The Objective Essentials of the Gospel

For the last several weeks we have been talking about the One Essential, or the one thing necessary for personal salvation. Moravians have defined this as, “A heart relationship with the Triune God, which issues as faith, love and hope.”

This definition is in perfect sync with the New Testament.

Consider the idea of a triune God. Over and over again the New Testament declares that the one God has revealed God’s Self with three persona. Persona is Latin for faces but we ordinarily translate it as persons. God has revealed himself in the person of the Father, in the person of the Son, and in the person of the Holy Spirit. (Note 1)

Nowhere in the New Testament is God referred to as “a Trinity,” however, as the great Pauline scholar, Chris Becker was want to say, the Trinity is there, “in incipient rudimentary form.” What does that mean? It means that when we think about it we are driven to the doctrine of the Trinity by the facts of the New Testament revelation.

Now consider the idea of the heart. In the Bible the heart is not just an organ that pumps blood. It is the center of mind, emotions, and will. That is what we need to remember when we read Romans 10:9 in which St. Paul says:

If you confess with your lips that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart (with your mind, emotions and will) that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

Belief is never just intellectual assent. It is based upon reason, captures the emotion, and inevitably leads to action. Belief is old English word, which means “by-life.” If we believe something, we live it out.

If we live out our relationship with the triune God, then we are filled with faith, hope and love, which are constantly at work in us. In Romans 5:1 St. Paul writes:

1 Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Through him we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

So, from our perspective, that is from a subjective perspective, with you and I being the subjects, there is just one thing that we must do to be saved. As Paul said to the Philippian jailer, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ… and you will be saved.” (Note 2)

Now, Moravians talk about the One Essential, and we also talk about what constitutes Essentials, and Ministerials, and Non-Essentials. The Moravian Magazine just carried an article by Dr. Craig Atwood on that. Moravians also talk about the Eight Essentials.

These Eight Essentials are not primarily subjective, though we accept them subjectively. They are objective. They represent those things that God had to actually do to accomplish our salvation, and make the Good News a reality. It is my personal conviction that if God did not really do these things, then all of our faith is misplaced, and all of our hope is a false hope. (Note 3) Karl Barth was right, “Christ can be born in us 1,000 times, but if he was not first born in Bethlehem (Note 4) we would still be lost.” What does that mean? It means that all our faith and all our hope are nothing if God did not actually do something for us.

The number of Essentials evolved over the years, from the earliest days of our church. It was not until the General Synod of 1857 that Moravians named Six Essentials. These include:

  1. Universal depravity of human nature, the fact that each of us and all of us have fallen, and we can’t get up.
  2. The Love of God the Father (for the world).
  3. The Two Natures of Christ, Human and Divine.
  4. The Atonement, or at-one-ment which God accomplished in Jesus Christ and his cross.
  5. The gracious work of the Holy Spirit in calling us to Christ, and enabling us to believe.
  6. The fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer.

Then in the General Synod of 1879 Moravian added two additional Essentials.

  1. The fellowship of Christians with one another, our Unity in Christ. The fact is that we loved because he first loved us. We accept one another because he accepts us, and we do not judge one another, for which of us has the right to judge the servants of another, especially when the other is the Lord? (Romans 14:4).
  2. The second Advent of Christ in Glory, and the resurrection of the dead to live and judgment.

Two and six make eight! I have cast the Eight Essentials in to my own language, and updated them a little, for clarity. If you want the ipsissima verba—the very words, you can find them in Dr. C. Daniel Crews excellent little book, “Confessing our Unity in Christ.” It is available from the Moravian Archieves.

I once asked Dan how he would account for our church’s recognition of these Eight Essentials. He responded that they were the popular doctrines of their day.

For years, I disagreed with Dan—though I agree with him now. Of course, he takes a different perspective than I do. He is a Church historian. I am a student of the New Testament. I have long believed, and continue to believe that the Eight Essential echo the apostolic preaching of the Early Church, as it is recorded in the sermons of Acts, and in the Epistle of Paul.

For instance, if you look at Peter’s sermon to Cornelius and his household in Acts chapter 10, you can find most of the Essentials are present, whether explicitly or implicitly, albeit sometimes in an incipient, rudimentary form.

For instance, Peter does not speak of the universal nature of sin and our inability to help ourselves. However, he assumes that both Jews and Gentiles need salvation from sin, and in those days, those two people groups took in all the people of the world. From Peter’s perspective, if you were human, you were a Jew or a Gentile.

