What is essential Christian doctrine?

This article is from Hank Hanegraaff, The Complete Bible Answer Book—Collector’s Edition (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008)
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The importance of essential Christian doctrine can hardly be overstated. First, these are the very doctrines that form the line of demarcation between the kingdom of Christ and the kingdom of the cults. While we may debate nonessentials without dividing over them, when it comes to essential Christian doctrine there must be unity. Hence, the maxim: In essentials unity, nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.

Furthermore, essential Christian doctrine is the North Star by which the course of Christianity is set. Just as the North Star is an unchanging reference point by which sailors safely guided their ships, so essential Christian doctrine has safely guided the church through the doctrinal storms that have sought to sink it. Shooting stars light the sky for a moment; following them, however, leads to shipwreck.

Finally, essential Christian doctrine is the foundation on which the gospel of Jesus Christ rests. From his deity to the eschatological certainty that he will appear a second time to judge the living and the dead, essential Christian doctrine is foundational to the gospel. All other religions compromise, confuse, or contradict these essentials. Muslims, for example, dogmatically denounce the doctrine of Christ’s unique deity as the unforgivable sin of shirk. They readily affirm the sinlessness of Christ, but they adamantly deny his sacrifice upon the cross and his subsequent resurrection as the only hope of salvation.

I am so passionate about inscribing the essentials on the tablet of your heart that I’ve organized them around the acronym D–O–C–T–R–I–N–E. It is my prayer that you will become so familiar with essential Christian doctrine that when a counterfeit looms on the horizon you will know it instantaneously.

Deity of Christ— The biblical witness is clear and convincing that Jesus Christ is the eternal Creator God (John 1; Colossians 1; Hebrews 1; Revelation 1). Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus claimed to be God in word and deed (Mark 14:61–62; John 5:18, 20; 8:58; 10:30–33) and vindicated his claims to deity by living a sinless life (John 8:46; 2 Corinthians 5:21; Hebrews 4:15; 1 John 3:5; 1 Peter 2:22), by manifesting his power over nature (Mark 4:39), over fallen angels (Luke 4:35), over sickness (Matthew 4:23), and even over death itself (John 4:50; 11:43–44; 1 Corinthians 15), and by accurately prophesying God’s judgment on Jerusalem through the destruction of the Temple that occurred in AD 70 (Matthew 24:1–2, 32–35).

Original Sin— Sin is not just murder, rape, or robbery. “Sin” is a word that describes any thought, word, deed, or state of being that fails to meet God’s standard of holiness and perfection. The Bible unambiguously proclaims that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). While the notion of generational curses and spirits is foreign to the text of Scripture, there is a sense in which all people are cursed as a result of an ancestor’s sin. Adam’s rebellion brought death to us all and tainted every aspect of our being (Genesis 3; 1 Corinthians 15:21–22; cf. Ephesians 2:3). God, however, has provided redemption through the atoning work of the “Second Adam,” Jesus Christ (Romans 5:12–21). (See The Bible Answer Book Volume 1, pp. 18–21.)

Canon— The thirty–nine books of the Hebrew Scriptures along with the twenty–seven books of the Greek New Testament are divine rather than merely human in origin and constitute the entire Christian canon (meaning “standard of measurement”). In addition to the internal testimony of the Bible about itself (2 Timothy 3:16), the divine inspiration and preservation of the Bible can be demonstrated by the early dating and consistency of the many available manuscripts, the corroboration of archaeology, and the fulfillment of predictive prophecy.

Trinity— Though the word ‘Trinity’ is found nowhere in the Bible, it aptly codifies the essential biblical truths that 1) there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4; Isaiah 43:10); 2) the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God (1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:8; Acts 5:3–4); and 3) Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternally distinct (Matthew 28:19; John 15:26; 17:1–26). It is important to note that when Trinitarians speak of one God they are referring to the nature or essence of God. Moreover, when they speak of persons they are referring to personal self–distinctions within the Godhead. Put another way, Trinitarians believe in one What and three Who’s.

Resurrection— All four canonical gospels record the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The immutable fact of Jesus’ resurrection is the cornerstone of Christian faith, because it not only vindicates Jesus’ claims to deity but also ensures the future bodily resurrection unto eternal life of all who believe in Jesus Christ as their Savior and proclaim him as Lord (1 Corinthians 15; 1 Thessalonians 4:13–18). The historical reality of the resurrection can be demonstrated through the fatal torment of Jesus on the cross; the empty tomb––early Christianity could not have survived an identifiable tomb containing the corpse of Christ; the post–resurrection appearances of Jesus; and the transformation of believers throughout the ages whose lives have been radically altered upon experiencing the resurrected Lord.

Incarnation— The doctrine of the Incarnation is aptly summed up in the words of the apostle John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1, 14). The clear testimony of Scripture is that, in the incarnation, Jesus Christ was fully God and fully man; that is, he existed as the perfect unity in one person of a divine and a human nature (John 1; Colossians 1). As Theanthropos (“God–Man”), the spotless “Lamb of God” (John 1:29) lived a perfectly sinless human life and died a sinner’s death to sufficiently atone, once for all, for the sins of humanity (Romans 5:1–21; Hebrews 10:11–18).

New Creation— The essential doctrine of New Creation is aptly codified in the words of the apostle Paul: “If anyone is in Christ, he is anew creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17, emphasis added). All who believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and confess him as Lord are reconciled to God and inherit eternal life in his glorious presence (John 3:16; Romans 10:9–10). Jesus’ resurrection from the dead inaugurates the renewal of all things. The new creation of faithful believers and the new creation of the natural world will be consummated in the resurrection when Jesus returns bodily to earth as the conquering king (Romans 8:18–25).

Eschatology— The word eschatology is an intimidating word with a simple meaning—the study of end times. While the meaning of eschatology is simple to grasp, its importance is difficult to overemphasize. Far from being a mere branch in the theological tree, eschatology is the root that provides life and luster to every fiber of its being. Put another way, eschatology is the thread that weaves the tapestry of Scripture into a harmonious pattern. It is the study of everything we long and hope for. Early in Genesis, Adam and Eve fell into a life of constant sin terminated by death. The rest of Scripture chronicles God’s unfolding plan of redemption. Although Christians debate secondary aspects of eschatology, such as the timing of the tribulation or the meaning of the millennium, we are united in the truth that just as Christ came to earth once to bear the sins of the world, so too he will return again to gather the elect and to usher in the resurrection of all things (1 Thessalonians 4:13–18; Hebrews 9:27–28). On that day, the just will be resurrected to eternal life and the unjust to eternal conscious torment and separation from the love and grace of God (John 5:28–29). Paradise lost will become paradise restored, and the problem of sin and Satan will be fully and finally resolved (Revelation 20–22).

For further study, see Bruce Milne, Know the Truth:A Handbook of Christian Belief (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1999).


“Watch your life and doctrine closely.
Persevere in them, because if you do you will save
both yourself and your hearers.”

1 Timothy 4:16

The essential tenets of the Christian faith are:
Deity of Christ
Original sin
Canon
Trinity
Resurrection
Incarnation
New creation
Eschatology


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