Crossfunction: August 2005

Thursday, August 25, 2005

1 Corinthians 3: Saved -but only as through fire.

Christ in Majesty, mosaic, Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, Washington, D.C.

1 Corinthians Chapter 3 (RSV)

1 But I, brethren, could not address you as spiritual men, but as men of the flesh, as babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food; for you were not ready for it; and even yet you are not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving like ordinary men? 4 For when one says, "I belong to Paul," and another, "I belong to Apol'los," are you not merely men?

5 What then is Apol'los? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. 6 I planted, Apol'los watered, but God gave the growth. 7 So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. 8 He who plants and he who waters are equal, and each shall receive his wages according to his labor. 9 For we are God's fellow workers; you are God's field, God's building. 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and another man is building upon it. Let each man take care how he builds upon it.

11 For no other foundation can any one lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if any one builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw-- 13 each man's work will become manifest; for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work which any man has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.

16 Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17 If any one destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and that temple you are.

18 Let no one deceive himself. If any one among you thinks that he is wise in this age, let him become a fool that he may become wise. 19 For the wisdom of this world is folly with God. For it is written, "He catches the wise in their craftiness," 20 and again, "The Lord knows that the thoughts of the wise are futile."

21 So let no one boast of men. For all things are yours, 22 whether Paul or Apol'los or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future, all are yours; 23 and you are Christ's; and Christ is God's.

Paul again with humility affirms his position as a servant of God, but one having the authority to teach definitively. He warns against building upon any foundation but that which he and the other apostles have laid by the grace of God.

He addresses Christians and reminds us that our works shall be judged. We shall enjoy reward or suffer loss, depending upon the outcome of that judgement. He does not refer to loss of salvation in this context, but rather addresses those of us who are ultimately saved. In this context "loss" refers to the suffering associated with the consuming fire's purification of us from those works we performed which were not worthy of Christ, and of which we had not fully repented.

In other words, all Christians indeed will face judgement following death. Even those who are to be finally saved will be held accountable for their works, which follow them through death to a most just judgement. Those works which were sinful or otherwise not worthy of Christ will be purged from us by a consuming fire. We ourselves shall not be destroyed by this fire, but rather shall pass through it as a final purification.

This purification is necessary because, as Paul reminds us, "God's temple is holy, and that temple you are." As the apostle John testifies, "nothing unclean shall enter [heaven]" (Revelation 21:27 RSV). If before death we have not completely turned away from sin and renounced all attachment to sin and sinful desires; if we have not permitted God's grace to thoroughly complete our sanctification before death, then upon death we shall not yet be fit to enter heaven. We must first face this Day of the Lord and His revealing fire. These flames shall complete the purification that we failed to complete prior to death.

This purifying fire is a sobering reality, but is a proof of God's love and mercy. For it is through this fire that our heavenly Father will perfectly complete the work of sanctification which He began in us. Is it a second chance at salvation? No, for those who do die outside of God's friendship will never enter heaven, and will only suffer the eternal fires of hell.

Only those who die in God's friendship shall be saved, and it is only these who may undergo this purification. All of these shall enter heaven.

Is this final purification a reason to be lax about our sanctification in this life? Certainly not! Jesus commands us:
"You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48 RSV)

God hates sin and requires us to do everything in our power to repent of it and live holy lives. By grace this is possible. Yet we know that Christians still struggle with sin. Who among us would claim to have already reached the perfection of holiness that Jesus demands and which is a prerequisite of all who wish to enter heaven?

Thank God that His mercy extends even beyond the point of death, and He is able to complete the purification that He began within us, and which we cooperated with: provided we persevere to the end in His grace.