The Heart of It All: Introduction

April 12, 2011

by Peter Amsterdam

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Something that I find particularly wonderful about Jesus is that His life-transforming gift of salvation is freely given to anyone who simply asks for it with a sincere and believing heart. One’s level of understanding of Christian doctrine may be minimal, but if the heart is hungry, if it is seeking a relationship with God, then it will find it—clearly, definitely, and freely—through receiving Jesus as Savior. Salvation is simple; it’s a gift. You reach out, receive it, and it’s yours. It’s so wonderful!

While receiving salvation is simple, reaching a mature understanding of the Christian faith is another matter altogether. The Christian belief system, theology, and an understanding of the Bible all require a certain level of knowledge. It’s important to gain that knowledge, which takes both focus and study. Spiritual growth occurs through the study and application of God’s Word.

A deep knowledge of Christian doctrine is a good thing to have. And yet, it is not necessary to salvation, nor is it a guarantee of a close relationship with God. One can know and love Jesus, their Savior, without understanding all the details of Christian doctrine, because they experience Him. You can believe that Jesus is the Savior, that He is God, that He walked the earth, was crucified, died, and was buried and resurrected from the dead, simply because someone shared these basics with you, giving you enough understanding to receive Him as your Savior, thus bringing you into a personal relationship with Him.

Even if you don’t fully understand all the whys and wherefores of doctrine, you can have solid faith in God, knowing that He’s there. You speak to Him in prayer; He responds and answers you. You hear His voice, you experience His supply, His healing, His love. You have a personal connection with Him, interaction, a relationship. You know He is there, He is God, He is true, not just because of the accounts recorded for our benefit in the Bible, but because He is a reality in your life, in your personal experience.

Of course, it’s very important to progress in your knowledge of God’s Word, to learn the doctrines, to grow to spiritual maturity through living what the Word teaches. Experience with God is wonderful, but one’s spiritual life is incomplete without the faith that comes through knowing the Word. On the other hand, Bible knowledge, studying and knowing the nuances of theology, isn’t sufficient alone either—one needs to know the Author.

My experience was that from a very early age I felt the call of God. I didn’t exactly know how to respond to that call, but I felt it. As I grew into a teenager I hadn’t found a way to respond, and I felt lost. Nothing seemed to satisfy me. I had the age-old question “What am I here for? What is the purpose of life?” I was searching, but finding no answers.

After being witnessed to for three consecutive nights, I was alone walking to my car, convinced that I needed to be a disciple of Jesus  and realizing that I couldn’t do that unless I was saved. I prayed and asked Jesus into my heart. The instant I did, I knew something momentous had happened to me. The change I felt, the liberation, the clarity of purpose, and especially the deep peace in my heart, were overwhelming. I knew I was home. I was instantaneously aware that Jesus had indeed entered my life, that I was saved. I didn’t need to know anything else to know that He was real, that He was God, that He existed and that He had entered into my life. No theology, and not even further biblical truth was needed at that time to tell me that. He was real to me, because I had experienced Him. He was now involved in my life and I knew it from deep within my being. I knew He loved me, I felt His love, and that was all I needed. From that day forward I have always known that He is there. I have experienced Him, and continue to experience Him.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t read and study the Bible. I have put in a great deal of time absorbing God’s Word ever since then, which has caused me to grow in faith and in my understanding of and relationship with God. In this day and age when people are generally well informed, and many are questioning or skeptical, a deeper explanation of the faith and of Christianity is often needed before someone will understand the need for, and accept, salvation. There is benefit to knowing and being able to explain the details of our faith as well as having the experience of living a life full of Jesus. The two together can make you a powerful witness, as your life shows the fruit of your faith, and your ability to articulate your beliefs helps to answer the queries of others.

When we possess a deeper understanding and knowledge of the truths, principles, and precepts that are the foundations for our faith, both our faith and our ability to articulate the reasons for our faith are strengthened. This is especially true in today’s environment and makes it possible for you to “give an answer to him that asks you,” which in turn will help you to be a more effective witness.[1]

My intention in drafting “The Heart of it All” series is to cover the most important tenets of Christianity in a basic manner. These articles will cover the topics of Jesus as God, Jesus as man, and the Trinity of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as these are some of the bedrock foundations of Christian faith. Other topics that are foundational will be covered as well.

Some of these first articles talk about the early church, the church fathers, and Christianity in the first six centuries. These were the centuries when the articulation of the most important doctrines were worked through. The doctrines of the Trinity, of Jesus’ divinity, and of the Incarnation—God the Son becoming man—which are covered in the first sections of this series, are all taught within the New Testament, which contains the books of the Bible written within the lifetime of Jesus’ apostles. However, later, over the next centuries after the apostles had died, the leaders within the church had to work through the doctrines presented by the apostles in order to refute beliefs that had arisen which contradicted the truths presented in Scripture.

The words of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels and preached by those who heard those words made explicit statements about God, which were new revelations at the time. The entry of Jesus as God’s Son into the world, and the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost after His ascension into Heaven, brought about new concepts of God which had not been understood through the Jewish scriptures—known to us today as the Old Testament. Some of these new concepts were alluded to in Jewish scripture, but they could not be fully understood. However, after Jesus lived and died and was resurrected from the dead, a completely new understanding of God, His plan of salvation, and His interaction with believers came about. 

