(If you missed part one you can find it here.)
So we’re down to the essential of the essentials:
God. The Bible. The gospel.
We have to believe in the one true God. We have to believe that God is one, and that he is Triune: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. We have to believe that He is uncreated, that He is self-existing, that He is not dependent upon anyone else. And we must believe that He is morally perfect, that He is characterized by holiness and by love, that He is by His own will our Sovereign Creator and our Lord and our Judge. He is the one that we’re called to believe in.
As the Lord says to His people in Isaiah 53, “You are my witnesses, declares the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen, so that you may know and believe me. And understand that I am He. Before me no god was formed, nor will there be one after me. I, even I am the Lord, and apart from me there is no Savior.”
There are theologians today that talk about “anonymous Christians” and how even atheists can truly be trusting in God. Well, that’s not true according to the Bible. According to the Bible, you have to believe in God.
In Acts 15 we read of the Phillipian jailer’s family who rejoiced because they’d come to believe in God. We read in Hebrews 11:6 that without faith it is impossible to please God because anyone who comes to Him must believe that he exists.
Now, believing in God is essential but it’s even more than that. James tells us that even the demons believe in God, and shudder. So this belief that saves us transforms us increasingly into a reflection of God’s character. That’s the kind of belief that the Bible tells us about.
So John writes, “Love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows Gods. Whoever does not love does not know God because God is love. So you must know God.”
You must believe in God.
The Bible is how we know the truth about God.
If you’re talking to a friend who’s not a Christian and you tell them about God, who knows what they’re thinking of when you say “God.” In all goodwill and sincerity they could be thinking of something very very different than what you’re thinking about. So how do you know what God is like?
Well friends because He’s spoken, because He has revealed Himself. We know about God because of the scriptures—they are God’s revelation of Himself. And therefore they have authority in our lives and in our teaching. (That’s why the church you want to go to is a church that practices expositional preaching—a church that is regularly bringing up passages of God’s word and teaching you what God’s word means.)
The Bible is how we know the truth about God and what he calls us to be. 1 John 4:6 says “We are from God and whoever knows God listens to us, but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.” And this seems to be what Jesus taught in John 10, where he said the sheep know the voice of the Good Shepherd, they recognize it and follow it. Thus Paul could command the Thessalonian Christians to follow his instructions and to ostracize those who didn’t.
So God, the Bible, and then third, we must believe the gospel.
We must agree on the gospel—the good news.
The “good news” is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God became incarnate—he took on flesh. As Paul said to the Colossians “In Christ all the fullness of the deity lives in bodily form.” And not only do we confess Christ’s incarnation but also His substitutionary death on the cross, and his bodily resurrection and His return in power and great glory.
Again let’s go back to that summary Paul gave in 1 Corinthians 15:1-4. You know, if you read 1 Corinthians you find that for fourteen chapters Paul had been instructing the Corinthians about all kind of divisions they were having, and correcting them for dividing on all the wrong issues. They kept dividing and dividing and dividing… But now here finally toward the end of his letter Paul is saying, “Here is what you should stand for. Here is what you should contend for. Not who your teacher is not whether or not you’re eating meat sacrificed to idols, not whether or not you have this or that belief on this or that secondary matter. But this is what you should contend for:”
”Now brothers, I want to remind you of the Gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand, by this Gospel you are saved if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you, otherwise you have believed in vain. For what I have received, I passed on to you, as of first importance, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he was buried, and he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the twelve.”
Now you see here these facts are associated with the gospel: Christ has died for our sins. Christ was buried. Christ was raised. There it is. There’s the gospel. You see how clear Paul is on the centrality of the cross.
Friends, if you center your own understanding of Christianity and especially of the gospel on the cross, you’ll find that will promote fellowship with others. Why? Because you’ll find others who are also centered on the cross even if you have some disagreements with them over “here” or “here” or “here.” You see you have the same center so you have the same fundamental joy in your understanding of how God has come to forgive you of your sins. So this centrality of the cross is clear in the gospel—that Christ died for us. And this is what we have in common.
Friends, we’re justified only by trusting in Jesus. Someone who does not believe the gospel that I’ve been talking about very clearly for the last five minutes is not a Christian. Let me say that again. If you get more help in discernment out of this talk than this sentence, you must have this. This is the basis for all true Christian discernment.
Here’s the sentence: Someone who does not believe this gospel is not a Christian.
That doesn’t mean they can’t be a friendly person or that you can’t love them very much or that they can’t contribute a lot great things to your life, but they’re not a Christian. A Christian, most fundamentally, is someone who believes this gospel, who is trusting Christ alone for their salvation. Even people who call themselves Christians who are sitting in churches all around this country who call themselves evangelicals are not Christians if they don’t believe this gospel. Calling yourself something doesn’t make you that.
Jesus taught that in the gospels when he said that these wolves would appear in sheep’s clothing. We have to have discernment. If we would follow Jesus, Jesus taught us that we have to know that some people that would come to us and look like sheep were in fact wolves.
And how do we know the difference? Well friends fundamentally it’s by the gospel. Get to know the gospel well. Practice sharing the gospel with your friends, with your Christian friends, even better with your non-Christian friends. Practice sharing this good news, the good news that God has used to restructure your life, to change you entirely, to use Jesus’ radical image to give you a new birth, a new life. Share this good news with others.
So God, the Bible, the gospel.
Those are the things that we must agree upon to have meaningful cooperation as Christians. True Christian fellowship cannot be had with someone who disagrees with us on these matters. These are the essential of the essentials.
Mark Dever is senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist church and a regular speaker at New Attitude. This material is taken from his message Discern your Doctrine given at the Na 2007 conference.