What is an evangelical?

“Evangelical” is a word thought of in various ways. Non-Christians often relate it only to TV evangelists, the media often equates it with an unhinged fundamentalism, and even Christians can stereotype it simply as those appreciating modern music and methods in church.

In reality, the word stems from the Greek “evangel” - meaning “gospel,” and has historically described those from various denominations (whatever their preferences on music and methods) who prioritise and proclaim the “fundamentals” of the gospel. It is in this good sense that they are “fundamentalists,” not in the negative sense that the word is used.

Numerous attempts have been made to define what exactly makes a Christian an evangelical, but perhaps the most helpful is that which uses a scriptural definition. In 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 and Titus 3:3-8, Paul lists the gospel fundamentals, i.e. the things “of first importance” that church leaders should “insist on”: (1) The centrality and supremacy of the Scriptures in revealing God’s will, (2) the sinfulness of human nature that requires salvation by God’s grace alone and not by our initiative or works, (3) the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ by which we are forgiven, justified and made heirs of eternal life, (4) the bodily resurrection of Jesus with all that implies for the work of the Spirit in giving new life, faith and godliness, (5) the need to actively preach and take a stand on these things.

In short, evangelical belief is triune: It is about the sovereignty of God in revelation and redemption, the sacrifice of Christ in forgiveness and justification, and the sanctification of the Spirit in regeneration and renewal.

Of course many non-Evangelical Christians hold to these truths. However Evangelicals are those who actually give them first importance in their own spirituality and Christian service. And because it is these things that the Bible actually asserts as “of first importance,” it must be said that though evangelicalism is by no means perfect Christianity, it is nevertheless a purer form.

The evangelical spirit has shown itself throughout church history. Its commitment and missionary attitude was evident in the early Church Fathers and in those who sought to renew medieval Catholicism. It was first used descriptively however of Lutherans during the reformation, because they were those who sought to bring the church back to scripture and the gospel. Evangelical spirituality then dominated Puritanism in seventeenth century England, the pietism and revivals of eighteenth century Europe and America, and the preaching, social action, and missionary endeavours of the Victorian church.

In the last century, however, evangelicalism has had a bumpy ride. In response to liberalism and its stress on social transformation without the need of seeing people saved to eternal life, many evangelicals took on a rigid dogmatism that withdrew from engagement with the world and displayed a certain paranoia over any who differed on even non-essential matters. Fortunately there are few churches that display such attitudes today as the movement has once again asserted the relevance of God’s word to the totality of life.

Yet it could be said that evangelicalism is now in danger of another more serious error. The relativism of the early twenty-first century has spawned a suspicion of truth claims and a nervousness about holding anything at all as “fundamental.” This has given rise to two particular traits within the evangelical church: First, many churches and Christians see teaching as secondary to action. In discipleship this shows itself with an impatience about being intellectually stretched, and in evangelism in the conviction that if we simply do good without actually sharing the gospel message, people will still somehow come to Christ. Second, many subconsciously give their experience a greater authority than the Bible. Not only everyday Christians, but even some evangelical theologians and thinkers are starting to move away from the central biblical tenets of evangelicalism because they seem to contradict their instincts about God or human nature.

We must be clear that the future of evangelicalism, the church more broadly, and even God’s kingdom depends on following the apostle Paul’s example (1 Corinthians 15:1-8, Titus 3:3-8) in “insisting” on “the things of first importance” against all tides of anti-truth. May God in his mercy strengthen us to do just this.