The Essential Good News of Christianity
Christianity has many different branches. When all non-essential differences between them have been removed, what still remains? note The essence of Christianity is the gospel - which is an uncomplicated, but very profound message note.
Our English word "gospel" came from the Greek word for "good news". Jesus came to bring us the good news of the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43), and His message of the gospel is the core of Christianity.
The gospel is not the whole of Christianity. Christianity also includes important things such as (for example) the nature of God, atonement, etc. However, this paper does not attempt to cover all of Christianity - only the gospel core.
Darren Twa has been developing the themes that are in this paper in his teaching for the last few years. His initial goal was to distill Christianity to its critical essence.
- This would eliminate any unnecessary baggage - things of culture or tradition that had become attached to Christianity in our experience.
- It made it easy to teach, even to children.
- It was also a matter of Christian fellowship. We are to welcome other Christians without quarreling over opinions. (Rom 14:1) And we are not to extend Christian fellowship to those who are not of the Kingdom. (1Cor 5:11) To reject someone that God has accepted into His Kingdom as not being a Christian is a serious matter. (Mt 18:5-6) Therefore it is necessary to understand the critical essence of the Gospel over which we have fellowship.
In addition there have been other benefits for all of us at our church:
- It has become easier to understand how to live Christianity.
- It has given our pastor a new lens to see many parts of the Bible. This has enabled insights in his teaching that I have found to be very exciting.
There are two parts to the gospel: a part you believe, and a part you do. note The part we must believe is that Jesus is our King. note And the part we must do is adopt His value system.
This is not the only thing you need to believe, but it is the most important point of belief. There are 5 essential non-negotiable points to the gospel:
- "You must believe that the man Jesus, is God.
- "You must believe that Jesus is Lord and King.
- "You must believe the Kingdom is spiritual and for all people.
- "You must believe that Christ's death and resurrection established the Kingdom.
- "You must adopt Jesus' value system."
Together, these points contain the gospel. Attribution
The goal of the gospel is restoration of relationships: our relationship with God, and our relationships with people.
Jesus the King note
Jesus came to establish a Kingdom. note However, since this Kingdom was unlike anything previously seen on this earth, it is very difficult to for us to understand what it is. It can help to know what this Kingdom is not. Very significantly, the Kingdom is not of this earth. Jesus repeatedly refused a physical kingdom.
Jesus is called "the Christ", which means "the anointed one". God had persons anointed in ancient Israel to signify their appointment to their office of King.
Jesus came to establish a Kingdom. And this is the theme for the whole book of Matthew - a King and His Kingdom. (e.g. Matt 2:1-11, 3:1, 4:17, 21:1-8, 27:11, 28:18-20)
It is interesting that priests were also anointed to signify their appointment. It was very clear in the writings of the prophets that the Christ was to be both a priest and a king. (Is 9:6-7) The enigmatic Melchizedek (Gen 14:18) was the only other person to hold such a position. And we find out (in Ps 110) that Melchizedek was an image of what was to be realized in Jesus.
It is important to consider the identity of Jesus. -Whose kingdom would you be participating in and what are the credentials of the king? The Bible presents Jesus as fully God and fully man.
Jesus is God because He:
- performed miracles as evidence of His identity (John 10:36-39)
- said He was God (Mark 14:61-64, John 8:58-59, John 10:30-33, Matt 26:63-65)
- claimed universal authority (Matt 28:18)
- said He was sinless (John 8:46)
- forgave sin (Mark 2:5)
- taught people to pray to Him (John 14:13-14)
- said He would judge all people (John 5:22-24)
Jesus was human as well. He:
- was born of a woman (Luke 2:5-6, Gal 4:4)
- had a human body (Luke 24:39)
- grew up (Luke 2:52)
- in a family (Matt 13:54-56)
- worked as a carpenter (Mark 6:3)
- went to parties (John 2:1-2, Matt 11:19)
- had emotions:
- stress (John 13:21)
- astonishment (Mark 6:6)
- joy (Luke 10:21)
- compassion (Luke 7:13)
- love (Matt 19:13-15, John 11:3-5)
- loneliness (Mark 15:34)
- sorrow (Matt 26:37)
- hungry (Matt 4:2, 21:18)
- thirsty (John 19:28)
- exhausted (Matt 8:24)
- bled (Luke 22:44, John 19:34)
- died (Mark 15:37)
After He died, Jesus showed again that He was sinless and that He was God when death could not hold Him in the grave. He returned to life in a perfected, but still human body. (He could "teleport" and He traveled directly to heaven. But His features were still recognizable and human, and He ate food.)
