The Essential Elements of Christianity
Since the late first century, there has been an almost endless debate among those who call themselves Christian as to what constitutes actually being a Christian. A thorough review of scripture, though, brings to light certain essential elements of Christianity. Regardless of the debate, regardless of any individuals "interpretation" of what is necessary, and regardless of what anyone says must be added to, or taken away from these elements, the simple facts remain. These elements, listed below, are absolutely essential. No one can deny any of these elements, or alter in any way any part of these elements without moving outside the bounds of Christianity.
Element One-The Deity of Christ
Throughout the centuries, and even today, there is great confusion and argumentation over this question - is Christ God? In Judaism, there is adamant belief that Messiah (the Hebrew word for Christ), while blessed by God and empowered by God, is NOT God Himself, since that would be impossible. Even within Christianity, there are many who adopt the attitude that Christ was a "good teacher," a "moral man and leader," and one who "showed us the way," all without acknowledging that Christ was, and is God, or "Immanuel" (God with us). Some even say that Christ is God (having been elevated to that position after his death) just as we can become.
I would submit that it is impossible for Christ to have been just a "good teacher," or that He was "elevated" to that position and so can we.
Christ was either God, or He was nothing more than a lunatic with a major case of delusions of grandeur and severe masochistic tendencies.
Let's look at some scriptures to understand that Jesus was God, is God, and KNEW that He was.
In John 1:1, we see "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." In John 1:14, we see "And the Word was made 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."
In John 10:30, "I and my Father are one." In Colossians 2:9, we read "For in him (Jesus) dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily." In Philippians 2:5-6 we see "Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God," and in Philippians 2:11, "And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." The word used for Lord here is Kurios, and is used only of God, and is the same word chosen by the Jews to refer to YHWH when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek in the Septuagint (Alexandrian Old Testament.)
In John 20:28 we also find Thomas, the doubting disciple, acknowledging Jesus as "My Lord and my God."
Did Jesus know He was God? Again, there is no doubt from scripture that He not only knew it, but declared it unequivocally. In Matthew 12:6, Jesus said "I say to you that something greater than the Temple is here, and in verse 8 says "The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath." No one can be Lord of the Sabbath except the One who instituted the Sabbath - God Himself. In Mark 1:12, Jesus tells the paralytic "My son, your sins are forgiven," and follows that up when questioned by the scribes with " but in order that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins " . The ONLY one who may forgive sin is God. In the Sermon on the Mount (Mat. 7), Jesus concludes with a statement that He is the ultimate judge who has the authority to deny entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven. Immediately following that He says"everyone who hears the words of God or Torah will lay a strong foundation for their lives...everyone who hears these words of mine..." Notice that He unequivocally places what He says on the same level of authority as Torah.
Jesus, as a teacher, rabbi, and knowledgeable Jew, would have torn His clothes, beat on His breast and cried "blasphemy" if someone had worshiped Him as God improperly...yet He did not. In Mat. 21:15-16, children were crying out "Hosanna to the Son of David" in praise to Him. When challenged by the priests and scribes to rebuke them, Jesus said "out of the mouth of infants and nursing babes Thou (God) hast prepared praise for Thyself."
Most notable of all are the occasions when Jesus invoked the holy name of God to describe Himself. In John 8:58, He said "...before Abraham was born, I Am," thus declaring not only His pre-existence and eternal nature, but also claiming the name of God. No wonder the Jews who heard Him tried to stone Him! Jesus also said:"I Am the bread of life" (Jn 6:35); "I Am the light of the world": (Jn 8:12); "I Am the good shepherd" (Jn. 10:11-14); and "I Am the resurrection and the life" (Jn. 11:35).
Jesus had no doubt about who He was, and declared it. As to whether or not His deity is an essential element of the Christian faith, we will end with His own words..."Unless you believe that I AM, you will die in your sins." (Jn. 8:24).
Included with the element of Jesus' deity is an acknowledgement of the Trinity. While a newly regenerated person may not understand the concept, there is no doubt that in the process of maturing as a Christian, this element will be understood and embraced. It also is not a matter of adopting a belief that God just took on different forms at different times (modalism), but that God eternally exists in three different forms simultaneously...God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. We also see in 1 John 4:3 the understanding that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, not as a spirit.
Element Two-The Sinfulness of Man
Without an acknowledgement that man is incurably and hopelessly lost in sin, there would be no requirement for salvation, therefore there would be no need for God to require a substitutionary sacrifice for our atonement. In Romans 5:12, we see "for as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin, and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned:" and in Romans 3:10, "as it is written, there is none righteous, no, not one." In Romans 3:23 we read "for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."
There are many, both within and without Christianity, who maintain that man is not inherently sinfulthere is no such thing as a "sin nature," but scripture makes it abundantly clear that the truth of the matter is that ALL have sinned, and the reason for it is that sin entered into the world through one man.Adam, and thus ALL who are born of man inherit that sin nature.
