10 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.
11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw,
13 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.
14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward.
15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
This passage of Paul’s first epistle to the church at Corinth has prompted much discussion down through church history. The context of the preceding ten verses is really quite simple: Paul is discussing the problems that exist in the Corinthian congregation. He has used harsh words with them, referring to them as “men of flesh” and “infants in Christ.” He refers to the strife and jealousy that exists among them. He zeroes in on their partisanship: the fact that they are saying “I am of this Christian leader or that one.” He reminds them that leaders are but servants of the Lord, and that it was the Lord that even gave those servants the opportunity to preach the gospel to them. He writes in verse 6, “I planted, Apollos watered, but God was causing the growth.” God used Paul and Apollos as means, but the growth was caused by God, not by the Christian leaders themselves. At this point then Paul begins to speak of the role Christian leaders have in the work of the Church. Note his words:
8 Now he who plants and he who waters are one; but each will receive his own reward according to his own labor. 9 For we are God’s fellow workers; you are God’s field, God’s building.
Verse 8 provides the first reference to “reward,” and it is clearly in the context of the Christian leaders who labor in the work of ministry. It will be significant to note that the phrase “receive a reward” in verse 8 is identical in terminology to the same phrase in verse 14. Since in this context we know that the planting and watering mentioned goes back to Paul and Apollos, the topic remains consistent throughout this passage. Paul then speaks of himself and Apollos as “God’s fellow workers,” and they labor in this high calling in God’s field. He uses two terms, field and building, but picks up only on the second, “God’s building.” A fellow worker of God works in building God’s building, and that building is the church.
This then brings us to the main passage. Verses 10-15 give us an illustration of how weighty it is to minister in the church, and how God will someday manifest the motivations of the hearts of all those who have engaged in that work. Then in verses 16-17 Paul adds a further warning, speaking of God’s certain judgment upon those who do not build, but instead tear down, or destroy. There is an obvious movement between 10-15 and 16-17, for in 10-15 the metaphor remains the construction of a building upon a foundation; in 16-17 this switches to the metaphor of the temple of God, already constructed. Further, in 10-15 the “certain ones” are those who are indeed building upon the foundation, even if they have less than perfect motivations or understanding; the certain one in verses 16-17 is not building anything at all, but is instead tearing down and ruining what has already been built. This distinction is important as well, as we shall see.
10 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. 11 For no man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.
Paul continues the context, insisting that by God’s grace he has laid a foundation, knowing that others would build upon that same foundation. This foundation, of course, refers to the work of ministry in building up the church that he has engaged in. But there is an element of personal responsibility that is part of ministry in Christ’s church: a man must be “careful” how he builds upon the foundation, which Paul reminds us is holy. The only foundation of the church is Jesus Christ Himself. So just as we are to have an attitude of fear and trembling when considering that it is the holy God who is at work within us, working out our salvation (Philippians 2:12-13), so the minister is to recognize that ministry in the church is a holy task, and he must “look well” (a literal understanding of the Greek) upon how he goes about this work. This leads to further expansion upon this thought in the following section.
12 Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, 13 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.
The first thing to see in v. 12 is that we are still talking about the same group: Christian workers. Those under discussion build upon the foundation. We will see that in vv. 16-17 Paul refers to a different group, those who do not build, but instead tear down. So we have one group who build upon the one foundation, but with different quality “materials.” Now obviously, the terms gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay and straw, are all figures of speech, metaphors. Christian leaders are not known for having an abundance of gold, silver, or precious stones, let alone is the “building” being done here a literal activity either. These are terms referring, as Paul himself puts it, to “the quality of each man’s work.” Some labor selflessly and in obscurity with motivations pure and honorable, while others have mixed motivations, tinged to a lesser or greater degree by selfishness and vainglory (cf. Phil 2:3-4). During this lifetime we cannot necessarily know which Christian leaders, even within the bounds of orthodox teaching and practice, are doing what they do with motivations that are pleasing to God. But Paul is reminding us that such will not always be the case: God will reward those who have labored diligently for His glory in that day when all the secrets of men’s hearts will be revealed.
