21st Sunday After Trinity October 19, 1997
1 Corinthians 3:10-15
According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it. But let each one take heed how he builds on it. For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is. If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.
In the name of Christ crucified and risen, all-glorious in heaven and the Rock of the Church here on earth, dear fellow believers in Him and fellow workers in His kingdom.
Some of you here have seen the new dining hall at Immanuel Lutheran College. Everyone who’s been there agrees: it’s quite a nice building. Last summer it provided us with a cool and comfortable place for the meals at Convention. During the school year it served the dining needs of the student body. As you know, this building was the result of a synod-wide building project. All the members of the CLC had opportunity to help build this structure through the support of their prayers and their offerings, for the benefit of our church body and the praise of God’s glory.
Building projects are surely a part of the church’s work. Not only for the church body, but also for the congregation. We can think back to the days when our congregations built their own facilities of worship. However, when you hear the words of our text, please understand that the writer is not talking about construction. It’s a divinely inspired figure of speech that describes the spiritual process of building God’s Church. After all, what is “church” in the biblical sense? It’s not the building where you worship. It’s the people—you members, you believers in Christ. You and all other Christians are the “church” that God is building for Himself.
You are also part of the building crew. The pastors, teachers, and members work together to build this growing, triumphant Church of believers. If we follow the blueprint that God lays out and rely on His blessing, we can be sure that the work will reach completion according to His standards. The message of our text will spur us on. The Lord is telling us all:
Builders doing the work of construction is a great way to describe the spiritual work of the church. God is like the owner, who designs the building and supplies all the tools and materials. The pastor is like the foreman, who takes the orders and directions from the boss and hands them down to the crew. The members are like the carpenters, the bricklayers, and the painters; they each do their part. We find this analogy in our text: “According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it.” Paul goes on to describe what the foundation is: “No other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” The building has to start with the right foundation, or it’s never going to last. When God builds His Church, He places it squarely on the Gospel of Christ.
Think of the cement floor in the basement below us. When the blocks were laid on the foundation, they had a solid footing to keep them in place. Well, Christ has become the solid basis of your faith. When you trust in Him, you stand on solid ground. Everything that you need to be saved is supplied by His doing and His providing. For example you need perfect righteousness to enter eternal life. It’s something we could never provide for ourselves. So Jesus did the work for us. He accomplished the perfect record that is now applied to us. You need to have your sins paid for and removed. Jesus accomplished that too by giving up His life. He paid the debt of all our sins, with the result that God has canceled the debt forever. How do we know? Our certainty comes from the fact that Jesus rose. So the Biblical truth of our Savior’s perfect life, His innocent death, and His glorious resurrection are the perfect and the only foundation of our Christian faith.
Naturally, God wants the construction of His church to be squarely based on the Savior. So we build on the Gospel of Christ. We build on the unconditional declaration of God’s forgiveness, freely won for all and freely declared in the Gospel. On top of this foundation, God takes the construction of His Church to the next level. Build with quality material, He says. Use the truth of Scripture.
Paul is talking specifically about doctrine and practice in the church when he mentions the materials of “gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, and straw.” You see this list in v. 12. Notice the progression from something of great value to something of no value. As we build the church, God wants us to use the precious materials: the gold, silver, and gems. These precious materials symbolize the many yet valuable teachings of Scripture. We build with “gold and silver” when we use the Law to show people their sins and then use the Gospel to declare that their sins are forgiven. We build with “gold and silver” when we faithfully teach all the other doctrines contained in the Bible. The truth of creation, the work of the Holy Spirit, the power of the Sacraments, the right practice of Christian education, mission work, stewardship, and church fellowship. That is all part of the “gold and silver” that we need to use, because it builds up and nourishes faith. If we teach the truth and let the Gospel dominate what we teach, that truth of God will add to the number of His believers and keep those hearts of faith anchored on the Savior, Jesus Christ.
We’ve seen enough building projects to know what can happen. Sometimes there’s a conflict between the goal of a well-built structure, using the best material and the goal of cutting corners to save money. The Christian Church has experienced the same conflict when it comes to the spiritual work of the church. We are grateful that the Gospel of Christ is truly a life-giving power in other church bodies. But the people who belong to those churches and the pastors who shepherd those churches are “cutting corners.” They are not building with the high quality material that God prescribes in our text. They are failing to use the precious materials of God’s Word.
Here’s what happens in many churches around the nation and around the world. They replace the ”gold and silver” with the low-budget material: the “wood, the hay, and the straw.” It’s the material that does not last and has no value. We need to interpret the metaphor. The worthless materials would represent all the false teachings that churches promote. Not the outright denial that Christ is Lord and Savior. But certainly the other beliefs that change or subtract what God has said in His Word. It is “hay and straw” when people say that we should not baptize babies. It is “hay and straw” when churches claim that Christ will rule on earth for 1000 years at the end of time. It is “hay and straw” when churches resort to worldly gimmicks to draw people in. It is “hay and straw” when the church changes its doctrine to keep people from leaving. It is “hay and straw” if the church preaches continuous Law to keep people in line. Any false teaching or worldly gimmick or legalistic practice would be an example of “wood, hay, and straw,” because it disrupts and even reverses the good influence of the Gospel.