Christianity is dependent on this dual nature of Jesus. 1 Tim 2:5 says, "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus". Knowing Jesus' true identity is critical to understanding Christianity.
- when offered to Him by Satan (Matt 4:8-10)
- when a crowd of 5000+ wanted to make Him king by force (John 6:14-15)
- when it could have gotten Him out of arrest & death (John 18:36)
Jesus' Kingdom is not of this world note, but it does operate in parallel to the kingdoms of this world. When Jesus was asked about paying taxes (to Rome), He taught in answer that there were two kingdoms: the earthly government to which you paid monetary taxes and a Godly Kingdom in which you gave what you owed to God. (Matt 22:17-21) You could be in both at the same time. note
Jesus made his case by pointing out that their money had Caesar's image and name inscribed on it. Since they used the money Caesar made, they had to acknowledge the authority of Caesar to tax them. In the same way, we have the image of God on us because God made us. Therefore also we must acknowledge His authority over us.
Your citizenship in God's kingdom is in parallel with your citizenship on earth. In addition, God intends for the relationship benefits of His kingdom to leak over to the kingdoms of the world, through the way that His people live.
The really difficult part was that Jesus taught that His Kingdom had precedence over everything earthly. He asked for first loyalty - loyalty such that in comparison it looked like you hated your family by putting Him first. (Matt 12:46-50)
(A point through humor:) We know that Jesus' Kingdom was not of this world because John the Baptist didn't have a shovel!
John said his job was to get road improvements done as an advance herald of the coming king. (John 1:23 & Matt 3:2-3) If the king was earthly, John would have been overseeing dirt-moving crews. He never did use a shovel, but Jesus said he got the job done. (Matt 11:7-14) So instead, John's task was to work on the people regarding moral and spiritual issues. Thus, Jesus' Kingdom was not earthly; it was to be a Kingdom in the hearts of His people.
A related point: Jesus did not teach His followers to use physical war to establish an earthly kingdom. (John 18:36) The use of force is completely at odds with God's value system. Only non-physical and spiritual weapons are useful for His Kingdom. (2 Cor 10:3-4) From this we can see that those who try to establish a kingdom on earth for Christ do not follow Christ or represent His Kingdom.
Jesus continuously taught about His Kingdom by words and by the example of His life. His Kingdom is unique in that it:
- was established by its leader through death and resurrection note
- is equally open to all note
- has laws that surpass the laws of this world note
- is based on the value system of its King.
The Kingdom's "law" is better than the laws of this world. See Matt 5:21-48 "you have heard", "but I tell you". The "law" of God's Kingdom is His value system. And each case illustration demonstrates that God's value system is surpassingly better than earthly laws. If you live God's value system, you will automatically fulfill the Old Testament moral laws.
There were no restrictions or preconditions for entry into the Kingdom. Especially there was no requirement to become Jewish or follow the Jewish laws. This is not much of an issue for most people in the Western world today, but at one time it was, and the apostle Paul wrote quite a bit to emphasize this point.
The level of openness into the Kingdom was unprecedented.
"There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus." Gal 3:28 NIV
Just as Jews had no advantage in the Kingdom over non-Jews, males had no advantage over females, and social position additionally gave no advantage.
Corollary note: Judaism was not just extended by Christianity, but Christianity spiritually replaced Judaism. God's goal for the Jews was to have been a spiritual light for the world. The peoples of the world could come to Israel to get spiritual truth about God. However, the Jews never allowed outsiders to become first-class spiritual citizens. They failed in this aspect of their purpose.
Then Jesus came as fulfillment of God's promises to the Jews (even though they did not accept Him). Jesus announced His new Kingdom that could be entered without earthly restrictions. In this Kingdom, Jews had no different place than any Gentile. And so there was no longer any spiritual purpose in Judaism to enable access to God.
