The essential doctrines of Christianity are core beliefs held by all Christians. They are the 14 basic principles that define Christianity and bind all believers together at a fundamental level.
I. What Are the Essential Doctrines of Christianity?
There are several different lists of core Christian beliefs. But nearly every list agrees on the following fourteen essential doctrines:
- The unity of God or God is one (monotheism)
- God exists as a Tri-Unity (the Trinity)
- Human depravity
- Christ’s virgin conception (birth)
- Jesus’ sinlessness
- Jesus is fully God and fully human (deity of Jesus)
- The necessity of God’s grace
- Necessity of faith
- Jesus’ atoning death or substitutionary atonement
- Christ’s bodily resurrection
- Jesus’ bodily ascension to heaven
- Jesus’ intercession
- Second coming of Jesus
- Inspiration of Scripture
II. The Apostles’ Creed Helps Us Remember the Essential Doctrines
Does 14 doctrines seem like a lot to memorize? Of course!
But one way to remember most of them is to memorize the Apostles’ Creed.
For instance, the bracketed numbers correspond to essential doctrines listed above:
- I believe  in God , the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord :
- Who was conceived of the Holy Spirit , born of the Virgin Mary [4, 5], suffered  under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died , and was buried. (He descended into hell.)
- The third day he arose again from the dead . He ascended into heaven  and sits at the right hand of God the Father  Almighty, from whence he shall come to judge the living and the dead .
- I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic [universal] church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness  of sins , the resurrection of the flesh, and life everlasting . Amen.
Studying the essential doctrines help us appreciate the beliefs shared by all Christians. Let’s look at their definitions and why they matter.
1. The Essential Doctrine of God’s Unity
Of all the essential doctrines, God’s unity is foundational.
The belief in only one God refers to God’s unity. That makes Christianity a “monotheistic” religion compared to belief in many gods—called “polytheism.”
Both the Old and New testaments confirm the unity of God (Gen. 1:1; Exod. 20:1–3; John 17:3).
In Mark 12:29, Jesus confirms God’s unity. He recites the Hebrew Shema, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4).
2. The Essential Doctrine of God’s Tri-Unity
The Trinity or tri-unity is a uniquely-Christian view of God. It means that we believe one God exists eternally in three Persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit).
While “Trinity” isn’t in the Bible, its concept is evident in Scripture.
- Each member of the Trinity is a distinct Person
- Each member of the Trinity share one divine nature and are inseparable
The Trinity is one of the essential doctrines that is a mystery. Now, you may be asking, “What’s a Christian mystery?”
Allow me to explain. A Christian mystery is an aspect of our faith that we cannot totally “comprehend.” There are several other examples of Christian mysteries. These include the deity and humanity of Jesus and the inspiration of the Bible.
In brief, finite humans cannot comprehend an infinite God. However, we can still apprehend them sufficiently using analogies. And these analogies prove the mysteries are not contradictory.
a. Using a Triangle Analogy to Help Apprehend the Trinity
For example, we can “apprehend” the Trinity using the analogy of a triangle:
- A triangle (divine nature or substance) must have three corners (three Persons) to exist.
- Similarly, the three Persons of the Trinity are like the corners of the triangle. They must co-exist separately and simultaneously.
- But all three Persons share one divine nature or essence.
The Bible clearly distinguishes each member of the Trinity from one another. At the same time, all are God:
- The Father is called God (2 Thess. 1:2).
- The Son (Jesus) is called God (John 1:1, 14).
- The Holy Spirit is called God (Acts 5:3-4).
All three Persons are also mentioned together in several passages.
For example, “And when Jesus was baptized, immediately he went up from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened to him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him; and behold, a voice from heaven [God the Father] said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matt. 3:16-17; cf. Matt. 28:19; 2 Cor.13:14, emphasis and insert added).
3. The Fundamental Belief of Human Depravity
To say someone is depraved is not a compliment! In fact, it is quite an ugly description. But when we consider our current state from God’s original plan, the portrayal is accurate.
This fundamental belief is necessary if we are going to recognize we need to be saved. For example, only a drowning person knows they need a life preserver! And only a person who knows they are a sinner will realize they need a Savior.
God created everything perfect. But after Adam and Eve’s willful rebellion against God (Gen. 3:6), sin and death were introduced into creation (Rom. 5:13).
Since then, every human inherits a “sin nature” (Rom. 5:13; Ps. 51:5). We are by nature sinful to our core (1 John 2:15-16).
