What Are the Essential Beliefs of Christians?

As an apologist, I am often asked about all sorts of religious groups.  Some of these groups are clearly not Christian and have never claimed to be Christian.  Some of them, such as Christian Science, don’t claim to be Christian, but their name causes confusion.  And some of them claim to be Christian, but they are not.

In addition, since there are so many denominations in the Christian world, I am often asked what these various denominations believe and whether they are true Christians.  Determining whether a group is Christian is made simpler if we can agree on what the essential doctrines of Christianity are.  If we agree on that list, then we can compare the doctrines of religion X and see whether it lines up.

My answer to this question of the essential doctrines of Christianity is based heavily on an article written by theologian Norman Geisler in the Christian Research Journal, volume 28, number 6.

First, what I mean by an essential doctrine is a doctrine that directly affects the subject of salvation.  There are at least a couple of other essential doctrines that do not directly affect salvation that I will consider another time.

There are three stages of salvation for the believer: justification (freedom from the penalty of sin), sanctification (freedom from the power of sin), and glorification (freedom from the presence of sin).  Each of the essential doctrines deals with one of these.

In the area of justification, here are the essential doctrines:

  1. human depravity
  2. Christ’s virgin birth
  3. Christ’s sinlessness
  4. Christ’s deity
  5. Christ’s humanity
  6. God’s unity
  7. God’s triunity
  8. the necessity of God’s grace
  9. the necessity of faith
  10. Christ’s atoning death
  11. Christ’s bodily resurrection

These 11 doctrines are essential for justification.  Now please understand, I am not saying one must explicitly believe all 11 of these doctrines to be justified.  These 11 doctrines must all be true in order for anyone to be justified.  The New Testament seems to teach that 4, 6, 8, 9, 10, and 11 all must be explicitly believed for justification.

What about sanctification?  There are two essential doctrines for sanctification:

  1. Christ’s bodily ascension
  2. Christ’s present high priestly service

Both of these must be true for the believer to be sanctified during this life.

Finally, glorification involves one essential doctrine.  This doctrine must be true if we hope to spend eternity with God.

  1. Christ’s second coming, final judgment, and reign.

So what makes a religious group non-Christian?  In my opinion, any religious group who denies one of these 14 doctrines has placed themselves outside of orthodox Christianity and cannot properly call themselves Christian.

Does that mean that a person inside that group cannot be saved and spend eternity with God?  No, because not all of these doctrines must be explicitly believed for a person to be saved.  However, a person who belongs to a religious group who is denying one or more of these doctrines should want to remove themselves from that group and find a group of Christians who uphold these essentials.

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  • ladonnamorrell

    how did you stray so far? how can you believe nonsense like “God’s triunity”? there is NO scriptural basis for that one.

  • Bill Pratt

    Ladonna,
    I was never Mormon. You have me confused with Darrell.

    In any case, there is plenty of scriptural evidence for the Trinity, and that “nonsense” is believed by 2 billion Christians around the world. Some day soon I will write a post on it (as it deserves more than a comment), so I hope you’ll stick around and read the blog in eager anticipation!

  • Ray A

    Hi Billy,

    A great list of essential doctrines!

    I would add a few…

    15. Inerrancy of the The Bible (you address in another post..)
    16. Sinfulness of man (although 8,9,10 may imply it – I believe that it is essential to believe we are sinners who thusly need grace, redemption and a savior)
    17. Salvation: this doctrine needs to be tied together with 8,9,10 & 16. For example: Salvation from sin is a free gift offered by God through His grace and received by personal repentance from sin and by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. The shed blood of Jesus and His resurrection provide the only ground for salvation for all who believe. Only those who receive Jesus are born of the Holy Spirit and, thus, become children of God. I believe that many are lost because they are trusting in their own good works, so it is critical to include in any list of essential doctrines.
    18. Heaven and Hell: Important for salvation: sinner needs to understand what he is being saved from and unto what glory: for example: We believe in the bodily resurrection and everlasting blessedness of believers and in the bodily resurrection of unbelievers to final judgment and everlasting punishment. If someone does not believe in a literal hell and a literal heaven, it is difficult to understand how he could repent and what he is really trusting Christ for …

    Soli Deo Gloria!
    To God Alone the Glory!

    -Ray

  • Ray A

    Sorry … somehow doctrine #17 turned into a smiley face with sunglasses…. yikes…

    [From Darrell – I fixed it for you.]

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  • Mr. Litigastor

    15. Inerrancy of scripture is not “essential to salvation”
    16. Human Depravity MEANS man is sinful.
    17.

  • Mr. Litigastor

    oops:
    17. The entire purpose of the 14 essential doctrines is FOR salvation.
    18. The purpose of salvation is NOT to save us from hell, but to restore us unto our creator. Thus Depravity and Christ’s atoning death, ergo salvation.

    The idea behind the 14 essential doctrines unto salvation are to reduce them down to the basic ESSENTIAL doctrines. Not to bring in the entire teachings of the Holy Scriptures. It does not limit or delegate the other beliefs to a lessor status, but they are not essential to salvation, but are essential for the maturity of the one saved.

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  • Mick Curran

    Hi Bill,

    I’m an Eastern Orthodox Christian and I’ve a question. In your penultimate paragraph you wrote:

    “In my opinion, any religious group who denies one of these 14 doctrines has placed themselves outside of orthodox Christianity and cannot properly call themselves Christian.”

    How do you intend your reader to understand the word “orthodox” in the above sentence?

  • Bill Pratt

    Mick,
    Orthodox means “right doctrine,” but practically speaking it refers to those who hold to the historic, traditional beliefs of Christianity, as established by the early creeds and councils.

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