As we will see, Jesus modeled everything He asks us to do. And this included suffering and death. In our own case, death does not establish a new kingdom. However, God can use us to extend His kingdom. And we can have the courage to face death for Him because we believe in a God that raises the dead. (Matt 16:24-28, John 5:20-24) This could be death of self or death of our body - in either case we can do it because we know God gives life back to us.
The value system of its King is sacrificial love for the benefit of others. And the purpose of the Kingdom is to restore relationship with God.
Relationships and the Value System of the Kingdom
We believe in one God who exists in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. (Matt 28:19, Rom 5:5-11) They all have exactly the same value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others. All relationships are built on common value systems, therefore God exists continuously in perfect relationship.
We also were made for relationship: both with God (Gen 3:8) and with people (Gen 2:15-24). God created humans in His image, so initially Adam & Eve shared God's value system. They had a great relationship with God, regularly walking and talking together. However, Adam & Eve were not satisfied with God’s context of good; out of selfishness and rebellion they each decided to choose for themselves what would be the good and evil.
They each chose a selfish value system of their own instead of the one that motivates God. The effect was immediately destructive for their relationships: exploitive, angry words, etc. Because they no longer shared a common value system with God, their relationship with Him was broken. (Gen 3:9-13) Their relationships with each other were also broken because they they were now selfishly in disagreement about who should benefit from their choices. note
They ate fruit from the forbidden tree on the false promise that it would allow them to set their own agenda, and so be God-like. Instead of following God's values (by obeying the one command they had been given), it was suggested to them that they could choose their own value system. This was supposed to make them be like God by enabling them to choose what was right for them. Therefore also, they supposedly could have their own kingdom. Instead they became unlike God at His most defining characteristic - His value system. And their kingdoms turned out to be lonely kingdoms of one in conflict with everyone else.
Since that very first defiance, humans have continued to choose self-centered values. This rebellion against God's value system prevents relationship with Him because we fail to live as He requires. note Making even one value choice in our life that is not sacrificial love for the benefit of others is an offense against God. So not only do we lack a common value system on which to build a relationship with God, but we continue to offend Him as well.
Since God made us, we are personally accountable to Him, and if He requires something of us, He has the right to do so.
Without a relationship with God in the present, we certainly couldn't live later with Him in heaven. God lives His own value system perfectly, and heaven is God's place where only His values are lived. (Matt 6:10) Since we don't live His value system by our abilities, without a new alternative we would always be separated from Him.
The Part That We Believe God Did For Us
However, God had prepared an alternative. Jesus made reconciliation possible by establishing His new Kingdom and by forgiving our offenses through the cross. note
Without intervention, our default state is unacceptable to God. There is nothing we can do to make ourselves be more acceptable to Him. But, there is also nothing we can do to make ourselves be less acceptable to Him. The fact is that we are all equally condemned without the Gospel, and our failures don't influence that. So, our failures don't negatively influence God's interest in us or his ability to renew us.
Since God loves us exactly as we are, he had made a plan from the beginning of time to be able to restore relationship with us (Gen 3:15).
The consequence of our offenses against God is broken relationship with Him. That is why on the cross, Jesus' relationship with God was broken in substitution for us. (Matt 27:46) note And so now, Jesus is able to forgive our offenses against God because He himself took their consequences.
A key part of the cross was a demonstration to us of the consequences and cost of our offenses against God. The experience of the cross was unbelievably horrible in many ways. We see however that Jesus, motivated by love, triumphed even over the worst of what sin and evil produces. This same motivation in us will prevent evil from destroying us. This love will enable us to win against sin.
When we come to the Kingdom, we adopt God's value system. But we still are imperfect and unable to fully live God's values in this life. However, as members of Jesus' Kingdom, God doesn't look at us directly any more. Instead He looks at us through our King, who is our representative to Him. God then sees us as He sees Jesus: perfect values and righteousness! note
God set this precedence of a king representative with the Israelites after they had a king as head of their government. See also
Another way to understand the cross is with a financial/legal illustration.
In order to get into heaven, you have to be as righteous as God! note This sets an impossible standard for humans. It is as if we had a bank account containing our righteousness. Anything we do that falls below God's standard of righteousness puts a negative value in our account. Unfortunately even the best things we do can't improve our balance. (Is 64:6) We cannot pay our righteousness debt and get back into relationship with God.
