3:15 does not teach what so many have sought to bring out of it, what is its real signification? The answer is not far to obtain, if due attention be paid to its context. Yet, let it be pointed out that, care must be taken in order to be sure we go back far enough so as to ascertain the scope of the whole passage. It is at this point so many expositors have erred. It is almost impossible to understand the subject which is here under discussion, if we begin only at verse 11—which is the prevailing habit these days. If we are to perceive aright the force of verses 11 to 15, attention must be paid to verses 1 to 10, so as to discover what is the subject which the apostle is here treating of.

At the beginning of this third chapter, the apostle returns to his charge of schisms and contentions among the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 1:11), which was the principal occasion of his writing this epistle. He reproves them for their divisions (sad manifestation of their carnality!), which were about their ministers--and points out that there was nothing in them in which to boast. Some of them were calling themselves by the name of Paul, for which reason (and for none other) he thanked God he had baptized so few of them (1 Corinthians 1:14-16). Others were exalting Apollos as the head of their party, which shows how fleshly they were (1 Corinthians 3:4).

In view of this, the apostle faithfully and humbly reminded them that both himself and Apollos were "but servants by whom you believed" (1 Corinthians 3:5). He had merely "planted," and Apollos had simply "watered"--but God was the One who gave the "increase" (1 Corinthians 3:6). Then the conclusion is drawn—"Neither is he who plants any thing, neither he who waters" unless God deigned to employ them and bless their labors (1 Corinthians 3:7). What madness was it, then, to glory in the mere instrument!

Thus, it is clear, beyond a doubt, that the opening verses of 1 Corinthians 3 treat of the official ministry of the public servants of God. The same theme is continued in the verses which immediately follow. This is clear from, "Now he who plants and he who waters are one" (1 Corinthians 3:8). Though there is diversity in the nature of the work of God's servants (one evangelistic, one teaching, etc.), yet their commission is from the same Master; their motive is to glorify the same God; their aim is the good of souls. Thus, as fellow-laborers, it was sinful folly to array them one against another.

It is unfortunate that the next words of verse 8 have been translated, "and every man shall receive his own reward." Literally, the Greek signifies, "but each [of Christ's appointed servants] his own reward shall receive"—and so the word "man" should be "one" throughout the whole passage. As Christ has distributed different gifts to His ministers, and allotted unto them a diversity of ministry--so they are rewarded accordingly. "For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building." 1 Corinthians 3:9.

True ministers of the Gospel are laborers (not loiterers) in the Lord's vineyard, fellow-laborers--whether evangelists, pastors, or teachers. God's "field" are the elect. He it is who breaks up the fallow ground of their hearts, casts in the seed of grace, makes the ground good, and causes it to bring forth fruit. "God's building"—believers are the house in which God dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16).

Note carefully that, this second metaphor or figure, is carried forward into verse 12, and helps to interpret that verse. "By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as an expert builder, and another is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds." (1 Corinthians 3:10). In the opening clause, the apostle ascribes to the grace of God all his ministerial gifts and the success granted. In what follows, he reminds the Corinthians that he was the one who had first preached the Gospel to them, being the initial instrument of their conversion. The "foundation," which he had ministerially laid, was what he had taught them concerning the person and work of Christ (1 Corinthians 2:2). The "another," who built thereon, was Apollos.

Upon the final words of the verse, Charles Hodge (1797-1878) rightly said, "In the whole context, he is speaking of ministers, and therefore, this clause must be considered as a warning to them. They are to take heed how, that is, with what materials, they carried on the building of this spiritual temple."

"For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ" (1 Corinthians 3:11). Here again, there is nothing whatever in the Greek to justify the word "man." It is "can no one," that is, any "builder," or servant of God—any one who edifies. There is no other "foundation" to ministerially lay, than the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Observe particularly how that in Ephesians 2:20, the New Testament saints are said to be "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief corner," that is, are doctrinally built upon the ministry of the apostles and prophets. 1 Corinthians 3:12—again, the proper rendering is "no one." In the light of the context, this must refer to the preaching of those who present Christ as the only basis of the sinner's hope.

