For Christians, our faithfulness in this world influences our rewards in the world to come. This is not the final judgement. At the final judgement, if we are Christians we are saved and guaranteed a place in heaven. Our sin have been forgiven in Christ and we are righteous in God’s sight. On the other hand, if we have ignored or rejected Christ, we will be judged by God and spend an eternity apart from God in what Jesus described as the cosmic rubbish dump (“gehenna”).
The Bible teaches that as Christians we face an assessment where our work for the Lord will be tested and we will be rewarded (or not) according to our faithfulness. This is not the final judgment as our entrance into the New Creation is secure, but an accounting to God of what he has entrusted to us.
Jesus spoke about this in the parable of the money (Luke 19:11-27). Jesus said that a Master gave each servant about R10 000 and left on a journey . When the master returned, the servants who were faithful with the money entrusted to their care were rewarded. The more faithful they were, the bigger the reward and for the servant who did nothing with the money– even that which he had was taken away from him.
The Apostle Paul, like Jesus, was convinced that we will all appear before Christ to give an account. Of course, Paul believed in justification by faith and that we are counted righteous before God on the basis of Jesus’ death for us. Paul knew that Christians would be saved. However, Paul was also convinced that on that great day there would be a reckoning when God will reward faithful service and good stewardship. Paul wanted to hear the words of his Saviour say, “well done good and faithful servant”.
1 Corinthians 3:6-15 says,
6 I planted, Apollos 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 one, and each will receive his wages according to his labour. 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 someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. 11 For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13 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. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.
In church and gospel growth God is the main role-player as it is God who causes the seed to grow (v7). Compared to God we are not anything (v7). But just because God is the main role-player it does not mean that Bible teachers and Christian leaders are unnecessary, unimportant or can do their ministry in a lazy, half-hearted way. The church leaders and teachers must “plant” and “water” the seed (the word of God) as seeds don’t plant or water themselves. Church leaders and teachers are important and necessary, but God gives the growth.
Paul says in v8, “each will receive his wages according to his labour”. Paul can say to the Corinthian church that he laid a solid foundation because he preached Christ and Him crucified. If, in our churches and ministries, we are not pointing people to the crucified Christ there is a major problem. Many so-called pastors out there are pointing people to themselves and to their own ministries and experiences, not Christ. V13 says that “the day” (i.e. the day of Christ’s return) will disclose or reveal the quality of our work as Christians. Primarily this speaks to Christian teachers who do the work of planting and watering the seed e.g. Sunday School teachers, kids club leaders, Bible study leaders and pastors. But also, on a secondary level, this applies to all Christians who will give an account for their life and of the gifts and abilities the Lord has entrusted to them. Remember that this is not the final judgement that has to do with our salvation; we are saved, according to v13 the quality of our work will be tested.
On that day if you have been found to have been faithful in your ministry, serving well, ministering with integrity, pointing people to Jesus and correctly handling the word of truth, in other words, you built with gold, silver, precious stones (v12), then you will be rewarded. We don’t know exactly what the reward will be, but God will reward you. The start of the reward will be hearing the voice of Jesus saying, “Well done! Life was tough at times but you were faithful!”
However, if you have been lazy in using the gifts and abilities entrusted to you, faithless, haphazard in your ministry, uncommitted in your service and have pointed people to yourself instead of Christ, in other words, you built with wood, hay, straw (v12), inferior building material that will be burnt by God’s testing fire, you will “suffer loss” (v15). You will be saved (v15), but only as “through fire”, as just making it through the door.
Paul Barnett says the following:
“Ours is an age preoccupied with style and appearance rather than substance, which has affected the life of the church and the ministry. This is the day of creating ambience, of TV style presentation, of management systems, of pop psychology, of outreach programmes, of anything but the simple and unadorned truth of God, “Jesus Christ and him crucified”. It is not so much today that ministers are heretical or outright unbelievers, but that we so easily fail to teach the plain truth about Jesus. Because we are success-driven and failure-shy we apply all manner of sugar-coating instead. In the end it comes down to this: Whose approval do we really seek, Christ’s or those around us?”
We must ask ourselves: How faithful are we with the gifts and abilities God has given us? Are we faithful in our ministries? After years of being Christians the Corinthians were still babes in Christ and people of the flesh not of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 3:1). Could that be true of us? Are we growing? Are we serving? If you are not, we will suffer loss. We will not hear our Lord say to us, “Well done good and faithful servant”. Our faithfulness counts and our lives in this world influence our rewards in the world to come.
We all fail
The reality though is that as Christians we often fall and fail. We often are faithless and feeble. Before you despair, we do need to remind ourselves that God is faithful and his strength is often seen in our weakness. We also need to remind ourselves that God does not demand sinless perfection, but progress (1 Timothy 4:15).
The fires of purgatory
The Roman Catholic Church has used v13 to defend its doctrine of purgatory. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that purgatory is the place we go to when we die to purge or purify us of all the sins we have committed post-conversion. These sins impede and hinder our entrance into heaven. We may need hundreds if not thousands of years in the purifying fires of purgatory to make us fit for God. The Church teaches that Catholics can say special prayers or do special masses for loved ones in purgatory to lessen their time in the fire. Of course this is a false teaching and cannot be found in the Bible. The Bible repeatedly teaches that Christ’s death has paid the full price for all the sin of God’s people and we are assured of immediate access into God’s presence when we die. There is no such thing as purgatory. In v13 it’s the quality of our service that is tested by fire, not the Christian him/herself.
Every Christian will experience the immense joy of being with God and his people in the New Creation. There will be no discontentment, disapproval or dissatisfaction. Yet, for some, there will be, by God’s grace alone, greater reward than others. Will you “take care” (v10) how you build?