Q&R with Brad Jersak – “Is 1 Corinthians 3 a judgment of believers? Or everyone?”
I’m hung up on one word in 1 Corinthians 3.
“If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” 1 Corinthians 3:14-15 ESV
Here’s my hang-up: if the foundation referenced here is Christ, is Paul speaking only to believers? This is nagging me and keeping me from accepting the universality of God’s grace wholeheartedly (or maybe, whole-headedly is a more apropos word).
Good question. I would certainly not want to make accepting the universality of Christ’s grace hinge on just one passage of Scripture. And not this one in any case. There are so many others that are indisputable… think through this linked list of 32 Scriptures (someone else sent me a list of 44 texts… our eyes are opening). Some of them can’t be read in any other way without deliberately squeezing them to mean something other than what they are saying: that God’s grace extends to all. A quick reminder:
Jesus’ own plan: “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself” (John 12:32).
And what Paul foresees: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ, all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22).
To the Colossians: “He is before all things, and by Him all things hold together …and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself by making peace through the blood of His cross—things on earth or things in heaven” (Colossians 1:15-17, 20).
Peter agrees: “He is not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9-10).
John pipes in, “He Himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world“ (1 John 2:2).
But we need to respond. Absolutely. But will we? Paul thinks so: “At the name of Jesus every knee will bow—of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth—and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
These Bible passages do not lead me to put my trust in a doctrine of universal grace.
Faith in a doctrine is not faith in Jesus.
These Bible passages do not lead me to teach ‘universalism’ as a dogma of the faith.
I am able, however, to share the convictions that have grown from the Scriptures, the Spirit, the first Christians, and my own confidence in Christ.
And here is my conviction: that we can put ALL our confidence in Christ, for “of him, and through him, and to him, are all things” (Romans 11:36). It is the Father’s revealed purpose, predestined plan, and ultimate end-game (telos) to “bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” Ephesians 1:10). And the One who will “restore all things” (Acts 3:21) and sits on the throne will have the final word: “Then He who sat on the throne said, ‘Behold, I make all things new’” (Revelation 21:5).
With that backstory, what do we learn from 1 Corinthians 3?
- 11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13 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. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
There is are two ways to read this passage: (1) In the broadest sense, “the Day” may refer to the final judgment when everyone will come before the Judgment Seat of Christ for a reckoning of their lives, their faith, their deeds (depending on the passage) and that we will all pass through the Refiner’s Fire (Malachi 3) and will all be salted with Fire (where God IS the fire). OR, (2) in the narrower sense, we can read this specific text as focusing only on those who have been ministers of the gospel–a test of whether their foundations were sure and their motives were pure.
It sounds like you lean toward the latter interpretation and in the end, I probably would focus on that ministry focus too, while not excluding the principles that apply to the broader judgment or negating the universal hope of the other texts I’ve cited above. Said another way, this specific judgment of ministers illustrates truths about the great and final judgment of all in which it is embedded, with which it aligns, and in Whom there is coherence because of Christ’s consistent nature, which is Infinite Love expressed as ever-enduring mercy. What are these truths, affirmed elsewhere by Christ, his apostles, and their spiritual proteges in the early church?
- 1. That God is an all-merciful judge.
- 2. That God’s judgments are restorative, not retributive.
- 3. That God’s judgments purify us without destroying us.
- 4. That God purges the wood, hay, and stubble and draws forth the gold, silver, and precious stones, without incinerating the person (whether a minister or any human being).
I hope that he is not only gracious to the ministers he is describing.
I hope that he is gracious to all believers.
I hope that he is gracious to all people.
My conclusion is that we might say of 1 Corinthians 3, what is revealed about God in his judgment of ministers is congruent with how the same all-merciful Judge will render the verdict for all people. That verdict is, “Mercy triumphs over judgment” (James 2:13). In other words, while 1 Corinthians 3 MAY only describe one of the groups who stand before him on the Day, we see a continuity between this judgment and the universal judgments described in Malachi 3:1-5, Mark 9:45-50, and even in the trials of this life (Hebrews 12:4-13), where all the judgments of God in this life and the next are expressions of a loving Father intent on our good, with the stated outcome that our Abba is determined to see his children (not just Christians!) come into a harvest of his righteousness and peace.