The subject of crowns and rewards for the Christian is not a salvation doctrine. Salvation is a gift according to Ephesians 2:8-9 and other scriptures:
“For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”1
However, those who exercise faith for salvation will work because of salvation, not to earn salvation.
First Corinthians 3 is an important chapter to understand the connection between how we serve now and how we will be rewarded in the future and how those rewards will affect us in eternity.
The fundamental problem in Corinth was that the Corinthian believers were importing worldly wisdom into church building. They were impressed with the worldly wisdom of the day and thought it could be useful in building the local church. If you follow the thought flow of chapters 1 through 4 you will notice how Paul deals with this.
It is important instruction for the church of every age as every age can be tempted to try to press into service worldly wisdom. Things that may work well in the natural realm will not necessarily work in the spiritual. Methods that are useful in business, education, administration, or politics cannot govern spiritual work.
In Paul’s development of thought he turns to the subject of the evaluation of our service in a coming day and what it will mean in eternity. Here are some things for us to know.
We are God’s building
“For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, you are God’s building” (1 Cor. 3:9).
Notice the ownership of the local church. It is not our assembly, it is God’s. It follows therefore that we are to follow His plan of building, organizing, and administering.
We are called to build with care
“According to the grace of God, which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it.” (1 Cor. 3:10)
Mere willingness or enthusiasm for building is not sufficient. One is called to build with care and to “take heed how he builds on it.”
We are building on a foundation
“For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor. 3:11)
A foundation determines everything about a building – its size, height, length, depth, and capacity is all governed by the foundation. To attempt to build in a way that does not understand the foundation is to run the risk of building a structure that may misrepresent its purpose. Or worse, create a hazard where lives can be lost. So too in the local church, all that is done in building should be governed by its foundation, our Lord Jesus Christ. This teaches me that the methods and message of the local assembly should be Christlike and represent Him well. As I work with others, I must be Christlike, especially in times of differences of opinion or conflict. The message of the local church should likewise point to Christ. It should be evident to all that He is the governing authority. Everything should reflect His character.
We will be evaluated as to the quality of our building and such quality will be revealed
“Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is” (1 Cor. 3:12-13).
Evidently, we are to be conscious of the importance of quality and it should always be part of our thinking as we go about our service in the local church.
We will receive a substantial reward if we have built in such a way that it survives the test by fire
“If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward” (1 Cor. 3:14).
The word for reward is the same word used to describe compensation or payment for hire. This reward will be substantial and not merely a symbolic token. Just as present-day compensation in work is useful to us to function in the economy, so it may be that our rewards for service will be necessary for us to function in God’s eternal purposes yet to be seen. We will be enabled to navigate and serve in the ages to come. The principle of being faithful in small things now will be rewarded with greater things to do for God.
We will suffer if our work is careless or shoddy (i.e., in any way inconsistent with the foundation) and causes harm to the church
“If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire. Do you not know that you are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone defiles the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Cor. 3:15-17).
Paul helpfully reminds us again that this evaluation has nothing to do with eternal salvation. There will be a fiery judgement at the great white throne (Rev. 20:11-15) but this is entirely different. A believer’s eternal security is not governed by service. The picture Paul gives us here is one of testing to see the true nature of that which is being tested. Service done rightly will be of superior quality and will easily survive a fiery evaluation. Service done by mere human fleshly effort or contrary to God’s Word will be easily consumed by the fire.
There are two possible outcomes, reward (vv. 13-14) or loss (v. 15). This is challenging for us. It is possible to suffer a loss. Such loss will be in the present (v. 17). Corinth had many pagan temples. Any Corinthian citizen would have been familiar with them. Paul tells us that likewise we as a local church are “the temple of God and that the Spirit of God dwells in you” (v. 16) and further that “the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (v. 17). It follows therefore that in such a holy place we should always work in such a way that neither grieves nor quenches the Holy Spirit.
Paul further warns that those who try to build contrary to God’s word will “defile” or “destroy” the temple of God or the local assembly. The consequence of this is that the individual guilty of this destruction will likewise be defiled or destroyed. Again, this is not a statement about the loss of salvation, but some kind of loss to themselves and their counterfeit ministry. This loss is felt now in time and will be felt in eternity through the lack of reward.
There is no greater privilege and meaningful purpose in life than to build in the local church. These are challenging words we have considered. None of us serve perfectly and likely all have served in a “wood, hay or stubble” way at times. But as we go forward, we should keep in mind the importance of Christlike service in our local church.
1 All scriptural references quoted from the NKJV