Paul says that each man’s work “will become evident, for the day will show it.” The nature of the Christian minister’s work will be plain and clear: the lack of clarity that exists during this lifetime will no longer cloud our vision at the judgment. What a tremendously sobering thought for those who labor in building upon the foundation of Jesus Christ! God, who searches the hearts, will reveal our true motivations on that day!
The revelation of whether one’s ministerial works are precious and lasting, or surface-level and temporary, will be accomplished “by fire.” Obviously, fire differentiates, at the most basic level, between gold and wood, silver and straw, precious stones and stubble. The precious elements withstand the fire’s presence, whereas the others are consumed in their entirety. Given that it has already been established that gold and silver, etc., are figures for the quality of men’s works, so it follows inexorably that “fire” refers to a testing that makes its verdict as clear as the destruction of wood, hay, and stubble by the raging flames of a fire. The works that were not done to God’s glory are destroyed, while those works having the proper character pass through unharmed.
14 If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. 15 If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
The context continues, unbroken. Note the repetition of the preceding concept of “building” on the “foundation.” If a man’s work, built upon the foundation of Christ in the church, remains in the presence of the judgment of God, he receives a reward. But in direct parallel, if another worker’s labors are burned up, he will suffer loss. The opposite of the reception of a reward is to suffer loss. The Greek term Paul uses is translated by the vast majority of recognized translations as “suffer loss,” and there is a reason for this. Despite the fact that you can render the term as “punish,” its normative meaning, especially in the NT, refers to experiencing the opposite of gain (i.e., loss), and often what is not gained is found in the immediate context of the words use. For example:
More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, (Philippians 3:8 )
Obviously, this does not mean Paul has been “punished,” but has “suffered the loss” of all things. The same is true in Jesus’ use of the term:
“For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul? (Matthew 16:26, see also Mark 8:36, Luke 9:25)
In 1 Corinthians 3:15, the term is used in a context that provides a direct correlation to the term: the one whose work remains receives a reward, so the one whose work is burned up does not, hence, they suffer loss (for further information on this word, see TDNT 2:888).
We are reminded, however, that despite the seriousness of the loss of reward for the Christian worker, we are still talking about those who have found salvation in the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ. Paul tells us that despite suffering loss, these are saved, “yet so as through fire.” This in no way makes the judgment of the motivations of Christian workers a trivial matter: it is obvious that for Paul, who himself faced this test, it was not. But it also safeguards against the misuse of his teaching. No one can argue that one’s salvation is based upon the works one does: this is not his teaching here, nor anywhere else. A man is justified before God by the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to him, and the imputation of the man’s sin to Christ, the perfect substitute, who bears in His body the sins of His people upon Calvary (Romans 3:20-4:8). But this is not his subject here. The context has remained constant: the revelation of the motivations of the hearts of Christian workers.
In a perfect world it would not be necessary to go beyond the mere exegesis of the text to understand Paul’s meaning and intention. But we do not live in such a world. In God’s providential wisdom, we live in a time when the church must struggle against false teaching and false teachers (Acts 20:24ff). Specifically, the truth of God’s sovereign grace is attacked by Roman Catholicism, and its man-centered sacramentalism. One of the most egregious attacks upon the finished nature of Christ’s work on Calvary is the dogma of purgatory. We have often engaged in debate on this topic (see, for example, the debate against Fr. Peter Stravinskas on this topic, May, 2001). Rome attempts to enlist this passage in support of its doctrine, but in the process engages in gross eisegesis of the text, missing its plain meaning, and inserting concepts utterly foreign to Paul’s theology. Just a few items should be noted that, in light of the preceding comments, should be sufficient for any person not committed to the ultimacy of Roman authority.
First, the passage is about Christian workers, not all the Christian faithful.
Next, the passage says nothing about the purification of individuals. Works are tested in this passage. Rome teaches souls are purified from the temporal punishment of sins by suffering satispassio in purgatory: but there is nothing about temporal punishments, satispassio, or suffering of individuals for their sins, in this passage. All these are extraneous to the text itself.