Likewise, Peter’s sermon does not name “the love of God the Father” for the world, but it is implicit to the text when Peter says that God anointed Jesus with the Holy Spirit and with power, and that Jesus went about doing good, and when he talks about God’s offer of forgiveness of sins in Christ, that is certainly an act of love.

Likewise, Peter’s sermon does not name the “fellowship” or “unity” of he Church in Jesus Christ, but that doctrine is implicit when Peter declares that God shows no partiality between Jews and Gentiles; both can and have received the Holy Spirit!

And what about the doctrine of the 2nd Advent of Jesus Christ in glory? Peter does not name that doctrine, but it is implicit when he says, “he is the one ordained by God to be the judge of the living and the dead.”

I will not take you through a tedious and lengthy comparison. I will simply state that there are many points of contact between the Eight Essentials and the preaching of the first Apostles, whether it is recorded in the sermons of Acts, or in the Epistles of Paul. I will also mention in passing that the preaching of Jesus was different than the preaching of his apostles, for Jesus had to be the gospel before the gospel could be fully preached! (If you want to know more about the apostolic preaching, follow this link to an on-line copy of <The Apostolic Preaching and Its Developments by C.H. Dodd, the great New Testament scholar.)

Now let me return for a minute to my disagreement with Dan. I disagreed with him that the Eight Essentials were popular doctrines of their day. I disagreed with him because I was thinking of the larger circle of church life.

In the 19th century the church was on the defensive. In those days we did not yet know that the church could survive critical scholarship, and the rise of Darwinism. Yet the Eight Essentials make no mention of the most popular doctrines of the day.

  • They do not mention the Trinity, even though the One Essential does. The idea of the Trinity is present in the Eight Essentials is present as it is in the New Testament, in its incipient, rudimentary form.
  • They do not mention the Resurrection of Jesus explicitly, though, again, when the Eight Essentials mention the Two natures of Christ, the doctrine of the Resurrection is implicit, for it is by the resurrection that Jesus was designated “son of God, in power, through his Resurrection from the dead.”
  • They do not mention the Virgin Birth, though the Virgin Birth was fast becoming the litmus test of Orthodoxy. Why? Because the Virgin Birth is not a part of the missionary preaching of the first apostles. Only Matthew and Luke mention it, and Luke does not even include it in the sermons of Acts. By the way, this is one of the grace notes of Biblical criticism. Some question the accuracy of the sermons of, but Luke shows a surprising amount of restraint in recording these sermons, because he does not completely import his own theology into them. I believe in the Virgin Birth, for I believe it is fitting that a person as unique as Jesus should have a unique birth; but it was not a part of the apostolic preaching, the kerygma.

There are other differences, too. If, in recognizing the Eight Essentials, the Moravians were just echoing the popular doctrines of the day, they did a poor job of it.

Then it occurred to me that there was a way in which Dan and I could both be right. What if the Moravians did not incorporate into the Eight Essentials doctrines that were popular in the church at large, but doctrines that were popular among Moravians?

That would make a difference! For at this point in our history, the Moravian Church was still very much a Mission Church, and the doctrines that were popular among us were the doctrines our missionaries were still preaching on the mission fields of our church. Thus it was quite natural for them to explicitly or implicitly include the doctrines that were preached by the first apostle, because the first apostles were missionaries, too. (Note 5)

Let me give you the preeminent example. St. Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, that he determined to preach nothing among them except “Christ, and him crucified.” (1st Corinthians 2:2) Now Christ and him crucified is emphatically resurrection preaching. Paul is not talking about the bad end of a good man. He is talking about a road that was traveled once for all by our now risen and exalted savior, the Messiah, the Christ, the King, who is Lord of all. Likewise, the 4th Essential declares that God made atonement in Jesus Christ, and especially in his cross. (Note 6) Once more we are not talking about the cross as the bad end of a good man, but as the place where God reunites humankind with Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. In the cross of Christ, God even takes death into himself. Then, when God raised Jesus from death, and exalted him to his right hand,God lifted our humanity into heaven with him. (Acts 1) Jesus is one of us. He is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. (Hebrews 2:11)

The Ground of the Unity, which replaced the Eight Essential as our only official statement of doctrine in 1957 is even more dedicated to the preaching of Christ and him Crucified. Therein we read:

The Unitas Fratrum (that would be us) recognizes the Word of the Cross as the center of Holy Scripture and of all preaching of the Gospel, and it sees its primary mission, and its reason for being, to consist in bearing witness to this joyful message.

