Essentials and Non-Essentials: How to Choose Your Battles Carefully

C Michael Patton over at Parchment & Pen, like a good coach, has come alongside us to provide several lists of essentials and non-essentials—to help us choose our battles carefully:

Essential for salvation: These are the most essential doctrines of all essentials. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved.

What I include:

  • Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)
    All issues pertaining to the person and work of Christ:
  • Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)
  • Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)
  • Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave (1 Cor 15:3-4)
  • Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy: These include beliefs “essential for salvation” but are broader in that they express what has been believed by the historic Christian church for the last two thousand years, no matter what tradition. This is expressed by the Vincentian Canon, “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” (The exception of fringe movements does not count). Not only must the church have belief in it, but it must also explicitly have confessed its centrality (e.g., belief that Matthew wrote the book of Matthew does not, I believe, qualify here).

Some of what I include:

  • The doctrine of the Trinity as expressed at Nicea
  • The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (Christ is fully man and fully God) as expressed at Chalcedon
  • The belief in the future second coming of Christ
  • A belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
  • A belief in eternal punishment for the wicked
  • A belief in God’s timeless existence
  • Christ is the only way to salvation

I suppose no well-read or learned believer dare to challenge the first list, Essential for Salvation.  But I’m not too certain about the second list, Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy, for I have in mind “A belief in eternal punishment for the wicked.”

At any rate, these two lists were drawn up by Mr. C Michael Patton (read more…).

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28 Responses to Essentials and Non-Essentials: How to Choose Your Battles Carefully

  1. Jason says:

    I had a post similar to this in mind, but looks like I lagged too long! I would agree with all on the first list, and your list for historical orthodox Christianity is right on. I am sure I could add a few, but it’s still early (in the morning, that is).

  2. Mark Stevens says:

    “if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved”

    When we reduce salvation to what a person believes no only are we straying from Scripture but we also fall prey to salvation that begins from below and not above. Our statements of faith should only ever reflect what we believe to be true about our state. They most definitely should never determine them!

    Lists such as these only add to the divisions amongst Christians. Are you saying that because I may not believe one or two on this person’s list I am not saved? (what ever that means). One does not have to believe in Christ’s bodily resurrection for its reality to be true (I do by the way).

    “I suppose no well-read or learned believer dare to challenge the first list, Essential for Salvation”

    TC, I am well-read and learned and I challenge the list! I do not need to believe these things in order to be saved. They may describe my state as a human being and they may express what I believe to be true about God and jesus, but they are never essential for salvation. To reduce the Christian life to what one believes is ridiculous and naive. Jesus Christ is what we need for salvation. he is God’s faithfulness to humanity and humanities gratitude to God.

    People who concoct such lists may well be surprised who they will share fellowship with in the age to come.

    • Mark Stevens says:

      Sorry, forgot the smiley 😀

    • T.C. R says:

      Mark,
      I agree with your disgust to some extent. But the first list is all about Jesus from beginning to end.

      Whether expressed verbally or not, these are the essentials that emerge from every page of Scripture.

      But to reduce everything to neatly phrased propositions and so on, I agree that is wholly misleading.

      But even Paul assumes assent to certain well-established beliefs or creeds (take those creedal fragments sprinkled throughout his Letters).

      People who concoct such lists may well be surprised who they will share fellowship with in the age to come..

      Yes, that’s the danger and error of these kinds of lists. But at times they are needed. But contents are everything.

  3. J says:

    Let me make a few silly questions. How were the Old Testament saints saved? “Jesus”. “Good, right answer” Just like they taught us in Sunday School. So then they did not have to literally hold to the points you listed, right? So what about the sincere believing Jew who died the day after Jesus was resurrected or the one that died in Galilee the day after Pentecost? How were they saved? Was there some kind of window of “grace”, a time period for these people since the disciples has not yet gotten there to proclaim the Gospel? Of course this kind of question also relates to the peoples of today to which we have failed to proclaim the saving doctrine of the Bible. So thank you for the interesting question. I just can’t seem to get a satisfactory answer of some of my own questions.

    • T.C. R says:

      J,
      Great set of questions. I think Scripture is clear how OT people were saved: by simple faith in God but such was anticipatory of the ultimate Substitute (Romans 3:21-26).

      But it’s quite clear today that Jesus is the only way, and yes, as one of your questions imply, we need to take the saving message of Jesus to those who need it. That is still on task.

  4. Pingback: Essential « Apprentice2Jesus

  5. Peter Kirk says:

    Oh dear! If “Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity” is necessary for salvation, then Abraham is not saved. And if “Belief that faith in Christ is necessary” is necessary for salvation, then the apostle Paul is also not saved, because he taught that Abraham was saved. Well, at least I will be in good company in hell. Indeed it may be a more pleasant place than a heaven inhabited only by fundamentalists who meet all Patton’s conditions.

    Yes, all people are saved by Jesus, as the Bible clearly teaches, and it also teaches that all who believe in him are saved, but it nowhere teaches what is not a logical consequence of this, that those who do not believe in him cannot be saved by him.

