What MUST a Christian believe?

DSB - Wittmer 2 I recently read through a book written by Michael Wittmer, who is professor of systematic and historical theology at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary.  GRTS happens to be the seminary I earned my master’s degree from and Dr. Wittmer is one of my former professors.

Wittmer wrote his most recent book, Don’t Stop Believing: Why Living Like Jesus Is Not Enough, to shed light on the debate between traditional Christianity, which is characterized by its doctrinal statements, and the Emergent Church movement within Christianity, which puts much greater emphasis on how a person lives and much less (or none) on what doctrine a person believes.  Wittmer hopes to convince both sides that it is not one or the other (doctrine vs. right living), but instead it is both (doctrine and right living).

True Christianity, according to Wittmer, requires right belief because right belief leads to right action.  DSB can be summarized by a phrase taken from the book:  “Genuine Christians never stop serving because they never stop loving, and they never stop loving because they never stop believing.”

In DSB, Wittmer attempts to answer the question “What MUST a person believe to truly be a Christian.”  He takes up this topic in chapter two and concludes that, at minimum we must “believe that we are sinners and that Jesus saves us from our sin” (DSB, p. 41).  According to Wittmer, a person does not have to believe anything about the person of Christ (his deity, humanity, life, death, and resurrection) to come to initial saving faith in Christ.  A person can simply trust that Jesus saves them from their sin.  Wittmer does go on to say that a person cannot deny the truths of who Christ was and what he did and truly be saved, but those truths are not necessary for initial saving faith.

I have to admit that I am still thinking through Wittmer’s understanding.  It seems like there is something that must be believed about who Jesus was when I read Romans 10:9:  “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”  Regardless of what you decide the significance of the word “Lord” is (whether it denotes deity or simply “master”), it requires a belief about who Jesus is.  Paul seems to be saying here that a person must have a correct understanding about who Jesus is.  He is “Lord.”  He is not just a sacrifice for sins.

Interestingly, the passage Wittmer uses in DSB when he discusses this topic in chapter two of the book seems to say something similar.  In Acts 16:29-31, the Philippian jailer asks Paul and Silas what he must do to be saved.  They reply, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.”  Again, there is the emphasis on believing that Jesus is “Lord.”

Is it essential to believe that Jesus is God to come to saving faith?  Or, can one be saved before understanding the details of who Jesus was as long he believes that he is a sinner and Jesus saves him from his sins (and does not deny the truth of who Jesus was)?

I am not so sure.  I am still working through this one, but I would like to know what you think.  Leave a comment and share your thoughts.

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12 Responses to What MUST a Christian believe?

  1. Davo says:

    On first read, I thought that Wittmer was coming to the discussion with some pre-existing assumptions. You said, “We must believe that we are sinners and that Jesus saves us from our sin.” I deduced from that statement that Wittmer was assuming the existence of hell (why we need to be saved) and heaven. If that were the case, then Wittmer would need to add a belief in the existence of both places to the essential beliefs of Christianity. However, I think I was the one making assumptions. At least from that quote, Wittmer makes no mention of heaven or hell, only sin.

    I’m still mulling over it, but I think I may be a Christian by Wittmer’s definition. I might, perhaps, use different language than he uses, but I think it’s essentially different words for the same idea.

    But throw in the necessary deity of Christ, and I’m out. I’m not saying he’s not. I’m just saying, I’m not going to make a claim of certainty.

  2. mikewittmer says:


    Thanks for honestly sharing your questions about the deity of Christ. I am wondering if you have read the Gospel of John, and if so, do you think the Bible teaches that Jesus is divine? In other words, do you think that your amibuity disagrees with Scripture, and if so, does that matter to you?

    Per Tim’s question, I do say that the deity and humanity of Jesus is essential for orthodoxy, so I don’t believe they are optional for Christians. But in that chapter I was addressing a more focused question, what is the minimum one must believe to be saved? And admittedly, that is a dangerous question. I only asked it to demonstrate that there is a minimum of belief required, and it is fun to debate what that minimum is.

