Friday, 28 September 2007

Not quite right about Evangelicalism!

Having had a few days to think about my own posting on ‘What is an Evangelical?’ I’ve come to the conclusion that, in the words I seem to remember from my former Old Testament lecturer Barry Webb, ‘That isn’t quite right, is it?’

It’s not that I think I said anything wrong. I just left out a major plank of what Evangelicalism means, which is that as Evangelicals we preach for a result. But without that, we just have a series of propositions.

Of course, it is important that those propositions are true. Paul writes that God wants all people to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4). And Jesus himself said the truth would set us free. We mustn’t fall into the trap of false modesty which says that because we don’t know the whole truth about God we cannot claim to know anything to be true. That’s a bit like saying, ‘Because we don’t know everything, scientific research cannot really be claimed to have shown us anything.’

But if we don’t apply the truth, it won’t do us any good.

I can claim first-hand experience of this. Back in 1966, I attended the Billy Graham rallies in London. (I went as part of a whole coach of boys from our Grammar school, organized by our RE master —imagine that happening today!) In those days I was a regular churchgoer and server at my local Anglo-Catholic church (St Luke’s, Charlton). But I was curious to know what happened to those who ‘went forward’ at Billy Graham rallies, so when the call came to ‘Get up out of your seats,’ I did.

I still remember very clearly being taken through the gospel basics by my counsellor. At the end, he encouraged me to make John 3:16 my own: ‘For God so loved John that he gave his only begotten Son, that if John should believe in him, John should not perish but have everlasting life.’

What’s more, I believed it was true! In due time, my copy of Billy Graham’s book arrived, as did my Bible reading programme, and I would say I lasted about six weeks.

Interestingly, one of the clergy at church said the Billy Graham organization had contacted him to say I’d gone forward, and asked me why I’d done it. I replied that I’d wanted to find out what happened. And that was it —the matter was never raised again, as if I’d been forgiven for doing something slightly impolite!

It was five years later, in 1971, that I said the prayer of commitment in Journey into Life and never looked back. That day in August is when I would say I truly ‘became a Christian’.

So what was the difference? Basically, in 1966 I understood what the gospel said, but I didn’t understand what the gospel meant. That is what dear Fr X should have picked up on! He should have realized instantly: here is a young man who wants to know more. And he should have left no stone unturned until he was sure I'd found what I was looking for. Fortunately for me, no lasting harm resulted from the fact that he didn’t.

By 1971, however, thanks to knowing Christian Union friends at University, I realized that being a Christian was an all-or-nothing matter. What impressed me was that for them, God was everything, whereas for me, God was an accessory —someone to be there when I needed him, not the other way round.

Gradually I came to realize that if I believed in God, then I had to let God be God of my life. I couldn’t just let him rule the trees, the winds, the planets and a few other things. He had to rule me, personally. And, in those heady days around 1969, I knew that meant no sex outside marriage —which was a deal I wasn’t quite ready to do. (If that sounds odd, try reading the Confessions of St Augustine, and you’ll see it was a bit of an issue for him, too, back in the 4th century ad. It certainly had a way for both of us of focussing the mind on what was at stake.)

So when I sat down to ‘pray the prayer’, I knew this was crunch time, and I had faced what it meant for me —I would let God have his way with me, whatever. I would not just accept Jesus as my Saviour (something which had always seemed to me a good idea), I would serve him as my Lord.

And so my fourth element of Evangelicalism is this:

Evangelicals believe in a gospel ... 4. Acknowledging Christ as Saviour and accepting Christ as Lord.

I hope that covers it, but if anyone else can offer a happier form of words, I’d be open to advice.

Revd John P Richardson
28 September 2007

No comments will be posted without a full name and location, see the policy.


  1. Hi John

    this is quite interesting.

    Although, as someone commented before (David Williams I think) this is more about defining Christians than Evangelicals (no?)

