Doctrine Ch.28 - Core Beliefs

What do we need to believe to be saved? There are very few essential doctrines and the list is surprisingly tricky to find in the Bible. But what if you don’t have a Bible to read, so you don’t know any of them?

After one exam at university, we were told that anyone with less than 0 percent had to see the professor. Fortunately I had 3 percent, though of course I didn’t pass. The low marks occurred because of a strange examination technique that my medical school was experimenting with. They wanted to teach us that acting on the wrong answer can sometimes be worse than doing nothing at all, so wrong answers got negative marks. Those with less than zero had probably killed the patient!

       There aren’t many times when believing something to be true is a life-or-death situation, but becoming a Christian could be described that way. Although you don’t become a Christian by simply believing a set of statements, it does nevertheless depend on a certain minimum set of beliefs. After all, if you are going to have faith in God, you have to believe he exists! What are the core beliefs—those that anyone needs to believe in order to be saved?

       Seeing as this is so important, we might expect there to be a straightforward statement in the Bible about which beliefs are necessary—but there isn’t. Nevertheless, you’d expect Christian leaders to know what they are, with a fairly unanimous consensus. A quick trawl on the internet finds several sites listing the doctrines you “have to” believe, but these collections are bewilderingly different. My favorite among those that I found is based on the acronym DOCTRINE: Deity of Christ, Original sinfulness, Canon of the Bible, Trinity, Resurrection, Incarnation, New creation, and Eschatology (or “End times”).1

5-minute summary

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A lot to learn

Some sites expect you to know a great many doctrines. One popular site has “99 Essential Doctrines,” which they offer to teach you during a three-year course.2 Of course they don’t say that you have to know them all before becoming a Christian. However, in previous generations this might have been expected. The established churches each had their own “shorter” catechisms, which were the basis of questions you might be asked before being baptized or confirmed. I rather like the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s first question and answer: “Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” However, when you realize that this is the first of more than a hundred other questions you have to memorize, it rather dulls the enjoyment.3

       Anglicans have far fewer questions, though often the language is difficult. For example, “Question: What meanest thou by this word Sacrament? Answer: I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof.”4 Catholics have the most daunting task—a catechism consisting of 2,865 items.5 There is a “simplified” version, though it is still very long,6 and there is a brief version with “2,893 short and clear questions and answers,” for example: “Question 2786: When is filial trust put to the test? Answer. Filial trust is put to the test in tribulations, when prayer seems not to be heard.”7

       Fortunately there is nothing like this in the Bible, except perhaps the short list of “elementary doctrines” at the start of Hebrews 6. These consist of repentance, faith in God, baptisms (or “cleansing rites”), laying on of hands, resurrection, and judgment. This is only partly helpful, because some of the meaning is lost in history—we can’t be sure what the baptisms (plural) refer to, and laying on of hands may refer to receiving the Holy Spirit (Acts 8:17; 19:6), or healing (Acts 28:8), or ordination (1 Tim 5:22). Other places we might look for essential doctrines are the earliest summary of the faith that Paul says he “received” (1 Cor 11:23-26; 15:3-7). These teach about communion, Jesus’ Scripture-fulfilling death, and the various resurrection appearances.

Bible basics

I think the best place to find out what a non-Christian needs to know is in the sermons preached to them in Acts. It looks like these are meant as a guide for other preachers, though Luke, the author, hasn’t made it as easy as he might. Instead of repeating the same basic sermon several times throughout Acts, he divides it up, so we have to stitch it back together again from various places. Acts contains almost twenty sermons or speeches, but three of them are specifically highlighted as ones that contain the message of how to be saved.

       The very first sermon, which grew the church from 120 people to more than 3,000, was preached at Pentecost. The listeners were all Jews, which may explain why it contains long expositions of the Old Testament. It was the crowd itself who brought Peter to the important point by asking: “What shall we do?” Peter gave a commendably succinct answer: “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:38). Paul is asked virtually the same question by his ex-jailer: “What must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30). He gave a commendably brief answer: “‘Believe in the Lord Jesus … you and your household.’ We are then told that he and all his household were baptized” (16:31, 33).

