This is a first attempt at trying to help people understand the Christian faith by starting with the big picture, and using ordinary language.
There is a lot implied in the words used in the Summary; and a lot of detail which is not given because it is not required at this stage.
Each point in this summary is expanded in the 'Details' section below.
There is one God, Who is creator, big, good, loving, active and sovereign.
People often talk as if the big question we face is whether or not there is a God. But this begs the much more important question: if there is a God, what is this God like?
The Bible writers are very clear about several aspects of the God they tell us about.
The Bible writers tell us a lot of other things about God: He is kind, generous, forgiving, and so on. These things flow naturally from the first four aspects.
The theologians add a lot of other details about God, and define a lot of other terms which mean very little to ordinary people: they say He is, amongst other things, omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent, transcendent and immutable. The Bible does not use these terms, and it is not likely that any of the Biblical writers thought in such terms.(1)
God wants everybody to be saved, to bring us into a good and close loving relationship with Himself, so that we can experience the new life He wants us to enjoy.
Salvation is all about a new life lived in relationship with our Creator. Lots of words are used to describe this new life: freedom, joy, fulness, forgiveness and so on; but all these things flow from the relationship, and cannot be obtained (not really, and not fully) any other way.
When we talk about salvation, Evangelicals usually try to explain to people that they need to be saved because they are sinners and they need their sins to be forgiven.
There are several problems with this approach.
Firstly, it is not Biblical. The Bible contains several accounts of evangelistic sermons (2), and the doctrine that Jesus died in order for our sins to be forgiven does not appear in any of them. Please note that I am not saying this doctrine is untrue, only that the early church did not consider it to be relevant when you are trying to communicate with unbelievers.
Secondly, it distorts the gospel message: Jesus came to bring us new life. He came to bring us abundant life. He did not come to bring condemnation; so why, when we share the Good News, do people so often feel condemned?
Thirdly, it does not work. Nobody wants to hear that you think they are a bad person, or - even worse - that God thinks they are a bad person. You get into "but I'm not as bad as other people" conversations, which go nowhere.
Finally, it gets the conversation straight into areas of obscure theology and philosophy, and away from things that are important, relevant and practical. To understand that God thinks I am a bad person, I need to understand God's understanding of what 'bad' is. Now, I have been a Christian for a good many years, and I don't think I have got anywhere near this yet. And we still tell people they need to understand and believe it in order to be saved and start the Christian life. No wonder so few people respond to this message: it is a wonder that anyone does.
We will come back to the topic of sin later, but at this point it is worth noting that the Biblical message is constructive and creative: God loves you and wants the very best for you. If you don't respond to Him, you are missing out on the best that life can offer - straight from the hands of the One Who knows what you really need, and can make it happen for you.
A loving relationship is only possible if both parties truly know each other; God knows us perfectly, and is made known to us fully and finally through the person of Jesus of Nazareth, and the historic record of Him in the Bible.
How do we get to know what God is like? Through looking at Jesus. Jesus is God in human form - God, Who has for a while let go of the 'big' and chosen to become small so we could get to know the rest of what He is like.
How do we get to know what Jesus is like? Through reading the Bible.
We should also get to know what Jesus is like through meeting Him in His family, but this is a bit more problematic. If we are honest, the family doesn't always show a family likeness the way we should. On the other hand, most churches are much more like Jesus than they appreciate: we fall down in lots of ways, but we still demonstrate a level of love and acceptance which many people outside the church find deeply attractive.
The starting point of salvation is believing that Jesus of Nazareth is not only the Jewish Messiah, but also the Lord of all creation, and hence our rightful Lord and Master.
This follows from the previous point: you can only relate to somebody else on the basis of truth and reality.
We have to know, understand, believe, and act on the truth. Otherwise it is no use to us. The fundamental truth the early Christians believed was this: Jesus is Lord! Everything else flows from this one starting point.
We often talk about 'Jesus Christ' as though 'Christ' was His surname. But it is not a name, it is a title: 'Christ' means 'annointed', and in this context it means that Jesus was more than just an annointed person - He was The annointed person, the long-awaited Messiah. He is the fulfilment and embodiment of all the Old Testament prophecies. And much more.
The truth is that Jesus is both Lord and God, and any relationship with Him must take this into account. If you marry your King, all kinds of things will change, but he will not cease to be your King. As Thomas discovered (3), a relationship with Jesus means that He is not only Lord and God, but He becomes my Lord and my God.
The starting point of salvation is to believe the truth; the benefits of salvation come when we learn to act on that belief.
We discover what it means to live in a good and close loving relationship with God by understanding, believing and obeying what Jesus says; this includes following Him and living as a functioning part of His Body so that His Kingdom is built and other people become His followers.
Jesus is my Lord, so I obey Him; He is my Teacher, so I learn from Him; my Leader, so I follow Him; my God so I worship Him.
The new life He wants us to enjoy is life in all its fulness, and we discover this life as we follow Him and live in an obedient relationship with Him.
He knows how to life fully and freely. He is the only one Who has managed to live this way. We discover His life as we follow Him and gradually become like Him: as we follow and obey, we learn how to live.
To fully live this new life in relationship with God, we must let go of every other life we may have desired or chosen.
Everyone is able to enjoy this new life: all that is required is that we turn away from the alternatives.
Some people get worred that we start off with talk about believing in Jesus, and then end up with talk about obeying and following Him - is this all about what we believe, or about what we do?
The truth is that the two are always connected.
If I believe this object in front of me is a chair, then I can sit on it. I can admire the chair from a distance, but I can only enjoy the benefit of it being a chair if I not only believe it to be a chair, but also act on that belief and sit on it.
As soon as we believe the truth about Jesus, we have a real relationship with Him; but if we want to enjoy the benefits of that relationship, we have to act accordingly.
We spoke earlier about 'sin'. Through Jesus, God forgives our sins - but the truth is much bigger and more wonderful than just this. 'Sin' is just the name we give to all the stuff we have to let go of in order to enjoy the new life in Jesus. Sin is anything that gets in the way, that takes our attention from where it should be, that confuses, distracts or trips us up when we should be following Jesus.
The promise is that, as we follow Jesus, so we will learn how to avoid being confused and tripped up by all the other stuff that gets in the way. We may never be totally free, but as we learn to be closer to Jesus and more like Him, so we discover how to live freely and fully: we discover, day by day, how we can be set free to become the people we were created to be.
Note 1. Which is not to say that such theological terms are wrong or unhelpful, only that they are not part of the core Biblical text; and, if we believe that the Bible contains all we need to know, then it follows that understanding these terms is not essential for salvation, sanctification or discipleship.
Note 2. See, for example, Acts 2:11-36; Acts 3:12-26; and Acts 7:2-53.
Note 3. John 20:28