Reid Ferguson

What Is An Evangelical?

what is an evangelical

Politics and the American Evangelical

 

Reid FergusonIn this election year, one cannot read or hear anything about the Presidential hopefuls and their constituents without hearing about the “evangelical” voting block.

Some candidates want to take the label to themselves, in order to identify with this block, and others want to eschew it. It a matter of both guilt by, and vindication by – association.

But if you were ask most people what an Evangelical actually is, my guess is – it would run the gambit from fanatic and bigot, to anyone who is simply not Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, or the member of any other recognized or organized religion.

But the term Evangelical once was both very powerful, and well defined. Powerful most likely, BECAUSE it was well defined. However, in all cultures, words and terms come to be redefined through usage, misusage, and sometimes even deliberate recasting.

So Michael Jackson could sing “I’m Bad, I’m Bad” meaning hot, or cool, or awesome. It’s hard to tell which (or maybe all) since as each of those descriptive words also suffer from cultural morphology.

We as a local, independent Church, call ourselves “Evangelical.” The Evangelical Church of Fairport. The question is – what do WE mean by that? And the second necessary question is – what do other people think when they hear that name?

The term Evangelical has a rich historical heritage. And we consciously take the label upon ourselves. Tho I do begin to wonder if it fails to communicate much of anything positive to those who have no clue as to its meaning, beyond its amorphous cultural distortions.

So what IS an Evangelical? Or maybe better, what ought to define one as an Evangelical? We need to poke around in Church history to get a clear view.

In our search for the earliest mention of someone being referred to as “evangelical”, the honor seems to rest withJohn Wycliffe (1320-1384), often described as the “Morningstar of the Reformation”, and also – doctor evangelicus.

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The term gained popularity early in the Lutheran side of the Reformation and spread from therewith the awakening of the Gospel across Europe.

Those men wanting to be identified with the recovery of the gospel in terms of its central doctrine of justification by faith called themselves evangelici viri – evangelical men.

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Luther liked and used the expression in German as die Evangelischen.

The direct connection in each case was the idea of the gospel – the “evangel”, or “good news.”

“Evangelical continued to gain popularity, and achieved its widespread use during the 18th century in the revival movement associated with Wesley and Whitefield. (See: John Stott’s excellent little book – Evangelical Truth).

The preamble to the Cambridge Declaration, a modern evangelical statement reads: “In the course of history words change. In our day this has happened to the word “evangelical.” In the past it served as a bond of unity between Christians from a wide diversity of church traditions. Historic evangelicalism was confessional. It embraced the essential truths of Christianity as those were defined by the great ecumenical councils of the church. In addition, evangelicals also shared a common heritage in the “solas” of the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.”

In John R. W. Stott’s “Evangelical Truth, A Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness”, he cites J. I. Packer’s “anatomy of evangelicalism” (from his monograph – “The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem” – 1978″ where he he lays out the foundation in four general claims, and six particular convictions.

The four general claims of historic evangelicalism are:

  1. Evangelicalism is PRACTICAL Christianity. A lifestyle of total discipleship to the Lord Christ.
  2. It is PURE Christianity. Since you cannot add to the Christian faith without in the end subtracting from it.
  3. It is UNITIVE Christianity. Seeking unity through a common commitment to gospel truth.
  4. It is RATIONAL Christianity. Over and against the popular preoccupation with mere experience.The six fundamentals would be as follows:1. The supremacy of the Holy Scripture (Because of its unique inspiration)
  5. The Majesty of Jesus Christ (the God-man who died as a sacrifice for sin)
  6. The Lordship of the Holy Spirit (who exercises a variety of vital ministries)
  7. The necessity of conversion (a direct encounter with God effected by God alone – being born again)
  8. The priority of evangelism (Witness being an expression of worship)
  9. The importance of fellowship (the Church being essentially a living community of believers)

To go back to elucidate the 5 great solas of the Reformation which form the substrata of all true evangelicalism – these are: (I’ll quote the affirmations from the Cambridge Declaration)

Thesis One: Sola Scriptura / We reaffirm the inerrant Scripture to be the sole source of written divine revelation,which alone can bind the conscience. The Bible alone teaches all that is necessary for our salvation from sin and is the standard by which all Christian behavior must be measured.We deny that any creed, council or individual may bind a Christian’s conscience, that the Holy Spirit speaks independently of or contrary to what is set forth in the Bible, or that personal spiritual experience can ever be a vehicle of revelation.