       Together, these give us the pair “repent and believe,” which was a core religious response that all Jews would recognize and was also the same as the summary of preaching by John the Baptist (Mark 1:15; Acts 19:4). Jews wouldn’t have been too surprised by “baptism,” because the first immersion of a Gentile converting to Judaism was recognized as very important. So the most surprising thing for these converts is the emphasis on Jesus, whom they were to believe in and in whose name they were to be baptized.

       Peter’s sermon to Cornelius supplies the last bit of this basic message of salvation. The sermon is later described as “a message through which you and all your household will be saved” (Acts 11:14). In it, Peter explains the basics that they need to know about Jesus: Jesus is the Christ (i.e., the expected Messiah), Lord of all, anointed with the Holy Spirit by God, did miracles, was killed, then raised by God, and he will judge humanity, though by trusting him we can be forgiven all repented sins (Acts 10:36-46). I like the detail that “While Peter was still speaking these words, the Holy Spirit came on all who heard the message” (10:44). It is as if God couldn’t wait any longer—he was longing to accept them into the kingdom. As soon as they’d heard the minimum necessary beliefs and understood them, they were in.

The bottom line

So, here, at last, are the core beliefs necessary for salvation. They are: the Trinity (Jesus is “Lord of all” and he is named with God and the Spirit together in 10:38), Jesus’ death and resurrection, sin and judgment, and forgiveness by faith in Jesus. At first this looks like a random sample of basic doctrines, but actually they are all necessary for anyone who is going to repent and be baptized. Before you can repent, you need to know about sin, judgment, and the hope of forgiveness. And before you trust Jesus and get baptized in his name, you need to know why he is special.

       There is one fact that the New Testament is particularly insistent that we believe: that Jesus is the Son of God. John says anyone who doesn’t believe this isn’t saved (John 3:18), and anyone who denies it is anti-Christian (1 John 2:22; 2 John 1:7). The reason for this emphasis is presumably that this was so difficult for Jews to accept. They had suffered terrible persecution for defending monotheism, and they regarded it as a denial of that doctrine.

       The problem of Jesus’ deity was debated and argued over for the next three centuries, until everyone agreed to the wording of a creed at the First Council of Nicaea (325). The Nicene Creed used in most churches today is actually from the First Council of Constantinople (381), because the original Council of Nicaea really only dealt with Jesus’ deity. So the First Council of Constantinople merged it with the Apostles’ Creed, which presumably predated them both.

       Although these creeds are relatively short, they aren’t intended to define the knowledge necessary for salvation. After all, why would someone be barred from heaven for not knowing that that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”? They were the agreed statements issued at the end of a church conference to correct versions of the various beliefs that have been discussed. The conference of Nicaea discussed the Trinity, so the creed contains an agreed statement on this topic, but it doesn’t mention anything about baptism or eternal life. Even when this creed was expanded by the Council of Constantinople it still didn’t include Jesus’ conception or his descent to hell. The older Apostles’ Creed (which does have these two doctrines) is the fullest, but it doesn’t mention anything about baptism or that God the Father “begot” Jesus—something the short Nicene creed mentions three times. So although they define a heretic (i.e., someone who disagrees with them), they do not define a believer.

Like Cornelius

When we start asking how much ignorance will exclude us from heaven, we face the most difficult question: What about those who never hear about Jesus? I envy Abraham, who was able to bargain with God about saving lives in Sodom. Like him, I’d like to ask questions of God: “But what if someone believes in the love and holiness of God, but doesn’t know about Jesus?” Or, “What if they love what they know about Jesus, but don’t realize he is God?” And also like Abraham, I’d want to repeat the question he asked: “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen 18:25).

       We shouldn’t expect to find any answer to this question in the Bible. After all, it is written for people who are able to read it, so why should it tell us about those who can’t read it? Its purpose is to address those who can read it—who are reading it! However, there are a couple of clues, and one of them occurs alongside the third salvation message in Acts.

