Here is a chart to help distinguish between those things that are essential (cardinal) and those things that are non-essential (non-cardinal). There is an explanation below. How to distinguish between essentials and non-essential is a very big question that is not covered here, but you can learn about that here.


click on chart to enlarge

Essential for salvation: These are the most essential doctrines of all. This includes what every Christian should always be willing to die for. In essence, if someone does not believe the doctrines that are “essential for salvation,” they are not saved.

What I include:

  • Belief in God (there is no such thing as an atheistic Christian)

Issues pertaining to the person and work of Christ:

  • Belief in Christ’s deity and humanity (1 John 4:2-3; Rom. 10:9)
  • Belief that you are a sinner in need of God’s mercy (1 John 1:10)
  • Belief that Christ died on the cross and rose bodily from the grave (1 Cor 15:3-4)
  • Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

As with all of them, I am sure there are some ancillary matters that could be included, but this gives you the key doctrines. Without these, you simply don’t have any sense of what it means to be a Christian.

Essential for historic Christian orthodoxy: These include beliefs “essential for salvation” but are broader, in that they express what has been believed by the historic Christian church for the last two thousand years, no matter what tradition. This is expressed by the Vincentian Canon (434 A.D.): “that which has been believed everywhere, always and by all.” The exception of fringe movements has never been valid for this canon. It is simply asking, “What have all Christians everywhere always believed?”

Some of what I include:

  • The doctrine of the Trinity as expressed at Nicea
  • The doctrine of the Hypostatic Union (Christ is fully man and fully God) as expressed at Chalcedon
  • The belief in the future second coming of Christ
  • A belief in the inspiration and authority of Scripture
  • A belief in eternal punishment for the wicked
  • A belief in God’s transcendence (his metaphysical distinction from the universe)
  • Belief that Christ is the only way to the Father

To be sure, some of these doctrines “develop,” but their development is only in relation to their seed form which preexisted their more mature expression. (For more on this, see here.)

Essential for traditional orthodoxy: Again, these will necessarily include all of those from the two previous categories, but some distinctives are added. Essentials here will include all of those that are foundational to one of the three main Christian traditions: Protestantism, Eastern Orthodoxy, or Roman Catholicism. These are beliefs that distinguish one tradition from the next, but are not absolutely essential from the broader Christian worldview expressed above.

Some Protestant distinctives would include:

  • General belief in the major pronouncements of the first seven ecumenical councils (325-787 AD)
  • Belief in the necessity for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ
  • Belief that justification is through faith alone on the basis of Christ alone
  • Belief that Scripture alone has ultimate authority on all matters of faith and practice
  • The canon of Scripture made up of 66 books (excluding the Deuterocanonical books)

Some Roman Catholic distinctives would include:

  • Belief in transubstantiation (the bread and wine turn into the actual body and blood of Christ)
  • Belief that justification is through faith and works
  • Belief that both Scripture and unwritten tradition have ultimate authority as they are interpreted by the Magisterium
  • Belief in the authority of twenty-one ecumenical councils
  • Belief that the Pope is the infallible vicar of Christ
  • Belief in the Marian dogmas
  • Belief that the canon includes the Deuterocanonical books

Some Eastern Orthodox distinctives would include:

  • Belief in the infallibility of the first seven ecumenical councils (325-787 AD)
  • Belief that the liturgy of the Church is part of the Gospel
  • Rejection of substitutionary atonement and the imputation of Adam’s sin
  • Salvation by grace through faith as God works these out through our unification with Him (theosis)
  • Traditional inclusion of the Deuterocanonical book (although there is some debate about this)

Essential for denominational orthodoxy: This will be similar to the above, but one step down in importance, dealing as it does with the particular and peculiar denominational expressions of the various Protestant traditions.

Some examples:

  • Credo-baptism, i.e., Baptism is only for believers (Baptists)
  • Infant baptism (Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans)
  • Unconditional election (Reformed and Presbyterians)
  • Arminian theology (Methodists, Nazarenes)
  • Belief in the continuation of the Charismatic gifts (Pentecostals, Church of God)

Important but not essential: These are those beliefs that do not describe any particular tradition necessarily. They are important, but not that important.

Some examples:

  • Beliefs about particulars in the creation debate
  • Belief whether the books of Jonah and Job are historical accounts
  • Beliefs about the inerrancy of Scripture
  • Beliefs about the authorship of 2 Peter
  • Belief about particular end-time schemes (e.g., premillennial, amillennial, post-millennial)
  • The order of books in the canon
  • Which translation of the Bible to use from the pulpit
  • Which Gospel was written first
  • How often one should celebrate the Lord’s supper
  • Whether or not Christ taught in Greek or Aramaic

Not Important: These are beliefs that people have concerning Christian doctrine that are not important for any expression and do not affect Christian devotion or spirituality.

Some examples

  • The date of Christ’s birth (Christmas)
  • What kind of music to play at church
  • Whether to use real wine or grape juice at communion
  • Whether to hold Saturday night services
  • Whether or not John the Baptist was an Essene

Pure speculation: That is just what these are—speculation. We just don’t know one way or another, nor does it matter.