Righteousness is the doing of God's value system.
However, Jesus also has a righteousness bank account. He lived a perfect human life and earned an infinite supply for His account. note On the cross He paid the debt for our sin, transferring our negative balance to His account (redemption). Then He transfered His positive balance to our account (justification). (Phil 3:9) Now we have the righteousness of God to our account.
God had given the Jewish people laws for righteous living, and in theory, you could become righteous if you fulfilled these laws perfectly. (Rom 2:13) However all humans have failed (except Jesus). (Rom 7:7-11)
Jesus as God (of course) already had infinite righteousness. However, Jesus as a man also lived a perfect life doing God's value system, and thus fulfilled the law completely. This is the righteousness that He "earned for His bank account".
What Jesus did on the cross makes it possible for us to have a relationship with God, and to go to heaven. note
It is very important to understand that there is nothing that we can do to earn our way into heaven - not before we come to God, and not after we come to God. (Gal 2:16) Therefore, the part in Christianity that we do, has nothing to do with getting to heaven. God did all the work. Everything! He even gives us the faith to accept His free gift of righteousness. (Eph 2:8-9)
In fact it is silly to think in these terms of earning because heaven isn't anything like earthly housing. Heaven is God's place. We would not want to be there unless we had a relationship with Him. Heaven is also where God's will is done perfectly. Only if we have His value system can we have a relationship with Him or do His will. Only if we adopt God's value system is there a logical place for us in heaven. If we reject God's value system it is illogical for us to be in heaven.
Since all relationships are built on common value systems, with our old value system we would continue to have broken relationships with people in this life. Nobody will share a value system with us because everyone looks out for themselves. However, the same process that restores relationship with God also restores our relationships with people - we all adopt the best value system: God's.
In God's Kingdom there is only one law - the law of love: sacrificial love for the benefit of others. In the Kingdom, the law applies equally to the King as to everybody else. And the consequence of breaking that law is forgiveness. No wonder this Kingdom is unlike any other!
So, when we come to God, we agree with Him that our value system is wrong, and that we desire to adopt His values (repentance). Then God forgives us, bringing us into His Kingdom. Together then, we grow in relationship. The cross was the ultimate expression of God's value system because it has everything that God values in it: sacrificial living, love, and forgiveness. note
An important part of what happens in forgiveness is not holding someone else responsible for the relationship consequences of their past actions. These consequences are not ignored though. When someone is forgiven, the person doing the forgiving pays for the relationship consequences of those actions.
The goal of forgiveness is restoration of relationship. Forgiveness is given to someone who is repentant, someone who is willing to change their value system. That is how God deals with us, and He requires us to act as he does.
Forgiveness is such a key expression of God's values, that God only forgives us to the degree we forgive others. (Matt 6:14-15) God values forgiveness so highly that He was willing to die to bring it to us. So then when we are forgiving to others, we are demonstrating that we have have repented of our selfish values and have adopted God's value system.
The Part That We Do
The part of the Gospel that we do (adopt His value system) is also part of our faith, part of our belief. note Note that our actions don't make us part of the kingdom; we do them because we are part of the kingdom. We do them because we have adopted the value system of God, which is Christ-like love - sacrificial love for the benefit of others. They are the evidence that we are in God's Kingdom. note So, our faith is not just something in our minds, it includes our actions.
And the flip side to this is that if we don't adopt the value system of the King, we never were in the Kingdom. Just showing up at the door doesn't mean that we came in.
Belief is not just a mental process. Belief is more than simply agreeing to four spiritual laws (for example) and saying some words. True belief of any kind inspires action. You sit in a chair because you believe it will support you. You drive a car because you believe it is a safe mode of transportation.
Faith and belief in Jesus will inspire a life like His.
Living this way is completely non-intuitive to us. Since by nature we want to look out for our self, instead to do God's value system is very hard! Without God's help, it is impossible. That is part of why Jesus lived on earth. He became our example for how to live the value system of the Kingdom. And God works in us by His Spirit, transforming us to have His value system.
