Evangelicalism Today: “How do you define ‘Evangelical’?”

Eight years ago, I contributed to a forum in Touchstone magazine on the state of American evangelicalism. Other contributors include Russell Moore, Michael Horton, Darryl Hart, John Franke, and David Lyle Jeffrey. A lot has changed in evangelical life since the forum was published—not the least of which is the complete collapse of the so-called emerging church.

I recently read back over my answers to the questions and began wondering how I might answer them differently now. Over the next several weeks, I am going to take a fresh look at each of the questions we were asked in 2007 and offer answers that I would offer for 2015. Here are the questions that we will be looking at:

Question #1: How do you define “Evangelical” in a way that distinguishes Evangelicals from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?

Question #2: Has Evangelicalism matured since the 1950s, and if so in what ways?

Question #3: Has Evangelicalism lost anything in the process of maturing (if it did)?

Question #4: Are there any fundamental differences within the Evangelical movement today, and do you think they will deepen into permanent divisions, or even have already? How might they be healed?

Question #5: What does your movement, speaking generally, fail to see that it ought to see?

Question #6: What would you say to an Evangelical tempted to become Catholic or Orthodox?

Question #7: What has Evangelicalism to offer the wider world that it will find nowhere else?

Question #8: What else would you like to say?

Here’s the 2007 answer to question one followed by my 2015 answer:

Question #1: How do you define “Evangelical” in a way that distinguishes Evangelicals from other believing Christians? And has this definition changed over the last several years?

2007: Evangelicals believe and proclaim the evangel (i.e., the gospel) of Jesus Christ crucified and raised for sinners. At first blush, it would seem that this kind of commitment to the gospel could describe almost every “believing Christian,” but several notable features distinguish Evangelical Christians from the liberal mainlines on the one hand and Roman Catholics on the other.

Evangelicals trace all of their beliefs to the inspired Scriptures, which they believe to be the sole authority for faith and practice. American Evangelicals have stressed the inerrancy of Scripture as a necessary condition of its authority (see the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy).

In addition, Evangelicals recognize the decrepit condition of humanity because of sin and the inability of any person to contribute anything to his own salvation from sin’s effects and punishment. Evangelicals therefore rely on Christ’s substitutionary atonement as God’s only way of salvation for sinners who have been alienated from their Maker.

In the Evangelical way, the benefits of Christ’s redemptive work are communicated to the sinner by grace alone through faith alone in the person of Christ alone. Thus, Evangelicals typically stress the need for conversion: that a sinner would repent of his sin and believe the gospel of Jesus Christ through the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit. Evangelicals also believe in the necessity and urgency of evangelism.

2015: I would double-down on the substance of this answer. Even though many would disagree, I contend that evangelicalism has a fundamentally theological center, and that is what this definition represents.

For evangelicals, the authority of and inerrant scripture is foundational. Sinners are in desperate need of a salvation that they cannot conjure for themselves but that can only come to them through the death and resurrection of Christ. We cannot earn this salvation by works. We receive it by grace and experience a conversion that involves repentance from sin and faith in Christ alone. That conversion issues forth in a transformed life that is then set on a mission to reach the world for Christ.

That is what I believed the essence of evangelicalism was then, and that is what I affirm now. As we will see in the posts that follow, that informs how we explain the meaning of evangelicals who jettison these defining features of evangelical faith. And many have fallen away since I first answered this question in 2007.

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