Recently, some of my friends were troubled by 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. They did not understand the passage, and they thought it seemed like Paul’s teaching in this passage was very close to the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory. So I decided to work through this passage to see how to understand it. A careful understanding of the passage shows that it is not teaching the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory.
1 Corinthians 3:10-15 (NIV)
10By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation as a wise builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should build with care. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.
Notice what is going on in chapter 3. The Corinthian church has divided over which “church leader” they follow. In 1 Cor. 3:1-4, Paul accuses them of this. He directly says that this is immature of them. Their division is a spiritual problem. But he then moves to address the problem directly in verses 5-9. He is continuing to discuss the topic he addressed 1 Cor. 1:10-17. So Paul is thinking about ministry workers and how to appropriately view their work.
That context is important for when we get to verses 10-15. Paul is not talking about the everyday deeds of each Christian. He is talking about the Kingdom work of ministry workers.
To underline this, notice that in 3:9, Paul emphasizes that the worker does not matter; God matters. Each worker has his role and God provides their work with success. Paul then says this in verse 9, “For we are God’s co-workers in God’s service; you are God’s fields, God’s building.” He is stressing that the individual ministry leader (Paul, Apollos, etc.) does not matter; they are merely laborers in God’s farm.
To clearly see that Paul is not talking about every Christian in 3:10-15, pay close attention to verse 9. Who are the co-workers? Every Christian? No. Apollos and Paul are the co-workers. How does Paul refer to the congregation in this passage? As the fields and buildings in and among whom the laborers (the ministry leaders) work.
So let’s go into 1 Cor. 3:10ff. understanding that Paul is talking about Christian leaders and the humble, God-centered perspective that we should see their work.
I don’t want to confuse things, but I’m not just trying to explain 1 Cor. 3:10-15. I am trying to explain why I don’t think that it is a description of the Catholic teaching on Purgatory.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (#1030) defines Purgatory this way: “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”
Notice a few things about this:
- This applies to most Christians. Most Christians die without being imperfectly purified. That’s not explicit in this quotation, but my understanding is that the Catholic Church believes most Christians will go through Purgatory.
- The fire is a fire of purification of the person.
Understanding 1 Cor. 3:10-15
So, with the context and the Catholic teaching on Purgatory before us, let’s go through 1 Cor. 3:10-15 to understand it better.
By the grace God has given me: Paul has a broad understanding of grace. Grace can give forgiveness, but it can also empower. In Romans 12:6ff., Paul uses “grace” to talk about the “spiritual gifts” (as we might call them) that God gives to Christians. In Eph. 4:7, he uses it again to talk about spiritual gifts, or, more accurately, ministry roles. Specifically, he talks about leadership roles like a prophet, an elder, etc. So when Paul says “by the grace God has given me,” he’s not directly talking about forgiveness. He’s talking about the role he was given as an apostle.
I laid a foundation as a wise builder: Paul means that he planted that congregation. Paul was the one who started the Corinthian church through his missionary efforts. Paul uses this same language — laying a foundation as a builder to talk about beginning a church — in Romans 15:20. Paul was a wise builder in starting the Corinthian church.
and someone else is building on it. In other words, Paul started a work that he was not finish. He was leaving it to others to do. Others were tending to the Corinthian congregation.
But each one should build with care. Obviously, whoever is building, that is, whoever is working in the Corinthian church to grow it and spiritually mature it, needs to do so carefully. They are working at God’s work. Ministry leaders should never take lightly the responsibility they have to work among God’s people.
11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. Why should the workers take care? It’s because they there is already one foundation laid. They should neither undermine Christ or build anything on top of such a great foundation that does not belong on it. Paul has already (in 1 Corinthians 1) argued that the divisions arising in the church at Corinth were actually reflections on Jesus Christ. (“Was Christ divided?” Paul asked.)
12If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, Again, Paul is talking about the work of Christian ministers, people working in the church for God. Since he is using the metaphor of building, he keeps with that metaphor to describe how many workers can build onto the foundation. And their contributions are of different types and different qualities. (Remember that what is being built here is a local congregation.)