       Cornelius, who requested this message from Peter, was one of the many Romans who had found something genuine in the Jewish religion and attended synagogues to discover more. To explain why he’d called for Peter to come, he said: “I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter’” (Acts 10:30-32). The detail that jumps out to me is that God listens to the prayers of those who aren’t Christians.

       Because we are so familiar with the fact that access to God is through Jesus, we can easily forget that people in the Old Testament were able to pray and be heard. Cornelius was a pre-Christian believer, until the Holy Spirit fell on him, and this story shows that this category of people still continued to exist after Jesus’ death. God still listens to the prayers of those who don’t know (or understand) about Jesus.

How to please God

The second insight into pre-Christian believers comes in Hebrews, when it defines faith. It has a long chapter about people with faith (all before the New Testament, of course), and it starts by stating the minimum number of things we have to believe. There are only two! They are (1) that God exists and (2) that “he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” This is so startling that it is worth reading over again: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb 11:6).

       This isn’t telling us how someone will be saved and receive the Holy Spirit—it is merely the pre-Christian or Old Testament faith. However, we shouldn’t look down on it, because someone with this faith can “please God”—which is quite an amazing thing to aspire to!

       These two items of faith are so minimal that they are worth our close consideration. To believe that “he exists” is a major matter today, when atheism is so popular, and many would regard it as an intelligent conclusion. But when this was written, there were extremely few atheists, if any. Even philosophers who thought that the universe ran without the action of any gods still believed they existed. So the fact that this is mentioned is impressive; it implies that the author really wants to give a full statement of what is required. The other item of faith, that “he rewards those who earnestly seek him,” implies something like a judgment or reckoning as well as an effort expended to “seek him.”

       This doesn’t describe those “good” people who think they deserve heaven because they believe they aren’t as bad as others they could mention. Hebrews describes people who are seeking God, and they are presumably all too aware of their shortcomings. This means you can be sure that as soon as they realize Jesus was sent by God, they will become a Christian. They are as ready for Jesus as Cornelius was.

       This little nugget of Scripture implies that God is still accepting people in an Old Testament way. However, we can’t conclude too much from it because, as I said above, we shouldn’t expect to find anything about such individuals in the Bible: if you have a Bible, you aren’t going to be in this category. So we are left with questions we can’t answer, such as: When or how are their sins forgiven? At a guess, I’d say they are like the Old Testament believers, who all benefit from the death of Christ, but not during their lifetime. Perhaps it happens soon after they die, or perhaps on their deathbed, when the barrier between heaven and earth is thinnest. We simply don’t know.

       These believers are missing out, as they themselves would agree when they learn the full truth. They would long to find Jesus and be filled with his Holy Spirit in this life. However, they are not despised or refused by God—Hebrews says that with their minimal faith and their seeking for him, they “please God.” That is a considerable achievement, and if I can achieve even that accolade in this life, I’ll be well satisfied.

The Creeds

The Nicene Creed (325) was expanded in 381 at the Council of Constantinople using largely the words of the Apostles’ Creed. These creeds are so similar that they can be superimposed:
• Nicene Creed in bold
• Apostles’ Creed in italics, with overlaps in bold italics
• Constantinople revision of the Nicene Creed, which includes everything except the words in [square brackets]. These are only found in the Apostles’ Creed.

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty,
Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made,
being of one substance with the Father;
by whom all things were made;
who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate
[who was conceived] by the Holy Ghost and of the Virgin Mary, and was made man;
he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered, and was buried, [he descended to the dead.]
and the third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures,
and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father;
from thence he shall come again, with glory, to judge the quick and the dead, whose kingdom shall have no end.
And in the Holy Ghost, the Lord and Giver of life,
who proceedeth from the Father, who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified, who spake by the prophets.
[the communion of saints,] In one holy catholic and apostolic Church;
we acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins;
we look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.

This was previously published in a similar form in Christianity magazine

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