    What do you think of David Bebbington's suggestions. Or more recently Ian Randall's 'What a friend we have in Jesus' - although I know that Ian struggled to find the distinctive (some of the stuff he originally came up with could have been said of a benedictine)

    anyway, I wonder if you are trying to come up with the distinctive of evangelicals or Christians? On Fulcrum we are trying to engage in conversation across the divide between OEs and CEs and one of the things that concern OEs, amongst whom, as you know, I place myself, is that CEs consider themselves the only true Christians, something that OEs would not want to say - this is not to say that as evangelicals we shouldn't affirm the good things in our tradition or be grateful for them, I know I am both grateful for my evangelical 'upbringing' in terms of my Christian life and ready to affirm the goodness in the evangelical tradition.

    Jody Stowell (maidenhead)

  2. Hi John, Thanks for your attempt to define evangelicalism. Do you think that the definition you offer is in the end fails to encompass some of the richness of theological insight we may want to affirm. Perhaps my question could be sharpened by asking whether on your definition luther, calvin or augustine would identify themselves as evangelicals? It seems to me there are entailments and implications of broad scriptural issues that ought to be of the essence of evangelicalism. I have in mind our attitudes to church, the state, cultivation of virtue, theological method etc. What do you think?

  3. Saju, would you like to tell us where you live (see the 'policy' on comments)?

  4. Pete, can you provide a full name, please (see the comments policy)?

  5. Jody, no it's not about defining Christians, though I think it is about what Christians should be, since I think (a) all the essentials of Christian belief and practice flow out of Scripture (beginning with our knowledge and understanding of the death of Christ) and (b) if there is something essential in Scripture then it should be part of my Christianity. (This is also, in theory, Anglicanism.)

    There are, however, those who add things to Scripture, such as Roman Catholics, with their doctrine of the Traditions of the Church, and those who leave things out, such as Liberals in many shapes and forms. I am certain you find Christians within such systems of theology, but the system itself is a departure from the truth. (Again, see Anglicanism, and the 39 Articles in particular, for the notion of 'truths we can know and falsehoods we must deny'.)

    What I am aiming at is a 'minimalist' definition of Evangelicalism - the sort of thing that used to hold Evangelicals together when I became a Christian, before the 'divide' of which you speak happened. I wonder, incidentally, who first applied the term 'Open' to Evangelical as a distinctive.

    I would not want to see Evangelicalism as a 'tradition', but as an understanding. A tradition sounds like something that sort of rolls along year after year, without much thought. An understanding, I hope, is much nearer a grasp of something.

  6. 'I wonder, incidentally, who first applied the term 'Open' to Evangelical as a distinctive.'

    yes, or indeed who applied the term 'conservative'

    Jody Stowell (Maidenhead)

  7. John:

    I'm coming to your posts by way of Sam Norton's blog. Also coming as one who used to describe himself as an 'evangelical Anglican', but is now more inclined to use 'Anabaptist Anglican', if you can imagine such a thing!

    I'm interested that in your outline of evangelical essentials you haven't said anything about the authority and sufficiency of scripture, which I would say was one of the two linchpin doctrines of the Reformation (the other being justification by faith).

    But I'm also interested in how this understanding of the Gospel compares to Jesus' own understanding, since when Jesus preaches the gospel in the gospels, the term that's almost always used to describe it is 'kingdom of God', or 'kingdom of heaven'. And although he is quite up front about his coming death on the cross and what it means ('a ransom for many', 'this is my blood of the covenant' etc.), the cross is never linked with the kingdom in his teaching.

    Second, as you know, Tom Wright (who I presume on your understanding would not be a real evangelical) says that according to the first few verses of Romans the real gospel is that 'Jesus is Lord'. Since 'Christ' (the name you use almost exclusively) means 'Messiah' or 'King', and the Messiah is precisely God's anointed king over God's coming kingdom, this would tie in well with the Kingdom theology of the gospels.

    My main criticism, then, of your outline of the gospel would be a standard Anabaptist one - that you tend to define the gospel from the epistles (especially Paul) rather than starting with the life and teaching of Jesus himself. And for myself, that's the main reason why I'm increasingly uncomfortable with the tag 'evangelical'.

    That, by the way, is also my main criticism of the Alpha Course. I think the day has long since gone in which we can have a course purporting to be about Christian basics which never once tells the story of Jesus. It assumes that people already know it, and jumps right away to doctrines about Jesus. I just don't think that's faithful to true gospel preaching(such as Peter's in Acts 10).