13their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. The work is of a different quality. But that is not always obvious. We know this from experience. It is sometimes hard to see if Christians ministers and leaders are building up the church or harming the church. Sometimes the truth of what the minister is doing is hidden within their own hearts, their own intentions. But Paul writes that there will be a time when the worth of everyone’s work will be revealed: the Day (of Judgment). Now, let’s keep in mind that the Corinthian church is divided among people following different leaders. And Paul reminds them that every Christian leader will have their work revealed. It won’t be hidden. We will see what it is truly worth, what they have actually accomplished.
It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. How will it be revealed? With fire. In the Bible, the imagery of fire is used often. Sometimes fire destroys. Sometimes it punishes. Sometimes it purifies. Here, the fire destroys. It doesn’t destroy the worker, though — it destroys their work! Again, follow Paul’s train of thought. Many people contribute to the building up of the church, but the quality of their work differs. Some minister’s work is not a good quality. It doesn’t help the church. And that will be revealed (and their work destroyed) on the Day of Judgment.How will it be revealed? With fire. In the Bible, the imagery of fire is used often. Sometimes fire destroys. Sometimes it punishes. Sometimes it purifies. Here, the fire tests. The valuable materials survive. The poor materials are burned up. It doesn’t destroy the worker, though — it destroys their work! Again, follow Paul’s train of thought. Many people contribute to the building up of the church, but the quality of their work differs. Some minister’s work is not a good quality. It doesn’t help the church. And that will be revealed (and their work destroyed) on the Day of Judgment.
How does this work? I’m not sure. Paul could mean that the negative effects of a bad or bad-intentioned minister will be destroyed on the last day. The church will be purified of the effects of these ministers’ labors. The good quality work of a minister survives for eternity; the bad quality work of a minister is destroyed.
14If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. It’s the good quality work of a minister that gets rewarded. The mature Christians in the church. The new converts. The close community. The bad work (for example, divisiveness) will be destroyed, and the minister who did that work will not be rewarded for it.
15If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames. The bad minister’s work gets burned up, and so he will suffer the loss of what he build. His work will not last for eternity. But the builder will be saved. But he will be saved even though his work was burned up; he escaped those flames.The bad minister’s work gets burned up, and so he will suffer the loss of what he build. His work will not last for eternity. But the builder will be saved. But he will be saved even though his work was burned up; he escaped those flames. The flames aren’t flames that are purifying him or even testing him. The imagery seems to be of a worker standing among his work when his work (a room of a house, say) is consumed by flames. He runs out and is saved from the flames burning his work. It is not imagery of the worker being purified by passing through flames.
How This Differs From Purgatory
So let’s notice how this differs from purgatory. I’ll just enumerate them so that it will be easier to reference each point.
- The trial by fire is something that Christian leaders (or minister, elders, etc.) go through. Paul does not indicate that it is for every Christian. That differs from the Catholic doctrine on Purgatory, because Purgatory is not limited just to Christian leaders.
- Some people endure the fire of 1 Cor. 3:10-15, but nothing is burned up. It’s only the bad work that is burned up. In Purgatory, everyone in it is purged of their unholiness. That’s not happening here.
- The fire of 1 Cor. 3:10-15 is dealing with ministry work, not unholiness. Though the bad work might be caused by unholiness, what is purged is not the unholiness of the worker but the poor quality work that was the result of their labors. That’s different than Purgatory, where it is the individual’s unholiness that is purged. The British scholar C. K. Barrett wrote, “There is thus no hint in the context that the fire has the effect of purifying an unworthy workman.” (First Epistle to the Corinthians, 89)
- This is not as clear, because the Catholic Church has not dogmatically declared exactly when Purgatory would be. I have heard Catholic apologists claim that Purgatory could take place in a moment — in the blink of the eye — on Judgment Day. But their practices at various times in history (the selling of indulgences, for example) show that Purgatory is often thought of as happening now. But the fires that Paul talks about in 1 Cor. 3:10-15 are simply on Judgment Day.
I don’t know if what I have written fully explains 1 Cor. 3:10-15. But I hope it is enough for you to see that what Paul writes cannot be used as support for the Catholic Doctrine of Purgatory.
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