Much today is said about unity within the body. But unity at what cost?
The truth, however, is that unity cannot exist apart from the essentials for which the martyrs spilled their blood.
Christ warned us to beware of false prophets, and the history of the church age has borne eloquent testimony to the necessity of the warning. The Bible throughout warns of false apostles and deceitful workmen who masquerade as apostles of Christ. Paul concludes that if Satan himself "masquerades as an angel of light," it should not surprise us that his disciples "masquerade as servants of righteousness" (2 Corinthians 11:13-15).
As the storm clouds gather, these warnings must be heeded as never before. We must become so familiar with genuine Christianity that when counterfeits loom on the horizon, we recognize them immediately. The American Banking Association had a training program which beautifully illustrates the point.
Each year the association sent hundreds of bank tellers to Washington to learn how to detect counterfeit money. At no time during the entire two-week training program, however, were the tellers ever brought into contact with counterfeit currency. Instead, the training project focused completely on handling the real thing. Why? The American Banking Association was convinced that if someone became familiar with the genuine article, he could not be deceived by its counterfeit, no matter how much like the real thing it appeared.
That is precisely why we now turn our attention to the essentials on which the faith is founded. These essentials have served the church well through many perilous times.
Sailors in days gone by fixed their course by the North Star. That star provided an unchanging reference point which guided their ships safely toward their destinations. The essentials have likewise guided Christ's body through the doctrinal storms that have sought to sink it. While shooting stars may light the sky for a moment, following them only leads to shipwreck.
Many people today claim that a tidal wave is sweeping us out of the age of the church into a New Age of Aquarius. But this is impossible, for Christ promised that the gates of hell would not prevail against the church. In His final commission He said, "Surely I will be with you always, to the very end of the age" (Matthew 28:20). Jesus' promise suggests the acronym A-G-E, which serves as a point of reference in getting back to basics.
The Athanasian Creed, widely used throughout the church, is one of the classic creeds of Christianity. It has been said that no other statement of the early church sets forth so incisively and with such clarity the profound theology implicit in the scriptural affirmation that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself. Its primary purpose — along with that of the other universally accepted creeds — was to refute heresies that had arisen in the church. One of the obvious functions of the Athanasian Creed was to counter deviant views of the trinity, including tritheism. The Athanasian Creed is especially meaningful in view of the fact that tritheistic teachings peddled by heretics in the medieval church have resurfaced through the teachings of men such as Benny Hinn and Bibles like Dake's.
Other major creeds of the church were used to combat heresy as well. The Nicene Creed was written to combat the dangerous Arian heresy, which denied Christ's full and unqualified deity. The Creed of Chalcedon refuted heresies which challenged the biblical teaching concerning Christ's nature and person. They all did so by pointing people back to the essentials of historic Christianity. The Athanasian Creed not only codifies the truth concerning the trinity, but also affirms Christ's incarnation, resurrection, ascension, second coming, and final judgment.
Another important aspect of the creeds is that they help us separate essential from secondary doctrines. The creeds do not discuss disputable areas in eschatology (the study of last things) such as the rapture, the tribulation, or the millennium. Instead, they simply state the central issue, which is that "He [Christ] shall come again, with glory, to judge the living and the dead."
It is important to note that the creeds find their basis in Scripture. The Israelites in the Old Testament used the Shema (Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one) as a creedal expression for the unity and uniqueness of Yahweh. The New Testament contains several passages first used as protocredal statements during the apostolic times. The most commonly used is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3,4: "For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."
Because the creeds are a concise expression of biblical truth, they are helpful in affirming doctrinal truth, refuting error, and encouraging doctrinal instruction. However, like all statements written by imperfect men, they are subject to the supreme authority of the written Word of God.
The gospel is at the heart of the Christian faith. If Christians do not know how to share their faith, they have probably never been to "boot camp". The gospel should be so much a part of you that presenting it becomes second nature.
The first step in communicating the gospel involves in learning to develop a relationship with an unbeliever. In part, that involves using your personal testimony as a bridge into the presentation of the Good News. This is precisely the reverse of grabbing somebody by the lapels and saying, "Brother, are you saved?"
After a relationship is established, you should be equipped to move naturally into a presentation of the gospel. In short, that involves:
Once you have presented the gospel, you also need to know how to be used by the Holy Spirit to lead people in response to the Good News and to the assurance of their salvation.
Finally, since we are not called to make converts, but rather to make disciples, we need to know how to lead people through the basic steps of discipleship and growth as new believers.
Consider what would happen if every evangelical Christian led just one person to faith in Christ each year. If we began with only 12 committed Christians and each of them led one person to Christ and discipled that person, next year there would be 24 believers. If each of them in turn led one person to Christ and discipled that person, the third year there would be 48 believers. If this process continued, it would take less than 30 years to evangelize the five billion or more people alive today on planet Earth! If in the same time frame the population doubled, it would take only one additional year.
If we re-created this scenario, but instead of beginning with 12 disciples began with approximately 174 million, in six years we would run out of people to evangelize!
Many people today run from church to church in search of the ultimate experience. No experience, however, can compare with that of the Holy Spirit working through you in the process of bringing someone to a saving knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Essential Christian Doctrine
The gospel is rendered meaningless if it does not rest on the firm foundation of essential Christian doctrine. The Mormons, for example, proclaim a "gospel," and even acknowledge Jesus as "Lord." But their Jesus is vastly different from the Jesus of Scripture. Far from being the One who spoke and caused the universe to leap into being, He is said to be the spirit brother of Lucifer. The New Age movement also has a gospel. It's called the Aquarian gospel. In this gospel Jesus is reduced to the status of an avatar or a divine messenger. The Faith movement, too, has a gospel — but its Jesus was defeated by Lucifer upon the cross and has been relegated to the status of a cosmic gofer.
All three of these movements have something in common: They have completely redefined essential Christian doctrine. In fact, it is precisely because these essentials have been redefined that millions of people today have a distorted view of what it means to be a Christian.
The faith movement may use Christian terminology when it comes to essentials, but the meaning it pours into the words is decidedly unbiblical. Faith teachers have redefined faith as a force and God as a faith being, and they have completely redefined Christ's substitutionary death upon the cross. They have transformed the Christian message from a gospel of grace into a gospel of greed.
While the importance of essential Christian doctrine has been trivialized by Faith teaching, it is as important today as ever. Without the essentials there is no basis for unity within the body of Christ.
Thankfully, there are many inviting and easy-to-understand resources available on essential Christian doctrine or what C.S. Lewis termed Mere Christianity. Two of my favorites are Know What You Believe, by Paul Little, and Know The Truth, by Bruce Milne. Typically, they present the essentials in the following basic categories: the authority of Scripture; the nature of God; the trinity; the creation; humanity; sin; Jesus Christ; Holy Spirit; salvation; angels, Satan, and demons; the church; and things to come.
Essential Christian doctrine provides the key to successful Christian living. It provides the framework through which we properly relate to God in prayer, accurately understand the Bible, and actively involve ourselves in vital church membership. It is also the way in which we ably defend our faith. What we believe is demonstrated inevitably in how we live. That is why the apostle Paul instructed Timothy, "Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers" (1 Timothy 4:16).
— Hank Hanegraaff
Copyright ©1993 by Hendrik Hanegraaff