  6. T.C. R says:

    Peter,
    It goes without saying that we’re speaking this side of the Cross. Therefore reference to OT times is not necessary.

    “A logical consequence” says that if belief alone in Christ alone says, then no other path is available or needed.

  7. Peter Kirk says:

    No, TC, it does not go without saying. You haven’t answered J’s question about “the sincere believing Jew who died the day after Jesus was resurrected or the one that died in Galilee the day after Pentecost”. If such a person can be saved, then how about the person who dies today without having even heard the name of Jesus?

    Also your logic seems to be faulty (if I have understood it despite the typos). The fact that one path is available does not logically imply that there is no other path. Patton refers to John 3:16, but that says nothing about the fate of those who never had the chance to believe.

    But my most serious point is that Patton seems to condemn to hell the very many good sincere Christians who are not prepared to sign up to his doctrinal test – who would in fact include a large number of today’s evangelical leaders. If all people who don’t believe that “the sincere believing Jew who died the day after Jesus was resurrected or the one that died in Galilee the day after Pentecost” is going to hell are bound to go there themselves, then I don’t want to go to a heaven from which they have been excluded.

    • T.C. R says:

      Peter,
      Perhaps it doesn’t go without saying the person who isn’t too in touch with the OT and so on.

      Regarding the person who before Jesus was raised or the one who died after Pentecost, if you and J hold to the belief that a person is only responsible for what has been revealed and is actually needed, then that person would be no different than an OT believer.

      In this case, the path that is available is the only one. Another path will simply lead in another direction. That’s the natural consequence of your logic.

      While I don’t believe in an itemized doctrinal statement, I still hold to Patton’s first list, whether the believer is aware of such a list or not.

      At a minimum, the believer has unknowingly assented to that first list.

      • Peter Kirk says:

        The issue here is perhaps whether people are only responsible for what has been revealed to other people, or only what has been revealed to themselves. If the latter, as I believe, then in principle those who have never heard of Jesus can be saved by him, as Abraham was. But for suggesting that Patton condemns me to eternal punishment.

        I don’t understand your suggestion that someone “has unknowingly assented” to a doctrinal statement. Surely assent to a doctrine has to be a matter of what one knows. Now I can agree that someone can be saved without knowingly assenting to anything, but that is because I differ fundamentally from Patton in not holding that salvation depends on assent to any doctrine.

  8. Mark Stevens says:

    I would also argue strongly that one does not have to believe these things to be true to go to heaven (so to speak). I have many ‘liberal’ friends who do not believe physical resurrection, virgin birth etc etc. They are God fearing and devout Christians. Are you telling me they will go to hell?

    It would seem that people who ask for such lists are simply trying to decide on their own merit who’s in and who’s out and that is wrong.

    TC you say, “Whether expressed verbally or not, these are the essentials that emerge from every page of Scripture.” No TC they are your understanding of Scripture (and mine mostly) and reflect our hermeneutics (which we believe is correct by the way) and we must hold these things lightly.

    • T.C. R says:

      Mark,
      A person can truly be devout as you described but not a genuine Christ-follower, correct?

      So if the physical resurrection and the like are denied, How is Jesus as Savior and Lord established and affirmed?

      I do agree with you against a person’s list and so on.

      But it’s simply not “our hermeneutics” if the obvious jumps off each NT page, for the resurrection that is at the heart of the Christian faith (1 Cor. 15).

      • Mark Stevens says:

        “A person can truly be devout as you described but not a genuine Christ-follower, correct?”

        No, I would argue if they are devout they are most likely a Christ follower.

        “So if the physical resurrection and the like are denied, How is Jesus as Savior and Lord established and affirmed?”

        It does not need our affirmation to be true. Christ in his saving work is the affirmation.

        You need to consider the political and socio meanings of saviour and lord in the NT (especially in Paul).

        I do agree that an affirmation of belief is important. An acknowledgement of ‘Jesus as Lord’ and commitment to discipleship is imperative for the Christian life to be lived, however, this must not be tied to what one believes to be true about the historical Christ. Faith is God’s business and we cannot generate it ourselves or determine who has it. A person may indeed have faith and struggle to believe resurrection etc.

        “But it’s simply not “our hermeneutics” if the obvious jumps off each NT page, for the resurrection that is at the heart of the Christian faith (1 Cor. 15).”

        Once again, our hermeneutics allows us to see it.

  9. T.C. R says:

    Peter Kirk :

    The issue here is perhaps whether people are only responsible for what has been revealed to other people, or only what has been revealed to themselves. If the latter, as I believe, then in principle those who have never heard of Jesus can be saved by him, as Abraham was. But for suggesting that Patton condemns me to eternal punishment.

    I don’t understand your suggestion that someone “has unknowingly assented” to a doctrinal statement. Surely assent to a doctrine has to be a matter of what one knows. Now I can agree that someone can be saved without knowingly assenting to anything, but that is because I differ fundamentally from Patton in not holding that salvation depends on assent to any doctrine.

    For sure, as in the case of OT believers, they were only responsible for what has been revealed to them and their appropriate response.

