The other day I received an email from a young woman in which she posed the question, "What’s the single most important thing I would have to believe in order to officially qualify as a Christian?" So I thought I'd answer that question here.
The first thing I would say is something I imagine you know, but just in case: there isn’t any sort of litmus test by which anyone officially “qualifies” as Christian. There’s no regularly updated Register of Christians kept anywhere, no laminated membership card Christians keep on them at all times, no sticker or decal believers are supposed to keep on their car, truck, minivan, or skateboard. There’s nothing like that at all. There’s just people walking around with whatever’s in their minds and hearts, doing whatever it is they do.
That said, though, there are core convictions and beliefs shared by pretty much all Christians. You’d be extremely hard-pressed to find a Christian who doesn’t believe, for instance, in the divinity of Jesus Christ. We Christians believe that Jesus Christ was God made man, period. Everything about Christianity is grounded in that conviction. Anyone who doesn’t believe that Christ was God come to earth as a man is, well, for one, bound to at one point or another feel just a little out of place at a Christian worship service.
Functionally speaking, one of the great things about Christianity is that it’s so old. What makes this quality so valuable is that it guarantees that for centuries such questions as, “What do Christians really believe?” have been dealt with, thought about, written about, convened about, debated, discussed, refined, and flawlessly articulated. And throughout Christianity’s history there have been times when, for one reason or another, it was crucial for Christians to be very clear about what exactly it is they believe. The result of so many minds giving so much attention over so much time to that specific question has resulted in a body of historical documents called Christian creeds, or confessions. Each creed or confession was formulated in its own time, for its own reason, and to its own effect, but the intent of each was to as fully as possible articulate what Christians believe.
One of the oldest Christian creeds remains of particular importance to Christians around the world today. If you want to know what Christians believe, you can’t go wrong with the Nicene Creed, which is universally acknowledged as a comprehensive and inspired articulation of the Christian faith. Just about everyone who calls himself Christian will readily claim the Nicene Creed as his personal and true confession.
The creed is named for the First Council of Nicea, which created its first form. In 325 A.D. the Roman Emperor Constantine called the council--that is, called together Christian bishops, leaders and theologians from all countries to Nicea (in present day Turkey)--specifically so that they would come up with a uniform statement of faith that all Christians could agree upon and embrace. Up to that point there’d been variations of Christian belief essentially vying for dominance; once the elegant and comprehensive Nicene Creed was issued, it became the standard confession of faith throughout all of Christendom. Today millions of Christians around the world--be they Catholic, Orthodox, or Protestant--still include reciting it as part of their regular worship practice.
The Nicene Creed reads as follows:
We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.
We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary,
and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshiped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
That is what most Christians have always believed, and what over the centuries countless millions of the faithful have committed to memory.
It’s important to note that, as inspiring and accessible as they usually are, Christian confessions are meant to inform and in some way encapsulate scripture. They are most certainly not, however, meant to replace Scripture.
Some relevant Bible passages:
Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. 1 Timothy 6:12
But what does it say? “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart,” that is, the word of faith we are proclaiming: That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved. Romans 10:8-10
Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. Matthew 10:32
Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God 1 John 4:15