A Lack of Definition?
The first topic I’m going to consider in our three talks is ‘What is an evangelical?’
This is actually a question which has been around for a remarkably long time. It was considered, for example, by John Stott at the end of the second National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1977.
But before that, Dr Martin Lloyd Jones asked the same question in a 1971 book of that title.
And more recently, in the mid-1990s, Mark Thompson, of Moore Theological College, has addressed the issue in a series of articles in The Briefing, and in a book titled, Saving the Heart, subtitle, ‘What is an evangelical?’
The sheer fact that the question has been asked so often, and that answers by such erudite contributors have apparently failed to settle the issue, forces us to acknowledge that evangelicalism is not a set of commonly-held, narrowly-defined, doctrines.
On the contrary, there are evangelicals who hold quite different doctrinal views, and who belong to entirely different denominations.
A Common Identity
Yet at the same time, there is clearly an evangelical ‘identity’. Evangelicals are able —almost intuitively —to recognize and acknowledge one another, even across denominational divides.
There are evangelical Calvinists and evangelical Arminians, evangelical Anglicans and evangelical Baptists, independent evangelicals and evangelicals who are paid-up members of the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.
It is this common identity which makes it worth attempting to achieve a definition of evangelicalism, not least to try to clarify what it is that evangelicals share together.
It is also the case that the sense of shared identity also leads to an ability to work together. It is important to understand why this is so, but it is important also to understand the points at which this shared ‘evangelical’ identity may be in tension with important denominationally-expressed doctrinal differences.
Thus I have found myself, in the past, happily working alongside individual Seventh Day Adventists on the basis of what could rightly be called a shared evangelical identity. Yet I would have to disagree with, and indeed oppose, some of the distinctive doctrines of Adventism.
A false identity
But there is, unfortunately, another reason why we must make the effort to identify evangelicalism, and that is because there are situations where the evangelical label has ceased to have any real meaning.
An obvious example would be the way that the term ‘evangelical’ is used on the Continent — where it comes much closer to meaning simply ‘Protestant’.
Again, it would certainly be a mistake to assume that everyone in the Evangelical Lutheran Church, wherever it was found, was an evangelical. But closer to home, there are painful divisions in the evangelical movement, particularly between those who use the term ‘open’ evangelical to describe themselves, and those who, in response to this, now tend to call themselves ‘conservative’ evangelicals, or by some such similar name.
There are those, and certainly they would include many open evangelicals, who argue that evangelicalism is a broader-based movement than has hitherto been assumed, and that it should embrace consciously a diversity of views, including some which previous generations might have regarded as not particularly evangelical — or even, when it comes to matters of sexuality, Christian.
On the other hand, there are those who believe that evangelicalism is more narrowly defined, and that many of those calling themselves ‘evangelical’ are not actually evangelical at all, but rather are post-evangelical liberals who just don’t realize, or admit it, yet.
It is all very confusing, and it points us in the direction of the talks coming up, where I will try to address what is wrong with evangelicalism and what is the future for evangelicals.
But first, we ought to try to identify the nature of evangelicalism, bearing in mind the historical importance of evangelicalism.
We might remind, ourselves, for example, of the huge impact of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship in the twentieth century, both in these islands, and abroad, bearing in mind that its full and proper title was the Inter-Varsity Fellowship of Evangelical Unions.
Self-confessed evangelical Christianity is a distinct, and therefore a distinguishable, movement. What, then, distinguishes it?
The Priority of Evangelism
I have hinted that the answer does not lie in doctrinal definitions — these come later, rather as the historic creeds appear later in the life of the church.
Rather, evangelicalism must be understood first by praxis — by action — and the defining action of evangelicalism is, crucially, evangelism.
But since evangelism is itself a somewhat-debased word, I would define what I mean by this as follows:
Evangelicals are those who have as a first priority, in their own lives and in the life of their churches and organizations, the desire and aim to see other people become Christians.
Notice, it is not their sole priority, nor is it necessarily their top priority. Some would say their top priority is to worship God or to live for him. Many would add that serving others or changing the world are also crucial to their understanding of the Christian life.
However, insofar as they are evangelicals, all would agree that the most important thing they can achieve for another person is to see that person become a Christian. And that shapes the evangelical understanding of the Christian life.
Thus God is served —or ‘worshipped’ in the proper sense —by our engaging in the work we see exemplified in Jesus himself, of seeking and saving the lost. We live for God when, like the first disciples, we become ‘fishers of men’. We serve others when we bring them the good news of salvation. We change the world when people are brought to know Christ as Saviour and to serve him as Lord.
This is the heart of evangelicalism, and it precedes any more specific confessional statements we might want to make.
The Individual and Evangelicalism
A very important feature of evangelicalism, however, is that salvation is an individual matter. The crowd may ask, “Brethren, what must we do to be saved?” The evangelistic response, however, is addressed to the individual: “Repent and be baptized, each one of you.”
The ‘we’, here, may all be repenting at the same time, we may all get baptized together. But for this to happen, each one must repent individually, each one must get baptized, and each one must certainly live for Christ.
Indeed, it is this focus on the individual which is one of the outstanding features of Christianity which features in the evangelical understanding.
Jesus’ question, “Who do you say I am?” is addressed to the disciples collectively. But Peter’s answer, “You are the Christ,” is given by him individually, and it has been revealed to him personally by the Father.