Further, the insertion of the Roman concepts into the passage turns it on its head. Remember, those with works of gold, silver, and precious stones (i.e., Christian workers who had godly motivations) appear in this passage: their works are subject to the same testing as the others. If this “fire” is relevant to purgatory, then are we to assume that even those with godly motives “suffer”? Are there no saints involved in building upon the foundation?
But most telling is this: the fire of which Paul speaks reveals. It does not purge. If this were the fire of Rome’s purgatory, it would not simply demonstrate that gold is, in fact, gold, or hay is truly hay. The sufferings of purgatory are supposed to sanctify and change a persons soul, enabling them to enter into the very presence of God! If this passage supported Rome’s position, it would speak of purifying the gold, making it more pure, spotless, precious, and ready for God’s presence. It would speak of the fire removing wood or other “impurities” from a person’s soul, not simply telling us that the works a Christian minister did were or were not done with God’s sole glory in mind. But the text speaks of a revelation of the quality of a man’s work, which is wholly incompatible with Rome’s use of the passage.
Modern Roman Catholics have started to move away from the term “fire” (though this was, inarguably, what attracted the attention of Rome to the passage in the first place), and seek to focus more upon the suffering of a loss, so that only the second group is seen as being relevant to purgatory. Of course, this is made possible by the constant repetition of the assertion, “Rome has never officially declared the meaning of this passage, nor that there is fire in purgatory, nor that purgatory is a place, nor that we experience time in purgatory…” etc and etc. The fact that one can go into history and determine with great clarity what was taught and believed only a few centuries ago does not seem to matter.
Finally, it should be noted that in Roman Catholic theology, a person sent to purgatory has already been judged to be in need of further purging (sanctification) before entering into the presence of God. Yet, there is no mention of such a judgment here; in fact, most RC interpretations see this as the judgment itself.
An Example From Roman Catholic Scholarship: The Jerome Biblical Commentary
A fascinating example of the divide between what the text says and what a Roman Catholic needs it to say is provided by the Jerome Biblical Commentary. Note the interpretation provided by this Roman Catholic source:
10. Developing the metaphor, Paul describes his ministry and the responsibility of all who follow him, as they build upon the foundation he has laid.11. Christ, as the unique foundation, may be an allusion to Is 28:16 or Ps 118:22 (cf. Eph 2:20 and 1 Pt 2:6-8). This Christ, Preached by Paul, dwells in the hearts of the faithful (Eph 3:17) and communicates his Spirit to them. Succeeding preachers must take care how they build on this foundation.13. the Day: The Lord’s Day when Christ returns as victorious judge (1 Thes 5:4). fire: It is to test the quality of various building materials. Fire is the customary biblical metaphor describing the might and majesty of the divine judgment. it: Probably the neut. pron. auto refers to ergon, “work.” The fire tests the work, destroying what is of poor quality and perishable.14. A wage will be paid only for good, durable work.15. The man whose work will not endure the searching test of judgment will suffer a loss. Like one escaping from a burning house, he will be saved, but his work and his reward will be lost. This metaphor clearly teaches the responsibility of ministers of the gospel, who will be rewarded or punished for the manner in which they have fulfilled their ministry. That the preacher will be saved implies that his sins were not serious and have not ruined the Christian community, because God destroys such a one.
To this point all is well: the Roman Catholic exegete follows the text, sees the context, recognizes the meaning of the words. But since Rome has defined more than this in her teachings, something must be said about purgatory:
Although the doctrine of purgatory is not taught in this passage, it does find support in it. The metaphor suggests an expiatory punishment–which is not damnation–for faults that, although not excluding salvation, merit punishment. When Paul wrote this epistle he was still hoping for the coming of the Lord’s Day in his lifetime. Consequently, he locates this expiatory punishment at the final judgment.
