Augustine — and after him John Calvin — taught the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints, i.e., the notion that a child of God can never so sin as to be finally lost. One of the passages that is supposed to support this notion is 1 Corinthians 3:15. There Paul says:
“If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire.”
The claim is made that if a child of God sins, God will chastise him — and he may suffer loss — but he will still retain his salvation even though he might have to pass through the fire of discipline.
This notion reflects a gross misunderstanding of this context and is at variance with dozens of other biblical verses.
In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul discusses the work that both he and Apollos had wrought at Corinth. These men were ministers through whom the Corinthians had come to faith (v. 5). Paul planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the increase (v. 6). Paul affirmed that at Corinth he had labored as a wise master-builder, carefully building upon the solid foundation of Jesus Christ (vv. 10,11).
What were the stones of this spiritual house to which the apostle had contributed? They were Christian people. Later Paul will write: “Are not you my work in the Lord?” (9:1).
He then cautions teachers that they must take heed as to how they build. Devout attention must be given to sound instruction, for if one’s work abides (i.e., his converts remain faithful — with gold, silver, costly stones quality), one will enjoy a satisfying reward (cf. Luke 16:9).
On the other hand, if a man’s work does not abide (i.e., the convert falls away) and is burned, i.e., destroyed in hell (Matthew 10:28), — because of its wood, hay, and stubble character, the teacher will suffer loss (e.g., the satisfaction of seeing his labor come to fruition; cf. Galatians 4:11). Nevertheless, his personal salvation will not be jeopardized even though his convert is lost.
Paul is keenly aware that some of his spiritual children might be lost. And so, circle the term “work” in this passage, and in your margin write: One’s convert (cf. 1 Corinthians 9:1) — not his personal deeds.