In this, of course, the New Testament is only picking up an Old Testament emphasis. “The soul who sins shall die,” says Ezekiel (18:20), and similarly the sinner who turns from his wickedness shall live.
We are not condemned for the sins of another, but by the same token, we are not saved by the faith of another — whether it be our friends, our family or our community. Salvation, the evangelical believes, comes in personal doses, and so the evangelical cannot rest until the individual is saved.
Sticking to the knitting
It is this understanding of salvation and the Christian life which determines whether a person or a church or an organization can properly be called ‘evangelical’.
To the extent that it is a priority, to that extent we have evangelicalism. To the extent that other things begin to take priority, to that extent we have a decline from evangelicalism.
The first lesson of understanding what it means to be evangelical is that we must ‘stick to the knitting’. It is also important to see that we do not remain evangelical by adhering to evangelical doctrines. Being evangelical is about what you are and how you live on that basis.
In that sense, then, evangelicalism is a ‘spirituality’, but the evangelical would immediately want to say that it is a spirituality which arises from without, not from within.
The evangelical has not arrived at evangelicalism by searching out or trying out different approaches to God. Paradoxically, people do not become evangelicals by deciding to become evangelicals. Nor do evangelicals preach ‘evangelicalism’ to others.
Rather, it is the common experience of evangelicals that they are what they are as a result of becoming Christians. They do not look back to the point at which they received a set of evangelical doctrines, but to the point at which they received Christ as Saviour and Lord.
And where there are those who are not conscious of a particular moment of conversion, nevertheless, they will also be conscious that it is their relationship with God, in and through Christ as Saviour and Lord, which gives shape to their spiritual life and which is something they wish to share with others.
When the evangelical is able to articulate this, then, they will say that it is the work of the Holy Spirit which has given them their spirituality, by his operation within them. The words of Isaiah, quoted in Romans 10:20 would very much fit their experience: “I was found by those who did not seek me.”
The evangelical message
We see the nature of evangelical spirituality also in the way that evangelicals seek to bring others into their own evangelical experience —for what they do not do is preach the experience.
They may well be driven by the experience, they may well speak about the experience, they may even tell others they may have the same experience, but the message is not “This is how to have this experience,” but rather, “Repent and believe, and you shall be saved.”
Incidentally, we may say that where the message does become, “Do this to have this experience,” here too we have a departure from evangelicalism, which will show up subsequently in the life of the individual or the organization or movement.
The evangelical message to the non-Christian is not “You are missing out on life,” but, “You are facing judgement and damnation.”
And it is here that we begin to see that evangelicalism does, indeed, have a systematic theological heart, even though it is not itself a full-blown system of theology.
Indeed, the message of evangelism is a microcosm of a consistent systematic theology, even though it may be expressed in a number of ways.
In Norman Warren’s classic tract, Journey into Life, for example, first published in 1964, we read this summary of what it takes to become a Christian:
Something to admit
That you have sinned in the sight of God. [...]
Something to believe
That Jesus Christ died on the cross bearing all the guilt and penalty of your sin.
Something to consider
[...] Every part of your life, work, friendships, time, money must all come under [Jesus’] control.
Something to do
Accept Jesus Christ into your life to be your Lord to control you, your Saviour to cleanse you, your Friend to guide and be with you.
But then compare this with the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians (written about ad 54),
Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3 For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures ...
There are differences in the detail, yet clearly we are in the same theological territory. And the key features are these: sin, from which we need to be saved, Christ, who saves us from our sins through his death, a new life, exemplified by Christ being raised from the dead, and faith as a resolve to believe in and live by the truth of what has been said about sin, Christ and salvation.
In fact, it would be fair to say that evangelical theology is an expansion of these key points, as Paul puts it ‘according to the Scriptures’.
Thus, when we say we believe that Christ died for our sins ‘according to the Scriptures’ we mean that we look to the Bible, to tell us what sin is, to explain why Jesus needed to die for it, and indeed to tell us who Jesus was and is, why his death was both necessary and effective, and what exactly it achieved for us.
Evangelical theology thus has a position on Scripture. Notice, however, that being an evangelical does equate to a view on Scripture. That is why we sometimes get confused over the issue of evangelical fellowship.
To be a scriptural conservative does not make you an evangelical.
At the same time, however, merely wanting to ‘spread the faith’ does not make you an evangelical —otherwise we would have to say that Jehovah’s Witnesses are ‘fellow evangelicals’, since they, too, want to see people converted so that they can be saved.
We are not evangelicals just because we want to see other people come round to our point of view. There is some content to the notion of becoming a Christian, specifically as regards who Christ is and what his death has achieved, which is defined for us, not by us.
Nevertheless, where we find that the desire to proclaim Christ so that others may believe in him and be saved is given priority in engagement with the world and with those who do not know Christ, there we find fellow evangelicals and evangelical fellowship.
And yet, at the same time it is true that evangelical fellowship is always fragile. Historically, evangelical unity easily, and it has to be said, repeatedly, gives way to evangelical disunity.
This is enough to tell us that there is also something amiss with evangelicalism. And in my second talk I intend to examine what that is and to make some suggestions as to how it may be put right.Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select the 'Anonymous' profile, then type in a couple of letters, select 'preview', then close the preview box and delete these letters.
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