Apostles and Wisdom: Part 9 of 13 (series: Lessons on 1 Cor)
by John Lowe
he shall suffer loss;
If he has built upon the right foundation with wood and hay and stubble, he will suffer loss. His weakness and corruption will shrink his glory, even if he may generally have been an honest and an upright Christian. This part of his work will be eternally lost, though he himself may be saved. Note: Those who stand on the foundation of Christianity, even if they build on it with hay, wood, and stubble, may be saved. This may help us to be more loving and considerate of our brothers and sisters in Christ, who hold wrong opinions and teach error. We should not denigrate men for their weakness; because nothing will damn men but wickedness.
Suffer loss means that he will forfeit the special "reward"; not that he will lose salvation (which is altogether a free gift, not a "reward" or wages), since he remains on the foundation. Do you see the contrast: “If any man’s work abide” which he built on the foundation, he shall receive a reward; if any man’s work goes up in smoke, he will suffer a terrible loss, but, he himself will be saved. He does not lose his salvation if he is on the foundation, which is trust in Christ, even though he receives no reward.
Friend, what are you building today? What kind of material are you using? If you are building with gold, it may not be very impressive now. If you are building an old haystack, it will really stand out on the horizon, but it will go up in smoke. I like to put it like this: there are going to be some people in heaven who will be there because their foundation is Christ but who will smell as if they had been bought at a fire sale! Everything they ever did will have gone up in smoke. They will not receive a reward for their works.
Now if you are a carnal Christian, you cannot expect a reward because you have not been rightly related to God through the Word of God. The carnal Christian is the one who does not know the Word of God. You see, one can identify the three categories which Paul mentions in Romans by their relation to the Word of God. The natural man says it is foolishness. The spiritual man discerns the Word, and it gives him spiritual insight. The carnal Christian says, “Let’s have a banquet and not a Bible study.” Or he says, “Let’s listen to music rather than to the teaching of the Word of God.” That is the way you can identify the carnal Christian.
but he himself shall be saved;
The Christian minister will be saved with a salvation that is ever lasting; not by his work as a minister and not by his wood, hay, and stubble, which will be burnt up; and despite all the imperfections of his ministry, but through his being in Christ. This is not limited to ministers only, because this verse says: “If any mans work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” God does not take away the hope of salvation from the unskillful and foolish builders, who cling to the foundation, which is Jesus Christ. The apostle adds one exception; that they will suffer the loss of a reward, which they otherwise could have received. This was the situation that existed in Corinth among some in the congregation who were teachers of the Word. The implication is that it will be difficult for those that corrupt Christianity with their wood, hay, and stubble, to be saved. God will have no mercy on their works, although he may pluck them like smoldering coals out of the fire. If he has sincerely and conscientiously believed what he preached, and yet preached what was wrong, not through malice or opposition to the Gospel, but through mere ignorance, he shall be saved; God in his mercy will overlook his errors; and he will not suffer punishment because he was mistaken. Nevertheless, as in most erroneous teachings there is generally a portion of willful and obstinate ignorance; the salvation of such erroneous teachers is very rare; and is expressed here as yet so as by fire, meaning “with great difficulty, a narrow escape, just barely made it, almost missed the boat”; but he will be like a hot coal plucked out of the fire. The apostle obviously refers to the case of a man, who, built a house, and began to live in it, but after awhile the house happens to be set on fire, and he receives a warning just in time to escape with his life, but he loses his house and all his possessions. Likewise anyone who basis their salvation on the doctrine of Christ crucified as the only hope of salvation, but at the same time builds upon that foundation, the doctrine of Purgatory, or any other erroneous or destructive doctrine, he shall lose all his labor, and his own soul will barely escape the eternal flames of hell; but not even this is possible unless sheer ignorance, ingrained prejudice, and a good deal of sincerity are connected with his case. The stress in this entire passage is not upon a man’s relationship to Christ, but upon service to Christ.
yet so as by fire;
He will be saved, but barely saved and it will be difficult—“For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?” (1 Peter 4:17-18; KJV); he will lose his reward and will feel ashamed when he is face to face with his Savior. The situation of this man is like a man that is burnt out of house and home; he escapes at last, but loses everything. Escape, as used here, has the meaning of "something resembling" an escape from fire by "snatching them out of the fire"—“And others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire …” (Jude 1:23; KJV); so he will escape by the narrowest margin, "by the skin of his teeth" (Job 19:20). It is certain that this phrase has absolutely nothing to do with actual fire. It is a figure of speech, prompted possibly by Paul's reference to the Judgment and the fire of that day, but it is not to be assumed to mean the same thing. The Syriac version has "as out of the fire"—“And the LORD said unto Satan, The LORD rebuke thee, O Satan; even the LORD that hath chosen Jerusalem rebuke thee: is not this a brand plucked out of the fire?” (Zech 3:2; KJV). The gist of the verse is that he will be tried by the fire of the word, and convinced by the light it shines on the errors, indiscretions, and inconsistencies of his ministry; either while he is alive and healthy or on a death bed. And all his wood, hay, and stubble will be burnt up, because he cannot take anything like this to his judgment or into heaven. The gold, silver, and precious stones of his ministry will survive the fire of Judgment and they will support his life and works when they are placed in the scales of Judgment, he will not be found wanting.
A distinction must be made between minor and fundamental doctrines (if we regard the superstructure as representing the doctrines added to the elementary essentials); a man may make a mistake with regard to the former, and not lose his salvation, but the same cannot be said about the latter.
The fire mentioned here is for the purpose of trying the man's work, not purifying his soul; but the delusion of purgatory refers to the purging of a man while he is in another state; what is left is impure; not the work of the man, but the man himself; but here the fire is said to try the work: for that reason, purgatory is not meant even if such a place as purgatory could be proved to exist; which remains yet to be demonstrated. The doctrine of purgatory is not merely unscriptural and anti-scriptural, since there is not one word in the entire scriptures to support such a monstrous thesis; but it is effectively refuted in a single question: "If any church believes in such a thing, and in their own power, through prayer, to deliver people from it; why do they not pray all people out of it immediately for the sake of love and compassion.