It’s easy to notice the problems of other people. It’s not so easy to evaluate yourself. But that is what we need to do as individual members, as congregations, and collectively as a church body. We need to examine the materials that are used to build God’s church. Is it the “gold and silver” of Bible-based truth? Or do we let the “hay” of human wisdom creep into our teaching? We pastors and teachers must continually inspect what we say from the pulpit and teach in the classroom. And so should you. You lay members are responsible for the church’s doctrine as much as the pastor is. If I build with the wrong material, shame on me. If my members allow it to happen, shame on them. God forbid that it ever happen. Obviously, we need the Lord’s help. When He guides us through His Word, we will know the truth. And the power of the Spirit that comes through the Gospel will empower us to proclaim the truth in our churches, homes, and neighborhoods.
The pressure is on. The work of the church requires daily effort, daily prayer, daily Bible study, daily repentance. We can’t be casual about the assignment God has given us. Someday the Lord will inspect His building to see if it’s “up to code.” As we build His church on the Gospel of Christ, let’s also remember this. God tells us to build with care. The work will be inspected.
Paul points to this inspection in v. 13: “Each one’s work will become clear; for the Day will declare it, because it will be revealed by fire; and the fire will test each one’s work, of what sort it is.” That statement refers mostly to the work of pastors and teachers. God will examine the ministry of every Christian shepherd and plainly reveal whether this ministry is acceptable. It’s a sobering thought. God holds the pastor accountable for everything he says and does as the shepherd of God’s flock and the representative of God Himself. God does not expect the pastor to do more than what his gifts enable him to do. But He does expect each pastor to be faithful in his duties, diligent in his work, and true to the Word. Paul says in 1 Cor. 4, “Let a man so consider us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover it is required in stewards that one be found faithful.”
God will surely inspect the faithfulness of every called minister. Paul describes it like this: “If anyone’s work which he has built on it endures, he will receive a reward. If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” Let’s stick with the word picture unfolded so far. The structure is built with various materials: gold, silver, and gems in some cases; wood, hay, and straw in others. The building is set on fire. The wood, hay, and straw burn up, while the gold, silver, and precious stones remain intact. The meaning of the symbolism is plainly this. God will judge every ministry with two possible results. The ministry that is based on false teaching and human wisdom will be rejected. But the pastor himself could still be saved, as long as he has faith in Christ. His work would be rejected, but his soul would be saved by the grace of God.
That would be a painful thing, to have your work rejected like that. I hope and pray my ministry will pass inspection. But let’s remember what we’re up against. Diligence and faithfulness are not potential results that we can perform. The potential to fail is great, because the pastor is human. The pastor is a sinful man with a sinful flesh. That shouldn’t surprise you. Human nature is human nature. We all have the same struggle with sin, pastors and members alike. We all get picked on by the devil. We all have the hell-bent unbeliever living inside us, the old Adam who competes with our faith and tries to control the way that we think and the way we act.
The threat of God’s judgment shakes you up. But the promise of God’s grace gives you hope. Yes, we must build the church with care. But we can also build with confidence. Christ is the solid Foundation on which the church will stand forever.
Over the years several pastors have served in succession at our CLC churches. One pastor did the initial groundwork. Others came later to build on top and carry on what was started. It’s tempting to think back on these men, your former pastors, and rate the work that they did. Certainly they had different gifts and personalities. But we must always look beyond the charisma or the preaching style or the temperament of the individual pastor. After all, your faith does not depend on the man in the pulpit. It depends on the Word that he proclaims. Over the years the face in the pulpit has changed, but the Gospel message has remained the same. So the final outcome of your faith and the final outcome of your congregation will never hinge on the men God sent you. We expect the Foundation to hold us up.
There will always be the need for applied wisdom, patient work, and careful effort. The Gospel is not something that we sit on. It’s a message that we preach and a message that we hear. If we use the Gospel faithfully, we can expect the faith to grow. Get the Gospel for yourself, feed on it regularly, and faith will grow in you. Bring the Gospel to your family, make it a constant part of their life, and faith will grow in them. Share the Gospel with your friend or neighbor, and faith could very well sprout in their heart too. The end result is the doing of God—a finished gathering of souls, converted and preserved by Him, anchored on the Gospel of Christ, and built to last forever.
Can you see the final stage of the building process—all the believers together with the Lord in the state of perfect glory? It will be a sight for sore eyes. With Christ as the sure foundation, with the cement of God’s Word holding us in place, with the Master Builder working in us and through us, we can surely expect our Savior to make His words come true: “On this rock I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” With care, with confidence, with quality material, let’s go and build His Church on the Rock of our Savior. Amen.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.