Summary: Though saved by grace through faith, our work does matter.
Do you want to know what scares me? You have seen scenarios in a movie or TV show where someone is causing mischief, not knowing that he is being observed by others about to administer retribution. You want to yell out, “Look behind you!” knowing the terrible punishment hanging over him. That is how I feel for ministers and church leaders who are breaking up their churches or leading their flocks astray. I feel that way because of this passage.
If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.
This verse bothers me. Why? It is this matter of reward. Paul is mostly likely thinking of what he said in verse 8: He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. That verse is even more problematic because it infers that church leaders, and perhaps all Christians, are earning what is their due from God.
So, what is wrong with that? Doesn’t God pay each person what he deserves? Aren’t we suppose to do good so we can receive God’s blessing? No! If there is one thought that I have tried to impress upon you over the years, it is that we are saved by grace and we live by grace. We do not work to receive God’s favor for salvation, nor are we to work thinking it is necessary to retain his favorable opinion of us, and certainly we do not work to get ahead of others.
Scripture is clear about this. The most well known is Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
As the Jerusalem church council debated the issue of requiring Gentiles to observe the Jewish laws, Peter settled the matter by declaring, “we [Jewish believers] believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [Gentile believers] will” (Acts 15:11).
For there is no distinction: [Paul contends, regarding Jews and Gentiles in Romans] for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 3:22-24).
God, by his grace, grants salvation and his blessing to whomever he wills. Recall Jesus’ parable about the laborers in the vineyard. In the story a man hires laborers throughout the day to work in his field. Some are hired early in the morning and some near the end of the day. When it comes time for pay, he gives the same amount to each. Upon complaint he responds, “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?” (Matthew 20:15). Jesus’ point is that we are not to think in terms of getting more than others from God. The kingdom of God does not play by the world’s rules of competition. Whatever blessing we receive from God comes by his grace and not by what we have merited.
If there is anything I want you to break free of, it is the notion that we must work to earn God’s favor – whether it be the work of doing good deeds or the work of following the moral law. Here, though, is Paul letting me know in verse 14 that I can expect reward if I do a good job building the church, and, by the way, don’t forget to collect my wages spoken of in verse 8.
Am I earning wages? Am I collecting bonus points to win rewards for my work? Yes and no. I will receive wages or reward, but I am not earning them in the sense that I earn wages from this church. Faith Church hired me to carry out the work of preaching and pastoring the congregation. The church did so because it thought that I possessed the necessary qualifications to fulfill the job satisfactorily. We agreed that I would be paid wages for that work. Thus, as long as I faithfully carry out my end of the bargain, the church is obligated to pay me for what we agreed was fair. The church, furthermore, pays me after I have worked. It does not give me a check before the work time period, but after. The result is that Faith, until the paycheck is received, becomes indebted to me. Faith Church owes me my due.
In the kingdom of God, the system is different. In that sphere, God has appointed me to carry out the work of preaching and pastoring this particular congregation. He made no agreement with me. He merely appointed me to do what he wanted done. As for qualifications, he knew that I had none. Such matters are irrelevant to him, because he gives to his servants what is needed to their work. Though God did not consult me, though I know that he is not impressed with my qualifications, though I know that there is never a time in which he is indebted to me, I nevertheless am quite pleased to do this work. I am well aware that to serve the King of the Universe in whatever capacity is a high privilege. Understanding that the great King has paid the costliest price for my salvation makes my service all the more wondrous to me. And then to give me through the Holy Spirit all I need to serve him ably, I become amazed at his generosity. It would never occur to me at the end of a week to ask God to pay up, especially knowing that if God were to pay me fair wages he would sue me for damages rather than dole out cash.