The best one-volume introduction to the Christian faith I’ve seen is What’s Christianity All About? by John Schwarz. There is also a condensed version of this book titled Living Faith(containing approximately 25% of the complete content). John has given me permission to reprint the entire text of Living Faith on this website. A chapter a day for ten days will be presented here as Meditations #926-#935. These meditations will be considerably longer than my usual post, but if you take the time to read them you will receive an excellent overview of the basics of Christianity. For more thorough study of the subjects in the ten chapters, purchase the larger book What’s Christianity All About? (Print and electronic versions available at Amazon.com).
CHAPTER SEVEN: CHRISTIAN DOCTRINES AND BELIEFS
What are the bottom-line, non-negotiable beliefs of Christianity? The early church addressed this issue and came up with confessions of faith like the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds. The better we understand and can articulate our Christian beliefs, which the creeds help us do, the more confident we will be in sharing our faith.
God Our Father: All-mighty and All-loving
Christian theology has to do first of all with God. The Christian confession is a statement of faith— “I believe in God the Father”— rather than something that can be empirically proven.
The Knowledge of God. The knowledge of God comes to us in four ways. First, God is made known in creation. Reasoning from what we observe of the world around us, we arrive at a Creator of the universe. Something cannot come from nothing; there must have been a first cause. Second, God is made known in providence— his “provide-ence” for his people, as when he heard the Israelites’ cries in Egypt and came to their rescue. Third, God is made known in human conscience, the aspect of the human psyche that distinguishes right from wrong and urges us to do the right and not the wrong. Fourth, and most important, God is made known in Jesus, the “image of the invisible God” (Colossians 1:15), the one in whom, Soren Kierkegaard said, “the infinite became finite.”
The Attributes of God. People want clarity in thinking about God. How do we visualize God, who is spirit (John 4:24)? One way is to think of God in anthropomorphic (human) terms, as in Michelangelo’s painting of God and Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. Another is to reflect on God’s attributes and characteristics. God is eternal: everything began with God; there was no time when God “was not”; God is “from everlasting to everlasting” (Psalm 90:2). God is almighty: he is omnipotent, able to do “whatever pleases him” (Psalm 135:6); he is omnipresent, everywhere present at one and the same time (Psalm 139:7-12); he is omniscient, having complete and perfect knowledge of things past, present and future (Hebrews 4:13). God is the Creator: he created the universe and life in all its varied forms (Genesis 1:1-26), and he created out of nothing rather than forming what already was; before God created, there was nothing except God. God is transcendent and immanent: he is both beyond all that is, as in his creation of the universe; and present and active, as in the exodus, when he freed the Israelites from Egypt; and in Jesus of Nazareth. God is personal: he is a person— a person who wants to have a relationship with us— not an object or an ‘it.’ Three of God’s personal attributes are love, mercy and compassion.
The Trinity of God. There are two great mysteries in Christianity. One is the incarnation— the doctrine that God entered human history in the person of Jesus of Nazareth to die a sacrificial death for our sins. The other is the Trinity— the doctrine that God comes to us in three “persons”: as God the Father, who created the heavens and the earth and life in all its fullness and variety; as God the Son, who came to reveal the invisible God and to rightly relate us to God and to one another; and as God the Spirit, who calls us to faith and regenerates and sanctifies us. The Trinity is like a rainbow: each color is distinct and separate from the others, but all are part of the same “bow.”
Sin: The Human Predicament
Man and woman were the crown of God’s creation, but the first “parents” of the human race fell into sin. And because the human race is interconnected— Augustine said that we are all part of the same “lump”— we as their “children” are fallen as well.
The Doctrine of Sin. Sin is a theological concept: it is disobedience to the divine law and will of God. One Greek word for sin is hamartia, which means “missing the mark.” We miss the mark when we step over the line, and also when we don’t step up to the line. What is the mark or line? In a word, it is love. We sin when we do not love God with our whole heart, when we disobey his will and commands (1 John 5:3), and when we do not show love and compassion to others. The doctrine of sin has two aspects. First, our inborn sinfulness gives rise to sinful acts, sometimes called “actual sins” or “daily sins.” We are not sinful because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinful. Second, Christ died to redeem us from our sins so that we would not “perish” in our sins.
Original Sin. The origin of sin and evil is second only to the origin of life as the greatest of all enigmas. Where did sin come from? How is it that human beings become evil people? Most religions have a doctrine of sin. Some believe that sin comes from uncontrollable cravings; others believe that we are born neutral and are pushed one way or the other by good and evil forces. Christianity believes that sin is part of the human condition and has been since the dawn of history. Today we see the reality of sin and evil everywhere: terrorism and violence, the use of drugs and other harmful substances, spousal and child abuse, corruption in government and business, racial conflicts and ethnic cleansings. The English writer G. K. Chesterton, in his book Orthodoxy, said that sin is one Christian doctrine that no one can dispute— all you have to do is read the morning newspaper. Today we might say all you have to do is watch the evening news on television.
