This blog is devoted to discussing the pursuit of eternal life.
Discussion and participation by readers is desired,
but contributions should correlate to the book,
The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology
of Perseverance & Assurance

Thomas R. Schreiner
& Ardel B. Caneday

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Does Paul Distinguish between Reward and Being Saved in 1 Corinthians 3:14, 15?

The following entry consists of my response to a reader, identified as Running, who raised a question here.
Running has asked,

Please comment on your view of 1 Corinthians 3:14,15, where Paul distinguishes a reward from salvation. What is the reward in this text?

Also, in a later note, Running said,

According to 1 Corinthians 3:14-15, God’s workers receive a reward according to the quality of their work on the Day of Judgment, provided their work stands the test. If a worker’s work is burned up due to inferior quality, he himself is still saved, although he suffers loss. The work is building the church. 1 Corinthians 3:17 moves beyond the issue of inferior quality work to destroying the church, and the loss to the worker there is eternal life. To me the passage makes a distinction between the salvation of the worker and his reward.

Let's consider the passage.

1 Corinthians 3:11-17

11 θεμέλιον γὰρ ἄλλον οὐδεὶς δύναται θεῖναι παρὰ τὸν κείμενον ὅς ἐστιν Ἰησοῦς Χριστός 12 εἰ δέ τις ἐποικοδομεῖ ἐπὶ τὸν θεμέλιον χρυσόν ἄργυρον λίθους τιμίους ξύλα χόρτον καλάμην 13 ἑκάστου τὸ ἔργον φανερὸν γενήσεται ἡ γὰρ ἡμέρα δηλώσει ὅτι ἐν πυρὶ ἀποκαλύπτεται καὶ ἑκάστου τὸ ἔργον ὁποῖόν ἐστιν τὸ πῦρ αὐτὸ δοκιμάσει 14 εἴ τινος τὸ ἔργον μενεῖ ὃ ἐποικοδόμησεν μισθὸν λήμψεται 15 εἴ τινος τὸ ἔργον κατακαήσεται ζημιωθήσεται αὐτὸς δὲ σωθήσεται οὕτως δὲ ὡς διὰ πυρός

16 οὐκ οἴδατε ὅτι ναὸς θεοῦ ἐστε καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα τοῦ θεοῦ οἰκεῖ ἐν ὑμῖν 17 εἴ τις τὸν ναὸν τοῦ θεοῦ φθείρει φθερεῖ τοῦτον ὁ θεός ὁ γὰρ ναὸς τοῦ θεοῦ ἅγιός ἐστιν οἵτινές ἐστε ὑμεῖς

I agree with Running that the passage is about how ministers of the gospel build the church of Jesus Christ. The passage is not about how each individual Christian lives one's life as is popularly preached and taught.

Paul's architectural imagery gives the gold, silver, precious gems, wood, hay, and straw symbolic significance as representative of the individuals the ministers incorporate into the edifice called the church. The distinctive nature and arrangement of these reinforces this observation. Observe the arrangment of the six items. The order descends in value but ascends in combustibility. The Day of Judgment will disclose the quality of each minister's work.

Paul makes two statements concerning the consequence of judgment. First, "If anyone's work which he has built on the foundation endures, he will receive a reward." Second, Paul says, "If anyone's work is consumed, he will suffer loss, and he himself will be saved but in the same manner, as through fire."

I find that no English translation adequately translates verse 15. All ignore οὕτως δὲ. Thus, translations treat Paul's statement as a promise of salvation despite shoddy workmanship. I am not so convinced that this is the proper understanding of the passage. It seems to me that Paul's words more likely speak of how the minister himself will be saved, if he is going to be saved. If he is going to be saved, he will be saved in the same manner as his work, namely through fire.

In other words, Paul is not promising salvation despite shoddy workmanship. Rather, Paul is speaking of the manner by which the worker will be saved; he will be saved by passing through the same fire to test his own quality whether he will be consumed like his work is consumed.

Paul's expressions in 1 Corinthians 3:15 are akin to his comments concerning women in 1 Timothy 2:15, where he writes, σωθήσεται δὲ διὰ τῆς τεκνογονίας ἐὰν μείνωσιν ἐν πίστει καὶ ἀγάπῃ καὶ ἁγιασμῷ μετὰ σωφροσύνης. "But she will be saved through the bearing of children, if they continue in faith and love and holiness with self-control." Paul is not issuing a promise that woman will be saved no matter what she does. He is not even issuing a promise that woman will be saved if she happily accepts her God-appointed role for bearing children. Bearing children is her God-appointed pathway, but persevering in faith and love and holiness with self-control is indispensable if she would be saved in the Last Day.

