The gospel of Jesus Christ is a sacred message. It is God’s chosen means for reaching all who would come to saving faith (1 Corinthians 1:21). Whether you preach to a congregation or witness to your neighbor, eternal destinies hinge on the proclamation of Christ crucified. It’s why the apostle Paul asks the rhetorical questions:
How will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? How will they believe in Him whom they have not heard? And how will they hear without a preacher? (Romans 10:14)
And getting that message we preach correct is so critical that Paul reserved his harshest condemnation for anyone who gets it wrong:
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to what you received, he is to be accursed! (Galatians 1:8–9)
Those who peddle a false gospel bring damnation on themselves and all who embrace their message. Christ identified only one path to salvation (Matthew 7:13-14; John 14:6)—there are no alternate routes.
So in our attempt to identify the fundamentals of the Christian faith, we clearly need to prioritize doctrines essential to the gospel. In the words of John MacArthur, “A doctrine must be regarded as fundamental if eternal life depends on it.” John MacArthur, Reckless Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994) 111.
Who God Is
Most evangelists logically start with an explanation of who God is, as His attributes and nature undergird all the other key elements of the gospel. In fact, there’s no hope of salvation apart from the knowledge of God. Jesus said, “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). As John MacArthur points out:
Eternal life is obtained through the knowledge of the true God and Jesus Christ (John 17:3; 14:6; Acts 4:12). Since Jesus Himself is the true God incarnate (1 John 5:20; John 8:58; 10:30), the fact of His deity (and by implication the whole doctrine of the Trinity) is a fundamental article of faith (see 1 John 2:23). Our Lord Himself confirmed this when He said all must honor Him as they honor the Father (John 5:23). The truths of Jesus’ divine Sonship and Messiahship are also fundamental articles of faith (John 20:31). Reckless Faith, 111.
The critical statement is “knowledge of the true God and Jesus Christ.” Plenty of false teachers have become rich and famous by using the names “God” and “Jesus Christ” to describe idols of their own invention. We must be wise to the cunning means Satan uses to assault the nature and character of God, and protect the truth from corrupting influence.
Who Man Is
We live in a therapeutic culture that exalts human reason at the expense of God’s law. Self-examination has given way to self-esteem, sins are redefined as mistakes, and the problem of guilt is solved through suppression or denial. The doctrine of depravity has been buried beneath a pile of psychobabble. John MacArthur rightly critiques this trend:
The wisdom of our age says guilt feelings are nearly always erroneous or hurtful; therefore we should switch them off. But is that good advice? What, after all, is the conscience—this sense of guilt we all seem to feel?
The conscience is generally seen by the modern world as a defect that robs people of their self-esteem. Far from being a defect or a disorder, however, your ability to sense your own guilt is a tremendous gift from God. He designed the conscience into the very framework of the human soul. It is the automatic warning system that cries, “Pull up! Pull up!” before you crash and burn.http://www.gty.org/resources/articles/A273/the-conscience-revisited
It is our guilt that affirms God’s verdict—all people are sinners (Romans 3:23) and without excuse (Romans 1:18–20). Put simply, sin is the breaking of God’s law (1 John 3:4). And it is God’s law that performs the essential task of accurately diagnosing our sin problem (Romans 7:7). John MacArthur highlights this process:
Apart from the law, we would have no way of accurately judging our sinfulness. Only God’s law reveals His divine standard of righteousness and thereby enables us to see how far short of His righteousness we are and how helpless we are to attain it by our own efforts.John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Romans 1–8 (Chicago: Moody Publishers, 1991) 370.
The apostle Paul warned that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23)—spiritual death. Hell is an unpleasant reality, but ignoring it won’t make it go away. Eternal damnation is a biblical reality that must be expressed soberly and pleadingly. We cannot possibly overstate the horrific experience of the damned but we can understate it with expressions like “separation from God,” or “a Christless eternity.” Such terminology betrays the force with which Scripture speaks:
[They] will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever; they have no rest day and night. (Revelation 14:10–11)
Believers need to avoid the insidious trend of ignoring the horrors and eternality of hell. One of the major motivating factors behind preaching and evangelism is the stark reality that people are going to hell. The eternality and severity of hell ought to correspond to the intensity of our drive to reach the lost.
What Christ Has Done
Jesus Christ alone provides the means by which sinners can be saved. The facts of His life, death, and resurrection contain the essence of the gospel message.
Christ’s thirty-three years of earthly life were a righteous fulfillment of all God’s laws that we have sinfully broken (Matthew 5:17). He died as a sin-bearing substitute, suffering God’s holy wrath in the place of sinners (Romans 3:25–26; 2 Corinthians 5:21). And His resurrection proves that His sacrifice was sufficient (Romans 4:23–25; 1 Corinthians 15:3–4). John MacArthur elaborates:
The bodily resurrection of Christ is a fundamental doctrine, because 1 Corinthians 15:14 tells us, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain.” Romans 10:9 confirms that the resurrection is a fundamental doctrine, and adds another: the lordship of Christ. “If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved.” Reckless Faith, 112.
There is a major implication in confessing Jesus as Lord: Trusting Him as Savior also means submitting to His lordship.
What Christ Demands
Saving faith goes far beyond verbal acknowledgment or mental agreement. Saving faith is a repentant faith. Turning to Christ in faith always implies turning away from sin. That’s why Jesus said: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3, 5). Those who confess faith in Christ but continue to engage in a lifestyle of unrepentant sin are not justified by faith because their “faith” is a false faith (1 John 3:4–10). It is only the faith evidenced by repentance that is true justifying faith. John MacArthur explains the importance of this doctrine:
According to Romans 4:4–5, justification by faith is a fundamental doctrine as well: “Now to the one who works, his wage is not reckoned as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (emphasis added). In other words, those who seek acceptance before God on the ground of their own righteousness will find they fall short (Romans 3:27–28; Galatians 2:16–3:29). Only those who trust God to impute Christ’s perfect righteousness to them are accounted truly righteous. This is precisely the difference between Roman Catholic doctrine and the Gospel set forth in Scripture. It is at the heart of all doctrine that is truly fundamental. Reckless Faith, 112.
Though they can be listed in different ways, fundamental doctrines concerning salvation always revolve around the core truths of who God is, who man is, what Christ has done, and what Christ demands of the sinner. They are not up for debate or compromise—they simply must be affirmed.