Thursday, 27 August 2009

What is an Evangelical?

(Ed: The weekend after next, I'll be in Northern Ireland where I've been asked to give some talks on evangelical identity. If you're going to be there, you might like to look away now, but I thought I'd float the first talk on the blog to test the reactions.)

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.

A Definition

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.

Evangelical ‘spirituality’

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.”

Evangelical theology

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’.

‘Fellow’ Evangelicals

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.

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  1. John:

    I suppose someone would class me as an "evangelical."

    Personally, given the confusion which you've noted, I've adopted the identity of "Confessional Evangelical," or "Confessing Evangelical."

    This affords opportunity to "confess," actively, deeply, if needed, simply if needed, that faith forged so well by earlier titans. Often, in my pastoral experience, evangelism is done through education--even instruction on the confessions.

    My present question is the overlap and the lines of differences, e.g. Formula of Concord, Westminster Confession, XXXIX Articles. Am constantly exploring that issue.

    As a matter of fact, given the confusion, "Confessional Evangelical" keeps me within the True Catholic Church yet distances me from mushy-fuzziness evident in the US. I can't speak to the British situation, but the term "evangelical" has become meaningless here.

    Recovering "Confessions" is a leading objective on the agenda, on my view, in the Church Militant.


  2. John,

    I think you're right to highlight the driving force of evangelism as a key historical mark of evangelicals.

    In a sense the theology of many key evangelicals has been tied up with this. It is interesting to see how evangelists such as Whitefield and Haslam, who came from a background of trying to earn salvation through works, focused relentlessly on the themes of justification by faith and regeneration.

    The further you move away from these unpopular doctrines, the further you move away from historical evangelicalism, its driving force and its transforming power.

  3. This is interesting, and I would agree with you on most of it. But I have problems with this part:

    The evangelical message to the non-Christian is not “You are missing out on life,” but, “You are facing judgement and damnation.”

    I agree that as evangelicals we believe that the non-Christian is “facing judgement and damnation.” But I don't agree that that should be the primary focus of the message to be presented to non-Christians. And for support I appeal to the very words you quote from Norman Warren's "Journey into Life" (which was not called "Journey out of Hell"!). Warren didn't write

    Accept Jesus Christ into your life to be your Lord to judge in your favour, your Saviour to acquit you, your Friend to rescue you from damnation


    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.

    So it is not just someone like me, with some suspiciously modernising and liberal leanings you may think, who wants to put a positive message about life at the centre of the gospel presentation. This is the focus of what you yourself have called "classic tract" dating back to 1964.

    I would also claim that Warren's "classic" approach is not only more genuinely evangelical than yours, but that it is more effective (no room here to prove that) and also more biblical. The sermons in Acts do not focus on coming judgment. While Jesus sometimes did preach about judgment, he also often preached about receiving abundant life.

    So I really think you ought to allow “You are missing out on life” as a valid part of the evangelical gospel message, which should also make it clear that this life is not just for this life (if that makes sense!) but for eternity.

  4. Interesting argument, John.

    My reaction to this answer to the question, “What is an evangelical?” is that it probably reflects the milieu of those who describe themselves as evangelical, meaning (conservative) evangelical. It also fits with the fourfold David Bebbington thesis for what constitutes evangelicalism, and in doing so reflects a certain weakness that is encapsulated in John’s assertion that evangelicalism must be understood in the first instance not in doctrinal definitions but in its praxis, principally in evangelism.

    Personally I think this is where evangelicalism, if we concede this as an accurate representation of evangelicalism, goes wrong.

    There is a helpful set of essays in Michael Haykin and Kenneth Stewart (eds) “The Emergence of Evangelicalism” which roots evangelicalism back into the Reformation which I suggest is a better place to start, at least in providing a firmer base to evangelicalism.

    If this were to occur we would be giving a far greater weight to the role of the Church as that body, in Calvin’s memorable words, “into whose bosom God is pleased to gather his sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they might be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith”.

    I think with church as mother and the confessional standards setting forth doctrinal beliefs, which then drive praxis, we have the starting point for evangelical faith (though a Presbyterian might argue the 39 articles are a trifle on the skimpy side).

    I think what John has set forth is the practical result of evangelicals being forced to the margins of a theologically confused church which is not the experience of those of us who find ourselves in confessionally bound churches.

    Calvin of course went further in defining the nature of reformed (evangelical?) religion when asked to spell out the reasons for reform. He listed the two defining elements of Christianity as “a knowledge, first, of the right way to worship God; and, secondly, of the source from which salvation is to be sought”.

    The order here is important. According to Calvin salvation is a means to an end, with the worship of God being that end.

    I for one would see such an understanding to be at the heart of the Christian religion, and therefore evangelical religion if evangelicalism understands itself as quintessentially Christian.

    David Palmer

  5. I thin Martyn Lloyd Jones presents Evangelicalism in a confessional way which implies that those who do not accept the IFES basis of faith in full are at least weak in faith and probably not properly christian. In Christ the Controversialist, John Stott describes the characteristics of what he regards as true religion, i.e. the religion of Jesus in a way which is challenging to evangelicals and others.

