What is the essence of Christianity?
There are many good answers to this question, and not a few bad ones. “Jesus loves me” is an excellent example of the former; “tolerance” is an all too common example of the latter. In my opinion, Ephesians 1.2 offers one of the best answers: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” With these words, Paul summarizes the source, cause, means, effect, and recipients of the Christian message.
First, God is the source of the Christian message. The essence of Christianity is not a human invention. It is a divine revelation. Occasionally, some scholar will accuse Paul of being the inventor of Christianity. He is not. He is an “apostle” (Ephesians 1.1). An apostle is a messenger. “Grace and peace” is God’s message; Paul is merely the postman.
Second, grace is the cause of the Christian message. Grace is God’s undeserved favor toward us—undeserved because we are sinners. Just as criminals deserve to be punished, so sinners deserve to be judged. But instead of judgment, which we deserve, God gives us grace, which we don’t. “God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2.4, 5).
Third, Jesus Christ is the means of the Christian message. “In him [Jesus Christ] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace” (Ephesians 1.7). On the cross, Jesus Christ suffered a judgment he did not deserve, while we in turn received a righteousness before God we had not earned. This great exchange—his innocence for our guilt—is the means by which God’s grace comes to us.
(Grace and Christ’s death explain why “tolerance” is a bad summary of the Christian message. Tolerance doesn’t care one way or another about sin. It is like a lifeguard who lets a swimmer sink because he doesn’t know whether drowning is really all that bad. But God dives right in. He cares whether we die, so much so that Jesus Christ died in our place. That’s not a tolerant message, but it is a gracious one.)
Fourth, peace is the effect of the Christian message. “[Jesus Christ] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility” (Ephesians 2.14). The dividing wall of hostility is the law that condemns us as sinners. By breaking down that wall, Jesus Christ gives us peace with God and with one another. After all, if God has given us grace we do not deserve, we can hardly withhold it from others.
And fifth, you are the recipient of the Christian message. The Christian message is not merely for first-century Ephesians. God’s offer of grace and peace through Jesus Christ is still valid. So why not receive it today?