  3. Jason says:

    I’m not sure how exactly to answer the question of what a person must initially believe in order to be saved. When we read the Scripture (especially the N.T.), we’re told that a person must be “born again”, or “born of the Spirit” to be “saved” (to enter the Kingdom of God). We’re also told that unless a person has the Spirit of God (by being born of Him), that person is not “saved” (not a child of God). So obviously, the work of the Spirit is essential for our “salvation”.

    We also read that (at least at the minimum) we must believe that Jesus is (l)Lord to be saved and we can only do this by the Spirit (1Cor. 3). But then in 1John we read that the Spirit confesses to our hearts that Jesus is God in the flesh and to believe otherwise is the spirit of anti-christ.

    So it seems that a “confession” of Christ as Lord, a “confession” unto life (salvation) is a confession that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Lord in whom we place our hope for redemption (deliverance). The Bible seems to suggest that this is (at least) the minimum of what we must believe in order to be saved. Does this sound right?

    But then, after having come to faith in Christ, the Bible does not allow us to continue in whatever ignorance of God and the Gospel that we were in upon our initial salvation. Over and over again throughout the Scripture (including the O.T.), the “believer” is called to KNOW which is to LOVE the God of his salvation. So even the idea that we as Christians can be content with a minimalist approach to doctrine belies a lack of love for Christ. How can we grow in our love for Him without growing in our knowledge of Him and His Gospel first?

    Anyway, there is a lot to work through in Wittmer’s book and a number of questions to ask and answer. And I suppose that was his point. But in answering a lot of questions, Wittmer directs us (rightly in my mind) to docrtrinal formulation and adherence. I don’t believe that we can honor our Lord if we are not doctrinally sound…and I believe Wittmer suggests as much throughout the book. But being doctrinally sound should result in a greater love for and obedience to our Lord who we continue to learn of and about.

    Just like any relationship we have, unless we grow in our knowledge of the other person, we simply won’t grow in our love of him/her or our devotion to him/her.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking questions.


  4. Davo says:

    Wow, the man himself! It’s a pleasure to comment with you. I must admit, I haven’t read your book, only Tim’s synopsis.

    I have read John (and the rest of the Bible, numerous times). I think portions of it teach that Jesus was divine. However, other portions are less clear. Furthermore, I’m sure you’re familiar with evidence that such references to Jesus’ divinity were used as a literary device (by uncertain authorship). So my ambiguity on the subject is a result of ambiguity in Scripture. Again, I’m not claiming to know anything with any certainty.

    That is a bold (or “dangerous” to use your words) question. So here’s a question for you, then… to be a “Christian,” does one only have to believe they are sinful and Jesus saves them from their sin, or must they also embrace “orthodoxy”?

    Take, for example, me. I probably believe the first bit, but probably don’t embrace your definition of orthodoxy.

  5. Davo says:

    Oh, and I’ve had the Journey stuck in my head all afternoon. Which isn’t a bad thing.

  6. Tim Farley says:


    You wrote: “So it seems that a “confession” of Christ as Lord, a “confession” unto life (salvation) is a confession that Jesus is God in the flesh, the Lord in whom we place our hope for redemption (deliverance). The Bible seems to suggest that this is (at least) the minimum of what we must believe in order to be saved. Does this sound right?”

    When I read Romans 10:9, this is the conclusion I come to. I am not sure how to read it any other way.

    I agree with the main theme of Wittmer’s book, which tells us that true Christianity involves both right belief and right practice. I really like the book and think it is extremely helpful in the Postmodern / Conservative dialogue.

    Thanks for your comments.

  7. Tim Farley says:


    Thanks for taking the time to stop by and interact. I realize that you believe that both the humanity and deity of Jesus are essential for orthodoxy. I did not mean to make it sound like you did not if my original post came across that way. Chapter two in your book deals with initial saving faith. “What must a person believe to be saved”, not “what are the true teachings of Christianity”.

