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What is an Evangelical?

September 2015

‘Evangelical’ is a word that’s bandied around a lot these days. It stems from ‘evangel’, meaning good news or gospel. Some may call themselves evangelical Christians or perhaps even refer to congregations as evangelical churches. But what does this mean? ‘Evangelical’ is a term we take for granted but it is virtually meaningless today, especially in our Scottish context. ‘Evangelical’ and ‘Evangelicalism’, whatever they used to mean, now seem to refer to almost anything as well as to nothing much at the same time. It is impossible to use the word ‘evangelical’ and be sure we’re talking about the same thing. Evangelicalism is so diverse these days that it is difficult to pin down evangelical identity. As a consequence, this lack of consensus is problematic for our ministry and mission both as a local and national church.

David Bebbington, in his book ‘Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from 1730s to the 1980s’ offers a widely accepted definition with four hallmarks that describe an evangelical: (1) biblicism (a high regard for the Bible as the primary source of spiritual truth), (2) crucicentrism (a focus on the atoning work of Christ on the cross), (3) conversionism (a belief in the necessity of spiritual conversion), and (4) activism (the priority of publicly proclaiming and living out the gospel). Even if we wouldn’t use these terms ourselves, we know what he means. We would state that whatever we understand by ‘evangelical’, it involves a clear conviction that the Bible is our full and final authority.

However, in recent years there have been those with celebrity-like status in the Christian world who have been called evangelical and yet have denied core biblical doctrines such as the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ, the reality of hell, as well as voicing their support for same-sex marriage. Despite stepping outside the bounds of orthodox biblical Christianity, they have continued to be supported by many ‘evangelical’ Christians, showing just how meaningless the term can be.

We might wonder why this matters, especially if we continue to uphold the Scriptures? It matters because this is not just an academic matter but a very practical one for us as believers, but also for our congregation as well as for our denomination where ‘evangelical’ groups keep springing up. I’m told there are more ‘evangelicals’ in our denomination today than ever before. This is a cause for great rejoicing, for we need that commitment to the Word of God as our supreme rule of faith and life. Yet, while we may be encouraged by more ministers, more ministries, more networks, more fellowships etc adopting the name ‘evangelical’, there seems to be a disconnect between what is out there in name and what is actually happening in practice. After all, a label is one thing, but does it do what it says on the tin?

For example, if we do have more evangelicals and we’d count ourselves as part of this group, then why do we seem to make less of an impact for Christ? Why is our nation in such a poor spiritual and moral state and increasingly getting worse? And if we do have more evangelicals in our denomination, why then, for the first time, has the denomination chosen, in an Act of the General Assembly to depart from the clear teaching of Scripture? If one of the hallmarks of our evangelical faith is a commitment to biblical authority, where is our evangelical strength to keep the denomination true to Scripture, to our confession of faith and constitution? The reality is deeply uncomfortable because, for all our evangelical talk, we must question what has happened to our evangelical impact? Of course, we praise God for the growth of His Church in our land as it is always exciting to see the results of gospel ministry but surely more evangelicals, more evangelical groups, networks and fellowships ought to be making more of a difference for the cause of Christ in our land and in our denomination rather than less.

Perhaps this is because evangelicals have been involved in the process of unwittingly moving the denomination to where it is today. There was a motion tabled at the General Assembly 2013 which suggested the possibility of holding to the traditional doctrine of the church on same-sex relationships whilst allowing those to depart from this position if they so wish. Then it was recommended at the General Assembly 2015 that this unbiblical overture be accepted for the sake of peace and unity in the denomination. It appears that, for some, holding clear biblical doctrine without compromise is less important than keeping unity with those who are prepared to reject the same biblical doctrine. Therefore any evangelical consensus for strong, clear and decisive action is virtually impossible. As a consequence ‘evangelicals’ have inevitably been divided as the same constituency cannot have some who try to uphold biblical doctrine while others tolerate or even promote a position that allows departure from it. This is surely why it is very hard to co-ordinate evangelicals to do anything together despite the necessity that something does need to be done.

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in his little booklet, ‘What is an Evangelical?’ outlines what he considers to be the marks of an evangelical. One mark he suggests is that an evangelical is always ready to act on his beliefs. He says,

“The evangelical... is a man who acts on his convictions. There would never have been Protestantism if this were not true. Luther acted on what he came to see from the Scriptures, so did Calvin and Knox: all these men have done the same. And this, to me, is a very vital thing about the evangelical. He is not a theorist, he is not a theoretician; he is a living soul, he is a man who has got the Spirit in him, and he wants to act on what he believes... He says, I cannot go on like this, I am compromising my doctrine; I have got to act on the truth. That is the evangelical.”

If we claim to be evangelical then we will act on what we believe. Our action will be driven by the Word of God and our action will never deny the Word of God. To take on an evangelical identity without any real evangelical conviction that results in action is useless. In James, we’re reminded that faith without works is dead, so our ‘evangelical’ faith doesn’t count for much if it doesn’t drive us to action. From a denominational perspective, such action will need to be more than gathering together for fellowship, prayer, encouragement and support. This is all good and even makes us feel we’re doing something but we must be careful we don’t delude ourselves by failing to do the much harder work required of us. Otherwise, ‘evangelical’ is only a label, but with no real meaning. It may be used as a form of identity, perhaps even a rallying cry, but means little if institutional concerns become more important than biblical and gospel concerns.

Every believer, congregation, denomination and group or organisation will need to choose whom we will serve. In these days, sticking the label ‘evangelical’ somewhere is nowhere near enough. We will need to declare our allegiance to the Bible and its teaching in every area of life. We will need to stand up and be counted for what we believe, whatever the cost, because this is what genuine faith in Christ requires of us. We will invariably go against the spirit of the age with its secularism and atheism. If we do nothing, no one will care how we label ourselves as Christians, just as long as we capitulate to the cultural climate and jump on the bandwagon of the sexual revolution. What we need, what our church needs, what our denomination needs and what our world needs is for God’s people to let our confidence in the Word of God cause us not only to believe the gospel but to live it out, to speak it and to act on its implications.

Your minister and friend,

Jonathan de Groot

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