Why I am an Evangelical, and why our Church wears that name.
The earliest solid reference I can find to someone being referred to as an evangelical, is in a 15th century label attached to John Wycliffe, often described as the “Morningstar of the Reformation. He was called “doctor evangelicus.” The term gained more popularity early in Lutheran side of the Reformation and spread from there. Men wanting to associate themselves with the recovery of the gospel in terms of its central doctrine of justification by faith called themselves evangelici viri” – evangelical men. Luther liked and used the expression in German as die Evangelischen.
In each case, the direct connection is with the notion of the gospel, or closer to the Greek word for gospel – the “evangel”. It continued to be used and gained its real 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 of historic evangelicalism in four general claims, and six particular convictions.
The four general claims of historic evangelicalism are:
a. Evangelicalism is PRACTICAL Christianity. A lifestyle of total discipleship to the Lord Christ.
b. PURE Christianity. Since you cannot add to the Christian faith without in the end subtracting from it.
c. UNITIVE Christianity. Seeking unity through a common commitment to gospel truth.
d. 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).
2. The Majesty of Jesus Christ (the God-man who died as a sacrifice for sin).
3. The Lordship of the Holy Spirit (who exercises a variety of vital ministries).
4. The necessity of conversion (a direct encounter with God effected by God alone – being born again).
5. The priority of evangelism (Witness being an expression of worship).
6. The importance of fellowship (the Church being essentially a living community of believers).
Going back to the Cambridge Declaration, a quick review of the 5 “solas” of the Reformation might be helpful in nailing down what being an Evangelical means.
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.
Historically, these foundational truths are the things that make for being an Evangelical. And since I hold to these things – I wear that name. Not apologetically or lightly. By the definitions above, I WANT to be an Evangelical. And I want others to be as well.