That the Old Testament alluded to certain truths without clearly explaining them, and those truths began to become more clear within the New Testament, and then were more fully developed and articulated by the church fathers, is known as progressive revelation. God has explained things step by step.

While the writers of the New Testament articulated these new concepts, it was left to those who followed them in the succeeding centuries to work on the explanations of how these things could be so.

Throughout the history of Christianity, doctrine and interpretation of doctrine has played a major role, and often development of doctrine had to do with controversial matters that needed to be decided by the leaders of the church. Within the first decades of Christianity, when Paul and the apostles were alive, the early church leaders had to meet to discuss and settle issues which were bringing division.

Some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” And after Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and debate with them, Paul and Barnabas and some of the others were appointed to go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and the elders about this question. When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter.[2]

The problem was, at its root, a theological question. Jesus said the Gospel would be preached to the gentiles. He told His disciples, all of whom were Jews from Israel, to go everywhere and make disciples of everyone,[3] which meant preaching to and converting non-Jews to the faith. Those like Paul, who preached the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, were converting gentiles right and left and weren’t requiring them to adhere to Jewish law; whereas some Christians of Jewish descent believed converts had to follow the laws of Moses. There was disagreement as to what should be expected of gentile believers, so elders of the church eventually had to get together to sort out both the practical and doctrinal side of things, which they did. The outcome was favorable to the gentile position. (See Acts 15, full chapter.)

Similar situations occurred as time went on, when controversies arose regarding Christian beliefs. There was disagreement, so the leaders of the church, initially called bishops and later referred to as the church fathers,[4] got together in councils to discuss, debate, pray about, and decide what was true Christian faith based on Scripture. Many of these men are acknowledged as great men of church history by all Christians, including the Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant faiths of today. The conclusions of these church fathers have been held as true since the time they were decided upon in the third to the seventh centuries, because their conclusions were based on Scripture and on truths taught in the Bible.

Not all Christian doctrine or theology is basic and fundamental. That Jesus is God, that He died for our sins, and that through His death we are saved, are fundamental doctrines. One needs to believe these doctrines to be Christian. Someone can be a Christian whether they believe in post-Tribulation rapture or pre-Tribulation rapture, but they can’t be a Christian if they don’t believe that Jesus died for their sins. So there is a difference between essential doctrines and those doctrines that aren’t the bedrock foundation of Christianity.

One author put it this way:

If we think of our theological system of beliefs like a spider’s web, at the core of the web, where the center of the web is, there will be things like belief in the existence of God—that will be absolutely central to the web of beliefs. A little further out from that would be the deity of Christ and His resurrection from the dead. A little bit further out from that would perhaps be the penal theory of the atonement, His substitutionary death for our sins. … Now, what that means is that if one of these central beliefs, like belief in the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus, goes, if that part of the web is plucked out, the whole web is going to collapse, because you take something out of the center and the rest of the web can’t exist. But if you pull one of the strands out that is nearer the periphery, that will cause some reverberation in our web of beliefs, but it’s not going to destroy the whole thing.[5]

Personally, studying these and other aspects of Christian doctrine in preparation for writing this series has helped me more fully appreciate the love and sacrifice of Jesus, and what it cost Him to bring the opportunity of salvation to humankind. I have found that learning more details about this, and other topics that I hope to write about in the future, has helped to build on and strengthen my faith and my understanding of God. My prayer is that the articles in this series, and any similar ones in the future, will do likewise for you. 

If you’d like to study more on these topics, I recommend reading the books or listening to the lectures listed in the general bibliography at the end of each article. In future posts, I plan to cover the topic of the Bible and its historical reliability, and particularly what it has to say about Jesus. However, if you wish to learn more about that topic right away, I would suggest reading The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel (Zondervan, 1998). This book covers many important aspects of Jesus in an easy-to-read and understandable way. 

It is my hope that  these articles will give you a solid foundational understanding of the doctrines within the generally understood and accepted tenets of Christianity.

In researching this material, I compared the teachings of theologians from the major Protestant denominations or schools of thought—Lutheran, Reformed (Calvinist), Baptist, Wesleyan, Anglican, Charismatic, and Arminian, as well as the Roman Catholic teachings on the subject. In articulating these doctrines I’ve tried to present what is common belief to all. Throughout the articles there will be footnotes with references to both the direct quotations I use as well as places where I paraphrase what an author has written. When statements are made, or Bible verses are used as “proof text,” I’ve cross-checked to make sure that a variety of theologians have made the same statements and have used the same verses. The bibliography at the end of each article lists the books, articles, and lectures I used to research the material.

Unless otherwise noted, the verses quoted are from the English Standard Version (ESV). The reason I quoted mostly from the ESV is that it is generally considered an excellent study Bible in terms of accuracy and attention to the original text, which I felt was important for these articles. If I found a Bible quotation from a different version that seemed clearer for a certain verse, I opted to use the different version and noted which version it is in the footnotes.

I pray that this series will prove informative, interesting, and helpful to you, and that it will enrich your faith.

[1] 1 Peter 3:15: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have (NIV).

[2] Acts 15:1–2, 4–6 ESV.

[3] Matthew 28:19: Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (ESV).

Mark 16:15: Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation (ESV).

[4] This time period came to be called the patristic period, after the Latin word pater, meaning father.

[5] William Lane Craig, “What Is Inerrancy?” podcast on