“According to the grace of God which was given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building on it. But each man must be careful how he builds on it. For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Co 3:10-15)
Recently I was asked to read the above passage after expressing to someone that I do not differentiate between something being of my flesh and something being of the Spirit, as I live in union with Christ moment by moment. Of course, I was thinking in terms of Romans 8:9 where Paul writes: “However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you…” or when he writes in Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” I have the confidence that “it is God who is at work in me, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” Philippians 2:13. Nevertheless I was cautioned that I should differentiate whether my works be of the Spirit or of my flesh as this will have a definite impact on what rewards I receive or lose on “the day” when we all stand before “the bema seat of Christ”.
Having heard this kind of talk before (there are about 35 reward type passages in the New Testament), I must confess that I have not thought of these passages in terms of rewards apart from Jesus Christ Himself. After all, are not all the promises of God “yes” in Him (2 Corinthians 1:20)? Yet aapparently after spending thirty or so years continually learning to get off the performance treadmill, learning to trust Jesus Christ as my life, it is now being suggested that Paul is teaching that I need to get back on that treadmill to earn rewards. After all, “what else could this passage from 1 Corinthians 3 mean”? It is this “what else could it mean” that I would like to give some thoughts on.
Going back to the first verse of Genesis 15:1 we read:
“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.”” (Gen 15:1 NASB)
BUT in the MKJV version it reads:
“After these things the Word of Jehovah came to Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram, I am your shield and your exceeding great reward.” (Gen 15:1 MKJV)
Which is it? This verse reads two completely different ways due to the ambiguity of the Hebrew text for which I must take the word of a translator given my Hebrew skills are only on par with those of my non-existent Greek and Aramaic skills. Even looking at the context within which we read these verses is not conclusive (unless of course your context is the Gospel message in its entirety). For example, if you want to believe the first translation of “your reward shall be very great”, you simply read the immediately following verse:
“Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?”” (Gen 15:2 NASB)
It seems clear that Abram was thinking in terms of God giving him a reward. But what about if we look at the passage preceding the reward verse, do you not get the idea that God is “his exceeding great reward”? Abram has just rescued Lot in Genesis 14 when the King of Salem arrives on the scene.
“Then after his return from the defeat of Chedorlaomer and the kings who were with him, the king of Sodom went out to meet him at the valley of Shaveh (that is, the King’s Valley). And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, “Blessed be Abram of God Most High, Possessor of heaven and earth; And blessed be God Most High, Who has delivered your enemies into your hand.” He gave him a tenth of all. The king of Sodom said to Abram, “Give the people to me and take the goods for yourself.” Abram said to the king of Sodom, “I have sworn to the LORD God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth, that I will not take a thread or a sandal thong or anything that is yours, for fear you would say, ‘I have made Abram rich.’ “I will take nothing except what the young men have eaten, and the share of the men who went with me, Aner, Eshcol, and Mamre; let them take their share.””
(Gen 14:17-24 NASB)
With Melchizedek being a type of Christ and the bread and wine being a type of the shared life of Christ, we see Abram accepting this and Jesus confirms that Abe knew the significance of Melchizedek:
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” (Joh 8:56 NASB)
When it came to earthly rewards, Abram refused the worldly riches offered by the King of Sodom to not take way from God’s glory.
It is kind of like when Peter spoke with Jesus:
“Peter began to say to Him, “Behold, we have left everything and followed You.” Jesus said, “Truly I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or farms, for My sake and for the gospel’s sake, but that he will receive a hundred times as much now in the present age, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and farms, along with persecutions; and in the age to come, eternal life. “But many who are first will be last, and the last, first.”” (Mar 10:28-31 NASB)
Notice that Jesus promises much in this life albeit with persecutions and but for the age to come “Eternal Life”!
“And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son.” (1Jn 5:11 NASB)
When Paul wrote the Corinthians, he wrote having to address their carnal or fleshly way of thinking
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ. I gave you milk to drink, not solid food; for you were not yet able to receive it. Indeed, even now you are not yet able, for you are still fleshly. For since there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not fleshly, and are you not walking like mere men?” (1Co 3:1-3 NASB)
It seems that instead of seeing the “natural” illustrations of the Bible for what they are, pictures God uses to explain Kingdom realities to us, we miss the realities of God’s Kingdom and simply make the illustrations fit OUR natural way of understanding things.
