Photo Cred: The Four Posts of Avila, Spain (1566) by Francisco de Arellano
Through the years of Christian development and especially in recent times, there has been a dwindling of understanding concerning what exactly makes someone a follower of Christ. What is a Christian really? What does someone need to believe and do in order to adopt such a distinct worldview like Christianity? What separates a Christian from a Muslim or a Mormon? With all of these questions in mind, let us look at what others have laid out as the absolutely essential tenets of Christianity and see if it is a biblical understanding of what makes someone a Christian and others non-Christian.
Most sources you find will list out 5 to 7 essentials that must be affirmed in order to be a Christian. For instance, gotquestions.org says that there are 7 Essentials (1), yet the Gospel Coalition has up to 20 Essentials (2)! Specifically, 10 Essential beliefs and 10 Essential behaviors as written by Kevin DeYoung, respectfully. But are there truly this many Essentials or are we misunderstanding what an Essential actually is in Judeo-Christianity? I think we should start by identifying what an Essential is before pinpointing how many Essentials there are and what they actually entail.
An Essential is a fundamental core value, whether a deed or doctrine, that if removed from the other fundamental core values of any given belief system, would completely cause that belief system to collapse entirely. Islam, for example, has the 5 Pillars of Islam (3) that indicate the basic tenets of the faith that make someone a Muslim as they are the Islamic Essentials. These 5 Pillars of Islam include the Shahada (Profession of Faith), the Salat (Daily Five Prayers), the Zakat (Giving of Alms), the Saum (Fasting of Ramadan), and the Hajj (Pilgrimage to Mecca). If a Muslim does not affirm the Shahada, the other 4 Pillars are useless. If a Muslim does not affirm all 5 Pillars, then their Islamic belief should be called into question for either heresy or ignorance.
Now can or does Christianity have a small list of criteria that distinguishes Christians from other belief systems? Yes and for Christians there are even less Essentials than Islam. In fact, I would argue that Christianity has only 4 Essentials. Not 5 Essentials, not 7 Essentials, and certainly not 20 Essentials. These 4 Essentials are the Nature of God, the Hypostatic Union of Christ, the Gospel, and the Inspiration of Scripture. Let me explain each one individually in further detail below and show why there are only 4 Essentials at the root of Christianity. I refer to them as the “Four Cornerstones of Christianity,” but we will stick to the Christian Essentials for simplicity sake. First of the Christian Essentials is the nature of God.
1) The Nature of God
The nature of God is comprised of 2 unique doctrines: Monotheism and Trinitarianism. The belief of Monotheism affirms God’s unique oneness and the idea that there is only one God (4), while Trinitarianism affirms God’s tri-unity as three persons, yet one being (5). As Dr. Michael Brown would put it, God is “complex in His unity” (6) and this truth is best known as the doctrine of the Trinity. Now the Christian Essential regarding the nature of God also includes His divine attributes as He is omnibenevolent (all-loving), omnipotent (all-powerful), omnipresent (all-enveloping), and omniscient (all-knowing). To be more precise, God is uncaused, eternal, immaterial, non-contingent, non-physical, and personal. I believe St. Anselm of Canterbury sums up God’s divine essence best when he concludes in his Ontological Argument the following:
“Therefore, if that than which nothing greater can be conceived exists in the understanding alone, the very being than which nothing greater can be conceived is one than which a greater can be conceived. But obviously this is impossible. Hence there is no doubt that there exists a being than which nothing greater can be conceived, and it exists both in the understanding and in reality” (7).
Suffice to say, we Christians believe God to be indescribable in His grand majesty that is beyond human comprehension, yet He is near to all who seek Him with sincere hearts. He is the one, true, triune God and His presence is even still so near to our souls in this life, along with the life to come one day for all who seek His face. But how does God, of such glorious splendor and goodness, interact with His Creation? How could a deity bridge the gap between finite minds and His infinite mind? Well, that leads us to the second Christian Essential: the Hypostatic Union of Christ.
2) The Hypostatic Union of Christ
The hypostatic union of Christ is similarly divided into 2 distinct sub-Essentials: that Jesus is both fully God (8) and fully man (9). Hypostatic originally means “personal,” so the hypostatic union of Christ really means the personal union of Christ. In this case, the personal union of two natures within the person that is Jesus.
At certain points in time (10), Jesus adopted a second nature, a human nature, with the sole purpose of bridging this gap between Creator and Creation. As the ultimate mediator, Jesus inhabits the best of these two natures. He is both the only good God and the only sinless man. He is the mediating messiah who has taken the task of healing the world from the sin in the Garden of Eden and is, at the same time, the ultimate human ambassador for the holy Godhead (11).
