What is the central message of a Christian church? The correct answer to this question must always be the gospel. This answer, of course, merely suggests the obvious follow-up question: what is the gospel? For this answer, I don’t think we can do better than to look at the explanation given to us by Paul himself in 1 Corinthians 15:1–6:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep.
While calling this gospel a message of highest importance, Paul highlights two historical facts that are essential to the gospel: that Jesus Christ died and that he was raised on the third day. Each of these events is supported by evidence. The evidence of his death is that he was buried, and the evidence of his resurrection is that he then appeared to a host of folks who ended up believing the Christian message.
This is to say that, at minimum, the gospel message makes claims about historical reality. There is no reason for a church to exist if it does not believe that Jesus literally died and literally rose from the dead. As Paul continues in 1 Corinthians 15:14–19:
And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.
Give special attention to that last verse: Paul insists that Christianity is less than worthless if it merely provides a measure of comfort in this life. Such a benefit falls far short of the eternal promises that the gospel offers, and these eternal promises are empty if Christ’s resurrection is not historical fact.
But the gospel is not only fact; it is doctrine. And we will see this aspect of the gospel in next week’s essay.