What must you believe to be a Christian?

A man was on a bridge, intending to jump and end his life. Another man saw him and cried out, "Don't do it! God loves you. Do you believe in God?" The conversation then went on like this:

First man: "Yes."

Second man: "Are you a Christian or a Jew?"

First man: "A Christian."

Second man: "Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?"

First man: "Protestant."

Second man: "Me, too! What franchise?"

First man: "Baptist."

Second man: “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?"

First man: "Northern Baptist."

Second man: “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?"

First man: "Northern Conservative Baptist."

Second man: "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?"

First man: "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region."

Second man: "Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?"

First man: "Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912."

There was then a slight pause, after which the second man shouted "Die heretic!" and pushed the first man off the bridge.  

Maybe it’s Premillennialism vs. Amillennialism. Or Arminianism vs. Calvinism. Or young earth vs. old earth. Or ransom theory of Christ’s atonement vs. penal-substitution. 

Take your pick, debates and divisions occur all the time in Christianity over matters of doctrinal belief. But when it comes to true saving faith, is there a must-have set of things a person must believe to be saved?

Moreover, once you settle on what a person must accept to be a Christian, then you’re staring the next question right in the face: why do you believe that? And then comes the final question: what difference does that make in your life?

The Bedrock of Belief

Courtesy of Robin Schumacher
Courtesy of Robin Schumacher

When it comes to what teachings a person must hold to be saved, the answer isn’t as hard as you might imagine. While there are a number of doctrines that form the foundation of Christianity, they all contribute to one high-level belief.

What does a person have to believe in order to be a Christian? They must believe the Gospel.

Young earth vs. old earth? That doesn’t matter for salvation.

Pre-mill vs. post-mill vs. a-mill? That also doesn’t matter for salvation.

When I was saved at age 19, I had no deep understanding of the divinity of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, the virgin birth, creation out of nothing, etc. But what I did get was John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”

In a very real sense, my experience was like the tax collector Jesus describes in Luke: “But the tax collector, standing some distance away, was even unwilling to lift up his eyes to heaven, but was beating his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, the sinner!’ I tell you, this man went to his house justified” (18:13-14).

Of course, understanding all the doctrines that contribute to and support the Gospel message (e.g. divinity of Christ, inspiration of Scripture, etc.) are vitally important, but a deep understanding of them typically comes later for most people as the Holy Spirit teaches them through God’s Word and via great Bible teachers. But as for the Ground Zero of saving faith, the Gospel message is it.

Why do you believe that?   

So, the Gospel is what we believe to be saved, but why do we believe that? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions that make believing the gospel message credible?

Just like the answer to what a person must believe to be a Christian is simple to understand, the response to the question of why a person is justified for believing in the Gospel is equally straightforward. When anyone asks me why I am a Christian, I tell them it’s because:

1.     God exists.

2.     Jesus exists and He rose from the dead.

That’s it.

If those two truth claims are correct, then Christianity is true and all other teachings opposed to it are false. Like with the Gospel message, of course there are a lot of supportive teachings, questions, facts, and more behind the existence and identity of God, His Son, and the Resurrection. But from a high-level perspective, when everything is boiled down to the absolute essentials as to why Christianity is true, these are it.

So what?

This leads to our final questions of, so what? If the gospel message is true, and the core reasons for believing it are correct, what difference does that make in our lives?

It means, as C. S. Lewis wrote, “You have never met a mere mortal.”

Surprisingly, the ones who have best articulated the answer to the “so what” question of Christianity are the atheistic existentialist philosophers. For example, Nietzsche had the courage to admit that the rejection of God ends in nihilism. Another, Jean-Paul Sartre, well describes existence without God with the chosen title of his book Nausea and the portrayal of life as “an empty bubble floating on a sea of nothingness”.

Sartre’s study partner, Albert Camus, tells us in “An Absurd Reasoning” (contained in The Myth of Sisyphus: And Other Essays) that a God-less life leads to there being “only one really serious philosophical question, and this is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”

It’s what Daryl on The Walking Dead calls “opting out”.

But life with God? Then we have actual purpose and meaning in life, real moral values, a path worth living, and the promise of eternity where “God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away. And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new”” (Rev. 21:3-5).

So, in the end, the answers to some seemingly weighty questions about Christianity and belief are relatively simple.

What do you have to believe to be a Christian? The Gospel.

Why is the Gospel worthy of belief? Because God exists, Jesus exists, and Christ rose from the dead.

Why does all this matter? It gives us true purpose, an objective moral path to follow, and meaning in this life as well as glorifying God both now and in eternity.    

Robin Schumacher is an accomplished software executive and Christian apologist who has written many articles, authored and contributed to several Christian books, appeared on nationally syndicated radio programs, and presented at apologetic events. He holds a BS in Business, Master's in Christian apologetics and a Ph.D. in New Testament. His latest book is, A Confident Faith: Winning people to Christ with the apologetics of the Apostle Paul.

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