Where does one find the basis, in the exegesis offered by the commentary itself, for the assertion that there is an “expiatory punishment” in the passage, especially when this involves, in the Roman context, the punishment of the person and not an examination of the works he performed? All of the elements of Rome’s concept of purgation, including temporal punishments, satispassio, etc., are absent from both the text and the interpretation offered by the commentary itself, and yet we have the unfounded assertion that while the text does not teach purgatory, purgatory finds support within the text.
Robert Sungenis’ Attempt to Connect 1 Corinthians 3 with Purgatory
Not long after his conversion to Catholicism, Robert Sungenis wrote an article for the November/December, 1994 issue of The Catholic Answer (the article has been distributed widely on the Internet; here is one location: http://net2.netacc.net/~mafg/prgtry01.htm). In it he attempts to conform the passage to the teachings of the Roman magisterium. In light of the above exegesis, a brief review of his comments is most useful.
For Protestants, 1 Corinthians 3:15 certainly ranks as one of the Pauline passages of which Peter comments in his second epistle: “In his writings there are some things hard to understand . . .”
This simply is not true. The passage is not difficult at all, and without the insertion of anachronistic Roman Catholic concepts that developed centuries later, there really would not be any meaningful question about its teaching.
The idea that Christ will someday judge the work of the Christian to determine its value, and that some Christians will suffer for their bad works done on earth but still be saved by fire, presents some difficult and complex ideas of Pauline theology that do not mesh well with the Protestant concept of justification by faith alone.
Mr. Sungenis, it should be remembered, swung from the Boston Church of Christ to the views of Harold Camping to Presbyterianism, all in a relatively short space of time. Hence, his recollections of what Protestants “believe” is often rather fuzzy, and hence inaccurate. There is, of course, nothing contradictory between asserting that the motivations of Christian workers will be made known at the end of time and that those who had pure motives will receive a reward and those who did not will suffer loss (not “will suffer” as in a judicial sense of “satispassio”). There is nothing in justification by grace through faith alone that is in any way out of harmony with such a revelation of motivations, an opening of hearts.
Paul’s emphasis on whether one is saved as a direct result of his works seems to defy the very tenets of justification by faith that Protestants thought he established so well in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians.
Of course, Paul makes no such emphasis here, or anywhere else. The judgment is of works relative to reward, not to salvation. All judged here were Christian workers: their salvation was already a matter of fact.
As a result, Protestant theologians have formulated surprising interpretations of 1 Cor 3:15 in a desperate attempt to corroborate this obscure passage with the principles of sola fide theology.
This is little more than rhetoric. When one considers the highly anachronistic interpretations offered by Rome of all the passages relevant to purgatory, as well as such passages as John 19:26, or Luke 1:28, speaking of “desperate attempts” becomes almost humorous. In fact, as to the actual interpretation of the passage itself, the Jerome Biblical Commentary is in perfect harmony with Protestant interpretation. It is only after giving the obvious meaning that it attempts to find a way of attaching a purgatorial concept.
In these efforts. Protestants find themselves stumbling over Paul’s plain words, and as a consequence, end up producing all kinds of distortions to the text and contradictions to their own theology.
More rhetoric that lacks substantial backing.
Classical Catholic interpretation has always understood 1 Cor 3:15 as referring to the state of purgatory in which the temporal punishment due to sins committed on earth is sustained, as well as the purging of all imperfections not acceptable for entrance into heaven.
Roman Catholic apologists live in a world where double-standards abound. When speaking to their own followers, terms like “always” abound, as if there is a unified, consistent, easily discerned “tradition” to which to refer. But, as soon as anyone points out counter-citations from those same sources, all of a sudden we begin to hear either about how that was an early Father speaking “as a private theologian” and “not for the universal church,” or, the spirit of Newman arises to make all historical issues “go away” since we can just rely upon “development” anyway. While Mr. Sungenis does not identify what “classical Catholic interpretation” is, given what comes after this, we can assume that he is not referring to the position taken only over the past few centuries.