How are we to understand the story of Adam and Eve? Some believe that stories must be historical to be true and read Genesis 3 as the account of sin entering the world through the disobedience of Adam and Eve, which Paul elaborates on in Romans 5:12-14. Others believe that stories themselves contain truths, as with Jesus’ parables (there was no actual Good Samaritan), and read the “fall” of Adam and Eve as a story that conveys an indisputable truth: men and women are sinful, fallen creatures and have been since the beginning of time. The real issue, though, is not how sin entered the human race but sin’s deadly consequences— not how we got into this mess, but how we get out. The Christian answer is Jesus Christ, who gave his life as a “ransom” (Mark 10:45) for the sins of those who put their faith and trust in him.
Jesus Christ: Lord and Savior
The fundamental question asked by every religious person is the question of the Philippian jailer in the book of Acts: “What must I do to be saved [rightly related to God]?” (16:30). Paul’s answer to the jailer is, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (16:31).
Jesus’ Virgin Birth. The virginal conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit is set forth in the Matthean and Lukan birth narratives. They do not prove Jesus’ virginal conception; rather, they announce that Jesus was God incarnate from the very beginning. Luke, who tells us that he investigated “everything carefully” (Luke 1:3), may have learned about Jesus’ conception and birth from Mary while Luke was in Caesarea when Paul was imprisoned there in the late 50s (Mary is believed to have lived into the 60s). Today the virgin birth is a stumbling block for many— even many Christians. British theologian Keith Ward said the strongest argument for the veracity of the birth narratives is that it is hard to see why they would have been invented when their claim— that a child born out of wedlock was the genetic, messianic descendant of King David– would have been so offensive to Jewish ears.
Jesus’ Saving Death. The twentieth-century British novelist Dorothy Sayers said no one would deny that there is a wide and deep cleavage in Christendom, “but it does not run between Catholics and Protestants; it runs between those who believe that salvation is of God and those who believe that salvation is of man.” Christianity believes that we are saved “by grace … through faith” (Ephesians 2:8). The first part of the equation is God’s gift of grace (Jesus’ death “for us”), which is totally free. There is nothing that we can do to earn our salvation, nothing that will oblige God to save us. The second part of the equation is accepting, through faith, Jesus’ death on our behalf. (Karl Barth, the twentieth century’s most influential theologian, said that the most important word in the New Testament is the Greek word huper, which means “on behalf of,” referring to Jesus’ substitutionary death for our sins.) Theologians refer to Jesus’ on-our-behalf death as the atonement. To understand atonement, we have to go back to ancient Israel, where priests sacrificed animals to cover the sins of the people (Leviticus 1-7). The prophet Isaiah said that one is coming who will bear the sins of the people in his own body (Isaiah 53:12); Jesus told his disciples that this prophecy “must be fulfilled in me” (Luke 22:37). We accept God’s gift of saving grace by believing, trusting and confessing that Jesus’ death was, is and will be sufficient for salvation and by living under his lordship.
Jesus’ Bodily Resurrection. There were many messianic movements before and after Jesus; they all collapsed with the deaths of their founders. Why did the “Jesus movement” survive— not only survive, but flourish? In a word, it was Jesus’ resurrection. What is the evidence for Jesus’ resurrection? First, the empty tomb. If the Jews could have produced Jesus’ body, they would have put an end to his followers’ claim that he had risen from the dead. Second, the testimony to Jesus’ resurrection. The New Testament contains twelve accounts of the risen Christ. No one would have taken the time or gone to the expense of writing about an executed Jewish peasant from rural Galilee if he had remained in the grave. Third, the witness of the disciples, who fled when Jesus was arrested but after Pentecost came out of hiding to preach his resurrection. Many were martyred for doing so—and no one willingly puts his or her life on the line for a lie. Fourth, the discovery of the empty tomb by women. Women were not considered credible witnesses in the first century. If the Gospel writers had fabricated their stories, they would have had men, not women, as the first witnesses.
The Holy Spirit: The Perfecter of Our Faith
The Holy Spirit—or Holy Ghost, from the Old English word gast, meaning “spirit”— is the third person of the Trinity. The Spirit is a person, not some vague “it” or “force.” As to the work of the Spirit, one function is to grant specific gifts to believers, some twenty of which are listed in the New Testament (see 1 Corinthians 12:8-11; Romans 12:6-8). Two other works are the regeneration of believers, enabling them to be born “again” or “anew” or “from above” (John 3:3-8), and sanctification, the continuing work of the Spirit that enables believers to grow in holiness. How does one receive the Holy Spirit? Most sacramental (liturgical) denominations believe that one receives the Spirit at baptism; others believe that a necessary precedent to receiving the Spirit is a public profession of one’s faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
The Church: Marks and Sacraments
The Nicene Creed confesses four marks of the church, namely, that it is one (one body under the lordship of Christ), holy (set apart for Christian ministry), catholic (universal) and apostolic (called to proclaim Jesus). Sacramental churches believe that sacraments are “channels” of grace. The Belgian Dominican theologian Edward Schillebeeckx said, “Just as we encounter God in the tangible Jesus, so we encounter Jesus in the tangible sacraments.” The church has long recognized the two sacraments instituted by Jesus, called the “Gospel Sacraments”: Baptism (Matthew 28:19) and Eucharist (“thanksgiving”), also called Communion (“common union”) and the Lord’s Supper (Luke 22:19). In addition, Catholic and Orthodox churches recognize as sacraments Confirmation, the confirming of vows made by one’s parents and sponsors at baptism; Penance, or, Reconciliation, previously called Confession, the forgiveness of post-baptismal sins; Matrimony, the covenanting together of a man and woman in the sight of God; Ordination or Holy Orders, the consecration of those set apart for Christian ministry; and Anointing the Sick, the sacrament of healing.