The value system of the Kingdom is active love. Jesus came and lived on earth and died for us because He loved us. note (John 3:16) And He wants us to love each other sacrificially. (John 13:34) This Christ-like love is the whole of Christianity. It is:
All theology is relational; this includes the concept of death. Death is the breaking of relationship. That is the significant part of Jesus' death on the cross.
As God promised Adam & Eve, they immediately died when they broke the commandment he had given them. This was the death of their relationship with God and with each other. (Gen 3:9-13) And in addition, God then also pronounced mortality on them. (Gen 3:17-24)
Jesus experienced both kinds of death: death to God (Matt 27:46), and death of His body (Matt 27:50). However, He died willingly because He was confident in His resurrection. He could not stay dead in relationship to God because although He took the consequence of our wrong value systems, His value system never changed. His values always stayed exactly the same as God's, so their relationship could not remain broken. And His body did not need to remain dead because Jesus had the authority to lay it down and take it up as He chose. (John 10:18, Matt 27:50) Like as Jesus healed a man to show He had authority to forgive sins (Mark 2:8-12), the resurrection of His body illustrated that the life of His relationship with God the Father had been restored.
We can also be confident of resurrection. As we see God's value system become expressed in our life, we know that we have life in relationship with God. (1 John 3:21-23) In addition, God has promised that he will restore us to bodily life. (1 Cor 15:12-58)
Without confidence in a resurrection there is absolutely no reason to be interested in God's Kingdom because He asks us to die for Him. Sacrificial living is learning to die to self. However, since we can be confident of our resurrection, there is great motivation to adopt God's value system. And to the degree we believe in the resurrection, we will adopt it into our living.
- fulfillment of all of the law (Gal 5:14) note
- acceptance of other Christians (Rom 14)
- holiness (1Thess 3:12-13) note
- imitation of Christ (Eph 5:1-2)
- worship of God (Rom 12:1-2) note
Worship: The book of Romans is structured around the two parts of Christianity.
- the part that we believe is the subject of Rom 1-11
- the part that we do is the subject of Rom 12-16
In fact the transition between the two sections, Rom 12:1-2 throws a very interesting light on worship. Worship is not what comes out of our mouth, it is what comes out of our actions. Worship is sacrificial living for the benefit of others. It is adopting and acting on the value system of God.
The dictionary defines holy as being completely (wholly) devoted to the service of God. It has the idea of separation (for this service). It also has the concept of moral excellence.
God's value system is His moral excellence. And so holiness means being uncorrupted by, and therefore completely separated from, the (self-centered) value system of the world. This is why God is completely holy.
Since we are under our holy king-representative Jesus, God treats us as holy (positional sanctification). And as we increasingly live God's value system with His help, then we also become holy (progressive sanctification).
The set of laws God gave to the Jews were to instruct them on dealings with each other. Unfortunately, the Jews incorrectly came to view these rules as the whole of what God desired of them. And then they also added multiple layers of rules on top to ensure compliance. These became a great burden. (Luke 11:46)
Jesus gave only one rule in the Kingdom, a rule that represents the value system of the Kingdom. This is the rule of love. (Rom 13:9-10, Gal 5:14) Unfortunately, people still attempt to add rules to what God gave us.
Again the rules start as an attempt to explain what we are to do. However, they can progress to becoming just another burden. Therefore it is important to remember that even though some of the rules may have good ideas, they are not essential Christianity.
We don't please God by following rules. We please Him by adopting His value system.
Recognizing and understanding this kind of love is difficult. It can help to realize that the contrast to love is exploitation (because exploitation attempts to benefit me at the expense of others). note Anything that exploits someone else is not love. Love benefits others.
Since God's value system is sacrificial love for the benefit of others, exploitation is the most true opposite of this love:
- Apathy isn't the opposite of love. It is just a non-emotion that tells you something has no meaning (value) to you.
- Hate isn't the opposite of love. It is a form of anger that wants something bad to happen to the other person because it thinks that is what they deserve.
- Exploitation IS the opposite of love because it is selfishly trying to benefit me at the expense of others.
Understanding God's value system and love is very difficult for us. Christianity is therefore a thinking religion because God gives us one simple, but very wise command (love each other) and asks us to learn and apply it to the complexities of life in any culture or time-period. He does not treat us like children with mindless opaque rules, but challenges our reason with the straightforward, but profound gospel.