The doctrine of purgatory has the unanimous support of the Church Fathers who addressed the matter, either in direct references to an intermediate state prior to heaven, or in reference to prayers for the dead. Fathers Tertullian, Origen, Cyprian, Lactantius, Eusebius, Cyril, Gregory of Nyssa, Epiphanius, Jerome, Ambrose, John Chrysostom, Augustine, Gregory the Great, Venerable Bede and second-millennium theologians such as Anselm, Bernard, Aquinas and Bonaventure supported the doctrine of purgatory.
This is truly a classic example of the utter misuse of historical sources in the service of Rome. Consider, for example, the breadth of the beliefs represented by Tertullian or Gregory the Great—no serious scholar suggests that what Tertullian believed regarding prayers for the dead, for example, is the same as what Gregory the Great believed about purgation after death. Not only had there been a number of developments during the intervening centuries, but the sources Gregory accepted as relevant were much wider (and less orthodox) than those used by Tertullian. To say these all “supported the doctrine of purgatory” is to make a statement that has no meaning: Tertullian speaks of prayers for refrigerium for those who have died. This is nothing like Gregory; Augustine’s view is different than either one. Origen’s entire theology was wildly off-base, so throwing him into the mix is hardly a positive thing for anyone interested in truly biblical theology. And so it goes. To say these all “supported the doctrine of purgatory” puts words and concepts into the mouths and theologies of men who would not recognize the modern Roman dogma at all.
Both purgatory and prayers for the dead were upheld by the major councils, beginning with the Council of Carthage in 394 A.D. to the Council of Trent in 1554 A.D. Evidence of prayers for the dead also appeared in inscriptions on the walls of Christian catacombs in the very early years of the Church. In addition, all the liturgies of the early Church, without exception, made references to prayers for the dead.
What Mr. Sungenis does not mention is that these prayers were requests for refrigerium, that is, for the joy of those who have gone on, not for redemption or release from the sufferings of purgatory! The “prayers for the dead = purgatory” equation, despite its constant repetition, simply does not support the weight put upon it.
Despite this evidence, the Protestant Reformation rejected the doctrine of purgatory, as well as prayers for the dead.
It would be significantly more accurate to point out the exegetical and historical reasons non-Catholics have presented against purgatory than to misrepresent the situation as a mere ignoring of supposed “evidence,” especially when that “evidence” fails muster, as we have seen.
However, not until the later stages of the Reformation was the doctrine of purgatory rejected outright. Luther, as late as 1519, had said that the existence of purgatory was undeniable.
The reader familiar with the history of the Reformation cannot help but smile a bit at the phrase, “as late as 1519….” Given that Luther viewed himself as a faithful son of the Church in October of 1517, and that he went through his greatest period of study, consideration, and writing between 1518 and 1521, to speak of 1519 as “late” in the Reformation is humorous. In reality, 1519 is “within a matter of months of the posting of the 95 Theses,” and very early in the history of the Reformation.
James R. White, a staunch Calvinist and prolific anti-Catholic,
Remember, “anti-Catholic” is the term RC apologists use to make sure their Roman Catholic readers will be biased against the person they are citing. If Protestants introduced Roman Catholic apologists as “anti-Protestants” or “anti-Baptists” with such regularity there would be no end to the complaints. The double-standard has always been, and remains, striking.
has written the following on 1 Cor 3:15: “But aside from this, nothing can be found to substantiate a concept of purgatory. What is judged is the sort or kind of works the Christian has done. Sins, and their punishments, are not even mentioned. It is works that are judged and put through the fire … we must strongly affirm that this judgment is not a judgment relative to sin but to works and rewards.”
That’s from The Fatal Flaw, p. 179.
Similar to White’s view, the typical evangelical/fundamentalist interpretation of 1 Cor 3:14-15 views it as a preliminary judgment for Christians in which those with an abundance of good works will be personally rewarded with a crown, or some other accolade, while those with an excess of bad works will lose their chance for a personal reward. The rewards depend on the type and amount of good work performed.
