The Misuse of Scripture by James R. White

Scott Windsor


1 Cor 3:10-15: Exegesis and Rebuttal of Roman Catholic Misuse


James White

Scott's responses will be inserted in white boxes,
like this one.
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.

So, if this is refering only to "Christian leaders," then we have an inconsistency in arguments when he tries to argue that we all belong to the "priesthood of believers." To quote White:
Instead, we are believer priests, a royal congregation of called out ones who make up the body of Christ, the Church (Ephesians 1-2). Notice especially that all are included...

1 Peter 2:5: "Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ."
You may want to put "living" for "lively" to avoid any unwanted ideas. This verse teaches that all Christians who are in the Church are part of a holy priesthood that offers sacrifices, not for sin (like the old priests) but spiritual sacrifices. What are these sacrifices? We offer praise, obedience, even our very bodies (Romans 12:1) to God.


One of the chief duties of the priest is to lead and guide the people, along with the offering of the Sacrifice. Without getting into a lengthy discussion of the roles of the priesthood, the point here is that on one hand White claims the role of "Christian leaders" varies from "all Christian believers"

            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. 

You Can't Have it Both Ways?

Well, that's what I just said, but apparently White wishes to have it both ways, or he's forgotten what he wrote in his book, The Roman Catholic Controversy. We find this interesting statement, from White who most recently is affirming that 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 is ONLY refering to Christian Leaders/Ministers, right after quoting this passage from 1 Corinthians he states:
The Roman Catholic view sees in these words a reference to Purgatory, believing that the concepts of judgment, loss and reward support the concept of a cleansing after death. Yet when we allow the passage to speak for itself, we find almost nothing that supports the concept of Purgatory. The mention of fire seems to be about the only common concept between this judgment of believers and the Roman doctrine of Purgatory (even though modern Catholic writers are quick to point out that the Roman Church has never dogmatically affirmed that there is a literal fire in Purgatory).

What is judged is the type of work the Christian has done.   .   .   The point of the text is that if a person's works withstands the judgment, the person receives a reward. If not, the person suffers loss -- not punishment -- yet is saved, "but as through fire." The passage does not say the person goes through fire, is punished, or suffers to make atonement for sin. It simply says that the Christian's works are judged for their own merit, and if those works are found to be made of wood, hay and straw, the works will be burned up and the person will receive no reward.
[James R. White, The Roman Catholic Controversy, p193. emphasis mine]

First off, that final sentence is flat out "wrong" for the section does not say the person will merely "receive no reward," for it actually says "he will suffer loss..."

Secondly, and more importantly, in January of 2002, White posted an article to his website stating 1 Cor. 3:15 ONLY applies to "Christian Leaders," but in 1996 (the year he published The Roman Catholic Controversy) he makes no restriction on this verse to "Christian Leaders" and in fact only says, "the Christian's works are judged," and, "this judgment of believers."

The rest of White's article gets more into attacking other sources. The intent of this response was not to defend those other sources, but to show (yet another) inconsistency in White's arguments, thus my response will end here.

For a full response, basically line by line, to White's entire article, I recommend Robert Sungenis' response to the same article:

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