Therefore, I am not so convinced that Paul has distinguished "reward" (3:14) from "being saved" (3:15). I think that a case can be made that the "reward" of which Paul speaks in 3:14 is to be "saved" (3:15).

I am not inclined to concur that 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 "moves beyond the issue of inferior quality work to destroying the church," as Running has stated. It seems to me that it does not introduce a new idea; rather, it seems to me that it expands on and explains what Paul has already stated in 3:11-15. Verse 15 speaks of a minister whose work (i.e., the people he incorporates into the church) is utterly consumed, ruined, destroy, which is the very point to which Paul returns in 1 Corinthians 3:16-17. Thus, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 emphatically reinforces the point Paul makes in 3:11-15 by explaining the symbolism of the architectural imagery. He explains by asking the question in 3:16, "Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwellsamong you?" Then he explains the gravity of the test on the Day by expressing it as a supposition: "If anyone ruins God's temple, God will ruin him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple."


Nick said...


I hope I don't look like a jerk but I wanted to ask you a question that is totally unrelated to this post. I have started to work my way through Jesus and the Victory of God and I wanted to ask you some things. I am on chapter 6 concerning the Jewish hope at the time of Jesus. I have noticed in Wright's writings that he often equates forgiveness of sins with 'return from exile'. I agree with Wright on this but there seems to be a sense in which Wright ignores the fact that forgiveness of sins means just that. Forgiveness of sins. Israel was in exile for a reason, namely they sinned. I think that Wright would have done well to include forgiveness of sins as a crucial part of the Jewish hope. Do you agree? I have more questions but I think I'll wait.

abcaneday said...


Yes, I do agree with you. In my estimation, N. T. Wright does not consistently or adequately distinguish Israel's role as type and Israel's experience as a nation.

Israel sinned by breaking covenant with God. Thus, Israel eventually went into exile, banishment from the land. Israel endured 70 years of exile and then the Lord graciously restored Israelites to the land.

There is, in this, an entanglement of Israel's role as reenacting Adam's sin and of Israel's role as type of Christ who would bring an end to exile because he would bring an end to sin's tyranny. Hence, Israel sinned and needed real forgiveness. Were all those Israelites who returned to the land after the Babylonian exile devout believers? I doubt it. Such is hardly the portrayal we receive in Ezra and Nehemiah and post exilic prophets. Is end of exile a parabolic portrayal of forgiveness of sin? Yes, but this hardly means that every Israelite who returned from exile received forgiveness of their sins any more than every Israelite who left Egypt received forgiveness of their sins through the exodus.

Exodus and return from exile are symbolic elements of parabolic events. Yet never should we make the mistake of supposing that all the Israelites who experienced either of these were actually set right with God and received forgiveness of their sins. In the same way we should never make the mistake of supposing that all Israelites who experienced exile from the land were individually and actually alienated from God, abandoned to sin.

Does this ring true with your hesitations concerning what Wright is saying?

Nick said...

Dr. Caneday,

Would you agree that Jesus' kingdom announcements and, even, his parables evoked the entire story of Israel? Do you think Wright is correct in his assessment of this story?

abcaneday said...


I'm sorry that I did not get around to responding to your previous question. I was planning to do that today, but I noticed that you removed it.

I will respond, instead, to your most recent question.

I do think that Jesus' announcement of the Kingdom of God and his teaching with parables evokes the whole story of Israel. His parables echo OT themes, particularly concerning Israel's unfaithfulness, rejection of God's dominion, desiring to be like the nations, covenant breaking, apostasy, exile, etc. The themes of Jesus' parables resonate with themes in the parables and teachings of the OT prophets.

Whether Wright has got it all correct is another matter. In large measure, I think that he is on target. Yet, as I stated in my earlier note, I think that Wright could do more work concerning Israel's typological role, including Israel's kingship.

Israel's story throughout the OT is one of unfaithfulness. Few kings honored the Lord. All kings, of course, perished from the earth, leaving the throne to another son of Adam who was made in his image and after his likeness (Gen 5:1ff), in other words, a human corrupted with sin. Thus, as Hebrews 7-10 argues that the Levitical priesthood was inadequate, given that its priests not only offered the sacrifices year after year but they all also perished from the earth, so also Israel's kings. They all died. The House of David awaited the promised one who would reign endlessly in righteousness and justice.