But there is a second warning given here. v15 —
15 If it [which refers to your life’s work, if it…] is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.
Those who build using perishable materials will still be spared ultimate judgment as long as the foundation is Christ. You’re saved. You’re safe because you are in Christ. However, the passage warns that you will be saved only as one escaping the flames.
The issue is not whether or not a person is saved. Because we learn from the opening chapters that Paul recognizes and acknowledges the authenticity of their conversion. We are not talking about salvation because the Corinthians were saved, but because they had abandoned the gospel as the foundational core of their faith, Paul was warning them. You guys are building up this church with perishable materials. And that means, when the fire comes, much of what they have been doing and building is going to burn away. And while the Corinthians would escape eternal punishment, they would be escaping as those who just missed the flames of hell. Meaning, the backs of their robes would be slightly scorched, even singed. Sounds scary — even if I am saved, I don’t know if I want to go through this business of being saved as I am running away from the flames just behind me. Saved, yes, but by the skin of my teeth. That’s not a place where I want to be spiritually.
Some may hear this and say, what’s the big deal about a reward? You could enter heaven with trumpets sounding and God saying, Well done. And the angels could be laying down at your feet whatever heavenly reward that you deserve for years of faithful service. And as you walk through those pearly gates, maybe Abraham and Moses are there to give you high fives.
That sounds great and all, but what about the guy who escaped as one through the flames? Like those who confess Christ right before they die. There are no rewards. No high fives. Or even worse, maybe you were saved as a youth, but you lived the rest of your life completely selfishly and built your life with perishable materials. God may not be all too pleased with such a person, but at least he made it to heaven, right? If he made it to heaven, who really cares about a reward? Heaven and being with God for eternity, that’s enough of a reward for most, am I right?
Some may think this way. If you love God, then wouldn’t you want to please him, but that’s another message. I suppose, salvation can be simply a ticket to heaven. Hey, I am saved, I can explain the gospel, I can share my salvation testimony. I come on Sundays, Monday through Saturday — let me live the way I want to live. My foundation is set and it’s no big deal if I build with perishable or imperishable materials because my eternity is secure.
I can’t deny the possibility that you can be saved while your life may not have a single piece of gold, or silver or precious stone in it. After all, we are saved by grace, not our works. I can’t deny that many Christians are just not that interested in a heavenly reward. They don’t care too much if they don’t live lives pleasing to God. They just need to be accepted by God. Getting into heaven, just barely squeaking by is good enough for them.
I just want to say, there are two sides to every coin. You can be saved by the skin of your teeth. That means, you are right on the fence, you are right on the edge. You made it, but barely. But what if you are on the other side? What if you missed salvation by a hair?
It’s like if you bombed a test. It’s a terrible feeling. Did I pass, did I fail? That’s a terrible state of mind to be in. It happened to me on my last class of my last semester at Berkeley. It was an upper division physical anthropology class by Prof. Tim White who discovered the skeletal remains of the early hominid known as Lucy. So this guy is world famous and his class was incredibly difficult.
I remember the very first class, the professor came up to the front and said, many have failed my class in previous years. Then he said, you don’t want to be that person. You can cry, you can send your parents to my office, you can threaten me with a lawsuit, but if you fail, tough luck. From a student perspective, I’m sorry, that’s not exactly the kind of intro you want to hear on the first day of class. I think that’s why 75% of the class dropped by the following day. I couldn’t drop because it was my last semester and I needed the units for my major.
I tried my best, but in the end, a terrible feeling came over me during my final exam. By the time the semester had ended, I had already locked down a pretty cushy job. My parents had already booked their flights and they were on their way for my graduation. I think it was the day before my graduation, I went to the anthropology office where they had the final grades posted and I looked and saw that I had failed. My heart dropped. My worst fears were confirmed. I felt like my life was over.
As I said, I didn’t feel good about how I was doing during my final. Anticipating the worst, on the last page of my final, I wrote a long letter to my professor, basically begging for mercy. So after the graduation, I went to the professor and I asked to talk about my final and he remembered me because of that long plea that I had written. He said, okay, look through your final and argue for points. I needed 5 points to pass. I didn’t really have a strategy. I just looked at every single red mark and said, Professor, what about this question, my answer is close enough, you know what I was trying to say, don’t you? And at the end, he gave me 8 additional points. So I passed, but barely. And I could get my diploma.