The reader should realize that Mr. Sungenis’ experience of the “evangelical/fundamentalist” viewpoint included such wildly divergent groups as Harold Camping’s “Family Radio” and the Boston Church of Christ. It is surely not the Reformed, or even scholarly, interpretation of the passage that is here presented. The passage is plainly about Christian leaders and their building upon the “foundation” that Paul had laid. Surely there are those who may provide a shallow, or a-contextual reading of the text, but that is hardly relevant to the point at hand.
The notion of “barely being saved” is even borne out in Protestant translations of the verse which paraphrase it into a description of a man who narrowly escapes from a burning building, (e.g., The New International Version: “He himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through flames”).
The Jerome Biblical Commentary has, “Like one escaping from a burning house, he will be saved, but his work and his reward will be lost.” Why would a Catholic commentary “paraphrase” the text as well?
The most curious aspect about these interpretations of 1 Cor 3:14-15 is that they seem more Catholic than Protestant, and as a result, are not very consistent with sola fide theology. Works are not supposed to be a criterion for how close or far one is from salvation since, in Protestant theology, one is saved strictly by faith, not works.
Again, Mr. Sungenis’ knowledge of what he calls “sola fide theology” is highly suspect. The passage does not in any way identify works as a “criterion for how close or far one is from salvation” in the first place; further, in actual historic Protestant theology, one is saved strictly by grace through faith.
The logical question that surfaces is: If faith, as Protestants believe, is the only virtue that justifies one before God,
Of course, the actual position is, “Christ’s work, finished and complete, is the perfect basis of one’s relationship with God.” The “virtue,” if one will even use such a term, is all of Christ, not of man.
on what basis can someone’s works advance or retard his chances for salvation? In addition, if works are just “fruits of salvation,” as Protestants teach, why are these works being judged at all, and on what judicial basis are they rewarded or rejected’?
Because, as the text clearly indicates, it is God’s will to reveal the motivations of Christian leaders at the end of time, and to reward those servants who engaged in His work of ministry with proper motivations. They are judged on the basis of God’s knowledge of the hearts of all men.
“Works” are understood as judicially neutral actions that have no possibility of making one fall under God’s eternal judgment. Hence, anytime the Scripture specifies a judgment for the Christian’s works, Protestants presuppose that the bad works cannot be equated with sin. Since it is believed that Christ paid the punishment for all the Christian’s sins, thus making judgment for sin complete, it is concluded that the judgment for bad works in 1 Cor 3:13-15 must necessarily exclude any evaluation or penalty for one’s sins. Once they are made to be totally separate from sin, Protestant “works” are then available to be judged by their own merits or demerits.
Note that the context of this referring to Christian leaders is ignored. Beyond this, the statement of the text itself, that the judgment is not in regards to salvation, but to reward, is skipped over. It is hard to avoid concluding that Mr. Sungenis does not, in fact, believe that Christ paid the punishment for all the Christian’s sins, and this is indeed his position. As he asserted in our debate on justification in May of 2000, many sons of God will be in hell. The vast chasm that separates the God-centered gospel of Scripture and the man-centered message of Rome can hardly be more highly contrasted than in these discussions.
The fact that the “works that are burned” in 1 Cor 3:15 refer to sin can be gleaned from many biblical sources, not the least of which is the immediate and extended context of the passage itself. For example, in verse 17, Paul includes the warning that if anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him. How one builds for God has been a pivotal point of discussion in the preceding context. For example, some are said to build with gold, silver and precious stone, while others build with wood, hay and stubble (verse 12). Apparently, those who persistently and deliberately build with defective materials, and end up destroying the temple of God, will receive the worst punishment – it is stipulated that they will be destroyed by God (verse 17).
