What are the Christian beliefs most central to Christianity? While not every belief is equally important in Christianity, some deserve to be considered “essential beliefs,” and without them, it no longer deserves to be called Christianity. The Christian beliefs most essential to Christianity involve believing that God exists, that Jesus is our risen Savior and Lord, and that we are saved by grace, not by our own efforts.
Albert Camus’s novel The Plague describes a plague that hits a city and devastates it. One of the characters in the novel is a quirky character named Joseph Grand who works as a clerk for the city. He lives a rather dull and sad life. He’s paid poorly and his wife has left him. But he has dreams of becoming a great writer.
Throughout the book, Joseph is writing his own book, but he’s such a perfectionist that it’s very slow going. He wants to find the perfect words to set up the plot, and he spends a lot of the book trying to perfect a single sentence about a young woman riding a horse along the avenue. Although he’s often working on his book throughout the novel, the book ends, and we finally get a glimpse of the whole book so far: It’s around 50 pages, mainly of different versions of the same sentence.
It is very possible to fixate on things that, in the end, aren’t all that important.
Not everything in the Bible is equally important.
Even when it comes to the Bible, it’s possible to fixate on the wrong things. Here’s an example from the life of Jesus. Ask yourself what the religious leaders in the synagogue were obsessing about—and what according to Jesus is way more important to focus on:
“…Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.” Then Jesus asked them, ‘Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?’ But they remained silent…” (Mark 3:1-4, NIV)
They were so fixated on Sabbath keeping (especially on the rabbinic rules about the Sabbath) that watch what happens next:
“He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus.” (Mark 3:5-6, NIV)
“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?”
Where do we go to discover what’s most important?
Let’s say the bills are mounting. Times are tough. You are offered new hours and better pay. But you’d have to work on Sunday. You wouldn’t be able to go to church with your family. So it’s a collision between physically providing for your family and spiritually leading your family. Which priority should win? Do you flip a coin?
In Nazi Germany, you’re hiding Jews, which in and of itself is disobeying the government—a collision between submitting to authority and saving lives. The authorities come to your house and ask where the Jews are. Another collision, this time between telling the truth and saving lives. Which command is more important?
“Another collision, this time between telling the truth and saving lives. Which command is more important?”
Your friend asks what you think of his new car. Piece of junk, really. Yet your friend struggles financially and is elated about his new purchase. Plus, he already gets enough discouragement from most directions. A collision between honesty and kindness. Which is more important?
All these dilemmas between one thing that’s good and another thing that’s good feels almost like a game of rock, paper, scissors. How do we know what beats what?
For that, we study Jesus.
Jesus showed us and taught us what are the most important things. For example, Jesus said things like, “How much more valuable then is a man than a sheep?” (Matt. 12:12). Or that it’s better to love your enemies than just to love the people who love you.
Jesus often heals on the Sabbath, which goes against the rules of the rabbis. And why does Jesus heal on the Sabbath? It’s because he’s showing us that it’s more important to help hurting people than it is to obey manmade rules about what you can and can’t do on a Saturday. In Matthew 23:23, Jesus makes it very clear that some things in the Bible are more important than others (notice the words “more important”):
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” (Matt. 23:23, NIV)
What are the Christian beliefs most central to Christianity? “You have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness.”
Not all beliefs are equally important.
There are some verses in 1 Corinthians which make it clear that not all beliefs are equally important. For example, contrast 1 Corinthians 8 with 1 Corinthians 15:
- 1 Corinthians 8:7b-8 – “Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat sacrificial food they think of it as having been sacrificed to a god, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled. But food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.”
- 1 Corinthians 15:3-4 – “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.”
The belief in 1 Corinthians 8 (that we shouldn’t eat food sacrificed to idols) was really important to some people, but Paul is making it clear that it’s just a matter of personal conscience. However, the beliefs in 1 Corinthians 15 (that Jesus died, was buried, and rose) are “of first importance.”
What are the Christian beliefs most central to Christianity? “The beliefs in 1 Corinthians 15 that Jesus died, was buried, and rose are ‘of first importance.'”