In Scripture, "gold" is an emblem of the divine glory, "silver" speaks of redemption, and "precious stones" are the scintillators of light. Those doctrines which magnify the character of God, which exemplify and amplify the redemption of Christ, and which are (under the Spirit) channels of illumination to the hearer--are what is here in view. Such doctrines are of intrinsic worth and importance, are pure and precious to the regenerated, and are durable and lasting in their effects.

Contrariwise, "wood, hay, stubble," point to empty and useless ministry which edifies not. 1 Corinthians 3:13. The doctrine or ministry of each preacher will, sooner or later, be made manifest, both to himself and his hearers. It needs no great length of time for a discerning mind to discover whether or not the blessing of God rests upon the preacher's labors, whether sinners are really being turned from Satan to God, and from sin to holiness. It is easy to discern whether saints are becoming more unworldly, more self-denying, more Christ-like.

True, there is much seeming goodness, which is "as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goes away" (Hos 6:4), but "the fire shall try every one's work." There is nothing in the passage which requires us to project this into the distant future—that blunts its present searching point. The "day and the fire" most probably has reference to a day of testing and tribulation, being parallel with Matthew 24:21. Faith must be tested (in this life). Grace must be put to the proof. Even a mild storm of persecution is usually enough to divide the sheep from the goats, and serves to identify the truly regenerated. See 1 Corinthians 11:19. 1 Corinthians 3:14—If any minister's doctrine will bear the test of daylight (Holy Writ), and abide the trial of opposition, if it has been truly built upon the one foundation of the person and offices of Christ, that is, if it is consistent therewith--he shall "receive a reward" now, by seeing the sheep of his flock growing in grace and walking in the truth (Phi 4:1; 3Jo 1:4), and also in the future, when Christ Himself shall command His faithful servants (Mat 25:21). 1 Corinthians 3:15

If any minister's preaching fails to stand the test of Scripture and the providential trials of God, then shall its worthlessness be manifested to those with spiritual discernment, and be repudiated by Christ. The reference here is to the figure of the "wood, hay, stubble," which must not be understood of fundamental error, for it is built upon the "foundation" of Jesus Christ (verse 12). It is the materials the preacher uses. It is the stooping unto "enticing words of man's wisdom" (oratorical effect), relying upon anecdotes or jokes to move the emotions, instead of the sword of the Spirit, largely supplanting the "foolishness of preaching" by the esthetic charms of music, and resorting to worldly methods to attract a crowd, etc., which are here in view.

"He shall suffer loss." All his fleshly labors will produce no fruit for eternity! Because he was himself a regenerated man, fundamentally sound on the person of Christ, he shall be "saved," yet "so as by fire," that is, with difficulty (1 Peter 4:17, Jude 1:23).

To sum up, 1 Corinthians 3:5-15 does not treat of the rank and file of God's people--but of His official and public servants. The "works" referred to have nothing to do with the details of our walk--but respect materials and methods used by saved ministers of the Gospel.

This passage no more teaches that it is possible for a man to go to Heaven, than it holds out any hope that a "Modernist," who teaches fundamental error, is a regenerated man. That the popular interpretation of the passage is so widely accepted, only goes to show the low state of spirituality which now prevails.

To give people the impression that, no matter how spiritually fruitless their lives may be--yet, if they are "resting on the finished work of Christ," they are sure of Heaven--is a lie of the devil, and only eternity will show how many have been fatally deceived by it! Make no mistake, my reader, without holiness "no man shall see the Lord" (Heb 12:14). The only satisfactory evidence that you are truly trusting in Christ, is a daily walk which is pleasing to Him.

"The carnal Christian teaching is, after all, the consequence of a shallow, man-centered evangelism in which decisions are sought at any price and with any methods." Ernest Reisinger