Some examples

  • Did Adam have a belly-button? (yes, he did…it would just look funny otherwise)
  • Belief in the eternal destiny of pets (except I know my dog Rocky is going to heaven)
  • What was God doing “before” creation? (decrees)
  • Will there be meat to eat in heaven? (we can all hope)
  • Will there be sex in heaven? (we can all hope more)
  • How long was it before Adam and Eve fell? (didn’t I just write on this?)

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    89 replies to "Distinguishing Between Essentials and Non-Essentials"

    • Daniel Brady


      I am certainly not as scholarly as some, but I feel I have been influenced by some very great teachers. The best quick explanation I can give in response to what James says is that a person is proven to be justified by his good works. You could perhaps say that an individual is justified BEFORE MEN by good works. James is stating the truth that Martin Luther summarized with his statement that “Salvation is by faith alone, but faith that saves is never alone.”

      Furthermore, you may or may not be missing my point. I did not necessarily intend to get into a debate about whether or not works is an essential prerequisite for salvation. I am convinced within my heart and mind as to where I stand on the issue. My mind cannot be changed, just as I cannot change the mind of someone who is just as convinced about where they stand.

      My point is that, given such a drastic difference in belief concerning how salvation is to be obtained, both views cannot be correct. Either we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, or we are saved by a combination of faith and works. You cannot have it both ways.

    • Daniel Brady


      It is a very good point that we are saved by faith alone, and not by belief in the doctrine of justification by faith alone. However, my next question is this: If I come across someone who adamantly says that justification must be obtained by a combination of faith and works, they have faith, but they are also seeking to combine works with faith. Didn’t Paul say that if we seek to implement works as a prerequisite for salvation, then we are nullifying faith? (cf. Gal. 5:1-6)

      • C Michael Patton

        Daniel Brady,

        Good question. I don’t claim to speak on behalf of Magistrial Protestanism here. There are a lot of people who disagree with me, but I don’t think that believing your works contribute to your salvation nullifies one’s faith nor means they are not saved. After all, many people believe that we can lose our salvation due either to a loss of faith or unrepentant sin. Both of these would say that works contribute to the finality of one’s salvation . . . and these are Protestants. I don’t believe this, but it has representation. This does not mean that it is true, but we must consider.

        Some people believe that saying the sinners prayer saves them. Some believe that baptism is necessary. In fact, I would argue that the majority of the Christian church believed that baptism was a necessary component to salvation until the Reformation. Are we supposed to say that virtually no one was saved until the Reformation? As well, the Galatians were adding works to their justification believing that it was necessary. Paul does repremand them, but he still considers them “brethern.” They were living according to a different Gospel than the one by which they were saved.

        So I do believe that people can fail to live according to the Gospel of grace. It is a tragic thing and something that I think that we as Protestants can come and help people alleviate the burden of never knowing whether they have done enough. If one believes that their works contribute to their justification, but have trusted in Christ and called on God to forgive them of their sins, then they will get to heaven and realize that their works had nothing to do with it. It was only God’s mercy. The works that they did would then be in the flesh and they will suffer reward, but they will still be saved.

        1 Corinthians 3:11-15
        11 For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12 If anyone builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13 their work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each person’s work. 14 If what has been built survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15 If it is burned up, the builder will suffer loss but yet will be saved—even though only as one escaping through the flames.

    • John

      Daniel: and is this explanation different at essence to what Rome says? Maybe you think no. Maybe you’d be right. I’m not so sure. The reality is, words like “saved”, “works”, “faith” are abstractions that we have no technical definition of. Paul says we have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. Can they all be right? Does he mean something different in each case? And what does the phrase “saved BY” mean, anyway? We are saved by faith. By god. By Christ’s death. By grace. All in a different sense. Women are saved by childbearing, so the bible says.

      You say your opinion can’t be changed. Actually, I think if you were open to vastly different paradigms and frameworks for understanding these concepts, you might be surprised what opinions can be changed. Your opinion can’t be changed within the framework of terminology and understanding you are ensconced in, sure. These things tend to be so deep seated, we aren’t even aware of the baggage we are bringing to the table.

    • Irene

      Yes, quite true! A dialogue between Lutherans in Germany and a delegation from the Catholic Church, headed on the Catholic side by a certain Joseph Ratzinger, came to the conclusion that The Lutherans would no longer fall under (some/most?) the anathemas having to do with justification in Trent. This was because they arrived at the conclusion that there is not the disconnect anymore in the way the terms “faith” “faith alone” etc. are used.

    • Wade

      Belief that faith in Christ is necessary (John 3:16)

      John 3:16 does not say that faith in Christ is necessary for salvation. It says all those who believe in Christ will be saved, but it would be fallacious to conclude that therefore all those who are saved had faith in Christ–that would be like saying since all those who believe in God hold beliefs, therefore all those who hold beliefs believe in God.