A couple exercises to help you get at the bullseye
So, what beliefs are at the center of our faith? What are Christianity’s bullseye beliefs? As a professor at Ozark Christian College, Chad Ragsdale, author of Christian Convictions, leads his students in a couple of helpful assignments to think through the essentials of the faith:
EXERCISE 1: Get a blank sheet of paper and, in one minute, write one paragraph summarizing what are your most important beliefs about God. This functions almost like a “fire drill” in the mind. If you have to leave quickly, what is essential enough that you will take it with you?
EXERCISE 2: Draw a target with three concentric circles. Fill in the outermost circle with parts of our faith that are matters of personal opinion or convictions. Fill in the next circle with elements of our faith that are important to get right in order to live a faithful life, but not essential in order to be saved. Then, fill in the center with the most essential elements of our faith.
What were the Christian beliefs most central for early Christians?
A helpful way at arriving at the essentials of our faith is to read through the sermons in the book of Acts. These are summaries of sermons and speeches, and many of them were one-time events in which the speaker got one opportunity to share Jesus with his audience. So, it makes sense that these sermons would contain the most essential things to know about our faith. When we look at some of these sermons, what elements did they make sure to include? Here are a handful of the sermons preached in the book of Acts, along with their core messages:
- (to the crowd at Pentecost) Acts 2:14-40 – Jesus performed miracles, was killed, was raised, and is Lord and Messiah at God’s right hand. Repent and be baptized, and you will receive forgiveness and the gift of the Holy Spirit.
- (to the crowd at temple) Acts 3:12-26 – Jesus performed miracles, was killed, and was raised. He will return and restore all things. Now is the time to repent and turn to God.
- (to the Sanhedrin) Acts 4:8-12 – Jesus was crucified and raised. Salvation is found in no one else.
- (to the synagogue at Antioch) Acts 13:16-41 – God chose the Israelites, performed miracles in their history, and selected David to be their king. From King David’s lineage came Jesus. Jesus was killed and then raised and is now king. Through him, we are given forgiveness of sins.
- (to the Athenians) Acts 17:22-31 – God created the world and will someday judge the world with justice. He will do this through Jesus, whom he raised from the dead.
What are the Christian beliefs most central to Christianity? “God created the world and will someday judge the world with justice. He will do this through Jesus, whom he raised from the dead.”
Essential Christian Beliefs
In Christian Convictions, Chad Ragsdale lists 6 essentials of Christianity. These are elements which are the difference between salvation and lostness. In order to be saved, we must believe these beliefs:
- It is essential for a Christian to believe that God exists (and to earnestly seek him). See Hebrews 11:6.
- It is essential that a Christian believes Jesus is Lord. See Romans 10:9.
- It is essential that a Christian believes that Jesus is the risen Savior. See 1 Corinthians 15:3-8.
- It is essential that a Christian is saved by grace through faith and not by human effort. See Ephesians 2:8-9.
Those are four truths we must believe, and here are two more truths that must be true of us if we are saved:
- It is essential that a Christian be born again by the Holy Spirit. See John 3:3.
- It is essential that a Christian persevere in a faithful faith. See Hebrews 3:14.
What are the Christian beliefs most central to Christianity? “These are elements which are the difference between salvation and lostness.”
A story of truly believing Christian beliefs
It is possible to know and even “believe” the essentials of the faith without these beliefs really making their way into the core convictions which drive your life. The true story of Eta Linnemann illustrates the transition from studying to actually believing.
Eta Linnemann was a German theologian who lived from 1926-2009. She studied the Bible for a living and wrote books about it. The problem is that she didn’t really believe what she was studying. Along with other German higher critics of the Bible, she taught that the stories in the Bible were mythological, not historical.
Then all that changed. Here are excerpts from Linnemann’s own story of going from being a Bible critic to a Bible believer. She was trained in her criticism of the Bible under a famous theologian named Rudolf Bultmann, and that is where we will start her story. She was sitting in one of Bultmann’s classes, when Bultmann was going through 1 Corinthians. He read in 1 Corinthians 15 the stories of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and then made it clear these events could not have really happened.
