Essential Christianity – JD Greear

Essential Christianity: The Heart of the Gospel in Ten Words by J.D. Greear
Also by this author: Essential Christianity: The Heart of the Gospel in Ten Words (What is Christianity - an introduction to Christian beliefs and meaning)
Published by Good Book Company on February 1, 2023
Genres: Non-Fiction, Apologetics
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A clear gospel explanation that helps you understand the heart of the Christian faith.

If Paul wrote the book of Romans to 21st-century men and women today, what would he say?

This book follows the key points of Paul’s explanation to the Romans and puts them into the terms of 21st century men and women, showing both ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ people what the gospel is and how it addresses our deepest questions. The gospel, as he explains, is not just about life after death; it’s about reclaiming the life we’ve always yearned to live.

Whether you are exploring the core concepts of Christianity or are a weary Christian wanting to rediscover the excitement and joy of knowing God, this warm and compelling explanation of the goodness, truth, and power at the heart of the Christian faith is for you.

In my own pastoral life, I’ve always broken down Christian doctrine into three tiers: foundational doctrines, secondary doctrines, and preferences/opinions. Foundational doctrines are Essential Christianity. Take a doctrine away—like the Resurrection of Jesus—and you no longer have Christianity. Secondary doctrines have a right and wrong answer, but different denominations and people disagree over what that answer is. A lot of ink is spilled on these doctrinal disputes, but usually there is agreement that no matter one’s belief they are under the banner of orthodox Christianity. Preferences/opinions are just that—they may be rooted in denominational rituals or styles, but there is no right or wrong answer.

J.D. Greear’s Essential Christianity is an attempt to explain foundational Christianity using the template provided by Paul in Romans 1. Because he’s taking the Romans 1 route, Greear’s book isn’t so much a theology as it is a commentary. He’s providing basic information about foundational questions of Christianity, but not in a way that could be categorized as systematic theology. Instead, Greear asks 10 questions about the faith and provides answers:

  1. What is Christianity?
  2. How do we even know there is a God?
  3. If God is real, why doesn’t everybody believe in him?
  4. Is religion the answer?
  5. Why do Christians talk about “being saved”?
  6. Can anyone actually know they’ll go to heaven?
  7. Aren’t all religions basically the same?
  8. Why does the Christian life seem so hard?
  9. What is the difference between being religious and being spiritual?
  10. Now what?

Greear’s writing is clear and accessible. It’s a bit of a retread of other works that have done the same thing. You can see the influence of Josh McDowell, Norm Geisler, and other SBC theologians/apologists of previous generations in the work. For someone who grew up in evangelicalism, there wasn’t anything new in the content of Essential Christianity (as might be expected) but also there wasn’t anything new in the way it was being presented. It’s fine. It’s serviceable. But it’s lacking in uniqueness and personality.

The deal-breaker for me was Greear’s choice to write an excursus condemning same-sex relationships. I get it. Greear is a conservative evangelical and believes that same-sex relationships are sinful. But one’s view of same-sex relationships is categorically not a foundational belief essential to Christianity. It is a secondary doctrine—something that should be debated and exegeted with the understanding that Christians have looked at these passages and come down with differing interpretations. Greear unequivocally states that people cannot be both gay and Christian, elevating conservative interpretation of passages concerning same-sex behavior to the level of fundamental orthodoxy.

While Greear claims to not treat homosexuality different than “other sins,” he does just that by singling it out as a sin that one must not engage in repeatedly in order to be a Christian. Would he say the same for heterosexual lust? Interestingly, earlier in Essential Christianity, Greear asks readers to check off which of the Ten Commandments they’ve broken. While there’s an empty box at the end of most of the paragraphs, Greear goes ahead and checks off “you shall not commit adultery” for you, assuming that lustful thoughts are a given. So why would those habitual (heterosexual) lustful thoughts not carry the same penalty as homosexual sin?

Further, Greear does not engage with the text or its possible interpretations to determine what Paul might have had in mind when same-sex behavior is discussed in Romans 1. Well-respected Christian scholars have interpreted Paul as condemning sexual acts related to religious practices. Greear discusses none of this, assumes that his interpretation is right—and not only that is required for salvation.

Essential Christianity is really Essential Evangelical Fundamentalism, complete with culture war crusades and dated apologetics. Greear is not a dumb person. He’s been the president of the SBC—and a rather reasonable voice within a troubled organization—and holds a Ph.D. He’s capable of better and more nuanced discourse than this.