    I think you present evangelicalism as a self replicating model of decision based evangelism and subsequent discipleship leading to witnessing amongst other things. Norman Warren gets onto this in the Way Ahead. This does not account for those who have had faith as long as they can remember or gradually came to faith though becoming more involved in the church.

    David Palmer correctly traces evangelicalism back to Calvin and Luther. However, as you point out, evangelicalism reaches out to the world and so I would suggest that evangelicalism should been seen as starting as a separate movement in the evangelical revivals i.e. with Wesley, Whitfield and Edwards.

    Journey into Life is written on the basis of the authority of scripture and all but sates penal substitutionary atonement so at the core of evanelicalism are the doctrines which are regarded as evangelical extras.

    West Yorkshire

  6. To those who have made comments, I'm very grateful. The above 'talk' isn't a talk until it's given, and I really wanted to find out if it would 'fly' or not.

    I am conscious of taking quite a risk in defining evangelicalism in terms first of praxis rather than doctrine. So far, however, I am inclined to stick with this.

    One reason is that I think this reflects the experience of the early church, where there were 'core' doctrines (as in evangelicalism), but many other bits still to be worked out - not least in the area of the Gentiles and the Law.

    I would venture to say that the same has always been true of evangelicals, particularly since the old ones (who have learned their theological lessons) die out, and new, enthusiastic, but often naive, ones take their place.

    Indeed, I would go so far as to suggest that one can be a 'good' evangelical and a very bad theologian! This is not to commend bad theology, but it is to recognize an undeniable characteristic of evangelicalism.

    So I am quite happy to accept that, on this definition, evangelicalism is untidy and, to some extent, even incoherent. That is why the second talk (in progress!) will be on 'What is wrong with Evangelicalism'.

    Do keep the comments coming is, as they are very helpful.

  7. Peter, I do have to pick up what you've said about Norman Warren's 'classic' approach. I may have been misleading in what I quoted from him, but you have to read the whole tract to understand these words in context.

    The structure of the tract is crucial:

    What is a Christian? (answer: 'none of the above')

    In the beginning (creation and perfection, followed by sin and fall)

    What sin is, "All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."

    What sin does, concluding with, "Be quite clear about this; hell is a grim and dreadful reality for all who reject Jesus Christ in this life."

    Why Jesus came, John 3:16, "The full punishment for sin was taken by Jesus ... His work of saving you from hell and eternal destruction is finished ... The way to God is now wide open."

    Then comes his 'ABCD', but even in this, when he raises 'Something to consider', he begins with, "Jesus never promised it would be easy to follow him. Expect opposition, sneers and misunderstanding."

    When he gets to 'the prayer', he leads up with, "Think of what he will save you from: eternal destruction, separation from God for ever, which is what hell is. Think of the shortness of this life: after death there will be no more opportunity to turn to Christ. It will be too late." At this point in the tract, it is all about eternity and salvation from judgement.

    Christ in you, the importance of trusting God's promises, not our feelings, as we begin the Christian life.

    The way ahead, reading the Bible, praying, worshipping, witnessing ("Tell one other person within the next 24 hours what you have done ..."

    There is a mention of "A life that satisfies, that has purpose and meaning, a life that demands the very best in you and, above all, a life that is pleasing to God" in the middle of the tract, but even this is preceded by this warning: "... one day you will realise too late that you have missed the best in life, wasted your life and ruined your own soul. To live without Christ is to die without him. To die without him is to spend eternity without him. But if you want ... etc."

    You will gather I do think that this is 'classic evangelicalism'. It was also, as it happens, the tract through which I became a Christian thirty-eight years ago this month.

  8. John, thanks for replying to my comment, with more details of what Warren wrote. I would tend to think that he has put a bit too much emphasis on the judgment and hell side. Nevertheless he carefully balances this with reference to the benefits for this life of being a Christian. What for you is a matter of not A but B seems to be for Warren and for myself a matter of both A and B.

  9. Peter, if you read 'Journey into Life' I think you'll find it hard to argue that Warren 'carefully balances' warnings about judgement with references to the benefits of this life of being a Christian. On the contrary, his booklet is very 'unbalanced', but in my view correct. There will be benefits in this life "with persecutions". I would side with Warren on this. If you think this now puts us all on the same side, so be it!

  10. The word "Evangelical" is in and of itself a useless term as your article makes obvious. I consider myself a "confessing" Evangelical, meaning that I consider DOCTRINE the defining element of true evangelical faith, not evangelism. Evangelism without the "faith once delivered to the saints" is not evangelism at all. It is heresy.

  11. From another Evangelical (who was also an IVF Staffworker for three years in another life) -


    Rowland Croucher

  12. Very helpful article--found it from a link today on the Barnabas Project (USA) website. --Can't help asking where you gave the talk/workshop in Northern Ireland. We stayed near Limavady at the Radisson Roe Park Golf Resort in late August or early Sept. 2007 because 1) it was near Ballymacran, where a forebear of my husband emigrated from Scotland as a Covenanter, and 2) it was where the Limavady Rotary Club met and we had a flag to exchange. Walking in Roe Park we were amazed at how many people told us about their Irish relatives in America. We enjoyed visiting the Ulster Folk Museum.