If His deity is denied, then you find yourself aligned with cults that deviated from Judeo-Christianity like the Latter Day Saints, Jehovah Witnesses, and large portions of the Church of God Movement. These cults most likely came from early historical heresies like adoptionism, arianism, nestorianism, and the like. If His humanity is denied, then you find yourself conforming to some heretical views such as docetism, apollinarianism, eutychianism, and so forth misunderstandings about the Hypostatic Union (12). Needless to say, Scripture is quite clear that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
If Jesus was not fully man, then He could not be the unblemished sacrifice that atoned for the sins of the world. If Jesus was not fully God, then He could not be the Messiah that the Old Testament proclaims will enter the world and save it from itself. Jesus fully inhabits both natures and if we do not believe this Essential truth, then Christianity collapses as a worldview. Jesus is one person with two different natures that are in complete harmony. These two natures are not contradictory, but complementary. Understanding the God-man is the second Essential of Christianity and the next Essential is the Gospel.
3) The Gospel
The Gospel is grounded both in the historical reliability of the physical resurrection of Jesus from the dead back to life (13), along with the theological understanding that salvation is by God’s grace, not of works, and because of Christ’s atonement on the Cross (14). We will first observe the biblical and theological side of the Gospel, before going into the historicity of the resurrection of Jesus as it is the definitive Christian foundation of our faith.
Now there are many quick ways to understand the Gospel, so we will observe the two most common explanations that reveal what the Gospel message is and why it is an Essential in Christianity. When it comes to understanding the message of the Gospel, Scripture paints the best picture. The most common Scriptural guide in understanding the Gospel is the infamous “Romans Road.” The “Romans Road” goes as follows:
The Romans Road
- Romans 3:23 (Everyone has sinned and are fallen)
- Romans 6:23b (Sin leads to death and therefore everyone who has sinned will die)
- Romans 5:8 (God gives grace and Jesus pays our sin debt)
- Romans 10:9 (Salvation to all who confess that Jesus is LORD and believe that God raised Him from the dead)
- Romans 10:13 (Whoever calls on the LORD will be saved)
- Romans 5:1 (We are justified by faith and now have peace with God)
- Romans 8:1 (We are no longer condemned to Hell for our sin)
- Romans 8:38-39 (Nothing can remove this seal of salvation and our salvation is sealed by the love of God)
Now the “Romans Road” is a great resource to use in evangelistic settings, which many believers do, but not all of us can memorize or remember that many passages of Scripture on the spot. So, how do we Christians explain the Gospel in a shorter and more straightforward way? Well, here is the other way to explain the Gospel that summarizes the truths of Scripture in a briefer way:
The 4-Point Gospel Message
- Creation: God created everything, including us, and it was good.
- Condemnation: Adam sinned and we inherit his sin debt now that everything is bad.
- Propitiation: Jesus atoned and paid our sin debt, making those that repent and believe free from the condemnation.
- Salvation: We receive new life in Christ and enjoy living for the LORD now until forever.
Because the Gospel in it’s biblical and theological sense is so simple to comprehend, as it should be, we will move onto the historicity of the resurrection since it carries so much weight in the defense of Christian thought. For another Scriptural explanation of the Gospel in the form of a video, I would refer you to David Wood’s great YouTube video on “What is the Gospel?” (15). Bottom line: when it comes to the Gospel, keep it Scriptural and simple. That’s what Jesus did and that’s we, His followers, will continue to do until the end of the age.
As Paul the Apostle once said, if Christ did not rise from the dead, then our faith is in vain (16) and thus if we cannot defend this claim, then our faith is in jeopardy. When it comes to defending the resurrection of Jesus, there are many approaches to take and ways to go about supporting this quintessential truth in Christianity. Some might use extrabiblical sources or manuscript evidence, but I like to keep this just as simple as a Gospel presentation and use basic logic. I have a three point argument called “The Resurrection Argument From Reason” that concludes the resurrection of Jesus to be the most logical explanation of the historical evidence. This argument goes as follows:
The Resurrection Argument From Reason
- The empty tomb of Jesus is due to either the apparent death theory, the conspiracy theory, the displaced theory, the hallucination theory, or the resurrection theory.
- Based off of the historical evidence, it is not due to the apparent death theory, the conspiracy theory, the displaced theory, or the hallucination theory.
- Therefore, it is due to the resurrection theory.
Now this is a very short argument that is inspired by analytic philosopher William Lane Craig and his “A Case for the Historicity of Jesus’ Resurrection” argument, as well as the contributions of New Testament scholar Gary Habermas. For more information regarding the resurrection of Jesus, I would point you to both William Lane Craig’s book, On Guard, where his previously mentioned argument can be found and to the book, Did the Resurrection Really Happen?, which is the written version of the third and final debate between Gary Habermas and former atheist Antony Flew concerning the resurrection. Last of the Essentials is the inspiration of Scripture.