I hope the reader will note well the reverse order of interpretation that leads to this glaring example of eisegesis. Written and spoken words start at one point and move to the next: we interpret them by starting at the beginning and moving forward. You interpret verse 1, then verse 2, etc. Surely, verse 27 may have something to do with verse 1, but you don’t jump in at verse 27 and use the conclusions you come to there to interpret verse 1. In the same way, the logical means of understanding Paul’s point here is to start at the beginning of chapter three, determine the context, and follow the train of thought through the passage. When one does this, one realizes that there is a great distinction between 16-17 and 14-15: specifically, in 14-15 we have Christian workers who build, but in 16-17 we have an individual who does not build, but instead, tears down or destroys. Mr. Sungenis needs to find a way around Paul’s direct point, so he does so by 1) ignoring the context (the revelation of the motives of Christian workers), 2) bringing up issues of sin vs. bad or good works, 3) jumping to verse 17 and taking its warning and inserting it back into a previous (and contradictory) context, 4) turns the building of God into the temple (this transition is made in 16, but Sungenis pushes it back into the previous context), and finally, 5) conflating, against the context of the text itself, 16-17 and coming up with a concept utterly unfounded in the text itself: the creation of a group who “persistently and deliberately build with defective materials, and end up destroying the temple of God.” Paul nowhere says that those who were builders become those who tear down. Verses 16-17 emphasize the importance of God’s people as His temple, and His concern for its purity, and the grave danger awaiting His enemies. Since Paul’s point in the previous verses will not support the Roman position, eisegesis is the last resort.
Obviously, in light of such harsh punishment, Paul does not view the actions of the brother who deliberately builds with defective materials and eventually destroys the temple as judicially neutral. He has committed a very serious sin which is adjudicated by a very serious punishment. Since the man of verse 15 has also built the temple with defective materials, albeit less destructive than the man of verse 17, his sin is of a lesser degree – but it is still sin
Very little of the rest of Mr. Sungenis’ comments are really relevant, since this is the heart of his assertion. Notice that he speaks of the one destroyed by God as a “brother.” It is vital that he extend the context of 10-15 to include 16-17 so that he can define the works which are judged as sins which can also bring the final judgment of God. Without this effort, his entire attempt fails. But we have already seen that, in fact, this entire effort contradicts the text and is unwarranted. Sungenis’ position collapses when it is seen as the eisegetical effort it truly is.
Later in his article Sungenis continues to attempt to turn Paul’s discussion of the revelation of the motives of Christian leaders into a discussion of sin and its punishment. In passing he says,
These definitions of sin do not leave much room for the so-called “bad works” of Protestant theology to be anything other than sin. One of the typical ways in which Protestant theologians attempt to show some difference between sins and bad works is by stressing the “motivation” of the action. Hence, James White claims in his book “The Fatal Flaw,”: “For the Christian, the idea of not being able to present to his Lord works that were done for the proper motivation … is a terrifying one indeed.” This is another example of a theological fabrication to make the verse fit into one’s preconceived ideas.
Given that we have already listened to the apostle Paul himself speak of the testing of the works of Christian leaders so that it might be made known “of what sort” they are (something Paul never says of sins!), we can see very quickly who is actually engaging in the “theological fabrication” so as to fit a text into one’s preconceived ideas!
Scripture simply does not teach that bad motivations are sinless.
This is another common debate tactic: prove what is not disputed. What Mr. Sungenis fails to allow for is that 1) Paul can address the revelation of who engaged in ministry for proper reasons and who did not without turning the context into one of judgment of sin, 2) that a person can be a Christian, have their sins forgiven completely in Christ, and still have the quality of their works as a Christian revealed in the last day. Evidently, Paul could never address the examination of the motives of Christian leaders working in the church without at the same time raising the issue of the punishment of sin.
Following this, Sungenis attempts to draw parallels to other passages, but each one fails the simple test of context: he simply will not allow for the reading of the text provided above. Of course, given that Mr. Sungenis likewise rejects sola scriptura and embraces the ultimate authority of Rome, I would assert that true textually-based exegesis is not something he can faithfully engage in anyway (i.e., this would involve a fundamental contradiction of his beginning commitment to Rome’s authority). Under “The Catholic Solution,” Sungenis takes the over-riding thesis he has attempted to argue (mainly from texts other than the one allegedly under consideration), that being that “bad works” are sins (hence, if Christian worker’s motivations are judged, this must mean there is a post-mortem judgment for sin), and says:
Consequently, since “bad works” are sins, as Catholic theology teaches, then indeed Christians will be judged for their sins and recompensed accordingly. Some will be “destroyed,” some will “be saved by fire,” and others will receive their heavenly reward immediately.
