Quintessential Christianity

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Sam Storms:

“Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).

Define “Christian”. What does it mean? Shift your mind out of neutral for just a moment and think. What is the essence of Christianity? When the secondary issues are set aside, when the extra baggage is eliminated, when all the superficial junk so often associated with Christianity is done away, what is left? What does it mean to be a Christian? Define it in the purest, simplest, most basic and foundational terms.

I suspect that if we actually did that and you each turned in your answer on a piece of paper, we’d have an incredibly enlightening experience reading them aloud. More than enlightening, it might even in some cases prove shocking.

I ask this question of you simply because I believe Peter provides an answer in the passage before us. I have a theory about v. 8 of 1 Peter 1. I believe that what is being described here is quintessential Christianity. Don’t you just love that word: quintessential! Love it? Sam, I don’t even know how to spell it!

If you look it up in a dictionary, quintessential means “the pure and concentrated essence of a substance,” or “the most perfect embodiment of something.” So, what is quintessential Christianity?

Going to church? Tithing? Not getting drunk? Being baptized? Praying? Is that the purest and most concentrated essence of Christianity? Is that “the most perfect embodiment” of what it is to be a Christian? I certainly hope not. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, but there has to be something more basic and fundamental in being a Christian.

And Peter tells us what it is, right here in v. 8. Now, why do I say that? Where do I get off making such a grandiose claim? My justification for making this claim is the context in which v. 8 is found, more precisely, vv. 6-7. Let me explain.

The recipients of this epistle were enduring “various trials” (v. 6): persecution, oppression, slander, and affliction. One need only glance at 1 Peter 1:6; 2:20-21; 3:17; and especially 4:12-18 to see this is true. He makes it clear here in chapter one that our ability to rejoice simultaneously with the anguish of trials and troubles is based on several things.

Peter first reminds his readers of the duration of trials and suffering. He says in v. 6 that they are “for a little while.” In other words, they are temporary, not eternal. Trials and pain will pass. No matter how bad it gets here on earth (and yes, it can get incredibly bad), one day it will give way to the glory and pleasure of heaven (see 2 Corinthians 4:16-18). Knowing the duration of trials and suffering gives us strength to endure without taking offence at God.

He then points, secondly, to the design of trials. In v. 7 he says that suffering works to purify our faith. His point is that God never wastes pain, and therefore neither should we. The trials and tribulations of this life serve to sanctify us and to conform us to the image of Jesus himself. 1 Peter 1:7 thus reminds me of two verses in Psalm 119.

“Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word” (119:67).

“It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes” (119:71).

Such experiences have a unique capacity to highlight the differences between what is true and sincere in the heart of a person as over against what is false and hypocritical. They cause the genuine beauty of true spirituality to appear more clearly. Do you not find it to be true that when you suffer you either become embittered toward God or press into his heart more fervently? In other words, it’s really hard to be a hypocrite when you are hurting. Pain and suffering and hardship tend to expose the true state of your soul. They expose your heart and its affections and your faith for what they really are.

A close look at v. 7 indicates that Peter wants us to envision the parallels between the effect of fire on gold and that of trials on faith. His point is that just as fire burns away the dross and alloy from gold, leaving it pure and solid, so also the flames of trials and tests and oppression burn away the dross of our faith. Hypocrisy and superficiality and self-confidence and pride and reliance on money and achievement do not easily survive the flames of persecution and tribulation (see Psalm 66:10; Malachi 3:3; Isaiah 48:10).

If we follow the logic of Peter’s thought in vv. 6-7 we discover that v. 8 describes what is left of Christian faith that has passed through the furnace of afflictions. In other words, v. 8 is Peter’s portrayal of the end product of persecution and pain. This is Christian experience in its purest and most pristine form. This is quintessential faith, first-rate faith, faith that is as free as it can be, this side of heaven, of sinful additives and preservatives! Peter has no illusions of perfection, but he does envision a relationship with Jesus absent the peripheral elements. This, says Peter, is the very essence of authentic Christianity.

Let me illustrate what Peter means. Formulate a mental picture of a solid block of granite, untouched by human hands. When a master sculptor approaches such an object, he takes hammer and chisel and, in effect, begins to chip away everything that doesn’t look like a human. He cuts, hammers, and pounds away until the finished product stands before us in all its glory. In a sense, that’s what God does with us through our trials and oppressive circumstances. He uses them like a spiritual hammer and chisel to chip away from our lives everything that doesn’t look like Jesus! The result is what Peter describes in 1 Peter 1:8.

Or consider the athlete who fails to maintain a strict training regimen. He becomes a couch-potato, eating and drinking and refusing to exercise. Over time his muscles suffer from atrophy. He gains excessive weight. His reflexes aren’t as sharp as they used to be and his lung capacity is greatly reduced. When he runs (if he ever gets off the couch), his legs feel heavy and lifeless. Then he recommits himself to a rigorous exercise program. Over the next few weeks he burns away body fat and strengthens his muscles. His endurance level increases and he returns to his former shape. The result is a finely honed body, ready for competition. The physical effect of exercise on his body is analogous to the spiritual effect of trials on our faith.

So what am I saying? Simply that 1 Peter 1:8 portrays for us what Christian faith looks like when refined and shaped and purified by the fire of hardship and tribulation. Here is Christian faith in its preeminent expression. And of what does it consist?

What is quintessential Christianity? Loving Jesus. Trusting Jesus. Enjoying Jesus.

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I am currently serving churches and colleges as a bible teacher, overseas and in the UK.

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