That means that human depravity is extensive. By that, I mean sin has corrupted every part of our mind, will, emotions, and flesh. As a result, we do not seek God (Rom. 3:10-11) because we love the darkness (John 3:19).
a. Our sinfulness separates us from God.
In fact, there is an uncrossable gulf between God and humans.
And no amount of good works by us can build a bridge across this gulf (Tit. 3:5-6). And because we cannot solve that separation, we can’t save ourselves (Rom. 3:11); we are completely dead in our sins (Eph. 2:1,3).
Because of our depravity, humans experience two deaths:
- Spiritual death is our separation from an intimate relationship with God spiritually (Eph. 2:1).
- Physical death is the necessary separation of our soul from our body at the end of our lives on earth (Rom. 5:12-21).
And there is a third death that is the worst of all.
- And that is an “eternal death.”
- Eternal death is experienced by those who reject Jesus (Matt. 25:41).
- These persons will spend eternity in hell.
4. The Core Belief of Christ’s Virgin Conception (Birth)
Christ’s virgin conception (or birth) cannot be ignored. The gospels of Matthew (1:18–25) and Luke (1:26–38) relate the story of how all three members of the Trinity were involved in the virgin conception. Both books narrate how God the Father sent the Holy Spirit to a virgin named Mary for her to conceive Jesus.
According to this essential doctrine, we believe the virgin conception fulfilled prophecy (Matt. 1:23; cf. Isa. 7:14) and is historically accurate.
5. The Essential Doctrine of Jesus’ Sinlessness
The belief that Jesus lived without sin is essential to God’s plan of salvation. Because of his virgin conception, Jesus did not inherit our “sin nature” (Rom. 5:12-15).
As a result, Jesus remained sinless throughout his life (1 Pet. 2:22).
- Our sin separates us from God, and as a result, we have to die to pay off our “sin debt” to God.
- But Jesus’ sinlessness meant he didn’t have to die physically.
- Instead, he chose to die in our place, representing us before God as our substitute.
6. The Fundamental Principle that Jesus is Fully God and Fully Human
Because of the uncrossable divide between humans and God:
- Only God can spiritually restore humans with himself (John 3:16)
- And Jesus is the bridge, or mediator, between God and humans (1 Tim. 2:5).
Jesus is both fully God (John 14:9) and fully human, except he is sinless (Hebrews 4:15).
Both these qualities mean that in short:
- Jesus is divine (God) and has the power to save us.
- He is also a sinless human who can represent us.
Jesus is the Second Person of the Trinity (triangle) and has an eternal divine nature. At his incarnation, Jesus took on a second perfect human nature (circle–see below).
7. The Essential Doctrine of God’s Grace
God’s grace means he gave sinful humans an undeserved gift. Believing in God’s grace is not just a nicety.
- It is essential for our salvation.
- God is holy (Tit. 1:2) and hates sin (Rom. 1:18).
- And because of our sinfulness (depravity), we cannot save ourselves.
Yet God loves us and extends his unmerited favor or grace towards us (Eph. 2:8). How?
God provides salvation through Jesus (Rom. 3:21-26).
8. The Essential Doctrine of Necessity of Faith
Faith is genuinely trusting and believing that God can and will save us through Jesus Christ. Faith is necessary for our salvation.
- God provides the opportunity for salvation to every human.
- But only if we place our faith in Jesus as our Lord and Savior (Eph. 2:8; Acts 16:30-31).
9. The Essential Doctrine of Jesus’ Atoning Death
The penalty for our sinfulness is physical and spiritual death. But the penalty for our sins was paid by Jesus on the cross. Jesus was our substitute who paid for—or atoned for—our sin. Thus, we call this “substitutionary atonement.” Atonement means “covering, wiping away, or canceling.”
In Jesus’ substitutionary atonement:
- Sinless Jesus chose to substitute himself in our place (Heb. 4:15), dying for our sins (1 Cor. 15:3).
- Christ took God’s punishment, and wrath meant for us because of our sins (Heb. 2:17).
- His death atoned for our sins (2 Cor. 5:21).
10. The Essential Doctrine of Christ’s Resurrection
The resurrection of Jesus is the linchpin of Christianity. It means that we believe that when Christ was crucified on Friday, his atoning death paid for our sins. But the process was not complete until Sunday morning (Matt. 28).
His physical resurrection on the third day (Luke 24:39) proved Jesus had defeated death.