4) The Inspiration of Scripture
The inspiration of Scripture is the final Essential and it is the root belief that guides the belief of the inerrancy of Scripture. At the same time, this final Essential gives us Christians the other 3 Essentials. In order to understand biblical inerrancy, we must properly understand biblical inspiration. If the Bible was not divinely inspired, then why should we believe the Bible to be inerrant as the infallible Word of God?
The idea of inspiration can be traced far back in history to the Israelites and their beloved fondness for the Torah, as it was the very Word of God that inspired Moses to write those first five books of the Bible. It was the Law that the Hebrews lived by and this was the start of the canon of Scripture. Since then, that understanding of the holy canon of Scripture now includes the entirety of the Old and New Testaments. Once belief in the inspiration of Scripture is established, we can then conclude the inerrancy of Scripture.
We believe the Bible to be God’s inerrant Word for a number of reasons. When it comes to presenting said reasons the Bible must be inspired, I have both an argument and an acronym from Charlie Campbell (17) that will aid in remembering key reasons to believe the Bible to be the inspired and the inerrant Word of God. First, we’ll observe my own argument for the inerrancy of Scripture below:
The Inerrancy of Scripture Argument
- The inerrancy of Scripture is due to either chance, divine inspiration, or human manipulation.
- It is not due to chance or human manipulation.
- Therefore, it is due to divine inspiration.
With this in mind, the divine inspiration of the Bible logically infers the inerrancy of God’s Word. If God was behind the scenes guiding the process of developing the canon of Scripture, then why can we not conclude that it is without error? Can we empirically prove that because the Bible is inspired, that it is also inerrant? Using the Charlie Campbell’s M. A. P. S. acronym, we can do just that. The M. A. P. S. acronym goes as follows:
- M = Manuscript Evidence
- A = Authors’ Forthrightness About Failures
- P = Persecution Endured By The Early Christians
- S = Son of God’s View of Scripture
In short, we Christians believe the Bible to be God’s inspired Word because Jesus believed it was and not the other way around. Because we believe it is inspired by God, we also believe it to be God’s inerrant Word. We support this claim with the M. A. P. S. method of providing evidence. Our understanding of the other 3 Essentials hinges on our understanding of this final Essential.
Like the above picture, the 4 Essentials of Christianity all work together and uphold the very essence of what Christianity is as a whole. Everything is built off of these four key pillars of our faith. If you remove one pillar, the whole worldview collapses.
Therefore, just as a Muslim has the 5 Pillars of Islam, we too have the 4 Pillars of Christianity. When you understand the foundation for Christianity, then you will understand the Christian faith. When you understand why you believe what you believe, then defending what you believe is that much easier. With that, Godspeed and Jesus bless!
- Deuteronomy 6:4, Isaiah 43:10-13, 1 Corinthians 8:4b-6, Galatians 3:20; 1 Timothy 2:5
- Genesis 1:26, 3:22-23, 11:7, Isaiah 6:8, Matthew 3:16-17, 28:19-20; 2 Corinthians 13:14
- The Real Kosher Jesus (P. 134-135). See also Answering Jewish Objections to Jesus Vol. 2: Theological Objections (P. 3-14) by Michael Brown for a theological understanding of the Christian Trinity in response to Orthodox Judaism, along with The Forgotten Trinity by James White for an exegetical understanding.
- John 1:1-3, 10:30; 20:28-31
- John 1:14, Philippians 2:5-11; Hebrews 2:14-18
- Genesis 14:17-20, 16:7-14, 18:1-33, 22:11-18, 32:24-30, Exodus 24:9-11, Joshua 5:13-15, Judges 6:11-25, Daniel 3:23-28; John 1:14-18
- In his book Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth, John MacArthur & co. make the following statement regarding Jesus being an ambassador or messenger of the Godhead: “When the biblical account associates “the angel of the LORD” with a theophany, “messenger” might provide a better translation than “angel,” because this title denotes the function or office of the individual, not his nature. In addition, the Scripture speaks of him [the angel of the LORD] as actually being God. He bears the name “LORD,” he speaks as God, and he displays divine attributes and authority. Most significantly, however, he receives worship (Matt. 2:2, 11, 14:33, 28:9, 17). Given what John 1:18 says about the Son-that “no one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” -the appearances of God in the Old Testament must have been the Son, not the Father. The phrase “made him known” in Greek (exégeomai) is the word from which we derive the verb exegete and its cognate noun, exegesis. Literally, the Son of God “exegeted” the Father to mankind (P. 241).”
- John 2:19-22, 1 Corinthians 15:1-22; Galatians 1:6-9
- John 14:6, Acts 4:12; Ephesians 2:8-9
- 1 Corinthians 15:13-14
- Scrolls & Stones: Compelling Evidence the Bible Can Be Trusted (P. 93). See also The Canon of Scripture by F. F. Bruce and From God to Us: How We Got Our Bible by Norman Geisler & William E. Nix for more information on biblical inspiration and biblical inerrancy.