What is absolutely essential for Christian faith unto salvation?
The essentials of the Christian faith are often cited as “core essentials”, but that can be misleading in that it suggests that only those doctrinal issues are fundamental requirements within Scripture for salvation. By definition, whatever is considered to be essential for salvation, is already core, and so doubling up words that repeat the same meaning is not a helpful distinction.
For example: Although you will never find taking communion listed as a core essential, it remains an all-or-nothing requirement by Jesus that caused many disciples to turn away from faith in him, when he said either you eat my flesh and drink my blood, or you have no life in you! If our Lord made such a thing an essential, why do all churches avoid citing it as part of their list of essentials?
Correctly so, most recognize that the thief on the cross (as one example) did not have to take communion, or any similar representation, and yet he was promised salvation. The dilemma then is that somehow it is not always demanded, but at other times when it is demanded, it becomes essential. Such an apparent moving target is untenable in forming reliable doctrine.
The problem in finding more stable soil upon which to define our beliefs, I would suggest, is that a finer distinction is necessary.
Most denominations recognize that Christians are justified freely as an act of God’s grace in calling a person to faith in Jesus upon the basis of the Cross. Nothing further is necessary for salvation. However, some close the book prematurely at that point and miss the impact of scriptural demands as part of sanctification.
Accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior, and putting our trust in what he did for us through the Cross with no dependence upon our contribution or “goodness” is certainly biblical. However, the good book has a bit more to say on this issue, and those who have ears to hear what the Spirit is saying will remain open to the rest of the story.
The thief on the cross, the last-hour-workers in the masters vineyard, and what are often called “death-bed conversions”, are helpful baselines upon which to test our grasp of the gospel’s essentials. If the doctrines cited in your church as core essentials fit as likely evidences of genuine expressions of surrendering faith by that thief, or by someone who confesses Christ as they are struggling with their final moments on this earth, then they are probably an appropriate list of essentials for conversion.
The proposed missing distinction in most considerations of core essentials for salvation involves divine expectations beyond a believers initial come-to-Jesus moment. Notice, this is not about some extra-biblical legalism, such as “you must be a member of our church in order to be saved”. Such an expectation is neither biblical or divine.
Those God-cited demands upon already-confirmed believers, that carry with them eternal consequences, ought to be rightly recognized as essential for salvation. The way to distinguish such absolute demands from those most often recognized as required for initial expressions of genuine faith is to allow the “double-edged sword” to separate joint from marrow and to reveal the biblical distinctions within gospel essentials.
In short, there appear to be two types of scriptural essentials that have core impacts upon eternity. The most commonly viewed essentials are more helpful to identify as “Conversion Essentials”. They are universally required and expected for acceptance in order for any potential Christian to have faith in the biblical Jesus and thus be considered saved.
Whereas, those do-or-die demands that have much more to do with our personal choices, could be best described as “Maturing Essentials”. The bulk of the rest of Scripture presents expectations, recommendations, and wise counsel, but which don’t come with blatant consequences of eternal significance. That is what separates essential truths from important truths.
In this way, we can maintain a faith-alone embrace of the gracious mercy of God in calling us to himself through Jesus. And, if that is the extent of this life which God allows to end at that confession, then nothing else matters. However, if our Lord chooses to sustain our fleshly life thereafter, then he has some very clear “fruitful” expectations of what he expects.
These can never earn what has already been extended as a gift, but they are nevertheless essential according to the eternal consequences for open disobedience. In most cases, those requirements are impressed on different people at different times and in different ways, as a Christian matures in Christ. In other words, what is a maturing essential, is not necessarily universal upon all believers at any given moment, and thus is not necessarily an essential for that person until the Spirit impresses it upon them. The principle being, “to whom much is given, much will be required.”
Consider a sampling of Maturing Essentials below revealing what the Spirit says to those who already profess Christ:
- Regarding Enduring in our faith:
“Let us press on to maturity…for in the case of those who have once been enlightened…and then have fallen away, it is impossible to renew them again to repentance, since they again crucify to themselves the Son of God and put Him to open shame.” (Heb 6:1-6; NASB hereafter)
- Regarding Continual Repentance beyond initial conversion:
“But I have this against you, that you have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did at first; or else I am coming to you and will remove your lampstand out of its place—unless you repent… He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God.” (Rev 2:4-7)
- Regarding the essential of Fruitful Works:
“Therefore bear fruit in keeping with repentance… The axe is already laid at the root of the trees; therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire… Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people, producing the fruit of it.” (Mt 3:8, 10; 21:43)
- Regarding the commission to Evangelize Christ’s name to others:
“Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven.” (Mt 10:32-33)
- Regarding the essential of Transformation into Righteousness and out of habitual sins:
“For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.” (Heb 10:26-27; caps in original translation)
- Regarding the eternally-impacting need to avoid worldliness compromise with a Singleness of Devotion:
“For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world by the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and are overcome, the last state has become worse for them than the first. For it would be better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn away from the holy commandment handed on to them.” (2 Pet 2:20-21)
- Regarding the divine requirement to Obey the Word as recorded in Scripture:
“The one who says, ‘I have come to know Him,’ and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 Jn 2:4)
What God has defined as essential for final confirmation of salvation is not a matter of our preference, nor is it limited for most of us to those basic essentials for putting faith in Jesus and receiving the deposit of his salvific grace. We do not control our destiny, but God has made it very clear that he expects Christians to fulfill what the Spirit intends within each of us. Those who do, demonstrate Christ within them. Those who resist on any point, demonstrate their rebellion, for which the eternal consequences are irreversible.
As a result of such biblical statements, I suggest that it may be both helpful and wise to reconsider our profession of essentials of our faith into Conversion Essentials and Maturing Essentials.
As a point of clarification, Christians who live under the New Covenant do not live according to a list of legalistic demands, and so I have avoided presenting these as anything like complete lists of essentials in either category. Believers are encouraged to contemplate what God is pressing upon them in their particular circumstances through his Scripture. Avoid the tendency to grasp only to that which comforts your preferences. Instead, humbly submit your lives and beliefs to his sufficient grace to endure, repent, obey, and love others deeply.
What part of the Bible’s maturing essentials resonates most with you?