All Christians deal with a tension: the joy of our secure salvation and the grievous nature of various trials. 1st century Christians are no different than we are today. After encouraging his audience to rejoice in the certainty and future glory of our inheritance, Peter now addresses the reality of suffering in the Christian life
In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith – more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire – may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you do not now see Him, you believe in Him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. 1 Peter 1:6-9
Peter is now addressing the common situation of all believers: how should believers interpret their various trials? Should they simply tolerate it or should they rejoice in it? Peter acknowledges that the joy of our salvation is also mixed with grief because of our trials. As modern readers, it’s tempting to simply read through this passage and attribute every problem that we have as a testing of our faith. However, to truly understand the encouragement of this passage, we need to address two basic questions: What is the biblical definition of faith and what is the biblical definition of trials? Understanding these two basic points will shed light on this passage.
A Proper Understanding of Faith and Trials
What would be the apostolic definition of faith? If we would impose our 21st century understanding onto this passage, we would say that faith is simply a strong trust and belief in God. While that may be a starting point to discuss faith, this is an incomplete definition of faith. The New Testament distinguishes between saving faith and mere intellectual assent. The apostle James describes this as dead, ineffectual faith that even condemned demons have (cf. James 2:14-26).
There are three essential elements of true saving faith: knowledge, assent, and trust. First, faith contains the concept of knowledge, which is the intelligible aspect of faith. This is the objective nature of faith based on an accurate knowledge of God. Without the proper knowledge, our faith will be nothing better than wishful thinking or even idolatry. Second, faith has an emotional aspect to it, where the person acknowledges that the knowledge of God is true. Without the proper emotional assent, our faith will simply be an academic exercise, divorced from our actual experience. Third, faith contains the concept of trust, which is the volitional aspect of faith. Trust is the change of disposition in the heart of each person who places his confidence in God. If the faith in God that we profess doesn’t produce godliness and corresponding action, then our faith is illegitimate and dead. Without trust or confidence in God, there is no salvation.
True saving faith, as defined by the apostles, is intellectual, emotional, and volitional in nature; it must be based on a proper knowledge of God and must be transformative in nature. This is why true saving faith cannot be manufactured by man in his fallen state, but it must be granted as a gift of God’s grace (cf. Ephesians 2:8-9). True saving faith cannot be divorced from the work of the Holy Spirit, Who transforms our heart through regeneration. Without regeneration, we will have an illegitimate faith that will eventually fade away over time. Simply stated, a living, saving faith cannot arise from a dead soul. (This excerpt from Martin Luther on the nature of true saving faith summarizes these points).
Having a proper definition of faith, we can now give a Biblical definition of trials. Again, if we would impose our 21st century understanding onto this passage, we would say that a trial is any type of difficulty that is encountered by a Christian. In my view, there are three basic reasons why Christians endure hardships. The first reason is due to the fall and its radical effect on mankind. Because we live in a fallen world, there will be much grief and difficulty in the world that is unavoidable. Because of the sinfulness of man, we can expect that there will be quarrels, conflict, and great evil in the world, regardless if we are Christian (cf. James 4:1-2). The second reason is due to our own decisions. There is a degree of hardship due to unwise decisions that we currently made or sins that we committed when we were unconverted. When we come to Christ, He immediately wipes away the guilt associated with our sins, but that does not necessarily imply that He immediately wipes away the consequences or results of those sins. Our trials are not necessarily due to opposition from Satan, but many are simply due to poor decisions that we have to suffer through. The third reason is due solely by our confession of faith in Christ. There are trials that we endure because of our faith in Christ and we know that if we simply turn away from our confession, then we could eliminate these trials. Herein lies our temptation – life is hard enough with the various trials that we have to endure simply because of the sinfulness of man. Is the heavenly inheritance that we will receive worth enough to endure this type of trial? This is what Peter is ultimately addressing.
