The Essentials for Christians
Since our lives have been interrupted by COVID-19 and the requirements for social distancing, I decided to take a break from the series on church history (our family heritage of Christians). As governments issue “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders that say only “essential” businesses can remain open and people should only leave the house for something “essential,” it has been interesting to see what is labeled as “essential.” This has encouraged me to reflect on what is “essential” for Christians. I recently took the Spiritual Health Check-In (available at WeAreFaith.org/grow) that gives results of how we are doing in the areas of 10 beliefs, 10 practices, and 10 virtues. I thought I would use these three buckets to think more deeply about some “essentials” for Christians that we can think about during this time.
The church I attended when I was growing up summarized its beliefs in this motto: “In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.” I remember hearing that but wondering...what exactly are the essentials? In the early years of my theological training as a pastor, I remember a conversation in a class about “What are the essentials that one needs to believe in order to be saved?” Later in life, I discovered the Heidelberg Catechism that I think helps answer these questions.
Question 2 of this catechism is “What must you know to live and die in the joy of this comfort [which it discussed in Question 1]?” And then gives the answer: “Three things: first, how great my sin and misery are; second, how I am set free from all my sins and misery; third, how I am to thank God for such deliverance.” This is a great summary of what a Christian needs to believe or essential beliefs - our guilt and sin, God’s grace and deliverance in Christ, and what our gratitude looks like as we respond to God’s grace.
It also asks in Question 22 “Q. What then must a Christian believe?” and gives the answer of “All that is promised us in the gospel,a summary of which is taught us in the articles of our universal and undisputed Christian faith” and then goes through the Apostles’ Creed. The Apostles’ Creed is a great foundational start to think about the essential beliefs of Christians -- the things that Christians in all times and places seem to believe. As I journeyed through the Apostles’ Creed in a series of posts from June 2019-September 2019 (you can access these in the archives of this blog), I realized that it is not just the statements of the creed but the teaching beyond them that is so important. It is a short creed that can be memorized and also teaches us much, the foundational or essential beliefs for Christians.
The COVID-19 pandemic began just as we were getting ready to launch “The 4G Life” sermon series at Faith Church. This series covers four practices that we believe are essential practices for Christians. These practices are: Gather, Grow, Give, and Go. Because this terminology may be less familiar than what I have in terms of the other “essentials,” I will spend a little more time explaining this one.
Gather is when we seek to connect with God and others in the gathered community, which includes worshiping together on the weekend and meeting in groups with other Christians to learn and share life together. We see the church do that in Acts 2:42-27 and are encouraged to do the same in Hebrews 3:12-14 and 10:23-25. Right now we can’t gather physically but have to do so digitally, which is offering a reminder of how vital our gatherings are.
Grow instructs us to take initiative and not be content with where we are.- We should not be satisfied to just learn the ABCs, but we should want to begin forming words, sentences, paragraphs, and the like. If we don’t grow, we will fall away in times of trouble, but we will flourish when we spend time growing through Bible reading, prayer, and other habits that help us to meditate on God’s Word and respond to Him (for a good overview of these, see Habits of Grace by David Mathis).
Give -- of your time, talents, and treasures. We need to view all that we have as coming from God (gifts from Him -- He is a Giver!) and then share that with others and use them for God’s glory. This means we give Him what is first, not what is left over. We must make God a priority by giving back what might seem scarce and precious to us but ultimately belongs to Him. I was recently reminded that putting God first is not just doing something first (such as giving with our first check of the month or reading our Bible first thing in the morning), but making Him the most important thing.
Go means that we are called to go and make disciples locally and globally, near and far (to quote Sesame Street!). In fact, it is less about where you need to go and more about going where you already are. That means we are called to share our faith in word and deed with our families (something that we can focus on more deeply in this time of “stay-at-home”), neighbors, and coworkers -- who is at the places we live, work, and play each and every day. We also need to come alongside others as they seek to make disciples in their local communities, so we partner with Christians around the world on their mission. There is a need for us to send people... to “go” into places where there are people who have not yet heard the Good News about Jesus Christ. So whether we share the gospel with those we live with or we are called to be a missionary in another country, these are all part of “Go”.
Ultimately, when we “go,” we seek to invite others to believe the “essentials” of the Christian life - found in the Apostles’ Creed and the good news of the gospel - which will lead them to gather, grow, give, and go - and invite others into these practices.
Probably the most common way of identifying the essential virtues for a Christian would be by looking at the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” These are in contrast to the works of the flesh (which the Apostle Paul lists in Galatians 5:19-21), and when we are in Christ, we put to death the vices that are found in our flesh and instead live out in these virtues, as Paul makes clear in Galatians 5:24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”. Notice that they are “of the Spirit,” which is a good reminder that we can’t do these things on our own; the Spirit leads us to these new desires. As you read this list, think about whether or not you possess these virtues. Are you showing love and joy even in this difficult season? Are we living in peace and patience, with kindness and goodness shown to others? Are we people of faithfulness and goodness? As we work from home, how is our self-control? We need to remember that the Christian life is not just about believing things or having particular habits, but is tied to how we interact with others, which reflects the condition of our heart and what we value.
Tending to the Essential
As we live in this pandemic in which we are only allowed to do “essential” things, I want to encourage you to think about where you stand regarding the essentials of the Christian life. Do you need to learn more and cling to these essential beliefs? Are these essential practices part of your daily life? Do you exhibit these essential virtues in your conduct? This can be a season of pause and potential reset for when we return to normal. Let us work on the essentials to then carry them with us back into regular life.
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