Will Some Christians Smell Like Smoke on Judgment Day?1
[This article was originally published at the website of the Gospel Coalition on August 29, 2020]
Many Christians get nervous whenever the subject of rewards is raised. To speak of praise for specific deeds performed or a life well-lived—or conversely the loss of rewards—strikes them as inconsistent with salvation by grace alone.
But no amount of anxiety can justify ignoring the clear teaching of Scripture. And numerous biblical texts speak of rewards for obedience and differing degrees of glory based on faithfulness in this life (see Matt. 5:11–12; 6:1; 18:4; 19:29; 20:1–16; 25:23; Luke 6:35; 14:10–11; 1 Cor. 3:8; 4:5; 9:24; 2 Cor. 5:10; Eph. 6:8; Heb. 10:35; James 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:7; Rev. 2:26–27).
Our primary concern here is with Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3:10–15:
“According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw—each one’s work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 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.”
Understanding the Text
Paul’s words in the preceding context (vv. 5–9) indicate that he primarily has in view ministers or “God’s fellow workers” (v. 9) in the church, among which he includes himself and Apollos (v. 5). The issue is the quality of one’s ministry and the effectiveness with which one builds on the church’s foundation, which is Christ Jesus himself (or more likely, the gospel of what Jesus has accomplished for the salvation of his people).
Paul envisions some ministers building up the church with gold, silver, and precious stones (v. 12). By this imagery he obviously means truths, communicated in love and sincerity, that are consistent with the person of Christ and the revelation of God in Scripture. Others, sadly, will deviate in varying degrees from that standard and thus build with wood, hay, and straw (v. 12).
Though Paul is mainly referring to leaders in the church at Corinth, there is validity in extending the application to all Christians. The “each one” (v. 10) called on to be careful in how he/she “builds” (epoikodomeo) may be inclusive of all believers, especially in view of how Paul later uses the cognate verb (oikodomeo) and its related noun form (oikodome) for the responsibility of all in the body of Christ to “build” up one another through the exercise of spiritual gifts (see 1 Cor. 14:4–5, 12, 17, 26).
On “the Day” of Christ’s return and the judgment of all mankind (cf. 1 Cor. 1:8), the quality of this ministry will be tested or “revealed by fire” (v. 13; cf. 1 Pet. 1:7). Gold, silver, and precious stones will survive the test, while wood, hay, and straw will be consumed. Note well that it is not the individual who is consumed by fire, but the work he or she has produced in ministry to the body of Christ.
Those whose work survives the test of fire “will receive a reward” (v. 14); those whose work is burned up “will suffer loss” (v. 15). This is apparently not the loss of salvation (since the next line says that “he himself will be saved”), but of the reward that he or she would have received had they obeyed or ministered more faithfully. Paul’s words in verse 15 may well be an allusion to Amos 4:11 and Zechariah 3:2. His point is that the person who persists in building badly will be saved, but like one plucked from a fire in the nick of time, perhaps with the smell of smoke still lingering!
What Kind of Reward and Loss?
Can anything more definitive be said about the nature of this recompense? Jesus mentions a great reward in heaven, but doesn’t elaborate (Matt. 5:11–12). In the parable of the talents (Matt. 25:14–30; cf. Luke 19:12–27) he alludes to “authority” of some sort, but doesn’t tell us over whom or what. Paul says that “whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord” (Eph. 6:8). According to 1 Corinthians 4:5, following the judgment “each one will receive his commendation from God.” Both Romans 8:17–18 and 2 Corinthians 4:17 refer to a “glory” reserved for the saints in heaven.
Perhaps the differing nature and degree of reward will be manifest in the depths of knowledge and enjoyment of God that each person experiences.
Of this we may be sure: our deeds don’t determine our salvation, but demonstrate it. They aren’t the root of our standing with God but the fruit of it, a standing already attained by faith alone in Christ alone. The visible evidence of an invisible faith are the good deeds that will be made known at the judgment seat of Christ and the gold, silver, and precious stones of faithful ministry and the truth of God’s Word proclaimed.
We must never be afraid that, with the exposure and evaluation of our deeds, regret and remorse will spoil the bliss of heaven. If there be tears of grief for opportunities squandered, rewards lost, or sins committed, God will wipe them away (Rev. 20:4). The ineffable joy of forgiving grace will swallow up all sorrow, and the beauty of Christ will blind us to anything other than the splendor of who he is and what he has, by grace, accomplished on our behalf.
Fires of Purgatory?
Finally, there is no basis for finding in this passage the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory (see the Catholic Catechism, 1030–31). As noted, our text says nothing about believers suffering in purgatory for the temporal consequences of their venial sins; they are not burned or purged in the fire. Their works are burned. This text doesn’t refer to the consequence of sin but of the reward for service. The “loss” one suffers is loss of reward for not having served Christ faithfully and having failed to speak the truth accurately. Again, the “fire” does not purge an individual or his/her soul from sin but rather serves to reveal or disclose the quality of one’s works and ministry (see v. 13).
The fire of purgatory is supposed to sanctify, purge, and change the soul of the believer to make us fit for heaven. But here the fire reveals or tests the quality of one’s works to determine what is and is not worthy of reward. Nowhere does the passage say this occurs during the intermediate state. Paul more likely refers to what happens on the day of final judgment preceding entry into heaven, especially given the emphasis in v. 13 on “the Day” (a likely allusion to the Day of the Lord or the Day of Judgment of which Paul often speaks; see 1 Cor. 1:8).
In the final analysis, let us never forget that whatever efforts we make for the sake of Christ and his people—whether formal ministry in teaching and preaching or daily sacrifice and service in building up the body—it is “only God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7).