1 Corinthians 3:15
If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.
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(15) So as.—These words remind us that the whole passage, and especially the reference to fire, is to be regarded as metaphorical, and not to be understood in a literal and physical sense. Forgetting this, Roman divines have evolved from these words the doctrine of purgatory.

3:10-15 The apostle was a wise master-builder; but the grace of God made him such. Spiritual pride is abominable; it is using the greatest favours of God, to feed our own vanity, and make idols of ourselves. But let every man take heed; there may be bad building on a good foundation. Nothing must be laid upon it, but what the foundation will bear, and what is of a piece with it. Let us not dare to join a merely human or a carnal life with a Divine faith, the corruption of sin with the profession of Christianity. Christ is a firm, abiding, and immovable Rock of ages, every way able to bear all the weight that God himself or the sinner can lay upon him; neither is there salvation in any other. Leave out the doctrine of his atonement, and there is no foundation for our hopes. But of those who rest on this foundation, there are two sorts. Some hold nothing but the truth as it is in Jesus, and preach nothing else. Others build on the good foundation what will not abide the test, when the day of trail comes. We may be mistaken in ourselves and others; but there is a day coming that will show our actions in the true light, without covering or disguise. Those who spread true and pure religion in all its branches, and whose work will abide in the great day, shall receive a reward. And how great! how much exceeding their deserts! There are others, whose corrupt opinions and doctrines, or vain inventions and usages in the worship of God, shall be made known, disowned, and rejected, in that day. This is plainly meant of a figurative fire, not of a real one; for what real fire can consume religious rites or doctrines? And it is to try every man's works, those of Paul and Apollos, as well as others. Let us consider the tendency of our undertakings, compare them with God's word, and judge ourselves, that we be not judged of the Lord.If any man's work shall be burned - If it shall not be found to hear the test of the investigation of that Day - as a cottage of wood, hay, and stubble would not bear the application of fire. If his doctrines have not been true; if he has had mistaken views of piety; if he has nourished feelings which he thought were those of religion; and inculcated practices which, however well meant, are not such as the gospel produces; if he has fallen into error of opinion, feeling, practice, however conscientious, yet he shall suffer loss.

He shall suffer loss - :

(1) He shall not be elevated to as high a rank and to as high happiness as he otherwise would. That which he supposed would be regarded as acceptable by the Judge, and rewarded accordingly, shall be stripped away, and shown to be unfounded and false; and in consequence, he shall not obtain those elevated rewards which he anticipated. This, compared with what he expected, may be regarded as a loss.

(2) he shall be injuriously affected by this forever. It shall be a detriment to him to all eternity. The effects shall be felt in all his residence in heaven - not producing misery but attending him with the consciousness that he might have been raised to superior bliss in the eternal abode - The phrase here literally means, "he shall be mulcted." The word is a legal term, and means that he shall be fined, that is, he shall suffer detriment.

But he himself shall be saved - The apostle all along has supposed that the true foundation was laid 1 Corinthians 3:11, and if that is laid, and the edifice is reared upon that, the person who does it shall be safe. There may be much error, and many false views of religion, and much imperfection, still the man that is building on the true foundation shall be safe. His errors and imperfections shall be removed, and he may occupy a lower place in heaven, but he shall be safe.

Yet so as by fire - ὡς διὰ πυρός hōs dia puros. This passage has greatly perplexed commentators; but probably without any good reason. The apostle does not say that Christians will be doomed to the fires of purgatory; nor that they will pass through fire; nor that they will be exposed to pains and punishment at all; but he "simply carries out the figure" which he commenced, and says that they will be saved, as if the action of fire had been felt on the edifice on which he is speaking. That is, as fire would consume the wood, hay, and stubble, so on the great Day everything that is erroneous and imperfect in Christiana shall be removed, and that which is true and genuine shall be preserved as if it had passed through fire. Their whole character and opinions shall be investigated; and that which is good shall be approved; and that which is false and erroneous be removed.