Instead of being constrained by the Love of God, being “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (Eph 2:10 NASB) and that being enough, in unbelief we look to rewards as needed to get believers on about the business of the Kingdom. If constrained by the Love of God, if it is the Spirit doing God’s work through His willing vessels, what place could rewards possibly have? If the Love that has been shed abroad in our hearts flows first to our God and then to our neighbour, always flowing out away from us, why would we turn inward to see how we are doing with respect to rewards? Our reward is Life in Christ. What could possibly be added to that? In promoting rewards are we turning our faith in Christ to mere religion?
It has been said that the key difference between Christianity and every other religion in the world is that Christianity is not a religion! Religions are about human attempts to make our lives right with God, through our good works, sacrifices, rituals, and money. However, Christianity is not a religion. Christianity is about God entering human history to graciously save men and women through His Son Jesus Christ. In simple terms: Christianity is what God does for us while religion, even Christian religion, is about what man does for God to gain, keep or add to His approval of man, and in the case of this passage, the attainment of rewards.
Of course, proponents of the Christian reward theology would counter that our salvation is totally by grace and that it is only our post-conversion works that are eligible for rewards. Is that not worldly thinking? Isn’t living the Christian life a continual eating from The Tree of Life expressed as an attitude of continual trust in Jesus Christ, whereas religion is eating from The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil expressed in an attitude of independence or trust in oneself, even if motivated by rewards? That is exactly what happens when we pass judgement on our works or anyone else’s with respect to rewards – we eat from the wrong tree! That is why Paul exhorts us “not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect” Romans 12:2 and to “see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ.” (Col 2:8)
Someone has rightly said that even if there were rewards, it is not those who are looking for them who would get them but rather those not expecting them! Such is the heart of the Gospel.
It seems that no matter how well versed we are in the Gospel of Grace that has once for all set us free from “religious performance”, it continually tries to find a way back into our thinking. Religion twists the meaning of Romans 7 so that we think of ourselves as both flesh and spirit (also in Galatians 5), it keeps us focused on our sin by using 1 John 1:9 as justification for keeping short accounts with God, and I believe it also keeps us focused on our performance through the erroneous understanding of rewards or loss.
If you read the entirety of chapter 3 in 1 Corinthians, it becomes clear that what Paul is addressing is the building of Christ’s church, the Temple of God (us!). He writes that he planted, and Apollos watered but that God caused the growth. He writes that neither he nor Apollos are anything because only God causes the growth. Paul talks about laying a foundation which can only be Jesus Christ and that no man can lay any other foundation. He addresses building on this foundation:
“Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each man’s work.” (1Co 3:12-13) – in the building of the temple!
“If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (1Co 3:14-15)
These two verses are not encouraging believers to work to earn rewards or avoid loss of such, but instead are a promise that when the day of judgement comes we will be freed from anything that is not of God! That is all Paul is saying. We forget that our reward is not a thing but a Person and in this Person, we have everything. He is the reward we all receive without measure! Only He can produce good works through us. We are nothing as Paul says in this chapter of 1 Corinthians:
“What then is Apollos? And what is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, even as the Lord gave opportunity to each one. I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth. So then neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but God who causes the growth.” (1Co 3:5-7)
It is not reward that we will suffer loss of but rather our works done in the energy of the unrenewed, independent, mindset apart from Christ. We are told that “whatever is not from faith is sin” in Romans 14:23. I find that very comforting. Paul when speaking of his ministry, writes:
“For the love of Christ controls us, having concluded this, that one died for all, therefore all died; and He died for all, so that they who live might no longer live for themselves, but for Him who died and rose again on their behalf.” (2Co 5:14-15)
Paul’s focus was on the Life of Christ in him. Even when he writes: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me did not prove vain; but I labored even more than all of them”, he immediately qualifies his statement with: “yet not I, but the grace of God with me.” (1Co 15:10)
And when it came to self-examination Paul wrote:
“But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord.” (1Co 4:3-4)
It seems to me that this focus on rewards that has gripped some expressions of Christianity is nothing more than a tactic to get our eyes off Jesus Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, and onto ourselves and our performance – a tactic of the enemy to move us from our freedom in Christ to an attitude of religious self-examination. Even the “bema seat of Christ” has been called upon to support this diversion which will be addressed in the next article.
Finally, acknowledging with James that “we all stumble in many ways”, we live out our days being confident that “it is God who is at work in us, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” and being “confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in us will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. There is a book with the wonderful title “Jesus Changes Everything”. May I add to that thought that “Jesus IS Everything!”