Thesis Two: Solus Christus / We reaffirm that our salvation is accomplished by the mediatorial work of the historical Christ alone. His sinless life and substitutionary atonement alone are sufficient for our justification and reconciliation to the Father.We deny that the gospel is preached if Christ’s substitutionary work is not declared and faith in Christ and his work is not solicited.

Thesis Three: Sola Gratia / We reaffirm that in salvation we are rescued from God’s wrath by his grace alone. It is the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit that brings us to Christ by releasing us from our bondage to sin and raising us from spiritual death to spiritual life.

We deny that salvation is in any sense a human work. Human methods, techniques or strategies by themselves cannot accomplish this transformation. Faith is not produced by our unregenerated human nature.

Thesis Four: Sola Fide / We reaffirm that justification is by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone. In justification Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us as the only possible satisfaction of God’s perfect justice.

We deny that justification rests on any merit to be found in us, or upon the grounds of an infusion of Christ’s righteousness in us, or that an institution claiming to be a church that denies or condemns sola fide can be recognized as a legitimate church.

Thesis Five: Soli Deo Gloria / We reaffirm that because salvation is of God and has been accomplished by God, it is for God’s glory and that we must glorify him always. We must live our entire lives before the face of God, under the authority of God and for his glory alone.

We deny that we can properly glorify God if our worship is confused with entertainment, if we neglect either Law or Gospel in our preaching, or if self-improvement, self-esteem or self-fulfillment are allowed to become alternatives to the gospel.

So it is on these foundation that we continue to call ourselves The Evangelical Church of Fairport

That’s it in a nutshell. Though a whole lot could be cited to differentiate historical evangelicals from fundamentalists and fundamentalism – but that will have to wait for another day.

Let me also recommend D. Martin Lloyd-Jones’ superb little treatment titled: “What is an Evangelical.”

Evangelicalism has deep historical roots and a fairly definitive theological framework.

Historically, these foundational truths are the things that make for being an Evangelical.

But to be an Evangelical in the historical sense, includes the idea that one must also be a Christian. So we need to ask that question as well –  What is a Christian?

I believe, if we take the Biblical categories responsibly, we come to see that there a number of things – which no doubt are almost (if not entirely) missing from modern conceptions of what a Christian is. From that Biblical standpoint we can at least say the following:

A Christian is one who believes God exists, and that He created all things.

A Christian is one who believes what God has said is true and orders their lives accordingly.

That God created humanity in His image.

That through rebellion as a race we sinned against God and are lost.

That the world is the way it is because of these things.

A Christian is one who has come to see the reality of their personal guilt and ruin before God, and their need of a Savior.

A Christian is one who has believed that Jesus Christ is the God/man, and that He died on the Cross historically to bear the just punishment for sin due to fallen mankind.

A Christian is one who has personally trusted in Christ’s death at Calvary as their substitute, and God’s only means to be reconciled to Him – through faith in that death.

A Christian is one who is now living their lives in loving gratitude and service to Jesus Christ as their Lord, proclaiming the grace and mercy that saved them, to others.

A Christian is one who is ever moving toward Heaven as their final home and their highest joy in being with God and Christ Jesus eternally.

If these ideas hold true – then when I hear that Evangelicals are supporting some candidates with rabid fervor – I have to ask, by what definition are they indeed – Evangelicals?

Something to ponder.

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Reid Ferguson

Reid serves as the pastor for preaching and vision at Evangelical Church of Fairport in Fairport New York. A native of Rochester, N.Y., he has served in various ministry areas during his life, including: a founding member of the former Mark IV Quartet, Youth Pastor at ECF, former board member of the Fellowship of Independent Reformed Evangelicals (F.I.R.E.), and author of The Little Book of Things You Should Know About Ministry (Christian Focus Publications, 2002). Pastor Reid blogs regularly at Responsive Reiding.