“A friend has appealed to 1 Corinthians 3:15 to support the idea that a Christian can never fall from God’s grace eternally. He may sin, and then suffer the ‘fire’ of a temporal consequence, but his soul cannot be lost. Would you comment on this passage?”
The larger context of the passage you cite is as follows:
“According to the grace of God which was given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder I laid a foundation; and another builds thereon. But let each man take heed how he builds thereon. For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if any man builds on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself shall prove each man’s work of what sort it is. If any man’s work shall abide which he built thereon, he shall receive a reward. If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as through fire” (ASV).
It is true that those who have been influenced by the doctrines of John Calvin misuse this text in their attempt to prove the “impossibility of apostasy” dogma. They seek to establish the idea that the Christian’s salvation is eternally secure — no matter how he lives.
It is very important, at the very outset, to observe that in this section of the Corinthian letter, Paul employs the metaphor of a great building. It is God’s building (a “temple”), and within it dwells the Spirit of God (v. 16ff); thus, it is imperative that it be kept holy. The illustration, then, has to do with the house of God – with Christians.
Some of the constituent elements of the apostle’s imagery are as follows:
- He had laid a foundation in Corinth.
- Others had built upon that foundation.
- With the passing of time, and under the rigors of tribulation, some of the components had proved to be of superior quality, while others had shown themselves to be worthy of destruction.
- Accordingly, those involved in the “building” process were to exert all diligence to see to it that their “work” was quality, thus would endure.
Let us, therefore, consider this portion of scripture very carefully, and let the contexts (both immediate and complementary) guide us to the correct meaning.
- In the city of Corinth, Paul had laid the foundation of this spiritual building. He had preached Christ (2:1-2), and in so doing had established the Corinthian congregation (Acts 18:8; 1 Cor. 4:15). Later, Apollos had supplemented the apostle’s labor (Acts 18:24ff; 1 Cor. 3:5-6).
- At the time Paul penned this epistle, it was some four to five years after first arriving in the city. He labored among these people for eighteen months (Acts 18:11). But serious problems had begun to evolve within the church. This very epistle provides ample evidence of that digression.
- There was a pressing need for the apostle to urge these brethren to build securely upon the foundation he had initiated. Only quality teaching (the full gospel; cf. Mt. 28:20) would produce enduring materials (i.e., converts who would stand fast in their faith). Persecution had descended upon the Corinthian congregation almost from the commencement of its existence (Acts 18:12ff). Without question it was the case that some of the Christians in the city did not maintain their fidelity, hence, the appropriateness of the present warning.
- The superstructure of the building (i.e., that which was built upon the foundation) was of two qualitative types – stable and non-stable (each of which was illustrated by three examples). The enduring components were symbolized by the gold, silver, and costly stones, (i.e., that which fire would not damage). The inferior materials (wood, hay, stubble) reflected the character of those who yielded to hostile pressures, hence, surrendered their faith — or perhaps simply did not maintain their spiritual integrity.
With the above observations in place, we are ready to give consideration to verses 13ff.
First, it is quite clear that “each man’s work” has reference to the converts the teacher made by means of his evangelism. Later, we will find Paul addressing these brothers, saying, “are not you my work in the Lord?” (9:1). In this connection, the apostle declares that “the day” will reveal the character of each convert. Was he properly grounded and faithful, or was he schooled superficially and/or became negligent? This does not mean, of course, that when one falls away from the faith it necessarily is his teacher’s fault. But that word of caution is prevalent in this discourse.
Some believe that the terms “day” and “fire” refer to the refining process of persecution (cf. 1 Pet. 4:12). It is probably safe to say, however, that these expressions, in the view of most scholars, are references to the terminal events of human history, i.e., the day of Judgment and the punishment of eternal fire that is to follow for the disobedient. These concluding events are the means by which the true quality of one’s converts will be manifest ultimately.
Second, if it turns out that one’s converts “abide,” i.e., remain faithful, the teacher will reap a “reward” of tremendous satisfaction. This “reward” principle is illustrated in a number of ways, for example, by the happy reunion envisioned in Christ’s parable of the unjust steward (see Lk. 16:9). Note Paul’s similar exultation elsewhere: “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of glorying? Are not even you, before our Lord Jesus at his coming?” (1 Thes. 2:19; cf. Dan. 12:3b).
On the other hand, if one’s converts do not survive the hardships of the Christian life, and abandon their faith (Heb. 3:12), the teacher will suffer some sense of “loss.” Not the loss of his own salvation, but, so far as the apostate is concerned, the teacher’s labor will have been in vain. Paul provides a preview of such anxiety when he bluntly tells the Galatian saints: “I fear for you, that I may have labored over you in vain” (Gal. 4:11; NASB). Did not Jesus feel some sense of "loss[ when Judas defected and ended up in perdition (Jn. 17:12)?
Two important truths stand out clearly from a consideration of this narrative.
- One’s converts may defect from the faith and be lost.
- In the event that such occurs, though the teacher may experience the loss of his apostate disciple, yet he himself will not be held responsible for the defection. He will be saved if he passes the “fire” test personally.
It, therefore, is the epitome of folly to suggest that this context teaches explicitly, or even implies, that a child of God can never be lost. The truth is, it affirms just the opposite of that view.