What Must We Believe?

I fear the the encroachment of relativism and postmodernism has greatly affected the Christian message — in fact, it has undermined the very definition of Christianity. When I meet someone today and they tell me they’re a Christian, I’m sorry to report that it tells me very, very little about what they actually believe. I know people who call themselves Christians, but deny the unique deity of Christ, or deny the historicity of the resurrection, or other key doctrines I would consider “essential”. This leads to an obvious question — what does it mean to say,”I’m a Christian?” If I make that claim, what does it mean that I believe?

John Wesley is reputed to have said, “In the essentials, unity; in the non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.”. But what if we can’t agree on what the essentials are? About 10 years ago, I started teaching a lesson series called “Essential Christian Doctrines,” or ECD, with the goal of answering this very question. Many of the issues we deal with among Christians are secondary issues, those which we can discuss and debate but not divide over. This includes young-Earth versus old-Earth creation, Calvinism versus Arminianism (and Pelagianism and other variants), and basically every flavor of eschatology (end-time theology) including pre-trib, post-trib, amillennialism, premillennialism, dispensationalism, and so forth. When we boil it down to the simple question of the Centurion in Acts 16, “What must I do to be saved,” it even relegates evangelical sacred cows like inerrancy and the canon of scripture to secondary status.

So what essentials remain? The easiest way to do this is to examine what the first Christians considered essential – those beliefs that they thought and taught were necessary for salvation.
There are a number of places in Scripture where we can turn for guidance — for example, 1 Timothy 3:16. In this one verse, you have the deity of Christ, His incarnation (humanity), resurrection, and ascension. Another key passage, perhaps the most well-known on this issue, is 1 Cor 15:3 – 5. Like the verse in Timothy, this passage affirms the death, the atonement, and the resurrection. Most theologians believe that these two passages are the foundation for what later became the Apostles’ Creed. Finally, we can look at Peter’s sermon (commonly called the “Kerygma”) in Acts 10:36 – 43. This passage is perhaps the best expression of the core doctrines maintained and taught by the early church. It affirms the deity of Christ, the personality and power of the Holy Spirit, the humanity and death of Christ, His resurrection, his second coming and final judgment, and salvation by faith in Christ.

So, based on the stated beliefs and doctrines of the first Christians, we can eliminate quite a few from the “brainstorming” list above. Those that remain, those that were taught by the followers of Christ, include:

i. The Deity of Christ, the Father, and the Holy Spirit (the Trinity).
ii. The humanity of Christ (the incarnation).
iii. The death and resurrection of Christ (the substitutionary atonemtent).
iv. The sinfulness of man.
v. Salvation by grace through faith.

If you do not affirm these basic, core beliefs, then you do not fall under the minimum essentials to be called a Christian. If you believe the essential doctrines, and do not hold to others that are contradictory to these, then you can confidently and proudly proclaim that you hold to the same historic Christian faith taught by Christ and the apostles. To be sure, there is some room for discussion here…but I think this is a fair conclusion based on an examination of the relevant Scriptures and Christian history. What to you think?

7 thoughts on “What Must We Believe?

  1. Excellent post — I agree with the idea of priority and secondary status of doctrines and teachings. I find it easy to dance around these central ideas, touching on the secondary things without getting to proclaim the deity of Christ (i.e. talk about how we worship instead of who and why we worship). On the other hand, I believe “inerrancy” and “canon of scripture” do fall into essential doctrines. Scripture is where we understand what we regard as Christ’s deity, our sinful condition, and grace through faith salvation. Those ideas are from the Bible and if we fall to protect the Word from violence and distortion — those other essential doctrines are left for easy attack as well. Second, Paul, in his 1 Corinthians 15 hymn, repeats the phrase “according to Scripture”, emphasizing a need to understand that all that has happened as been according to God’s Word. It is agreed that major doctrines need to be major and minor minor — but we need to insure the right majors are majored on. Scripture, giving us a firm place to plant our feet, keeps us from blowing like chaff in the winds of post-modernism and relativism.
    Great post — these thoughts are a reflection of the way you stir critical questions. Good read!

  2. Thanks again for the post, J-C. This is admittedly one that I’ve struggled with — and I agree with almost everything you’ve said. However, would you agree that there are many, many Christians — who who have been saved by the sacrifice of Christ — who have never seen, touched, or read a Bible? I think the ideas of canon and inerrancy are very “Westernized” (for lack of a better term) doctrinal concepts…I suspect there are many foreign missionaries who would readily tell you that they have led many people to saving faith in Christ with no discussion of inerrancy or canon. Also, if we are to hold to our doctrine of canon (which books belong in the Bible), then we are going to be immediately faced with the fact that there were many saved under the New Covenant — most during the first few centuries — who were saved before the canon was complete or closed. Finally would we say that denial of the canon is sufficient to deny salvation? For example, if I were to question/deny the canonicity of Hebrews due to our uncertainty about authorship, would you then say that I am not a Christian or not saved? I think that’s a tough position to defend. I believe in canonicity and inerrancy, but I think they logically follow a saving faith in Christ — not precede it. Just a few more points to think about…great discussion! Thanks!

  3. Hey Mike,
    Do you believe the Trinity is an essential or just the Deity of Christ. There are different views on the Trinity that I would still think fall within the Salvation camp. TD Jakes is one that is known for an alternative view on the Trinity. I’m certainly not a follower of Jakes but I wouldn’t say he’s not saved. I’m just a little confused on whether the Trinity is essential.

    • Hey Aaron,
      Yes, I think there is little question — in my mind and Biblically — that the Trinity is an essential. It’s the very first essential I mention in this blog. The trinity isn’t specifically mentioned in scripture, but the overall doctrine is very clear in my view.
      1. God the Father is God.
      2. Jesus is God.
      3. The Holy Spirit is God.
      4. The three are co-equal, co-eternal.
      5. There is one God.
      While the doctrine of the trinity isn’t specifically mentioned, each of these five points is clear in Scripture. For more on the topic, see the book, “The Forgotten Trinity” by James R. White.
      T.D. Jakes is another story. I may blog on him at another time, but he has more problems than just a possible denial of the trinity. He is a modalist, which is a common misrepresentation of the trinity, but he also flirts with word-of-faith doctrines and the prosperity gospel. Clear-thinking Christians should be VERY careful with T.D. Jakes.

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