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:
- human depravity
- Christ’s virgin birth
- Christ’s sinlessness
- Christ’s deity
- Christ’s humanity
- God’s unity
- God’s triunity
- the necessity of God’s grace
- the necessity of faith
- Christ’s atoning death
- 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:
- Christ’s bodily ascension
- 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.
- 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.