The cross—joyful? Yes, because it is the cross is the road traveled once for all by our now victorious Lord and Savior. I love the way the first hymn of the Easter Morning Liturgy puts its:

Hail, all hail, Victorious Lord and Savior,
Thou has burst the bonds of death.
Grant us as to Mary the great favor,
To embrace thy Feet in Faith.
Thou hast for us the curse endured,
And for us, Eternal Life procured.
Joyful we with one accord,
Praise the as Our Common Lord.

So, though I don’t know if I will convince Dan, I now believe, that we are both right. The Eight Essentials were not just the popular doctrines of the church world at large, and they are not doctrines hammered out in the ivory towers of academia, they are doctrines tried and tested in the preaching of missionaries, whether the first apostles, or those tireless Moravian brothers and sisters that carried the good news about Jesus Christ to Greenland, and South Africa, and Honduras, and Nicaragua, and to the Indians of North America.

To demonstrate that the Eight Essentials are emphatically, preachable, let me use them all in a simple sermon, a sermon within a sermon as it were. If you remember anything from this morning, remember this.

We are all sinners, but God loves us, and sent his Son into the world to save us from our sins. Jesus of Nazareth died on the cross, but on the third day, God raised him from death and designated him “Son of God” (Note 7) in power by his resurrection from the dead. By our own reason and strength, we cannot believe in him—for he is almost too good to be true, but the Holy Spirit calls us, and enlightens us, and enables us to believe. When we do believe, the Holy Spirit produces a change in us, filling us with faith, and hope, and love, and all the fruits of the Spirit. Because of that, we love one another non-Judgmentally, and recognized that we all belong to Christ, even when we disagree on matters of doctrine and practice. And someday, we will all be rewarded for our faith, for the Christ who appeared for the first time on the stage of human history, in humility and hidden-ness, visible only to a select few witnesses, and through the eyes of faith, must of necessity appear a second time, in glory, whether at the end of history, or at the beginning of eternity, visible to faith and unbelief alike. And it does not matter if we are still alive when that takes place, for Christ coming back for his church on earth, and our being called home to him in death, are but two sides of the same coin. Believe and share this Good News!

This is the core, the Essential part of our faith. If it is true, then nothing else matters. We can bear with any “how,” because we have a why. If it is not true, then we ought to eat, and drink, and be merry, for tomorrow, we will die. As a preacher of the gospel, If I did not believe this Good News, I would leave the church today, and never come back. I do believe it, so I hope to see you next Sunday!

Finis

Note 1: When speaking of the Trinity we try to avoid two errors: 1) dividing the essence and 2) confusing the persons.

Note 2: Paul added, “and be baptized.” In Romans 10:9 confession is substituted for baptism in a more universal context. Confession is not a subset of baptism, baptism is a subset of confession.

Note 3: I do not mention love as being futile, for real love, love that serves another is never futile. There is a love that is stronger than death, and a love that is stronger than the death of faith. Some of us ponder how God will treat non-Christians whose lives are dominated by love, and Christians who are loveless.

Note 4: Meaning the Son of God actually had to be born in this world.

Note 5: This explains why the doctrine of the Trinity is present in the Eight Essentials exactly as it is present in the New Testament itself. It is not explicitly named; rather it is there in its implicit, rudimentary form, exactly as it is present in the New Testament itself. And this explains why the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not present in the Eight Essentials. Only two New Testament writers, Matthew and Luke, mention it. It is not a part of the New Testament preaching which we here in Paul. Luke does not even make it a part of the preaching in Acts, even though in the sermons of Acts he stresses that Jesus is the Messiah of Israel. I personally believe in the Virgin Birth, but neither the belief, nor the Virgin Birth itself is necessary to our salvation. Jesus could have entered the world in many ways; the important thing is that he entered the world to save us from our sins, and give us life, which is life indeed.

Note 6: The atonement or at-one-ment between God and man begins in the incarnation of Jesus Christ, and continues to the present time. According to the New Testament he lifted our humanity into heaven, and will return in the same way.

Note 7: It appear that the title “Son of God,” was first applied to the Messiah, and was used interchangeably with that title. Some say this is at least a primary part of Paul’s statement in Romans 1:16. Gradually, even within the New Testament, it came to mean more, for Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, was worshiped as Lord. Given that there is only one Lord, the Lord God of Israel, the doctrine of the two natures of Christ, fully human and fully divine, and ultimately, when the Holy Spirit or was considered, the doctrine of the Trinity of God became inevitable.

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