The idea is not that of a man whose house is burnt over his head and who escapes through the flames, nor that of a man who is subjected to the pains and fires of purgatory; but that of a man who had been spending his time and strength to little purpose; who had built, indeed, on the true foundation, but who had reared so much on it which was unsound, and erroneous, and false, that he himself would be saved with great difficulty, and with the loss of much of that reward which he had expected, as if the fire had passed over him and his works. The simple idea, therefore, is, that that which is genuine and valuable in his doctrines and works, shall be rewarded, and the man shall be saved; that which is not sound and genuine, shall be removed, and he shall suffer loss. Some of the fathers, indeed, admitted that this passage taught that all people would be subjected to the action of fire in the great conflagration with which the world shall close; that the wicked shall be consumed; and that the righteous are to suffer, some more and some less, according to their character. On passages like this, the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory is based. But we may observe:

(1) That this passage does not necessarily or naturally give any such idea. The interpretation stated above is the natural interpretation, and one which the passage will not only bear, but which it demands.

(2) If this passage would give any countenance to the absurd and unscriptural idea that the souls of the righteous at the Day of Judgment are to be re-united to their bodies, in order to be subjected to the action of intense heat, to be brought from the abodes of bliss and compelled to undergo the burning fires of the last conflagration, still it would give no countenance to the still more absurd and unscriptural opinion that those fires have been and are still burning; that all souls are to be subjected to them; and that they can be removed only by masses offered for the dead, and by the prayers of the living. The idea of danger and peril is, indeed, in this text; but the idea of personal salvation is retained and conveyed.

15. If … be burnt—if any teacher's work consist of such materials as the fire will destroy [Alford].

suffer loss—that is, forfeit the special "reward"; not that he shall lose salvation (which is altogether a free gift, not a "reward" or wages), for he remains still on the foundation (1Co 3:12; 2Jo 6).

saved; yet so as by fire—rather, "so as through fire" (Zec 3:2; Am 4:11; Jude 23). "Saved, yet not without fire" (Ro 2:27) [Bengel]. As a builder whose building, not the foundation, is consumed by fire, escapes, but with the loss of his work [Alford]; as the shipwrecked merchant, though he has lost his merchandise, is saved, though having to pass through the waves [Bengel]; Mal 3:1, 2; 4:1, give the key to explain the imagery. The "Lord suddenly coming to His temple" in flaming "fire," all the parts of the building which will not stand that fire will be consumed; the builders will escape with personal salvation, but with the loss of their work, through the midst of the conflagration [Alford]. Again, a distinction is recognized between minor and fundamental doctrines (if we regard the superstructure as representing the doctrines superadded to the elementary essentials); a man may err as to the former, and yet be saved, but not so as to the latter (compare Php 3:15).

But if his work do not abide, if it shall appear upon the more clear and bright shining out of the truth of the gospel, that though he hath held the foundation right, yet he hath built upon it wood, hay, and stubble, mixed fables, and idle stories, and corrupt doctrine with the doctrine of the gospel,

he shall suffer loss by it, either by the afflicting hand of God, or by a loss of his reputation, or some other way. But yet God will not cast off a soul for every such error, if he keeps to the main foundation, Jesus Christ; he shall be saved, though it be as by fire, that is, with difficulty; which certainly is a more natural sense of this text, than those give, who interpret as by fire, of the fire of the gospel, or the fire of purgatory, of which the papists understand it. For:

1. It is, and always hath been, a proverbial form of speech to express a thing obtained by difficulty; we say: It is got out of the fire, &c.

2. For the fire of purgatory, it is a fiction, and mere imaginary thing, and of no further significancy than to make the pope’s chimney smoke.

3. That pretended fire only purgeth venial sins; this fire trieth every man’s work, the gold as well as the stubble. If any man's work shall be burnt,.... If any minister's doctrine he has preached shall be destroyed and disappear, shall be disapproved of, and rejected by the churches, not being able, to bear the light and heat of the fire of God's word:

he shall suffer loss; of all his labour and pains he has been at, in collecting together such trifling, useless, and inconsistent things; and of all that glory and popular applause he might expect from men, on account of them, and which was the snare that drew him into such a way of preaching:

but he himself shall be saved; with an everlasting salvation; not by his ministerial labours, much less by his wood, hay, and stubble, which will be all burnt up; but through his being, notwithstanding all the imperfections of his ministry, upon the foundation Christ:

yet so as by fire; with much difficulty, and will be scarcely saved; see 1 Peter 4:17 with great danger, loss, and shame; as a man that is burnt out of house and home, he escapes himself with his own life, but loses all about him: so the Syriac version reads it, , "as out of the fire": see Zechariah 3:2. Or the sense is, that he shall be tried by the fire of the word, and convinced by the light of it of the errors, irregularities, and inconsistencies of his ministry; either in his time of life and health, or on a death bed; and shall have all his wood, hay, and stubble burnt up, for nothing of this kind shall he carry with him in his judgment to heaven; only the gold, silver, and precious stones; and will find that the latter doctrines, and not the former, will only support him in the views of death and eternity.

If any man's work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but {8} he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.

(8) He does not take away the hope of salvation from the unskilful and foolish builders, who hold fast the foundation, of which sort were those rhetoricians, rather than the pastors of Corinth. However, he adds an exception, that they must nonetheless suffer this trial of their work, and also abide the loss of their vain labours.

15. yet so as by fire] The absolute equality of all in the world to come is no part of St Paul’s system. ‘One star differeth from another star in glory’ (ch. 1 Corinthians 15:41). But the history of the Apostle himself is a sufficient evidence that God will not punish with the loss of His presence the man who has acted up to the highest dictates of a conscience not yet fully enlightened. The work perishes, but he who believed himself to be actively serving God when in fact he was doing nothing shall not be driven into the outer darkness. “Sincerity does not verify doctrine, but it saves the man; his person is accepted, though his work perish.”—Robertson. Yet he will be saved ‘so as by fire.’ Surely the ‘smell of fire’ may be said to pass on him who sees all those works which he so honestly believed to be for God vanishing as worthless stubble in the searching trial which will ‘purge away all the dross’ of our human doings, and leave only what is of real value in God’s sight.1 Corinthians 3:15. Ζημιωθήσεται, he shall suffer loss) He shall fail in obtaining the reward, not in obtaining salvation.—αὐτὸς) he himself.—σωθήσεται, shall be saved) because he does not forsake this foundation, 1 Corinthians 3:12.—ὡς, as) a particle of explanation and limitation; as one who should be obliged to go through fire.—διὰ, through) So διὰ, through [= with], Romans 2:27 : not without fire, comp. 1 Corinthians 3:13. As the shipwrecked merchant, though he has lost his merchandise and his gain, is saved through the waves.[28]

[28] Is saved, though having to pass through the waves.—ED.Verse 15. - He shall suffer loss. He shall not receive the full reward to which he might otherwise look (2 John 1:8). He himself shall be saved. It is an inexpressible source of comfort to us, amid the weakness and ignorance of our lives, to know that if we have only erred through human frailty and feebleness, while yet we desired to be sincere and faithful, the work will be burnt, yet the workman will be saved. Some of the Fathers gave to this beautiful verse the shockingly perverted meaning that "the workman would be preserved alive for endless torments," "salted with fire" in order to endure interminable agonies. The meaning is impossible, for it reverses the sense of the word "saved;" and makes it equivalent to "damned;" but the interpretation is an awful proof of the distortions to which a merciless human rigorism and a hard, self styled orthodoxy have sometimes subjected the Word of God. Yet so as by fire; rather, through or by means of fire (διὰ πυρός). We may be, as it were, "snatched as a brand from the burning" (Zechariah 3:2; Amos 4:11; Jude 1:23), and "scarcely" saved (1 Peter 4:18). Similarly it is said in 1 Peter 3:20 that Noah was saved "through water" (δι ὕδατος). The ship is lost, the sailor saved; the workman is saved, the work is burned. Shall suffer loss (ζημιωθήσεται)

He shall be mulcted, not punished. See on Matthew 16:26; see on Luke 9:25.

He himself shall be saved

Compare Dante of Constantine:

"The next who follows, with the laws and me,

Under the good intent that bore bad fruit

Became a Greek by ceding to the pastor;

Now knoweth he how all the ill deduced

From his good action is not harmful to him,

Although the world thereby may be destroyed."

"Paradiso," xx. 55-60.

By fire (διὰ πυρός)

Better, Rev., through fire. He will escape as through the fire that consumes his work, as one does through the flames which destroy his house.

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