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What is a Christian? The simple answer is that a Christian is a follower of Jesus Christ.

Of course, the answer isn’t quite that simple. If it were we would not have a plethora of Christian denominations. There is room for disagreement (provided we are not disagreeable), but there are some essential doctrines that stand out from the rest. These essential doctrines separate Christians from cultists, and separate Christianity as distinct from all other religions of the world.

In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. I all things, charity. ~ Augustine

The first, and most obvious, essential doctrine is that to be a Christian one must believe in God. The book of Hebrews says, “…whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him” (Hebrews 11:6b, ESV). A Christian cannot trust in any old god either, but only in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. A Christian cannot worship Zeus, or Odin, or Ra, or Krishna–even in addition to the God of the Bible. A Christian cannot believe s/he is divine, or a part of the divine, or worship any created thing as god. A genuine Christian can only believe in one God, made up of three persons, who created the heavens and the earth, and who took on human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ.

This brings us to the next essential doctrine: all Christians must believe in Jesus Christ. Christians believe that Jesus Christ is truly man, and at the same time truly God. He is more than a good moral teacher, more than a sage, and more than a prophet. Jesus Christ is God–more specifically, God the Son. He has always co-existed with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and is an equal member of the Godhead with them. He took on a human nature in addition to His divine nature, and was miraculously conceived of a virgin in first century Palestine. He grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man, just as any other human would. He was tempted just like every other person, but He never sinned. He was the greatest Jewish rabbi the world had ever known.

All Christians believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He was unjustly crucified, died, and was buried, but on the third day He rose from the grave. He appeared to over 500 of His disciples and ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father. He sent the Holy Spirit to indwell all Christian believers. He will return one day to judge the living and the dead, and to defeat evil once and for all.

Authentic Christians believe that humans are sinners by nature. Christians do not believe that people are sinners because they sin, but that people sin because they are sinners. While this does not mean that all people are prone to be axe murderers, or bank robbers, or malevolent tyrants, it does mean people are more prone to sin than not–even if they never commit any extraordinary sins. All humans struggle at times with idolatry, hatred, selfishness, lust, covetousness and other shortcomings. God’s own moral nature is the standard of goodness we must meet, but cannot.

That is why all orthodox Christians believe Jesus was sent to save us from the just consequences of sin. He was without sin, and therefore able to meet God’s standard of righteousness. When Christ was crucified, He not only suffered a torturous and bloody execution, but He actually bore the wrath of God on our behalf. His blood, shed in righteousness, atoned for the sins of mankind. However, He was not content only to conquer sin, but rose again to overthrow the power of death. Everyone who trusts in Him shares in his victory over death and sin. The Apostle Paul put it this way:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it— the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

Romans 3:21-26, ESV

Finally, to confirm the trustworthiness of His work and His promises, He sends His Spirit to live within every Christian. The inner witness of the Holy Spirit authenticates the reality of God and the truth of the gospel. Not only that, the Holy Spirit serves as the ultimate guide for every Christian. Prior to the work of Christ all men were separated from God because of sin, but those who trust in Jesus can now experience Him directly. This same Holy Spirit inspired the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, and can reveal to us their proper meaning.

While we are on the topic of the Bible, let me just encourage my readers to view all its 66 books as authoritative and breathed out by God. While trusting the Bible as God’s Word is not an essential Christian doctrine, all essential Christian doctrines are founded on the authority of Scripture. Traditions of men change over time, but the Bible does not. Despite claims to the contrary, we have more than enough textual evidence to demonstrably show that we read the same Bible that Jesus and the Apostles read and considered authoritative.

The surest way to depart from essential Christian doctrine is to depart from the clear teachings of the Bible. While there is nothing wrong with traditions, when we trust in them as authoritative we place our trust in something less stable than the unchanging Word of God. We must not despise prophecies, but we must test them against the rock-solid truths of Scripture. The Bible protects Christians both from dead religion and the latest fads, if we will adhere to its teachings.

This is the first post in a series. Stay tuned to Word of the Cross blog this week as we explore essential Christianity.