    Tim Chesterton
    Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

  8. Tim, thanks for your comments. On the issue of Scripture and Evangelicalism, in an effort to be as ‘minimalist’ as possible, I didn’t want to say too much. However, there is clearly an understanding behind Paul using the phrase ‘according to the Scriptures’ that Scripture is ‘definitive’, and that is a view which Evangelicals therefore seek to share.

    Regarding Jesus’ own preaching of the kingdom, the cross is clearly seen by Christ himself as the ‘end point’ of his journey, and therefore essential to doing the Father’s will and therefore to his ‘being’ the Son, which is the alternative route to receiving the kingdom to the one offered by Satan.

    I’m not sure quite whether Tom Wright feels there is anything inadequate about the traditional Evangelical preaching of the gospel. If he does, then he probably wouldn’t count himself as an Evangelical —but he seems to, so I presume he hasn’t got a real problem. It may be he feels the gospel should begin with the Lordship of Jesus, but again we have to expound the meaning of the terms ‘Lord’ and ‘Jesus’. ‘Jesus’ includes ‘one who died on the cross for the forgiveness of our sins’, and it is this one who is ‘Lord’, so I’m not sure I’d see too much room for wild disagreements there.

    On the starting point for the gospel, though, I’m rather with Bishop Jens Christensen in The Practical Approach to Muslims, in his insistence that we have to take seriously the fact that Jesus chose to establish an Apostolate. He observes that this means three things:

    "(a) It is ONLY through the Apostles that the world knows of Christ. He is undoubtedly mentioned a couple of times by outside historians, but destroy the apostolic witness to Christ in history, and Christ is lost.

    "(b) It is ONLY on the authority of the Apostles that we have the true understanding of and interpretation of all revelational facts inside history. Take away the Apostolic interpretation of revelational facts, and Christ—even if He were known in isolation from His background—would become a weak voice with an uncertain sound, drowned out by the blare of the ever present trumpets of the wise men of the world.

    "(c) It is ONLY through the agency of the Apostles that the world at large and every individual person can attain to a true (saving) knowledge of God. For there is no other way of gaining such knowledge of God except in and through Christ."

    I agree with you entirely that we must not presume people know the story of Christ. Equally, though, we must teach people the Old Testament for the same reason of getting to understand Christ.

    PS Christensen's book is one of the best 'primers' of Christian theology I have ever read - perhaps the best - and is available free online!

  9. Oooops and I still have not provided a full name: Peter Sanlon, Ridley Hall, Cambridge

  10. Dear Vicar;
    I was born and raised Roman Catholic. I joined the Episcopal Church in 1975. So my background is very catholic.
    I was baptised in 1955 when I was two weeks old. My understanding has always been that that is when I became a Christian. The Episcopal Church's 1979 Prayer Book is very specific, those who are baptized are "...cleansed from sin and born again."
    You believe you became a Chistian as a boy or young man when you accepted Christ as your Savior and Lord. Why do you need to be born again when you were born again at baptism? I can understand that you feel you came into a deeper relationship with Christ as a young man but didn't that relationship exist from baptism?
    Kevin Morgan
    Buffalo, New York, USA

  11. Hi Kevin. As Protestants (and the Anglican Church most definitely is Protestant) we do not believe sacraments are effective ex opere operato.

    Thus, just as Holy Communion is not effective without faith (see" Article 29) so neither is baptism, as we state in the BCP Catechism.

    Question. What is the outward visible sign or form in Baptism?
    Answer. Water: wherein the person is baptized In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
    Question. What is the inward and spiritual grace?
    Answer. A death unto sin, and a new birth unto righteousness: for being by nature born in sin, and the children of wrath, we are hereby made the children of grace.
    Question. What is required of persons to be baptized?
    Answer. Repentance, whereby they forsake sin: and Faith, whereby they stedfastly believe the promises of God made to them in that Sacrament.
    Question. Why then are Infants baptized, when by reason of their tender age they cannot perform them?
    Answer. Because they promise them both by their Sureties: which promise, when they come to age, themselves are bound to perform.

    When I came to faith at 21, I also came into my baptism, receiving then what was promised to me when I was 2 years old, just as from then on I received in Holy Communion what had always been promised to me since my Confirmation.