I may have given the impression, in the last column that the essentials of the faith are all that really matter and that those concerned with the extras of the faith are simply gnat strainers. I don’t mean to go that far. The extras, such as our denominational traditions and preferences can be beautiful, and part of what makes us “us”. They help us to find a good match; to savor our spiritual experience and our church. If you love a lively worship service, try to find a lively church; if you’re more scholarly, find a church which does an extra fine job of teaching. Please keep in mind, though, that a lively church may be superficial or a teaching church spiritually dull. In the end, it’s not primarily our preferences that matter, but their results. They are just means to an end, and that end involves the essentials.
What are the spiritual essentials of Christianity?
1. It’s spiritually essential that God saves us from our sins
Church attendance does not save us. Spiritual rituals do not save us. Talking with “the Man upstairs” on occasion does not save us. Trying to be a good person does not save us. Salvation comes through repentance of our sins and believing in Jesus Christ as our Savior (Acts 2:38, Rom.10:9). It’s a gift of God, not something we can earn. It’s all grace. If this belief isn’t part of your spiritual life, you’ve missed the essential. Initial salvation is absolutely necessary. The aspects I mention next don’t earn us this salvation, but they show its presence and allow it to advance.
2. It’s spiritually essential that we seek to develop a close love relationship with God
Jesus said that the greatest commandment was to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” ( Matt 22:37). This is at the center of why God created us in the first place. He wanted to share a freely given love relationship with human beings created in His image. This was why it was necessary for Jesus to come to earth, die on our behalf, and be resurrected. This is why He lives in us through the Holy Spirit. If that’s not happening, if God remains simply an abstract, Sunday morning idea, or if we’re not close to Him, then we lack an essential part of Christianity.
3. It’s spiritually essential to be filled with the Holy Spirit
This is connected to the last point. When we are saved, the Holy Spirit takes up residence inside of us. He gives us a new nature; one attuned to God. In order to grow a strong love relationship with God, we need the constant help of the Holy Spirit. He gives us all the necessary resources: a love for God, a desire to know Him better, strength to do what’s right, wisdom, love for others, and so on. Trying to live a godly life without the Spirit’s aid, is like trying to jump to the moon. In fact, He’s more than just an aid or supporter. He’s meant to live through us.
4. It’s spiritually essential that we are saturated in Scripture
God speaks in many ways; through internal impressions, through nature, through others and so on. But depending on these alone is risky. He’s has gone to great lengths to send us a personal love letter called the Bible. It’s filled with encouragement, instruction, and empowerment. It’s also the clearest message we receive from a God who seldom speaks aloud. And it’s the benchmark against we test all other “truths”; the “Supreme Court” of doctrine. This leads to a trickier essential.
5. It’s spiritually essential that we interpret the foundational teachings of Scripture correctly
This, of course, is more controversial. We don’t all agree on our interpretation of various Scriptures. I have no intention here of arguing that I alone or my denomination have the proper interpretations figured out. What I would push for, however, are the foundational beliefs, as stated in early historical creeds that most of us can agree on. These essentials are, for the most part, clearly taught in Scripture and are crucial for a proper understanding of salvation and holy living. They have a high view of the inspiration and veracity of Scripture. These include what I would consider historically orthodox views of Scripture – the Trinity, the deity of Christ, heaven/hell, salvation by grace alone, and so on. There are other doctrines on which truly saved believers may differ, but without believing these we cannot be saved.
6. It’s spiritually essential that we live in obedience to God’s commands
In Isaiah 29:13, God says: 13 The Lord says:
“These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
is made up only of rules taught by men.”
A Christianity which does not make us more like Christ in practical ways is a sham. We’re meant to be “conformed to the likeness of His Son” (Rom. 8:29). If our faith is based on the essentials, it will transform us. If we’re just “Sunday Christians” then an essential is missing.
How can I distinguish more skillfully between the essentials and the extras?
There’s no cut and dried answer to this, since there will be some disagreement on these distinctions. But here are some suggestions for keeping the main things the main things.
1. I distinguish more skillfully by really knowing my Bible
Don’t rely merely on others. Learn to think independently for yourself. Get a feel for the major themes and issues of the book. Study the parts you don’t understand. I’m not suggesting that we all have to be great Bible scholars, but we can at least be better Bible students with a little consistent effort. By staying in the Word and studying it we get its heartbeat; what God is most concerned about. We also gain a sense of the relative importance of and clarity of various doctrines.
2. I distinguish more skillfully by exposing myself to believers outside of my particular group
It’s amazing how many serious Christians are outside of your group. Crazy, huh? They do church differently. Their doctrinal emphases vary from yours. Yet they love Jesus and you can feel the Spirit moving between you. Wider contact allows us to see that some of what we thought was essential in our spiritual practices may be more optional than we realized. Read church history for an even wider panorama of the big picture. God’s basic purposes never change, but His methods for achieving them often do.
3. I distinguish more skillfully by humbling myself; by being teachable
Other believers/groups have something to teach us. Our group is usually strong on some essentials, but weaker on others. Be willing to learn and grow. We need the whole body of Christ, not just our denomination or school of theology.
4. I distinguish more skillfully by keeping my main focus on the essentials
The more you discover what matters most to God, the more attention those areas should get. The extras matter, but in the end, many of them are just accessories; tools to get us to the main goal which is to know and love our beautiful God.