The End Times
Where is history headed? The Greek view was that history is cyclical, like the seasons of the year. The Eastern view is that history is an illusion. The secular view is that history is a series of unconnected events without meaning. The Christian view is that history is headed toward an end time when Jesus will return and raise to everlasting life all who have believed. His return is something that he promised (John 14:3), that others prophesied (Heb. 9:28) and that all the creeds confess. When is Jesus coming back? Despite ongoing predictions, Jesus said, only the Father” knows (Mark 13:32).
General Resurrection and Judgment. At the end of the age there will be a general resurrection of all who have ever lived, and then a final judgment. What will the judgment be? For those who have believed in Jesus, it will be eternal life; for those who have not, it will be everlasting punishment. Some argue, however, that subjecting those who have never heard the gospel— children who die in infancy, those who are mentally disabled, those who live in closed societies or remote areas of the world— to eternal torment and suffering is inconsistent with a God of love and mercy. They believe that God must have some provision or Plan B for those who, through no fault of their own, have never had an opportunity to hear, understand and consider the gospel.
The Intermediate State. What happens at death, and between death and the general resurrection? Regarding death, Christians hold different views. Some believe that both body and soul go to paradise, based on Jesus’ statement to the thief on the cross: “Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43). Others believe that the soul separates from the body and lives on until the body is resurrected. Still others believe that we perish completely and then are resurrected. Catholics believe that those who die with unforgiven venial sins go to purgatory to have their souls purified. The period between death and final resurrection is called the intermediate state, about which the New Testament tells us, one writer said, “little more than a whisper.” Theologians who hold that the soul continues to live on assume that it goes to a place that is permanent and eternal but incomplete until Jesus returns and gathers up all who have believed. Then, so the argument continues, the soul takes up residence in a new, resurrected body.
The Life Hereafter. Theologian J. I, Packer says, “Heaven is shorthand for the Christian’s final hope.” Heaven is where the triune God “dwells”; it is also the dwelling place of the angels and of all the redeemed. What will life in heaven be like? One thing we know is that we will have new bodies, free from disease and decay (see 1 Corinthians 15:35-44). Will we know those whom we love? The Apostles’ Creed confesses the belief in “the communion of saints,” the common bond of all believers in and through the Holy Spirit. The American theologian R. C. Sproul, in his book Now, That’s a Good Question!, understands this to mean that we will be in fellowship with everyone who is “in Christ.” What more can we say about heaven? Only that “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9). To say more is impossible because, as Louis Jacobs observed, “For human beings in this world to try to grasp the nature of the hereafter is like a man born blind trying to grasp the nature of color.”
Angels, Satan and Demons
The modern world dismisses angels, Satan and demons as superstition and views those who believe in them as naive, but the Bible has much to say about them.
Angels are mentioned in more than half the books of the Bible. What are angels, and what is their function? Angels are not physical beings but spirit beings; though they are created beings, they are immortal (Luke 20:34-36); and though often described in masculine terms, they are not sexual beings. Their purpose is to act as messengers of God— the word angel comes from a Greek word meaning “messenger”— as when the angel Gabriel spoke to Zechariah in the temple (Luke 1:11-20) and to Mary in Nazareth (Luke 1:26-38). Are angels still active? There is no scriptural warrant for believing that they were active only in biblical times. Are there such things as “guardian angels” that protect and preserve a believer’s well-being? In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples not to despise one of these little ones because “their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 18:10). There is not much more than this, however, to go on.
Satan is not a “thing” but an active spirit being with an intellect and a will. His mission is to attack and oppose the people of God— the word Satan comes from a Hebrew word meaning “to oppose”— tempting them, as he did Jesus in the wilderness, to follow him and his evil ways. C. S. Lewis said that some people take the devil too seriously, while others don’t take him seriously enough.
Demons are Satan’s agents, as angels are God’s agents. In the New Testament demons are often referred to as “unclean spirits,” as in the Gospel of Mark, where Jesus rebuked an unclean spirit that possessed a man in a synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus was teaching (Mark 1:23-27).