What makes a Christian truly a Christian? What makes a Christian church genuinely Christian? In this age of self-identification there is value in considering if a person is a Christian by identifying as one or is something more required to truly be a Christian? If so, what is it? Is there a single doctrine, creed or statement that comprises the core elements of Christianity? The World Council of Churches once declared the way to distinguish false Christianity from possibly true Christianity is through the affirmation of the statement, “Jesus Christ is God is Savior.” Does this simple statement encompass all that is essential to true Christianity? Are all those Christians who affirm the Deity and salvation of Jesus?
Surveying the scope of Christendom today does not provide an easy answer to these question. Not all churches which call themselves Christians would affirm this statement. Many Christian churches would not consider an affirmation of that basic statement evidence of Christianity. However, the question is not what churches today believe, or what churches in history have believed. The question is what does the Bible teach is the essence of Christianity.
The book of Acts shows what the apostles taught as the essence of salvation and the essence of Christianity. Acts 11 introduces the term Christian when it says that believers were first called Christians in Antioch. Those called Christians in Acts 11:26 are referred to as “the disciples.” Who were these disciples? What was required to be a disciple? Disciples in Acts are those who followed the footstesp of the twelve disciples by following the teachings of Jesus.
Acts 11:26 also indicates that the disciples assembled as a church. In Acts 2 the church is introduced and we learn what was necessary to be a part of the church. In short, those who were saved became part of the church. (Acts 2:47) These ones added to the church were also added to the number of disciples (Acts 2:41; 6:1) The substance of Peter’s sermon in Acts 2 defines what is essential to be a disciple of Christ and to be a Christian.
Peter says that what is necessary for a person to be a Christian is to believe Jesus was a man sent from God and is the God of David (Acts 2:22, 25), to believe Jesus was crucified and died (Acts 2:23) and to believe Jesus was restored to life again. (Acts 2:32) To be saved a person must cease rejecting Jesus and receive Him for forgiveness of sin. (Acts 2:39, 41, 44) These same essentials of Christianity are found in Paul’s first recorded sermon in Acts 13 and are the same essentials found in the definition of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:2-4.
The essence of Christianity is belief that Jesus is God who became a man, died on the cross and was restored to life again. This belief turns in faith to Jesus and trusts Him to forgive sin. Other things can be added to give a proper definition of saving faith, such as, saving faith does not attempt to earn any portion of salvation. (Ephesians 2:8-9; Galatians 5:4) Additions are necessary for clarifying the Biblical truths of salvation, but the basic essence of Christianity- those things which must be believed to be a disciple of Christ- is the gospel message of faith in Jesus who is God and man that died and rose to life again to give forgiveness of sin.
The Great Commission commands the Christian to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15) To fulfill the Great Commission the believer must understand the gospel. Unfortunately, this is not as straightforward as it might seem. The political and social turmoil of recent years has given renewed urgency to certain ones who teach that the gospel is about social change. Tony Evans said, “There’s the content of the gospel that takes you to Heaven, but there’s also the scope of the gospel, which brings Heaven to earth.” His perspective is widely held by Evangelicals. But it is not held by all evangelicals. John MacArthur spearheaded a group that issued a lengthy statement opposing making social reformation a part of the gospel.
The social gospel is a version of the gospel that makes the reformation of society, the promotion of social justice, provision for the poor and the advancement of equity in societal systems to be integral to the gospel message. According to this view a gospel that does not include the call to renovate culture is an abbreviated gospel. Does the gospel message include the renovation of culture?
The discussion of the social gospel is not a question of whether the gospel produces change in a society. Few would deny the profound impact salvation has upon the individual and, as a result, on society. The issue is whether the gospel message demands a call to bring about cultural change. When Tony Evans said the scope of the gospel brings heaven to earth, he is saying the gospel is designed to transform the world to be more like the kingdom of God. In many minds, a gospel without a call for social renovation is not the gospel.
The Bible gives a very clear definition of the gospel. Scriptures presents the gospel in many places and teaches the gospel in a variety of ways, but only one place in the Bible specifically sets out to define the substance of the gospel. “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.” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4) This passage must be the final authority when creating a definition of the gospel because it is the only place in the whole Bible which intends to define the gospel.
1 Corinthians 15 lists several key facts of the gospel. First, is the person of Jesus- He is Christ. Second is His death. Third is the reason for His death- our sin. Fourth, is the fulfillment of God’s promises- according to the Scripture. Last, the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The gospel message is a message of individual sin and of God the Son who died to save us from our sin. The Bible never presents societal change as a component of the gospel. The Bible does not teach that man’s chief problem is an unjust political system or income inequality. The problem of man is not external to him. The problem of man is not social. The problem of mankind is internal to each individual. The problem of man is sin that resides in every human heart. The solution of the gospel is the forgiveness of sin, which makes each one who believes a new creature.
When enough people are saved and live in obedience to God society will change. This change is not the message of the gospel, but the result of the gospel. The distinction between of cause and effect must not be ignored. To confuse the results of the gospel with the gospel itself is to risk creating a false gospel.