WHAT IS THE FIRE AT THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST?
by Shawn Brasseaux
Turning to 1 Corinthians chapter 3, we read: “ For we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building.  According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon.  For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.  Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;  Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.  If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.  If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.”
What is this “fire?” Why is it needed? “For what saith the Scriptures?”
WHAT IS “THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST?”
Before addressing the fire aspect, a few cursory remarks must be made. After the Rapture, God the Son (Jesus Christ) will review the service of all members of the Church the Body of Christ at a special event in Heaven. The above verses are one of three primary Bible passages that deal with this subject. Romans 14:10-12 uses the term “the judgment seat of Christ” to describe this time when “every one of us [Christians] shall give account of himself to God.” Second Corinthians chapter 5 adds further details: “ Wherefore we labour, that, whether present or absent, we may be accepted of him.  For we [Christians] must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.”
The idea here is not how busy we were in doing religious works. It is not about how often we performed the sins of the flesh either. Second Corinthians 5:10 says that evaluation concerns what we Christians did “in” (not “by”) our body. What we did “in” our physical body is the type of doctrine we believed, or what information we stored in our soul (“inner man”). Why did we engage in our specific earthly behaviors? What motivated us to serve Jesus Christ on Earth? Was it good doctrine (symbolized by gold, silver, and precious stones)? Or, was it bad doctrine (represented by wood, hay, and stubble)? How much of each quality? To what extent did we apply by faith Pauline truth to our earthly life? That will result in a reward. To what extent did we allow false teaching to defile us? That will bring about a loss of reward.
With the above in mind, we turn back to 1 Corinthians chapter 3: “ Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;  Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.  If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.  If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” Friend, draw your attention to the “fire” in verses 13 and 15. It burns the Christian’s work. Yet, strangely, that “fire” also “saves” the believer in Christ (verse 15). What exactly is going on here? We will get to that shortly. For now, we must present additional points for further elucidation.
Colossians 3:23-25 tells us: “ And whatsoever ye do, do it heartily, as to the Lord, and not unto men;  Knowing that of the Lord ye shall receive the reward of the inheritance: for ye serve the Lord Christ.  But he that doeth wrong shall receive for the wrong which he hath done: and there is no respect of persons.” All members of the Body of Christ will inherit and share in Christ’s authority in the heavenly places: the inheritance is the heavenly places (see Ephesians 1:10-11). However, some believers will have limited participation. The “reward of the inheritance” (Colossians 3:24) is the role the believer will play in the heavenly places. As in earthly governments, there are various ranks or positions in heaven’s governments. Ephesians 1:21 and Colossians 1:16 speak of “thrones,” “dominions” “principalities,” “powers,” “mights,” and “every name that is named.” These are offices in which beings (angels in Heaven and humans on Earth) function as rulers.
The specific rank, office, or role we hold/play is the “reward” bestowed to each Christian at the conclusion of the Judgment Seat of Christ. This reward is contingent upon the type or quality of doctrine we put into our soul on Earth. We will “receive for the wrong” (Colossians 3:25)—that is, suffer a penalty for bad doctrine. The penalty is a loss of reward, our reigning with Christ limited (had we not had that bad doctrine inside us, our reigning would have been more influential). Again, the inheritance is going to Heaven (free gift because of Jesus Christ’s finished crosswork). However, the reward of the inheritance is based on our Christian service, and that reward is the position we will hold and serve in within Heaven’s governments. The Judgment Seat of Christ is the review of all our Christian service (what we did since we first trusted Christ).
THE “FIRE” AT THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST
Warped by Roman Catholic religious tradition, and the speculations of (unsaved) heathen, people have appealed to the “fire” verses in 1 Corinthians chapter 3 as “proof texts” for “purgatory.” Purgatory is the place in the afterlife where religious souls supposedly go to “atone” for their sins that were not taken care of on Earth. That tormenting fire is designed to purge the soul of any lingering sin, thereby purifying it and qualifying it to enter Heaven and God’s presence. As per church tradition, once the person suffers for all his or her remaining sins (the duration of that purgatorial punishment is unknown—perhaps millions of years!), God’s wrath is satisfied, and heaven’s gates are finally opened. While a simplistic explanation, it provides you with a glimpse of the minds of Roman Catholics. Is this what 1 Corinthians chapter 3 is saying?
Friends, let it be perfectly clear that 1 Corinthians chapter 3 has nothing whatsoever to do with purgatory. Let me be completely honest. Purgatory is a myth, a lie designed to generate funds for Rome’s coffers. It is nothing but idle speculation and pagan superstition. Purgatory is certainly unscriptural: there is not one hint of purgatory in the Bible. While the Roman Church has attempted to insert into the Scriptures apocryphal books (which speak of purgatory—namely, 2 Maccabees), those writings are false, uninspired, forged, and contradictory. The blood of Jesus Christ is all-sufficient, friends. Either it does cleanse us of all sins apart from our works or it is not enough to cleanse us apart from our works. If the blood of Jesus Christ cannot cleanse a soul of sins, what can that weak soul do in purgatory to accomplish what Christ failed to do on Calvary? Nothing!
