What is the heart of the Christian faith? What is at its core?
Here is the shorter version:
None of us can justify ourselves to God – no matter how good we might think we are, we all do things we shouldn’t. Selfishness and self-centeredness is at the core of who we are – even the best of us. None of us live perfect lives. God is perfect though. How can sinful people be reconciled with a perfect God? Through Jesus who, though without sin, took our sins upon himself and died for us, thereby making us perfect in God’s eyes. Our eternity can be lived with God or without God, but only Jesus’ death for our sins can re-establish our relationship with God, and only His resurrection can lead us to victory over death.
And here is the slightly longer version:
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, including humankind. The first part of Genesis is meant to be a theological, not scientific, account of creation. It was not intended to be a guide to exactly how God created things or of early human prehistory. So when reading Genesis, think in terms of theological principles, not scientific details.
God created all things good. Human beings were created with free will, individuals who could choose to love Him and follow His divine will and justice. As part of this divine plan, humans were given the task of being good stewards of God’s creation.
Humans chose to rebel against God by disobeying God. Instead of listening to God, they followed Satan’s advice to seek “knowledge of good and evil.” In other words, humans chose to substitute their own ideas of what was right and wrong for God’s. Why is this bad? Shouldn’t each of us be able to decide what is right or wrong for ourselves? Shouldn’t we get to define what our own “truth” is? A tempting thought to many people and a cornerstone of postmodern spirituality, but think a little bit more about it. If we each decide what is right for us individually, then nothing can ever be condemned. This is the path to spiritual death – as it was for Adam and Eve in Genesis. There is an absolute truth – God’s truth – and it is our choice to recognize it or reject it. Our quest should not be to make up our own “truth” but rather to seek out and learn God’s truth.
God’s moral law is just and is written in the consciences of each one of us. When we try to ignore this moral law, we turn our backs on God’s love, and this leads to alienation from God, from creation and from each other. God’s moral law does not exist to spoil our party. God created us and knows what is best for us. Violating God’s law will always result in greater alienation between us and God, each other and creation.
Justice requires that evil be dealt with. If someone does us evil and are not sorry for doing it, our relationship with that person suffers. Much of the world’s strife results from people refusing to reconcile with each other. In this way, people punish themselves when they refuse to reconcile with others. The same goes for reconciling with God. God would like everyone to become reconciled with Him, but accepts the freedom of people to punish themselves by refusing to do so.
God foresaw humanity’s fall and had a plan in place to bring human beings back into a right relationship with Him. God called the people of Israel out from amongst the nations as His chosen people to bring about this reconciliation. This is what the Old Testament of the Bible is all about. God began by establishing a covenantal relationship with His people Israel. He promised to bless Israel if they would be faithful to Him, follow His law, and practice justice and mercy. Israel was repeatedly unfaithful and God sent prophets who called for a return to faithfulness, justice and mercy. God was also preparing Israel during this period for His ultimate plan to bring human beings and His creation back into a right relationship with Him. This ultimate plan was His Son, Jesus Christ.
God finally sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, to be born into the world, to live among us, to die for us and our sins, and finally to conquer death and rise after three days. Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary – and so was both fully God and fully human. The four Gospels contain the story of Jesus’ ministry on earth, his death and his resurrection. Jesus began his earthly ministry when He was about 30 and preached true obedience to God, radical justice and mercy, and love of fellow human beings. He demonstrated the power and mercy of God by performing miracles of healing and sustenance and even raising some people from the dead.
Jesus was crucified by the secular government in cooperation with the religious authorities. On the one level, the earthly authorities put Him to death because his Gospel message was too great a challenge for them. On a much deeper level, his death was divinely ordained to satisfy cosmic justice. Jesus Christ died for our sins – “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world” (from the Book of Common Prayer). This is the heart of the Gospel – Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins and has shown us a new way to live in harmony with God, each other, and creation.
The New Covenant
Jesus Christ rose again from the dead (defeating death) and He is alive today. He ascended into heaven but sent the Holy Spirit to guide and support the Church and individual believers. He commissioned the Church to make disciples (followers of Christ) of all nations. Although Christ’s death and resurrection have bought us our freedom from sin and death, and made it possible for us to be in a personal relationship with God, we nevertheless must choose for ourselves to be in that relationship. Relationships are a two-way street and we can choose to live without God. But if we do choose God, then we are also called to live in obedience to God’s moral law, to do justice, to be merciful, to take good care of creation, and to love one another. What happens to those who do not know Christ or never have a meaningful opportunity to accept His gift? We know that God will dispense true justice and true mercy. It is not our job to judge the world, but it is our job to follow Jesus Christ’s great commission to make disciples of all nations.
New Heaven and New Earth
What about the future? What happens after we die? The Bible gives us some wonderful images of what we can expect. Sometimes we hear that our spiritual souls will fly away to heaven to live as disembodied spirits on the clouds forever, but this is not what the Bible teaches us. Instead we can look to the last two chapters of the book of Revelation. We are told that at the end of time, creation will be transformed as heaven will come to earth in the new Jerusalem (think beyond space and time boundaries!). Those who are in Christ will be resurrected and will receive resurrected bodies. God will dwell with His people forever. Listen to these descriptions from Revelation.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:1-5)
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life. (Revelation 21:22-27)
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)