    There is a difference between “unknowingly assenting” and “knowingly assenting.” But perhaps the difficulty is in how we understand these expression.

    Neither am I saying that a list must be presented and agreed to for salvation to take place and hell to be averted.

    But how can I be saved if I do not believe that Jesus died for my sins and rose again and so on? The right object of faith becomes necessary. Unless you think such can be negotiated.

  10. Jason says:

    TC: “For sure, as in the case of OT believers, they were only responsible for what has been revealed to them and their appropriate response.” What awaits those who were not privy to God’s revelation, i.e. the Law? Where are they now? Just curious as to your thoughts.

    • T.C. R says:

      Jason,
      This also opens the door to one’s soteriology, along the line of election and so on, if Calvinist.

      But outside of such filter, we must conclude, that if people were saved apart from God’s revelation, then it’s all up to God and not our doctrinal statements. My take.

  11. Peter Kirk says:

    But how can I be saved if I do not believe that Jesus died for my sins and rose again and so on? The right object of faith becomes necessary.

    I don’t see why it is necessary to consciously know exactly who died for my sins or how. Is it not enough, perhaps, to believe that God has dealt effectively with our sins and to put our trust in him. That is no excuse for those who have heard of Jesus and rejected him. But I suggest that it is for those who have not heard of him at all.

    Anyway, Patton’s point was apparently not simply that belief in Christ is necessary, but that it is necessary to believe that belief in Christ is necessary. That is taking things a step further than I am prepared to countenance.

    • T.C. R says:

      Peter,
      You’re assuming that knowing the story of the historical Jesus as the Substitue is not really necessary but only that “God has dealt effectively with our sins and to put our trust in him.” Hmm… For me to object would assume that a personal knowledge of Jesus of Narazeth is the NOT only way to secure a person’s salvation. I don’t know if I honest want to object without appearing to narrow-minded when such is not required.

      I do agree with your concluion about the person who heard and rejected.

      Then, yes, Patton has taken things a step further, and I, too, am not prepared to countenance such.

      • Peter Kirk says:

        No, TC, I’m not “assuming” this, I am putting this forward as a hypothesis. As evidence in support of this hypothesis I will again name Abraham, who, as the Bible teaches, was saved without “knowing the story of the historical Jesus as the Substitue”. If he could be saved in that situation, how can anyone be sure that no one today can be?

  12. VictorLouis says:

    Wow! I can’t believe the ‘basics’ can be so lightly regarded. I agree fully with both lists. However, the points on the second one are not necessarily evident to a believer upon salvation. Much of that may only come through study, and maturing during your walk.

    Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. NO ONE COMES TO THE FATHER BUT BY ME”. So, once again, post OT, in the ‘church age’, there are no other spokes-in-the-wheel leading to the central axle. There are no other ‘paths leading to elightenment’. However, not all have the revelation of Jesus. Not all have heard the Gospel. However, what is “plain about God is evident to them”. Read Romans 1. Therefore, how that lost soul views God will determine his eternity. Just the same way with OT patriarchs. Faith was attributed to Abraham as righteousness.

    Belief? Belief in WHAT? “Even the demons BELIEVE, and tremble”. Now then, we know the demons won’t be {aren’t} in heaven…correct? So, let’s clarify WHAT, exactly, it is that we believe. Check 1 Cor. 15: 3-8. This is why I have no trouble with a good-old “Sinner’s Prayer” {for those of you from Baptist or Pentecostal background}. It really outlines WHAT it is you are acknowledging your newfound belief in.

    By Grace ALONE, through Faith ALONE, in Christ ALONE.

  13. T.C. R says:

    Victor,
    The objection is regarding neatly packaged statements and that it follows for a person to assent to them to secure their salvation.

    Yes, I see no way around John 14:6.

    Regarding Romans 1, I believe we can safely say that what Paul reveals there is pre-Easter and so on.

    The right object of our faith is absolute necessary: ala, notitia, assensus, fiducia.

  14. T.C. R says:

    Peter Kirk :

    No, TC, I’m not “assuming” this, I am putting this forward as a hypothesis. As evidence in support of this hypothesis I will again name Abraham, who, as the Bible teaches, was saved without “knowing the story of the historical Jesus as the Substitue”. If he could be saved in that situation, how can anyone be sure that no one today can be?

    Then we must assume that salvation is not always based on a personal knowledge of the identity of Jesus this side of the Cross.

    But I object to Abrahamic faith this side of the Cross as some model. Perhaps such works for peoples who have never heard about Jesus, but are still saved in the way you described above.

  15. T.C. R says:

    No, I would argue if they are devout they are most likely a Christ follower.
    Mark,
    I was speaking of the merely religious devotee.

    It does not need our affirmation to be true. Christ in his saving work is the affirmation.

    At one level, I agree with you, but when it comes to appropriating salvation, such must be affirmed, per Rom. 10:9-10.

    You need to consider the political and socio meanings of saviour and lord in the NT (especially in Paul).

    For example…?

    A person may indeed have faith and struggle to believe resurrection etc.

    Then such a faith is suspect.

  16. Mark Stevens says:

    Well TC I guess we will have to agree to disagree.

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