We live in a confused time. The world is shrinking as access to massive amounts of information from all over the world is at our fingertips. While the advance in technology has opened the door to new possibilities, it has also given a voice to the ideas of billions of people, compressing the space for the exchange of ideas. This increasingly small space adds complexity to an already pluralistic society, resulting in a hodge-podge of belief systems, a relativistic à la carte menu of ideas for people to pick and choose from as they attempt to make sense of the world they live in. Just this morning, I was listening to a DJ on a major radio station encouraging someone to “find your truth.” And don’t think for a minute that the same thing isn’t happening in the Church. As someone who consistently interacts with questions about Christianity, I often tell people that I don’t defend Christianity as much as I clarify it—clarify muddled, confused, or outright wrong ideas held by people both outside and inside the Church. If we are in an à la carte line, a healthy serving of clarity is in order.
So what do Christians believe? Most New Testament scholars believe the most primitive Christian message preserved in writing for us is found in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas,and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7)
Paul, writing his letter two decades after the resurrection, is passing on a creed he received from the Apostles, a creed that dates back to within two years of Jesus’ resurrection. Within this primitive creed are the bare essentials of Christian belief: Jesus died for sin, was buried, and rose from the dead on the third day. Here we have both atonement—the death of Jesus for the forgiveness of sin—and Jesus’ literal, physical resurrection. This is the heart of Christianity, the belief that we are sinners and that Jesus forgives our sin through his death and resurrection.
The reality of what these events mean unfolded for us over the next few decades as the four Gospels and the majority of the New Testament was written and circulated among the early Church. This stream of orthodoxy continued under intense persecution by the Roman Empire for hundreds of years until the persecution lifted and the Church was able to come together for the first time to declare with one voice what had been faithfully held (and died for) since the death and resurrection of Jesus:
“I believe in God the Father almighty, Creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose from the dead; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.”
This is commonly known as the Apostles’ Creed, a statement in creedal form that consists of contents drawn from the explicit teaching of Scripture regarding the essentials of Christianity. In it are preserved the six essential beliefs held by all Christians:
- Trinity—“God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994], 226). See the Nicene Creed (ad 325).
- Sin—Man has rebelled against God and deserves judgment.
- Deity/Humanity of Jesus—Jesus is fully God, fully man. See the Chalcedonian Creed (ad 451).
- Atonement—Jesus’ death in some way atoned (paid) for sin.
- Resurrection—Jesus literally, physically rose from the dead and is alive.
- Resolution—God will somehow make all things right, eradicating evil and restoring creation, including our bodies.
These are the essentials of Christianity, or what Richard Baxter calls “mere” Christianity. To be clear, a robust understanding of these doctrines and the ability to articulate them are not required for salvation. The only requirement for salvation is to trust in Jesus, who loves you, died for your sin, and rose again: “it is by grace you have been saved through faith . . .” (Ephesians 2:8). However, as one grows as a Christian and is presented with these doctrines, one cannot reject them. In other words, if someone says he wants to be a Christian but rejects the Trinity or the resurrection, then he cannot be a Christian. That’s like saying “I want a ham sandwich, but I don’t want bread, and I don’t want ham.” It’s no use wanting a ham sandwich if you remove the ingredients that make it a ham sandwich. In the same way, it’s no use calling yourself a Christian if you reject the ingredients that make it Christianity. There are plenty of other non-essential doctrines that Christians hold, but these core tenets are the ones that all Christians believe, regardless of denomination. That is why we call them “essentials.”
“In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” -Unknown
One last point. There is absolutely an order of priority for belief. We must start from and give priority to the essentials. The Christian faith is grounded in the historical event of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All other non-essential doctrines flow out of the center and are subsequent to it. The non-essential doctrines (or convictions, opinions, and questions) are important. Some are so important that denominational lines have been drawn over them. So be informed and hold convictions and opinions on non-essentials, but whatever you do, do not put non-essentials into the center. They do not belong there; nor can they shoulder the weight that belongs only to the one man, Jesus Christ.
Living in a pluralistic society can be confusing and frustrating. In the midst of all the noise stay rooted in Jesus. Then you will know the Truth, and he will set you free (John 8:32). For a deeper discussion of this issue, check out the webinar titled: “The Essential and Non-Essential Doctrines of Christianity,” as well as the Training Day seminar on the reliability of the Gospels and the resurrection: “Who Do You Say That I Am?”