We again note that this ignores the text’s own distinction between 14-15 and 16-17, and it likewise makes a mockery of Jesus’ ability to save His own. Of course, Roman Catholic soteriology is very man-centered, hence, the idea that Jesus is able to save completely without human cooperation is not a part of the system. Note just a few more elements of this article:
First, it is clear from 1 Cor 3:17 that those who deliberately and consistently build with defective materials in an attempt to destroy the temple of God are to receive the ultimate punishment – they will be destroyed by God Himself.
There is, of course, nothing in the text that speaks of “deliberately and consistently building with defective materials,” but Mr. Sungenis is certain of it anyhow. This is pure eisegesis.
The final destruction Paul has in view refers to eternal damnation (cf., Ezekiel 13:10-16; 22:28-30; Luke 12:47; Hebrews 10:26-39). Second, 1 Cor 3:8 and 3:14 speaks of those whose work survives the test of fire and who will be rewarded according to their labor. The better his work, the better his reward. The reward refers to the eternal state of heaven in which, as Catholic doctrine teaches, those who have been more dedicated to the work of Christ will receive a greater reward or higher place in heaven.
One immediately has to ask, if this is true, what the “loss” of those “saved by fire” is? If the “reward” is the eternal state of heaven, and those whose works are burned up do not receive a reward, as v. 15 says, yet they are saved, then where do they go?
Third, 1 Cor 3:15 speaks of a man who builds with defective material, but it is not to the same degree as the man in verse 17 who ends up destroying the temple.
One looks in vain for “same degree” or greater degree or anything even slightly relevant thereto in the text.
Based on the difference in degree, the man in verse 15 is eventually saved, but the man in verse 17 is not. The “fire” endured by the man in verse 15 that eventually leads to his salvation is what Catholic theology understands as the state of purgatory.
The person who has carefully followed the argument cannot help but see the tremendous self-contradiction the Roman position brings to the text. Those in v. 14 have their works tested by fire…but according to Sungenis, they receive eternal salvation, since theirs are “good works.” But wait…if the fire that burns up the works of those in v. 15 is purgatory, why isn’t it for those in v. 14? See what happens when you force Roman tradition upon a simple Scripture that has nothing to do with what Rome says it is teaching? The result is endless contradiction. Despite the glaring contradictions already seen, Sungenis plows on,
Hence, the three divisions of 1 Cor 3:14-17 are describing: heaven (verse 14), purgatory (verse 15) and hell (verse 17).
As we have seen, 14-15 both experience the same testing, destroying the glib, and erroneous, distinction Sungenis inserts into the text.
The Catholic understanding of mortal and venial sins also comes into play here. The man of 1 Cor 3:17 has committed unrepentant mortal sin, and thus he is banished to hell (1 Jn 5:16). In God’s eyes, blaspheming His name and destroying His Church are very serious sins. On the other hand, the man of 1 Cor 3:15 has also committed sin, but not as seriously or consistently. These types of sins are what Catholic theology calls venial sins (1 Jn 5:17). They do not take away sanctifying grace that leads to eternal life, but one is accountable to God for them, and will suffer the temporal punishment due them either in this life or in purgatory.
The reader can readily see that in fact this is where Sungenis is deriving his teaching. Indeed, the text of 1 Corinthians 3:10-17 is more of a hindrance to him, than a help. Paul knew nothing of mortal versus venial sins, and all the rest of this kind of theology, that Rome imports into the text. Following this, Sungenis discusses the Greek term translated “suffer loss” and, of course, opts for the idea of “punishment,” though he does not deal with the information we presented above, that being that the context does not support the rendering “punishment,” as the phrase is directly parallel to verse 14. In Sungenis’ eisegesis, there is a great chasm between 14 and 15, not only regarding this term and its parallel to “receive a reward,” but in regards to the idea of types of sin, rewards, etc.