Jesus’ resurrection is at the heart of the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1-6, 14, 17). It is a necessary belief for our salvation (Rom. 10:9-10).
While the resurrection miracle might seem impossible to our modern minds, it’s true! And scholars recognize the evidence for the resurrection as a historical fact. I can confidently say that there are no good arguments against the resurrection.
11. The Essential Doctrine of Jesus’ Bodily Ascension
Forty days after his resurrection, Jesus was taken up bodily (he “ascended”) into heaven (Acts 1:9-11).
After this ascension, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to live within Christians (John 16:7). The indwelling Holy Spirit guides us, convicts us of our sin, and comforts us in our suffering. He also gives every Christian a spiritual gift.
12. The Essential Doctrine of Jesus’ Intercession in Heaven Right Now
Jesus currently sits at the Father’s right hand (Heb. 1:3), praying on our behalf (Heb. 7:25). His intercession guarantees our prayers are heard.
Christ also defends us when we sin (1 John 2:1) and when Satan accuses us (Rev. 12:10). His defense is the once-for-all atonement that he paid for all Christian’s sins (Heb. 10:12-14).
13. The Essential Doctrine of Jesus’ Second Coming
Jesus will physically return to earth for a second time, and we long for him to come again. His second coming will signal the defeat of sin and the final judgment of all humans to either heaven or hell. Regarding the second coming:
- We don’t know the time of Christ’s second coming (Matt. 24:36).
- It will be unmistakable and sudden (Mark 13:26-27), like lightning (Matt. 24:27)
- Jesus will physically descend in the clouds (Matt. 26:64), “with his mighty angels” (2 Thess. 1:7) and his glorified saints (Phil. 3:21).
- Every person on earth will see him (Rev. 1:7).
At Christ’s second coming, all the living and the dead are transformed or resurrected. Christians will receive glorious incorruptible bodies. And then we will rise to meet Jesus in the air (Phil. 3:21).
a. Two Judgements at the Second Coming
At the second coming, there will be two judgments. Firstly, the Judgement Seat of Christ (2 Cor. 5:10) determines the eternal rewards of believers. Make no mistake: How you are living as a Christian right now will not earn you salvation. But it will reap eternal heavenly rewards.
Secondly, there is the Great White Throne Judgement (Rev. 20:7-15). This judgment separates humankind into two groups forever.
- Saved humans will enjoy conscious eternal life in heaven. We will be free from sin forever (i.e., glorification; Rev. 21)!
- Unsaved humans suffer conscious everlasting doom (Rev. 20:11-15).
We will enjoy the restoration and renewal of all things—a glory that Jesus will accomplish. There will be “new heavens and a new earth” in which “righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).
14. The Essential Doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture
The Bible is the only source for knowing
- Who God is
- How to be saved
- How to live
Scripture is God’s inspired word. The fact that Scripture is inspired means that it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16-17) because it originates from God (Holy Spirit).
a. Inspiration is another mystery.
It means the Holy Spirit superintended or “carried along” each author’s writing.
- He used their individual voice and style (2 Pet. 1:21).
- An analogy might be the way the wind drives a sailboat.
Jesus confirmed that Scripture (Old Testament) is
- Divinely authoritative (Matt. 4:4, 7, 10)
- Imperishable (Matt. 5:17-18)
- Infallible (reliable in its revelations) (John 10:35)
- Inerrant (without error in the original writings) (John 17:17)
- Historically reliable (e.g., Matt. 19:4-5)
- Ultimately supreme (Matt. 15:3,6)
Jesus also promised to send the Holy Spirit to lead the New Testament authors in all truth (John 16:13). And the disciples confirmed this inspiration of New Testament writings (1 Tim. 5:18; 2 Pet. 3:15-16).
III. What Is Your Next Step?
The essential doctrines of Christianity bind all genuine Christians. An inspired, inerrant resource, the Bible is their source.
Of these fourteen essential doctrines, some are necessary for salvation. These include believing in:
- One God who exists as a Trinity
- Jesus is fully God and fully human
- Jesus’ substitutionary atonement
- Christ’s resurrection
- Human depravity
- God’s grace
- Necessity of Faith
So, if you are encouraged by these essential doctrines, why not:
- Learn more about these beliefs.
- Talk with others about them–explore the ones that stand out to you further.
- Teach this information to another believer.
- Let these essential doctrines inspire you to share the gospel message with non-Christians.
Geisler, Norman and Ron Rhodes. Conviction without Compromise, Harvest House, 2008.
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