While we are on the point of purgatory, there is yet another misconception to be cleared up here. Scripture is not saying in 1 Corinthians 3:13-15 that a person’s soul passes through a fire (that would be a “purgatory” explanation someone is struggling to force onto the Bible text). No, Holy Writ says the “work” passes through the fire. Moreover, the soul is not consumed or burned. The “work” is burned. This is how we know yet again that this passage is not about purgatory.
Re-reading 1 Corinthians chapter 3: “ Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble;  Every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is.  If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward.  If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire.” Did you see that, friend? Take special care to note that the burning is of the “work” not the soul!
So, if not purgatory (which is actually the flames of Hell!), then what is the “fire” of 1 Corinthians 3:13-15? Speculation aside, and religious tradition aside, we let Scripture explain itself. Here are two helpful verses that interpret this passage for us. Whenever we come across puzzling passages, we need to find other verses for further insight. In Revelation 19:12, we read of the Lord Jesus returning at His Second Coming: “His eyes were as a flame of fire, and on his head were many crowns; and he had a name written, that no man knew, but he himself” (cf. Revelation 1:14). Jeremiah 23:29 says: “Is not my word like as a fire? saith the LORD; and like a hammer that breaketh the rock in pieces?” We see that Christ’s eyes are “as a flame of fire.” We see that God’s Word is likened unto a “fire” and a “hammer.” With its identity now revealed by other verses, how will the “fire” of 1 Corinthians chapter 3 “save” the Christian?
HOW THE FIRE “SAVES” AT THE JUDGMENT SEAT OF CHRIST
“If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss: but he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire” (1 Corinthians 3:15). Once again, friend, it is of utmost importance that we present more clarifications before we delve back into this verse.
The word “save” in the Bible does not always mean soul salvation from sins and Hell. The “salvation” in 1 Corinthians 3:15 is not salvation into Heaven (fire cannot accomplish that). It is rather a deliverance from the pollution of doctrinal error. (The same idea is found in 1 Corinthians 5:5, which also refers to the Judgment Seat of Christ: “To deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.”) The Christian soul containing wood, hay, and stubble (which will be in every Christian soul) needs to be cleansed of false doctrine. In order to function for God’s glory in heaven to the maximum, any doctrine that defiles must be removed from the soul. Again, this is not cleansing from sin, as the Roman Catholics claim. Christ’s shed blood already washed all of our sins away (if there were even one sin to our account, we would never enter Heaven!). The goal here—the point of the Judgment Seat of Christ—is internal doctrinal purity.
Just so we remember what soul salvation from Hell is all about, we have to briefly review. Romans chapter 3: “ For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;  Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:  Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;  To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus.  Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith.  Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.”
And Romans chapter 4: “ What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found?  For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God.  For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness.  Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt.  But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.  Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works,  Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered.  Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.”
Scripture says in Romans 4:8 that God will not “impute” (apply) sin to those who are in Christ (and they got in Christ, not by working, but only by trusting what He did for them at Calvary!). For someone to wind up in purgatory’s flames with sins applied to their account means “purgatory” is actually Hell (!)… and in Hell sins are never, ever paid for! See, friends, purgatory does not fit Pauline doctrine. Again, there is no purgatory in 1 Corinthians chapter 3. That is a figment of someone’s imagination, promoted by a denomination attempting to insert its tenets into the Bible and doing damage to God’s written Word. First Corinthians 3:12-15 is all about the Judgment Seat of Christ, what Christians did—it has nothing to do with justifying people so they go to Heaven!
We will now summarize by concluding.
Combining everything that has been presented, dear friend, the following portrait concerning the Judgment Seat of Christ is now set before us:
Jesus Christ will take the Word of God—especially the Pauline epistles, Romans through Philemon—and, with His penetrating eyes, He will look into our soul. The Lord will make comparisons and contrasts. The standard of sound doctrine is the Pauline revelation, or, to take it a step further, all of the Bible considered in light of Pauline revelation. Jesus Christ will place a value, a determination of the sort or quality, on the doctrine that He sees in our inner man. The higher the value of the doctrine in our soul, the more the valuable doctrine, the more qualified we are to serve within the heavenly places for His glory.
Now, make no mistake, every Christian will inherit and share in Christ’s authority in the heavenly places. However, the specific role we play, what position or rank we have, is contingent upon our familiarity with the grace doctrines (Paul’s epistles). Those doctrines are designed to be proclaimed and lived in God’s heavenly kingdom. Anything and everything that fails to properly align with Pauline revelation—church tradition, non-rightly divided Scripture (Israel’s earthly verses), opinions, hunches, superstitions, et cetera—will be consumed and profit us nothing. It is information that will not glorify Jesus Christ in the heavenly places, so it is removed from our soul.
The soul, already redeemed from sin because of faith in Christ, is now purified of defiling doctrines. Upon exiting the Judgment Seat of Christ, the Christian soul is free from all erroneous information and all worthless “education.” The Christian is installed in his or her heavenly governmental office, a grown child in the family of God, ready to serve the Lord Jesus Christ throughout the endless ages to come!
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