“When Professor Bultmann came to the next verse, he said, ‘Here Paul is not at the usual height of his theology because he is speaking of the resurrection of Christ as if it were a historical fact.’ Thus I learned as a young student in my very first term that we were not allowed to think of the resurrection of Christ as a historical fact. This great professor had said it, so it had to be. After all, how could I, as a young student, know more than my professors!…So the purpose of these people is to demythologize the Bible. To do so, they must come up with ideas to explain away what is plainly stated in it, what God said and did…”
“Thus I learned as a young student in my very first term that we were not allowed to think of the resurrection of Christ as a historical fact. This great professor had said it, so it had to be.”
After excelling as a student under Bultmann, Linnemann herself became a professor of theology. She continues,
“One day I came across a dissertation that mentioned something I had never heard of. Describing a church in Africa, the author spoke about modern-day prophecies and miracles. This was amazing to someone who did not even really believe in the prophecies of the Bible! I do not remember them all, but one example in particular gave so much honor and glory to God that I was deeply impressed with its veracity….
About nine months later, God got my attention again. In a post-seminary meeting on the historical-critical method, I had written on the blackboard, ‘If you want to speak about something as a miracle, you must adhere to certain points,’ and then I listed the points. After I had passed this on to my students, as I had done for years, I added one more thing, ‘Yes, Jesus was the type who did miracles. We can learn this out of the Talmud, the Jewish wisdom which names Jesus as a sorcerer. They would not have done it if he could not have done miracles. But that still does not give us a right to think that any of the miracles written in the New Testament ever had happened.’…
“About nine months later, God got my attention again.”
That was what I wanted to pass on to my students—that we were not allowed to take for granted that the miracles in the New Testament actually happened. I don’t know how far I got, but when I opened my mouth to speak, I heard myself saying, ‘But so-and-so wrote about this in his doctor’s thesis,’ and I proceeded to tell my students about the miracles recorded in the doctor’s thesis.
In the providence of God, there were quite a few born-again students in this class. Normally there might be one, or at most, two. But this class had six or seven, so when I spoke about this miracle, they thought, ‘Oh maybe even a professor is able to repent,’ and started to pray for me. These students prayed, their families prayed, and all their prayer circles prayed for me. It must have been really a big campaign. Later on, people would come up to me and say, ‘We remember praying for you.’…
I also observed that when these students had a tangible need, they would pray for it….I began to go to the meetings every month I was available, and after one year and one month, I gave my life to Christ. I heard a message and was so hungry for this life with Christ the speaker had spoken of.
“After one year and one month, I gave my life to Christ.”
When he gave an altar call, I was about to jump up, but then he asked, ‘Is there anybody who wants to believe in Christ?’ I told myself, ‘Oh, that’s not for me because I already believe in Christ.’ That is the problem with theologians; they think they are believers. But then he repeated it, asking who was willing to surrender his life to Christ. Then I knew it was for me. I lifted my arm, the Lord saw my heart, and my life was changed….
The rest of her story is well-worth the read. Again, you can find it here. And it well-illustrates the difference between knowing some truths about God and truly believing them. Her story continues with her newfound conviction that Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of God, and that he will someday return. She concludes, “So I found out you can trust your Bible. You cannot trust historical critical theology or higher criticism. It is not trustworthy. I praise God for bringing me out of it, and pray that he will use me to bring others from criticism to Christ.”
What happens when you really believe Christian beliefs?
You might be someone who has gone to church all your life. You might have even studied the Bible or taught it to others. But truly believing it is another question. Imagine if you begin to really, truly believe that Jesus is Lord. Imagine what might change if you let the truth that Jesus is the risen king sink into your heart to become its most bedrock conviction. Imagine believing with your whole self that you have a heavenly Father in heaven who loves you.
If you know the essentials of the faith, it’s time to really, truly believe them.