“If anyone’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.” -1 Corinthians 3:15
Question: Does 1 Corinthians 3:15 teach that a truly saved person can have all their works burned up but still be saved? Shouldn’t a true Christian have at least some “deeds appropriate to repentance?”
Answer: This is indeed a difficult passage that many have been confused by over the years. My charge to anyone trying to interpret difficult passages is this: context, context, context! Always look at the surrounding verses, chapters, and even the entire book to understand what is being said. Almost every time this will clear up difficulties. So, let’s trying doing that with this passage.
For the first several chapters of 1 Corinthians, Paul is trying to resolve division that has come up in their church. They are fighting over which leader’s teaching they should be following. Some prefer Paul. Others preferred Apollos, Cephas, or Christ (1 Cor. 1:11-12). This discussion continues into chapter 3 as well (1 Cor. 3:4). Here Paul tries to explain that they should not aim to be faithful to a teacher, but rather be faithful to God.
He uses two metaphors to explain this. He refers to the church as both a field and a building (1 Cor. 3:9). First, as a field, he says he was the one who planted the seed of the gospel, then later Apollos watered that seed. However, neither of these men should be praised because it is God who causes the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7). The next metaphor he uses is that of a building. Paul says that he was the one who laid a foundation and he made certain that the foundation he laid was Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 3:10-11). Apollos would have been considered one of the people who built on top of that foundation, but now Paul warns anyone at Corinth to be cautious how they build on the foundation. “Let each one take care how he builds upon it” (1 Cor. 3:10). He is warning anyone in the church who would attempt to teach others or to build up the church in any way. They had better be absolutely certain that the things they teach and say conform to the foundation, which is Jesus Christ. If the foundation is a square and the builders put a circular building on top, it will all collapse. At every step of the way they have to bring their focus back to Jesus to build a healthy church.
Paul then refers to gold, silver, and precious stones as materials that conform to the foundation and to wood, hay, and straw as things that don’t (1 Cor. 3:12). On the day of the Lord, these buildings, the Church, will be tested. What teachings conformed to Jesus Christ? Which programs, systems, structures, doctrines, songs, creeds, and services fit the foundation and which ones didn’t? If one has built the church well, there is reward. If one has built worthless or contrary things into the church they will be burnt up. The builder will still be saved, but the work on the church he did will have proved fruitless (1 Cor. 3:14-15). Paul goes on to say that because the Church is God’s temple, we should be extra careful in how we build it (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
With that in mind, 1 Cor. 3:15 is speaking specifically of works done in an effort to build up the church. You are correct in saying that all Christians will have deeds appropriate to repentance (Gal. 5:22-23, Eph. 2:10, Phil. 1:6, Jas. 2:17). Paul is explaining that not all of our efforts to build the church will be successful, unless they conform to the foundation of Jesus Christ.