Lessons in Trials
In this passage, Peter defines a trial as a test that challenges and proves our faith. Just as Jesus was tested in wilderness (cf. Matthew 4:1-13), so believers are tested. This means that these tests are meant to produce a positive outcome, i.e. these trials are meant to prove to us that we possess true saving faith. Here, we begin to see Peter introduce two points of assurance for the believer: the objective work of Christ in salvation in securing our inheritance (cf. 1 Peter 1:3-5) and the subjective work of God in revealing and purifying our saving faith. Based on this passage, we can learn three basic points concerning our various trials. First, trials are necessary. These sufferings for the sake of our faith are God’s will for us. This means that these trials are unavoidable if we intend to continue growing in the grace and knowledge of Christ. In all areas of life, we tend to remain stagnant unless we are constantly being challenged. This is especially true for our spiritual development. The primary tool that God uses in our sanctification is our trials. Consider the words of James
Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith, produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing. James 1:2-3
This point is also expanded by Paul
… we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. Romans 5:2-5
Peter states that trials purify and enhance our faith, in the same way that gold is refined by fire. Fire is not applied to gold in an attempt to destroy it, but it is used to make the gold more radiant and more pure. Similarly, when we observe the fruit that comes from our trials, it increases our assurance in God since we know that we have received genuine faith from the Lord. We also know that our trials, though they are grievous, actually increases our faith. When we cry out to God just as the apostles “Lord, increase our faith!”, this is the answer to our prayers. In our trials, God increases our faith and proves our faith to us. This is the wisdom of God through sanctification – He doesn’t simply declare and impart the fruits of sanctification in the same way as in justification. Rather, through our striving in trials, He imparts His rich grace to us, assuring us before Him.
The second basic lesson that we can learn from our trials is that they are temporary. Even though we understand the value of enduring our trials, the reality is that there is much grief associated with our trials. It would be an unbearable reality if our suffering extended beyond our earthly life into eternity. Here, we see the encouragement of Peter to remind us that in comparison to eternity, our trials are only for a little while. This point is emphasized in various places throughout the scriptures, but Paul gives a good summary
The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs – heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with Him in order that we may also be glorified with Him. For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. Romans 8:17-18
The riches of our inheritance in Christ and the future glory (i.e. the full redemption of our bodies) all serve as a reminder to properly consider our earthly trials. They create great distress to us, but they are temporary in scope and thus produce great hope. Our current pain serves as a reminder that the glory of our redemption is far greater than our temporary pains. Here, we can look to Christ as our example and address our trials in the same manner. For the joy set before Him in glory, He endured the temporary agony of the cross (cf. Hebrews 12:2). Similarly, for the joy set before us in our full redemption, we endure the suffering of carrying our cross.
The third basic lesson that we can learn from our trials is that they come in various types. This personally serves as an encouragement to me because it prevents me from comparing myself with other Christians. Peter’s original audience was not a monolithic group; this implies that the trials that they endured were not monolithic in nature. Undoubtedly, some Christians dealt with more difficulties than others and dealt with different types of issues. Peter doesn’t necessarily address the concern of each individual Christian, but gives a blanket description of “various trials”. The point here is not to measure one’s trial against another, but to realize that all Christians are enduring various types of trials. Christians can be confident that their personal trials are part of God’s work of sanctification because God knows how to produce fruit in His children. They do not have to worry about whether or not they are “suffering enough” for Christ because these trials are given to us by Christ, not ourselves.
The Outcome of our Faith
Peter describes the overall outcome of our trials by stating that the tested genuineness of our faith should result in praise, glory, and honor at the revelation of Christ Jesus. Even though our trials bring distress, the proof of our faith has a great reward because honor and praise will belong both to Christians and to Christ. This will be a time of great joy, but Peter states that even in our current grief, we can have great joy. This is the work of saving faith in our life. Because we are absolutely convinced of our future and because we are absolutely persuaded of the living hope that has been implanted in us, we have great joy within us presently. Yet, we still know that the joy that we have here on earth is only a foretaste (and firstfruit) of the true everlasting joy that will be revealed. In this way, we rejoice with “joy that is inexpressible and full of glory”. This joy is not based on our current circumstances, but it’s a joy that is brought to us by the Holy Spirit. It’s a joy made possible by the ongoing work of Christ. As we joyfully anticipate this future joy in our full redemption while striving through our trials, we know with certainty that we will obtain the outcome and end product of our faith – full and complete salvation. This is salvation from the full guilt of our sin, the full power of our sin, and even the mere presence of sin. This is the source of true joy.
Even as I write this, I see the standard and experience that Peter has described, and I’ve noticed that many Christians (including myself) don’t live with this overflowing joy. Rather, our experiential joy seems to be too firmly connected to our earthly circumstances. We have great highs associated with great sermons and great memories, but then we have great lows associated with various difficulties in this life. Even though this is a relatively common experience for many, it does not have to be. I thank God for making my smooth life much more difficult because it has stabilized these highs and lows and has given me persistent, increasing joy. We have a sure hope in Christ and it’s my prayer that we grow in the joy of the Holy Spirit that we can have during our earthly trials.