Yes, there are essential Christian Doctrines

by Matt Slick

Some emergent pastors might think that the concept of invariable, essential Christian doctrines would be contrary to a proper and healthy "conversation" as they experience the "story of God" in their lives and the lives of others.  After all, absolute truths necessarily mean there are absolute errors, and far too many emerging pastors do not like the idea of alienating anyone else's "truth beliefs" lest they not develop a loving relationship with them and somehow offend them or not reach them.  That is understandable, but truth must be coupled with love--not sacrificed to it.

Whether or not any emerging pastor likes the concept of absolute truths as revealed in the Bible, is irrelevant. The fact remains: the Bible tells us there are essentials.1

The reasons it is good to know essentials are multiple.  When we have essential truths, . . .

  1. we can properly proclaim the truth of who God is.
  2. we can properly proclaim what God requires for salvation.
  3. we can recognize errors that would jeopardize salvation.
  4. we can allow for a diversity of worship practices as long as the essentials are not violated.

Okay, that is simple enough.  But, how do we determine what is and isn't essential?  It is really quite simple.  You read and believe what the Bible says--I'll show you below.

In the following outline, you'll see what I call primary essentials.  These are doctrinal truths that the Scriptures declare to be essential.  You will see secondary truths which the Bible doesn't say are essential but are derived from the primary essentials and/or stated to be true.  It is from these that we can then determine what is and is not good.

By way of example, the first assertion among the primary essentials below is where Jesus makes a statement saying something is essential.  He says that unless you believe he is "I am," you will die in your sins.  Jesus is stating that you must believe he is God in flesh (See John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14). Do you see it?  Do you see that the Scriptures itself declare what is essential?  There are other self-declared essentials.  Let's list them:

Primary Essentials

  1. The Deity of Christ
    1. John 8:24, "I said, therefore, to you, that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins."
      1. This is where Jesus clearly taught what you cannot deny and you must affirm.
    2. Jesus is God in flesh (John 8:58 with Exodus 3:14). See also John 1:1, 14; 10:30-33; 20:28; Col. 2:9; Phil. 2:5-8; Heb. 1:8
  2. Salvation by Grace
    1. "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace," (Gal. 5:4).
    2. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast," (Eph. 2:8-9).
      1. Both these verses show salvation is by grace through faith and not by works, and that to add works is to not be saved.
  3. The Resurrection of Christ
    1. "And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith," (1 Cor. 15:14). "And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins," (1 Cor. 15:17).
      1. These verses clearly state that if you say that Jesus did not rise from the dead in the same body He died in as he prophesied in John 2:19-21, then your faith is useless.
  4. The Gospel
    1. "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!" (Gal. 1:8-9, NIV).
    2. 1 Cor. 15:1-4 defines what the gospel is: "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 received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures."
  5. Monotheism
    1. There is only one God (Exodus 20:3; Isaiah 43:10; 44:6, 8)
    2. “You shall have no other gods before Me. 4 You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. 5 You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, 6 but showing lovingkindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments," (Exodus 20:3-6).
      1. We can see that God will visit iniquity on the descendants of those who do not follow the true and living God.

Secondary Essentials

Secondary essentials are likewise necessary truths, but there is no self-declared penalty for their denial - yet they are still essential to the Christian faith.  Again, by way of example, Jesus says that he is the way, the truth, and the life, and no one comes to the Father but by him (John 14:6).  I call this a secondary essential because there's no penalty associated with its denial.  Nevertheless, it is a statement of absolute truth and is an essential Christian teaching that cannot be denied.

  1. Jesus is the only way to salvation
    1. "Jesus said to him, 'I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me,'" (John 14:6).
      1. Jesus declared that he was the only access to God the Father.  To deny this is to deny what Jesus said.
  2. Jesus' virgin birth
    1. “'Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,' which translated means, 'God with us,'” (Matt. 1:23).
      1. Without the virgin birth, we cannot substantiate the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus being God in flesh.  This would put at risk what Jesus said above in John 8:24 where he said, "I said, therefore, to you, that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins."
  3. Doctrine of the Trinity
    1. Matt. 28:19, "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit,"  (See also, Matt. 3:16-17; 1 Cor. 12:4-6; 2 Cor. 13:14; Eph. 4:4-6.)
    2. This doctrine is not represented by a single verse per se though it is hinted at.  The doctrine of the Trinity is arrived at systematically by looking at the totality of Scripture.  It is, nevertheless, the proper representation of scriptural revelation concerning the nature of God.

Our faith is only as good as who we put it in. There are false teachers who redefine God, redefine Christ, and redefine the gospel to their own destruction. Jesus warned us about false Christs and false teachers in Matt. 24:24.  Paul clearly said in Galatians 1:8 that anyone who preaches a false gospel is to be cursed.  Therefore, we can see from Scripture that there are doctrinal/propositional truths we cannot avoid, and that these truths cannot be governed by experience and/or the ambivalence of emerging "conversation." If that were the case, we would not need the propositional truths given to us by God in the Bible.


Having clarified the essentials, we are better able to identify the benefits and dangers of emerging church teachings.  As I've said before, there is good and bad within this movement.  There are teachers who hold to the essentials, but there are also emerging church teachers who not only deny them but consider them to be somewhat irrelevant to their view of the "Christian conversation."

Let's "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints," (Jude 3).




  • 1. I am aware of the huge undertaking of trying to define the essentials of the faith.  I do not offer this article as "the final authority" on what are essentials, but it is a short and biblically-based list that quickly enables us to judge between truth and error.  For more information on this please see, The Doctrine Grid.

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.