Element Three-The Substitutionary Atonement of Christ
It is specifically because of the sinfulness of man that a substitutionary atonement is required. In Hebrews 9:22 we read"and almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without (the) shedding of blood (there) is no remission (of sin)." In Romans 6:23 we see "for the wages (rightful payment) of sin [Is] death..." and in Romans 5:8, "but God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us."
If we are not bound in sin, then there is no need for a savior, and if there is no need for a savior, then there was no need for Jesus to come or to die. But if we are sinners, then there is an absolute need for salvation (deliverance from the penalty (wages) of sin, which is death), and that salvation was provided BY God Himself, THROUGH Himself.
Element Four-The Resurrection of Christ
"If there is no resurrection, then there is no need for salvation, and if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised. If Christ is not risen, any preaching is vain, and faith is useless. If faith is useless, then we are still in sin."
This is the summary (and paraphrase) of what Paul told the Corinthians in 1 Cor. 15:13-17. Without the resurrection of Christ, then Christianity has no hope (nor does mankind), and no amount of faith, or action is of any use.
The question is...did Christ rise? Was He really resurrected?
There is no doubt but that Christ rose from the dead. Not only do we have the testimony of the four Gospel writers, but the first hand testimony of Paul, and over 500 witnesses (at one time) who could be questioned if there were any doubts (1 Cor. 15). We have also the testimony of the Roman guards who vacated their posts in fear, and ran to the Temple priests for protection, and the subsequent bribing of the guards by the priests to fabricate a tale to cover the fact of Jesus' missing body.
Throughout the first three centuries of Christianity, untold thousands (possibly millions) were imprisoned, scourged, slaughtered, fed to wild animals, burned at the stake, and beheaded for refusing to deny Jesus Christ. It boggles the mind to believe that so many people could have graciously and willingly gone to their deaths if they themselves did not believe in His resurrection, and based on that believe in their own. Surely, they had reason to believe.
The greatest single testimony to His resurrection is found in the changed lives of millions of people through the ages, and their willingness to undergo even a cruel death rather than recant their faith and belief in Him and His resurrection.
Element Five-Salvation by Grace through Faith
Essential to all religions EXCEPT Christianity is the belief that "salvation" can be achieved through some form of worksgiving, sacrificing, being good, or being "sinless." Scripture makes it absolutely clear that this is impossible. No person can be perfectly good all the time, from birth to death. It is for this reason that Paul wrote in Ephesians 2:5 and 8-9 "for by grace are ye saved through faith...not of works, lest any man should boast."
Many Christian denominations modify this element to one degree or another by adding certain "works" that are required to establish the validity of their salvation, but it cannot be overemphasized that such "works" are not only NOT required, but are abhorrent in the sight of God. Paul, in writing to the Galatians, placed a curse on any one or any thing that would preach any Gospel OTHER than what he had preached...grace through faith.
Element Six-The Virgin Birth
Surprisingly, there are many within Christianity who do not ascribe to the Virgin Birth, holding that it is neither essential, nor possible. Without a Virgin Birth, however, Christ would not have been sinless, and could not have been a "perfect sacrifice."
Scripture (already quoted) stipulates that sin enters mankind by man, thus the seed of man is automatically sinful. Had Joseph (or any other man) been the father of Jesus, then Jesus would have inherited the sin nature, and could not have lived a sinless life. Scripture (Hebrews 4:15) declares that Jesus was without sin.
Had Joseph been the father, there would also have been a contradiction from God that occurred. God had placed a curse on the line of Jeconiah (Jeremiah 22:28-30) that no descendent would ever be king. Joseph was of the line of Jeconiah, effectively prohibiting Jesus from being king. However, Mary was of the line of David, but not through Jeconiah, and with the Holy Ghost "overshadowing" her, Jesus then was not of the seed of man, was not of the line prohibited from kingship, but was of the line promised (David) to be Messiah.
Most central to this belief is simply that Jesus could not have been sinless, or a perfect, once-for-all sacrifice without the Virgin Birth.
From the very beginning of Christianity, there have been those who have added to, or taken from the only Gospel there is. Paul, writing to the Galatians, had some harsh words to say to them about being distracted, and placed a curse on those who would change that Gospel, even in the slightest.
That Gospel is summed up in Pauls declaration to Festus found in Acts 26:23 "That Christ should suffer, [and] that he should be the first that should rise from the dead, and should shew light unto the people, and to the Gentiles." And again in 1Cr 15:3-4 "For I delivered unto you first of all that which I also received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; And that he was buried, and that he rose again the third day according to the scriptures:"
We can see that the Gospel is Christ's death (suffering), His resurrection, and the extension of salvation through that death and resurrection to all people.
That's it...no if's, and's or but's.
To repeat, the above are the absolutely essential elements of Christianity. While there are many "denominations" that claim, either in their name, or in their statements, that they are Christian, they deny one or more of these elements, or alter them so as to be scripturally unrecognizable, and thus remove themselves from the sphere of Orthodox and real Christianity. As such, they can rightfully be called a cult or false religion.