      And it doesn’t make sense anyway. What about people who lived before Christ? Are they all going to hell? Presumably not. Whatever criteria God used for salvation before Jesus came to earth, call it criteria C. Would not criteria C also hold for those who had never heard of Christ after Jesus came to earth?

    • Duncan Vann


      [Moses] regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. Heb 11:26-27


      If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. John 5:46

      So through his faith Moses saw something of Jesus in advance. We likewise see something of him as if we were looking through misty glass. So Moses saw something of Christ just as we do and is saved just as we are.

    • Clark Coleman

      The essentials for salvation in this article are all phrased in terms of intellectual assent, i.e. “believe that [statement] is true.” In a recent comment, Michael talks of calling upon the Lord to be saved, which is not the same as believing that certain things are true. If you go through all of the New Testament passages in which the word “believe” is used, you will find that the grammatical construction “believe THAT [fill in blank]” does not need to imply more than mere assent. See James 2:19. But the “believe IN [God or Christ]” phrases imply something far more substantial than mere assent. The root of the Greek words translated “believe” and “faith” is TRUST. To believe in Christ is to put one’s trust in him. The demons of James 2:19 do NOT put their trust in Christ. However, they believe all kinds of statements that are true and important. They believe that Jesus died on the cross, that he was the Son of God incarnate, that God is the Creator, that Jesus Christ was resurrected, etc. But all of these “believe THAT” statements do not add up to a “belief IN” Christ. Yet the article phrases all of the essentials for salvation as “believe THAT” statements.
      Rather ironic, and sad, when the purpose is to emphasize what is essential.

      I submit that the failure to understand the Biblical concepts of faith/believe is the root of much division and heretical thinking today.

    • Duncan Vann

      Like leaving your home and going you don’t know where?

    • Fladaboscan

      The crux of religion is to make up terms and explain what everything means it terms of that religion. There is a reason religious texts are thousands of pages long, edited, translated and interpreted.

      Why would a loving father make religion so complicated that after getting a doctorate one can spend the rest of one’s life arguing what is true or not?

      What arrogance man has, claiming to know what god is and what god wants.

    • John

      “What arrogance man has, claiming to know what god is and what god wants.”

      Conversely, it would be arrogant to pretend not to know, if indeed God has revealed it.

    • Daniel Brady

      To John and Michael: It has been a few days since I have visited the site. Please forgive me. John, you are correct in pointing out that the New Testament does speak of three tenses of salvation. We have been saved, we are being saved, and we will be saved. So let me be clear in stating that we are justified (I have been saved) by faith alone. The only requirement for being justified before God is faith in Jesus Christ.

      Michael, you do a good job of pointing out that we treat those who think a person can lose his/her salvation as brothers. Your point about the Galatians thinking they had to add works to their justification, but still being addressed by Paul as brethren is compelling. However, let’s also not forget that Paul did warn them against believing in vain and making Christ of no advantage to them.

      Furthermore, I was recently reminded that Martin Luther considered the Article of Justification by Faith Alone to be that which upon the Church either stands or falls. Whether we are justified by faith alone or by a combination of faith and works was THE issue being dealt with during the Reformation. It was for his stance on this issue that he was condemned to death by the Catholic Church at the Diet of Worms. It was only with the help of some friends that he escaped.

      The previous paragraph was written with some hesitancy, in that our faith is in Christ and in the Bible, not in the teachings of Luther, Calvin, or any other great teacher. Still, we Protestants do, in some sense, trace our heritage back to these early reformers. Hence, we ought to take note of where they stood on this issue and what great weight it carried with them.

    • Duncan Vann


      What if God wants lovers instead of people who can work out facts? So he welcomes children and confuses the heck out of scholars and theologians?

      Maybe it would help if you imagine God is a girl you’re courting / dating. Perhaps doctrine is a bit like knowing her favourite food and the music she likes? It’s somewhat helpful, but you cannot win her with information alone. Otherwise Geeks would be renowned for pulling. (This analogy might break down if we push it too hard … but still …)

      It is not always arrogant to claim to know what your wife wants. In fact, sometimes she expects you to speak and act for her. … Only you’d better be ready to backtrack fast when you realise you have misrepresented her, as you will (often).

      (If anyone wants a biblical basis for this, 1 Cor 1:18-25 covers the first paragraph)

    • Brian Midmore

      How are we justified? By believing in Him who raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead. (Rom 4.24). There is need for a belief in God (a trust yes but more than this too) and what He did and who Jesus was. There is implicit in this a belief in the church in the ‘our’ of our Lord. If we believe in God we believe in the God of the Jews who calls us to holiness. For me Rom 4.24 sums up the essentials of salvation.

    • Jeff Ayers


      Where would you place the imputation of Adam’s sin into these circles?

      Federal or seminal… either one… or both.

      It seems (anecdotally) that it is the sine qua non of “orthodoxy” in most people’s minds and churches that one must believe a baby is:

      separated from God
      Under God’s wrath
      a sinner
      dead in trespasses and sins
      child of the devil
      deserving of hell
      wicked and deceitful heart
      guilty of Adam’s sin

      to be believe otherwise is pejoratively labelled Pelagian.

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