Many people are interested in Christianity. How can we describe it?
We all agree Christianity is multifaceted. But is there a bottom line, a sine qua non of Christianity that is relatively simple to articulate?
There is. Read the Acts of the Apostles, and ask yourself, According to Scripture, when the Apostles were speaking to non-Christians, what did they urge them to do? And what reason did the Apostles give why unbelievers ought to do these things?
In an evangelistic sermon, the speaker has limited time. He must communicate only the essentials.
Reading Acts, we see that the Apostles did not urge unbelievers to follow their tradition because of its superior wisdom. Nor did they urge unbelievers to join them because they had received a divine commission. Instead, they spoke about Jesus Christ: Who he is (God and man) and what he did (live a sinless life, be crucified for the sins of the world, and be resurrected for our justification.) They also spoke of man’s sin, which places him in jeopardy of the wrath of God. And then they urged unbelievers to repent of their sins, to be baptized, and have faith in Christ.
Consider, for example, Acts 2:37, 38, which record the immediate result of the Apostle Peter’s evangelistic sermon on the day of Pentecost:
Now when they heard this, they were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brethren, what shall we do?” Peter said to them, “Repent, and each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”
Peter preaching at the Portico of Solomon in Acts 3:19 concludes by saying:
Therefore repent and return, so that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord…
Paul speaking at the Areopagus in Acts 17: 30, 31 concludes:
Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.
Consider the account of Paul and Silas speaking with the Philippian jailer, Acts 16:27-33:
When the jailer awoke and saw the prison doors opened, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, supposing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here!” And he called for lights and rushed in, and trembling with fear he fell down before Paul and Silas, and after he brought them out, he said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They said, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.”And they spoke the word of the Lord to him together with all who were in his house. And he took them that very hour of the night and washed their wounds, and immediately he was baptized, he and all his household.
Paul’s defense before King Agrippa: Acts 26: 19,20, concludes:
So, King Agrippa, I did not prove disobedient to the heavenly vision, but kept declaring both to those of Damascus first, and also at Jerusalem and then throughout all the region of Judea, and even to the Gentiles, that they should repent and turn to God, performing deeds appropriate to repentance.
These passages show that, according to apostolic testimony, repentance and faith are necessary in order that men be saved from the wrath of God against their sins. “Flee from the wrath to come” and “Be reconciled to God” were the main themes of Apostolic preaching. Since the Apostles were the guardians of the teachings delivered by Jesus Christ, we must regard them as authoritative in this matter. And their testimony is found in the Bible.
Forgiveness of sins is not the only benefit of becoming a Christian: The believer is adopted as a son or daughter of God, and is no longer alienated from, and an enemy of, the Ruler of the universe. The believer is indwelled by the Holy Spirit and is regenerated in the sense of receiving new spiritual life. He is justified, that is declared to be righteous before God. He becomes part of the household of God, a fellowship that extends around the world and through all time.
But all these benefits come as a result of repentance toward God and faith in Jesus Christ. Repentance and faith are the sine qua non of Christianity.
Guard the Faith
Now that Christianity is an ancient faith, it is all too easy to lose sight of the basic message of Christ and the Apostles. Christendom offers an impressive deposit of wisdom, an impressive ritual, and impressive artistic and cultural achievements, among other things. And, of course, Christendom is divided into many denominations and sects. It is therefore necessary to search for the correct expression of the essence of Christianity, and, once we have found it, to guard this truth against organized expressions of error and against the spiritual entropy caused by human weakness and the distractions of life.
And Scripture itself teaches that we must guard against false apostles, false Christs and false gospels. For example, II Corinthians 11:13 reads
For such men are false apostles, deceitful workers, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.
Matthew 24:24 warns
For false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect.
And Galatians 1:6,7 reads
I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
These verses show, at the very least, that there will be individuals and organizations that claim to be Christian, but are not. And notice that these passages also assume that we are capable of distinguishing between true and false expressions of Christianity, if we trust in God and his Word, and if we apply ourselves diligently.
To be sure, we must acknowledge that Christianity shares many elements with other religions. Christianity, like most religions, teaches that there is an order to the cosmos, an order originating in God. It teaches a universal and objective morality that agrees, for the most part, with the morality held even by the pagans. [C. S. Lewis called this universal morality the “Tao.”] Christianity agrees with the other monotheistic religions that there is one holy and transcendent God who is the Creator of the spiritual realms, the physical world, man, and human society. It agrees with them that God is to be worshiped, honored and obeyed.
But this essay concentrates on what makes Christianity unique. One might simply say that Jesus Christ makes Christianity unique, but there are contradictory views on who Jesus is and what he teaches. So who exactly is Jesus, and what exactly does he teach? We must go beyond a superficial answer if we are to identify the essential elements of Christianity.
Man’s Basic Problem
According to apostolic testimony, the fundamental human problem is sin, and the remedy comes only through Jesus Christ.
Man’s basic problem is not that he is weak or ignorant, not that he is unlucky or the victim of a bad environment. Man’s basic problem is that he is a sinner by nature, that he cannot help sinning, and that sin, far from being an occasional disturbance, is a fundamental disorder that that makes this life painful and ultimately unsuccessful, and that sends him to eternal punishment in the afterlife. That is why the Apostles emphasized the necessity of salvation through repentance and faith in Christ.
Man’s greatest need, whether he knows it or not, is to be rescued from sin. In the words of the Apostle Peter speaking before the Jewish authorities as recorded in Acts 4:12:
And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved.
Since religious charlatanism—to say nothing of honest mistakes—abounds, what we say must be justified by reference to the highest authority, the Bible[i]. But since the Bible can be misinterpreted we must sometimes refer to the established creeds and catechisms which represent the consensus of proper biblical interpretation as worked out over the centuries by the most learned and holy Christians. Although much that the Bible says is clear, some of it is hard to understand fully, and many deliberate falsehoods are spread concerning what the Bible teaches.
Furthermore, the Bible is not just a collection of sayings. The Bible presents a comprehensive system, and we must understand it as a system, not just a collection of interesting sentences. The Bible, for instance, contains sayings that appear to contradict each other, but if the Bible is God speaking to us, then it does not contain contradictions, because a contradiction is an error of thought. An apparent biblical contradiction is a failure of man to understand what the Bible is really saying. We must therefore make use of theologies, creeds and catechisms, which organize and clarify the system that the Bible presents.
The assertions made here must be justified by reference to Scripture.[ii] But keep in mind that just about any biblical passage considered in isolation could be misleading, so for a full understanding of what is being said, you need to read the context of each passage. (And, if the meaning is still not clear, you need to consult a competent Christian authority, such as a creed, a theologian or a pastor.) In the interpretation of any text, biblical or not, context always determines meaning.
Keep in mind also that a deep understanding of the Bible is not required in order for you to be saved, but it is required if you are to attain wisdom. Also, a good understanding of the Bible requires that you receive some training in theology and biblical interpretation. You do not need to become a biblical scholar, but you need at least the training that comes from sitting under the teaching of a good pastor or teacher.
In part II of this series, we will begin explaining in detail the main Christian teaching of human sin and salvation through Christ. To read part II, go here.
[i] The Bible is also correct on every non-spiritual matter about which it speaks; being God’s words, the Bible contains no errors. It must, of course, be interpreted correctly in order to give us truth.
[ii] All Scripture quotations are taken from the NASB, the New American Standard Bible, one of the more literal translations from the original languages in which the Bible was written.