What is Necessary for a Christian to Believe?

What are the essentials?

The Christian faith has objective content that must be believed. Those propositions are more extensive than many might like to think, but all that content must be appropriated personally by faith or it remains only theoretical. The Spirit works through the proclamation of this gospel, these truths, to produce new life, true faith, and sanctity. Those to whom he has given new life he has also given a new identity shaped by the catholic, Christian faith.


The questions often arise: “What must a Christian believe to be saved”? or “What are the essentials?” Most often the broad evangelical answer is “not much.” The tendency is toward minimalism in doctrine (belief) and practice. In some circles it is enough to say that one came forward at a rally, prayed a prayer, and signed a card (or clicked yes on a website). The Reformed Churches, however, confess a different answer to that question in the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 22. What then is necessary for a Christian to believe?

A. All that is promised us in the Gospel, which the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith teach us in sum.

The catechism begins with the gospel, the good news about Jesus the Messiah, which is shorthand for his incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension for us sinners—but there is more.

The Apostles’ Creed contains the articles of our catholic, undoubted faith.

The gospel as we understand it is summarized not just in those events but in “the articles of our catholic, undoubted Christian faith” that teach us what is necessary for us to believe. The articles to which this answer refers are the twelve articles of the Apostles’ Creed, which are in three sections, organized by the Holy Trinity:


  • I believe in God the Father, almighty, maker of heaven and earth,


  • And in Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, our Lord,

  • Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the virgin Mary,

  • Suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; He descended into hell;

  • The third day He rose from the dead;

  • He ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty;

  • Thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.

Holy Spirit

  • I believe in the Holy Spirit,

  • The Holy Catholic Church, The communion of saints,

  • The forgiveness of sins,

  • The resurrection of the body,

  • And the life everlasting.

According to the Reformed understanding, all twelve articles are under the heading “gospel.” This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a narrow sense of the gospel (as sketched above), but it does mean that, when we answer the question of what must be believed, we do not stop at the narrow sense of gospel. We include in it the doctrine of the Trinity, a doctrine of God, a doctrine of creation and providence, of sin, of Christ, of salvation, of the church, sacraments, and last things.

Our doctrine of God is intimately connected to our understanding of man, salvation, church, and worship.

Modern evangelical answers to this question have focused on Christ to the exclusion of these other doctrines, but in Reformed theology they’re all connected. Our doctrine of God is intimately connected to our understanding of man, salvation, church, and worship. The Reformed faith, however, is biblical and catholic, i.e., we believe what the Scriptures teach about God, man, Christ, salvation, etc., as understood by the church in all times and places.

In contrast, for evangelicals, so long as one affirms a personal relationship with the risen Christ, everything else is negotiable. It is not even always certain what an evangelical means by “Christ.” Is she referring to the Christ of Scripture and history, confessed in the Creed, or to the Christ of subjective, mystical experience?

The Reformed answer to the question, “what must a Christian believe?” is not minimalist, but neither is it maximalist. We don’t ask Christians to believe everything possible. We ask them to believe all that is necessary. There are limits to what may be set as a condition of salvation. There is a hierarchy of beliefs. They aren’t all equally ultimate or necessary. There are fundamentalist groups that require adherents to believe that the King James Version of the English Bible is the only acceptable translation, but that’s not a necessary belief. The King James Version is a wonderful piece of work, but it’s just one translation among many.

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