If you had to finish this question to the best of your understanding, what would you put in the blank?
“The center of Christianity is ______________.”
One of my underlying beliefs is that Christianity has a lot of dimension and depth to it, so asking this question is not an attempt to oversimplify. It is intended for just the opposite. Because of the rich dimension and depth of Christianity, it is helpful to know what lies at the center. What is it that all the other dimensions flow from?
At its heart, this is a Christmas question. Many things will be celebrated over the next week, but what is the center of the Christmas message?
The Christmas story gives some valuable criteria for how to answer this question. Luke 2.10: “But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.” (V10)
Whatever the answer is, it should be good news, it should bring great joy, and it should be for all people.
I have asked a lot of people this question, and there is a lot of variety in the answers. Here are the four most common answers I hear proposed as to what is at the center of Christianity:
1.) Behavior – There are different ways to say it – be a good person, follow the rules, keep the commandments, do your best, live a good life, etc. The bottom line is the assumption that the center of Christianity is living in accordance with the Christian rules – keeping the right behaviors, adhering to the Christian code, and applying the ethics of Christian morality to everyday life. Is behavior important? Of course – you can’t follow Jesus authentically without your behaviors changing. But is it good news that brings great joy for all people? No. It’s not the center.
2.) Belief – There are different ways to say this as well – correct doctrine, sound theology, or orthodox truths of Scripture. The bottom line is the assumption that the center of Christianity is having the right beliefs about God, the Bible, salvation, eternal life, etc. Is right belief important? Absolutely. Even a slightly distorted view of God can have tremendously negative consequences on life. But as critical as right belief is, it’s still not the center. It’s not that which everything else hinges. It’s not that which is ultimately the good news that brings great joy to all people.
3.) Salvation – Many would say that the center of Christianity is the good news that Jesus offered himself as an atonement for sins, and that by faith through Jesus we can be forgiven of our sins. This is getting closer, and proponents of this could even point to the Christmas story. Luke 2 11: “A Savior has been born to you.” I could never express how grateful I am for this reality. A sample size of any given week of my life reminds me just how desperately I need to be saved. I am eternally thankful that salvation is not based on my record, but instead on the record of Jesus. But as critical as salvation is to the Christian message, I would still say it’s not quite the center. I don’t think you get to the center without salvation, but I think there’s something even more core to the good news of Christianity.
4.) Liberation – In Luke 4 Jesus says that the Spirit of the Lord has anointed him to preach good news to the poor, and then goes on to list some signs of this good news. Among them is freedom for prisoners, recovery of sight for the blind, and liberation for the oppressed. The Christmas story resounds a similar theme. In Mary’s Magnificat, she says,: “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.” Passages like this lead many to say that the liberation and freedom that comes from Jesus is the center of Christianity. Like salvation, I believe this is a critical component to the Christian message, and should be a mark of anyone that has come in contact with Jesus. But I would say liberation is still more of a result of the center than the center itself.
Each of those is a critical component of Christianity, but I think the Bible points to something at the very center of faith that holds all of them together. What is at the center of Christianity?