on Christian essentials

A long-time friend of mine wrote me yesterday concerning a project he is working on. He was requesting the opinions of several people on this question:

In your opinion what are the cardinal doctrines of the faith that ALL Christians worldwide would have to believe to be Christians?

Having just done some thinking on this, I was ready to give the following reply.

I am just now going through Romans in a NT survey series. The apostle Paul says he is set apart to the gospel in 1.1. Then he gives us some components of the gospel in 1.2-4:

ESV Romans 1:2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 34 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,
concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

Notice these features:

descended from David according to the flesh – this involves the incarnation and must include, I believe acceptance of the virgin birth. The incarnation could have occured without a virgin birth, but the credibility of the claim would be extremely damaged. Any daughter of David could say they had been impregnated by the Holy Spirit, not her husband, but how could anyone believe such a claim?

declared to be the Son of God in power – this involves incarnation from the divine aspect, God became man, the hypostatic union.

by his resurrection – the resurrection would be a key component that cannot be overlooked.

Paul refers to ‘my gospel’ three times in the scriptures:

Romans 2:16 In the day when God shall judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ according to my gospel.

From this one, I infer that a future judgement is an essential part of the gospel.

Romans 16:25 Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began,

I am not sure if any new theology is added by this one.

2 Timothy 2:8 Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel:

Again we see incarnation, Messiahship, resurrection as essential components.

To this I would add Paul’s summary of the gospel in 1 Cor 15.3-4:

ESV 1 Corinthians 15:3 For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures,

Here we have substitutionary atonement by a sacrificial death and the resurrection.

John also has some information that I think points to essentials. I call it “John’s confession”:

ESV 1 John 4:2 By this you know the Spirit of God: every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God,

The confession includes humanity, messiahship, incarnation. This particular theme is found throughout 1 Jn, especially in the 4th and 5th chapters. See also:

ESV 2 John 1:7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

I believe that you will find elements of the confession in Peter as well, but I don’t recall the passages right off.

I hope this is some help to you. It is a little difficult to untangle all the threads that are absolutely essential. If I was summing up, I think I would say that these things are essential (although there may be more)

  1. Incarnation by a particular virgin birth (not just any virgin would do)
  2. Hypostatic union – full humanity and full deity
  3. Substitutionary atonement (probably a broad term that includes several particular doctrines)
  4. Bodily Resurrection (and ascenscion as perhaps a secondary aspect of this doctrine)
  5. Judgement (the point of it all, if no judgement, who needs a saviour?)

Thinking this over a bit, I sent a follow-up e-mail with this line:

Just a quick follow-up, I think that one has to accept the miracles if one accepts the hypostatic union. I suppose that is a given. If Jesus is God, there is no problem with the miracles.


I would be interested in any comments others have to refine this summary a bit.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3


  1. Andy Efting says:


    I think there are two questions here. First, what do you have to know and believe to get saved. I don’t think you would put the hypostatic union in that list, for example. Second, what truths would no true Christian deny? A believer might not know anyting about the hypostatic union, but if taught from the Scripture the truth of Christ’s full deity and full humanity, I don’t think any true beleiver would deny it. They might not be able to express it properly, but that is another issue.

  2. Don Johnson says:

    Hi Andy,

    Yes, I agree that the individual can be born again without an awareness of all doctrines, but I think that saving faith accepts in a latent fashion the essential doctrines. For example, if you read 1 Jn 4.2, you might confess it to be true, and in the Spirit fully affirm it, without understanding or comprehending all that it means. In fact, it is likely that we don’t understand all that it means even after years of study and contemplation.

    Anyway, your caution is certainly well taken and should be included in any description of essentials. This particular one was sort of ‘off the cuff’, but I thought it worth putting out there for other input.


    Don Johnson
    Jer 33.3

  3. Andy Efting says:


    I like how you put that: “saving faith accepts in a latent fashion the essential doctrines.”