Jesus' command to Christians was to love each other as He loved us. (John 15:12) This is the means by which we are to show that we love God. (John 14:15) And it has the intended side-effect of repairing our relationships with each other. (Matt 19:29)
Living this value system is humanly impossible. However, God changes and strengthens us so that we can live it. And this then becomes the proof to us that our relationship with God is restored. note
Changing to have and do God's value system is humanly impossible. So when we see God's sacrificial love flowing out of our life, we have proof that we are becoming like Him, and that He is doing the work in us. Therefore, we can have confidence before God that he loves us to do this work in us, and that we are doing what pleases Him. (1 John 3:21-23)
It also is proof to us that our faith is not blind faith. Faith is believing the promises of God. When we see Christians living a love that is not natural for humans, it becomes a demonstration to us that God is trustworthy, able, and faithful to keep His promises.
Living this value system is also the means we have to measure whether we are progressing spiritually. If we can see that we are becoming more like Christ in sacrificial love for others, then we know we are growing spiritually. note
Progress in the Christian life:
- It isn't measured by quantity of prayer or Bible reading. (Although those are important tools in growth.)
- It isn't measured by rules of social conduct. (Jesus didn't give us new social rules other than the rule of love.)
- It isn't measured by participation in any kind of special teaching or spiritual experiences. (These are just mystical things without any standard for measurement.)
Progress in the Christian life is measured by one thing:
- Am I becoming more like Christ by living His value system of sacrificial love for the benefit of others in my life?
This is something that is understandable, measurable and is clear. Therefore we can see when there is progress, and we can make goals for what yet needs progress.
Tools for Living
How do we do this formidable task? Our primary tools are the Word of God (the Bible), prayer and community. Through them, we learn God's value system and make connection to God. Through the Bible, God communicates to us, and prayer allows us to communicate with God. In community, we practice God's value system. Together they strengthen us to develop relationship with God.
Prayer and Bible study are traditional Christian disciplines. They are disciplines because they are hard work! However, in the context of the Gospel they are very meaningful because they are means to the end of developing relationship with God.
Prayer isn't about getting what we want from God; it is primarily about enabling us to change to have God's values. It is about gaining strength for sacrificial living by pouring out our heart struggles to God. The ultimate expression of prayer was by Jesus the night before the cross. Jesus didn't particularly want to have the experience of the cross, but He completely wanted what God desired. (Matt 26:39) In the end, He was able to obtain strength to love us through His sacrifice by the energy, joy (Heb 12:2) and confidence He received from God through prayer.
We are commanded to love other Christians. Therefore, this implicitly means that Christianity needs be lived in community. And being involved in Christian community is another tool for living God's value system because such a community also gives us role-models, encouragement, and practical help for learning how to love.
Having a relationship requires more than only having a common value system. Relationships require common experience. So, relationship with God happens while spending time listening to His words in the Bible (reading). It is what happens while spending time praying about life, and thinking about how what God said relates to it all. And it is what happens as we actively live God's value system to others.
The two parts: the part you believe and the part you do, make up the essential core of the Gospel. If someone has these two parts right and the other parts of the expression of their faith do not come into conflict, then they are a Christian and a part of God's Kingdom.
So this then is the controversial part: Almost everything else in Christianity is tradition or interpretation. These other things include:
- content and style of meetings
- which church denomination to associate with
- which Bible translation to use
- what is to happen in the future (eschatology)
- method/purpose of baptism
- any limitations on women in ministry (Gal 3:28)
Some traditions about these things have value, but none of them are reason for exclusion. Traditions are always secondary to the core of the Gospel.
The problem is often that application of the Gospel is confused with the core of the Gospel itself. A great deal of the Bible is illustration on how to apply the essential core of Christianity to life. Differences in application are not reason for Christians to exclude each other from fellowship. God, without compromising His character, went to great lengths to include us. As we become more Christ-like we will do the same.
So, we must acknowledge that Jesus is King and actively adopt the value system of His Kingdom - sacrificial love for the benefit of others. This restores relationship with God and with all that are in His Kingdom.
God made the gospel very simple so that it works for anybody in any culture. This is good news! And this is the essential Good News of Christianity.