    Your conclusion that the essential minimum belief is that “I am a sinner and Jesus saves me from my sin” is what I am questioning. It seems to make sense practically. When I became a believer at the age of nine, I am not sure that I understood that Jesus was divine. I came to understand this in my teens. However, what should we do with Romans 10:9 that seems to state that we must believe something about Jesus’ person (i.e. that he is “Lord”)? Perhaps I was really saved as a teen?

    I agree that there is a minimum belief and that it is fun to debate what that belief is, but it is also important for us to get it right.

  8. Davo says:

    To stir the pot a bit…

    Tim, I think your personal testimony illustrates another question. Why is salvation frequently portrayed as a point-in-time event? Were you saved as a kid or as a teen?

    I don’t think the Bible portrays salvation as a binary relationship, but as a process. For example, in a number of places the Bible talks about a person “being saved” (as though it is an ongoing process). In Philippians, Paul says to “work out your salvation.” Again, to me this implies a process.

    This isn’t an easy answer, because it becomes much more difficult to label a person’s point on their spiritual journey. We like being able to define spirituality by a set of rules and labels.

  9. Tim Farley says:


    I think it happens differently for different people, but there does seem to be a point in time when a person passes from darkness and into light. It could be the result of a process as you say. A person may wrestle with the gospel message for years before submitting to its truth. A person could also accept the truths as they receive them, but not necessarily have all of the information at the beginning (so they have a proper response as they are presented with more and more revelation).

    It seems like Scripture presents salvation as a past, present and future event if you look at different verses (Romans 5:1-11 is a good example of past and future).

    By the way, Dr. Wittmer’s first book is also titled after a 1980’s rock song: Heaven Is A Place On Earth: Why Everything You Do Matters To God. It is one of my all-time favorite books and I highly recommend it.

  10. Ben A says:

    Oooo! Dr. Wittmer has a new book. I can’t wait to visit Books-A-Million (they don’t carry Heaven Is a Place On Earth, though. I might have to go to Memphis for a B&N).

    I was wrestling with this question in my book (I’ll send you a pre-publish copy, Tim — your input is always helpful). And I ended up with a combo of Davo and Wittmer.

    We grapple with “point of salvation” questions because we are infrequently required to ascertain the validity of a person’s faith when they leave our lives. They may die or just move to the next city over, but we wonder if they are “saved.”

    Salvation, I have determined, finishes at the end of the world and begins at your entrance into the Kingdom of God. So instead of saying “I am saved,” I think it would be more appropriate to say “I am being saved.”

    Your entrance to the Kingdom of God is when you submit to the truth that you have been presented about Jesus Christ. You agree that you are a sinner and you request that Jesus eradicate that sin.

    But submission does not end there. Submission requires further action. You need to pursue Christ, join his Church and truly change your behavior to match Jesus’.

    I think I’d agree with Wittmer, though he is infinitely more succinct than I. I’ll have to read what he has to say.

    When are you going to write a book, Tim? 😀

  11. Tim Farley says:


    “Salvation, I have determined, finishes at the end of the world and begins at your entrance into the Kingdom of God.”

    When you say “finishes”, do you mean “is made complete?” Also, since different people debate what the Kingdom of God refers to and when it begins, can you clarify? I think you mean that the Kingdom is available now and that we can enter into it now, is that correct? So, one can enter the Kingdom of God now and begin the process of salvation, which will be completed/fulfilled at the end of the world – when God makes all things new? Is that what you mean?

    I would love to read your book. Let me know if you need my address to send it to. As for my book, I am not sure. As much as I would like to write one, I feel overwhelmed at the thought, so I blog instead. It is much easier to write a few paragraphs here and there about different topics that interest me than to write a whole book on one topic. Plus, I am still thinking through many of the things I write about in one way or another. I like having the freedom to change my mind. 🙂

  12. Ben A says:

    I love your blog, Tim. You are a good writer and your thoughts are well developed and organized.

    I did mean to say that the Kingdom of God is, or at least includes, his Church. We can enter that today.

    Salvations is not fulfilled or completed until the end of the world (or, just before the beginning of the next). We are ultimately saved from judgment. Therefore, we continued to be saved from God’s wrath — but we are mostly saved from that final wrath.

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