That’s just an Anthro class. What about the test that will happen to each of us on Judgment Day? What about our Final Exam given to us by God when he checks the quality of your life and mine? We are not just talking about a single grade, or a GPA, or even graduation. We are talking about eternity. This is one test you don’t want to fail.
One question is, how do we know whether or not we have Jesus as the foundation of our lives? My answer may not be too comforting. Actually, no one knows. I can have assurance of salvation, but I could also be blind to myself. And I certainly can’t know for sure whether or not somebody else is saved. Only God can judge. Only He can see into our hearts.
With that said, I do think Scripture does give us some helpful guidelines to check ourselves. When it comes to our salvation, we ought to regularly examine ourselves with fear and trembling. That’s one principle. Don’t assume you know Christ. Don’t rest on an experience you had of Christ 5-10 years ago. How does the foundation of your life look like today? Today, if you hear his voice, don’t harden your heart.
Another principle is to examine the fruit of our lives. The Bible says you will know the tree by its fruit. What if you examine your life and you can’t find any fruit? That means, your life is basically the same now as before you made a decision for Christ. Then, this has to be a cause for concern. Such a person falls into the category of possibly having Jesus as his foundation but his house of faith was built with perishable materials. After all, our life work is synonymous with the fruit of our lives. If the fruit is genuine, then you’ve built your life with imperishable materials. And because it was built with gold, silver and stone, your life’s work will survive the fire of God’s judgment and God will reward you.
But if there is no fruit, then this is one clue that you might not be building with imperishable materials. Instead, you could be using perishable materials to build your life, which means, it’s all going to be consumed in the end.
In a sense, building your life with imperishable materials validates your foundation. Just like fruit validates that you are connected to the vine, to Jesus, to the source of life. These are signs of life. If a tree is withered and has no leaves, it could be alive. But you wouldn’t know for sure. You’d have to wait until the spring time to see if new leaves bud.
In the same way, if your life is not built with imperishable materials, you might be saved. Your foundation might be Christ, but you wouldn’t know for sure. You’d be on the fence. And it could go either way — either you are going to be saved as one escaping the flames or you are going to be cast off into eternal destruction. That’s the uncertainty of being on the fence.
I want you to heed this warning. Is Jesus the foundation of your life? Life is short. Sooner or later, we will all be face to face with our Maker and God is going to inspect our foundation and everything we did in this life. Seek out Jesus while you can. Ask him to save you. There is nothing more important than this. This is the first warning Paul gives.
But you can’t stop there. This passage is directed toward Christians. So if you are a Christian, you need to heed a second warning. You know Jesus. That means He is your foundation. But are you building with imperishable or perishable materials? Even if your foundation is solid, the fire of God’s judgment is going to come and it’s going to burn up anything made with perishable materials. And that’s a scary thought.
Concretely, what does it mean to build with imperishable materials?
I want to steal a line from Pastor Sujo. He said, I want to chase after the things that are on your heart, God, and what is on your heart is people. After loving God, the second greatest commandment is loving our neighbors. Jesus said it this way in his farewell address, the Great Commission. He said, go and make disciples of all nations.
Building with imperishable materials has to involve investing in people. God and people — what else is eternal? Nothing. Everything else besides God and people falls into the wood, hay, straw category. Because this world is passing away. Everything on the earth is perishable except people.
Deep down inside, we know this. We were just at a funeral yesterday of Sister Paula’s uncle and you walk away from a funeral knowing two things — life is short and the only thing that ultimately matters is the people whom we love. In our moments of clarity, we know that people are more important than stuff. It would be ludicrous if the employees working in the WTC right after the plane hit their floor, can you imagine if one of them was thinking, man, I needed to send out that last email to my boss. That would be absurd. Because when you are facing death, things come into sharp focus. If that was you on the 81st floor, you wouldn’t be thinking about work or your To Do list. You’d either be calling out to God in prayer. Or, you’d be calling your loved ones.
That’s what happened on 9/11. Many who were stuck in the upper floors of the towers called their loved ones. They knew they were going to die so they called their family members and friends and said their goodbyes. In our clarity, we know instinctively what matters. We are drawn naturally to the imperishable. Think about people on their deathbeds. They want nothing more than to be surrounded by loved ones.
We need to take in this wisdom. Life is not about stuff. It’s about God and people. Loving neighbors and making disciples.