The Expository Files

The Essence of Christianity


(From The Palmetto Reminder, March 5, 2000)

It is important in just about everything one does to be able to discern the essential from the incidental, to be able to distinguish between those things that are central and those that are peripheral. Knowing what lies at the core or heart of any matter is often the most important thing to understand. Once we understand the essence of a thing we are then able to make sense of all the parts and minor components. It is when we cannot get a clear picture of the sum and substance of a thing that we get confused or end up wasting our efforts. This basic truth applies when it comes to our understanding of the Bible and Christianity. So let me ask you, what is the essence of Christianity? What is at the very heart and core of it? What one thing makes sense of all the rest of it, what one thing is at the center and to which all other features of it relate? It appears to me that there is sometimes, among some of God's people, either confusion about the answer to this question or a failure to answer it at all. Is this an important question? YES! We are never going to be the kinds of Christians God wants us to be if we do not have a good grasp of the essence of Christianity. How we answer this question, you see, determines how we practice our religion. If we have the wrong answer here then we will not be living as we should. What we do may resemble Christianity, but unless we can hit the bulls-eye with our answer to this question we will not have arrived at the real thing.

Some people think that the essence of Christianity is some vague notion of being a good person or doing good things. While Christians are good people and they do good things, this is not their essence, nor is "doing good" the essence of the gospel message. The same is true of "going to church." I suspect that many people think of Christianity primarily in terms of going to worship services at the church building. While this is part of what we do as Christians, it is by no means the heart and soul of it. The essence of Christianity is not church attendance, good deeds, doing your best, being a happy person, etc. These are all parts, but they are not the center. One might answer: "The essence of Christianity is being Christ-like." That is a good answer, but it is possible to be even more precise than this.

The center of Christianity is the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything else in the New Testament, whether it be a command to love others, God's demand that we keep ourselves pure from sin, the New Testament teaching about divorce, and every other topic all stems from the death and resurrection of Jesus. Everything Jesus Himself said and did revolved around this. Take that away and Christianity has no foundation, no basis, no rationale, no center. Without a thorough appreciation of the centrality of the death and resurrection one will never truly learn how to live the Christian life. He/she may do something similar to it, but it will only be a pale imitation if at the heart of it there is not Jesus crucified and raised from the dead.

The New Testament tries hard to impress us with the death and resurrection of Jesus as being the center of the whole gospel and of Christianity. Did you ever notice how the gospels do not all tell us exactly the same events from the ministry of Jesus, or they do not always give specific details about exactly where Jesus went, how long it took Him to get there, etc.? And then did you ever notice that when it comes to the death and resurrection of Jesus all four gospels suddenly begin to get very detailed? They tell us when Jesus was arrested, how long His trials took, what was said at His trials and who said it, how long Jesus was on the cross, what day it was, what time it was when he was buried, the day of the week it was when Jesus was raised, etc. That's the authors' way of telling us that the parts of the gospels that tell of Jesus' death and resurrection are the parts about which we must know the most. They gave us the most details about that event because everything else in the gospels points there.

Jesus Himself tried to get His disciples to see the centrality of the cross in His mission. On at least three separate occasions He gathered His disciples together for the specific purpose of telling them about His death and resurrection in Jerusalem. His teachings were full of hints about that dual event. He mentioned giving His generation the sign of Jonah the prophet (Matt 12:39). At the very beginning of His public ministry He talked about destroying the temple and raising it up in three days (John 2:19). He compared Himself to the brazen serpent of Moses' day (John 3:14). He spoke parables about a king who had a son that was killed (Matt 21:38). When Greeks came to see Him he responded by talking about going to the cross (John 12:20ff). Over and over again Jesus tried to make it clear that the core of His mission was wrapped up in the cross and the empty tomb that followed it.

When the apostles went out preaching, they did not start with baptism, the kingdom, the sin of fornication, or any such thing. Sure, they taught about those things in the course of their preaching and teaching, but the one thing that made sense out of all those other subjects was the death and resurrection of Jesus. When Peter preached the gospel for the very first time, his subject was the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 2). When Paul went from place to place preaching, the first thing that came out of his mouth was the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus (Acts 13). To the Corinthians he said plainly "For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified" (1 Cor 2:2). To that same group Paul said that the gospel is "that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures" (15:3-4). That was the primary message, that came first. Everything else in Christianity was the corollary and the manifestation of that.

Christianity is possible only because Jesus died and was raised. Without His death there would be no forgiveness for our sins. His blood paid the price for our sinning. And without His resurrection we would have no hope of eternal life. If Jesus had remained in His tomb we would have no reason to pay attention to anything He said, for He said He would be raised again. If He had been wrong about that, then nothing else He said would have been worth hearing and there would be no way out of death.

Furthermore, the death and resurrection is not just a historical event. It is much more. It is the pattern by which we are to live. Being Christ-like means living a life that is characterized by death to sin and new life for God. We die to sin and are buried with Him in baptism, then we are raised out of the water to live a new life with Him (Rom 6:1ff), and that dying to sin and living to God is not a one-time thing. Our lives are to be a constant death to sin and living with Jesus. As His disciples we too must follow Him in the way of the cross, the way of sacrifice, the way of dying unto sin in obedience to the will of God. Every other moral command in the New Testament is simply spelling out how a crucified-and-resurrected person ought to live. We all must be able to say with Paul "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal 2:20). Crucified with Him, and living a new life with Him: that is the essence of being a Christian. If we do the good works and attend church services without that being at the core of it, we have yet to practice real, true Christianity.

By David McClister
From Expository Files 7.7; July 2000