Evangelical. We hear it in the press all the time. Almost exclusively in political terms. The “Evangelical right” as a voting block. That is the way most people hear, understand and interact with the word. But it wasn’t always so.
Going back to the days before the Reformation, “evangelicals” were just what the name means – they were “gospelers” – heralds of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ. Evangelicals were simply those who had heard, believed, and now spread the “good news” – the Gospel – the “evangel” that Jesus had died to make an atonement for human sin, that all who put their trust in His substitutionary death, could be, WOULD be, reconciled to God.
We’ve come a long way. And sadly we’ve let those outside of Evangelicalism reshape how that label is understood and used. And perhaps, even those who consider themselves evangelicals might be surprised to know what that has meant historically. And to that end, we are reviewing Bishop J. C. Ryle’s five leading features of Evangelical Religion.
Last time we looked at number – (a) The first leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy.
Today, I submit to you number 2. Here’s Ryle: (b) The second leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.
Its theory is that in consequence of Adam’s fall, all men are as far as possible gone from original righteousness, and are of their own natures inclined to evil. They are not only in a miserable, pitiable, and bankrupt condition, but in a state of guilt, imminent danger, and condemnation before God. They are not only at enmity with their Maker, and have no title to heaven, but they have no will to serve their Maker, no love to their Maker, and no meetness for heaven.
We hold that a mighty spiritual disease like this requires a mighty spiritual medicine for its cure. We dread giving the slightest countenance to any religious system of dealing with man’s soul, which even seems to encourage the notion that his deadly wound can be easily healed. We dread fostering man’s favourite notion that a little church-going and sacrament-receiving,—a little patching, and mending, and whitewashing, and gilding, and polishing, and varnishing, and painting the outside,—is all that his case requires. Hence we protest with all our heart against formalism, sacramentalism, and every species of mere external or vicarious Christianity. We maintain that all such religion is founded on an inadequate view of man’s spiritual need. It requires far more than this to save, or satisfy, or sanctify, a soul. It requires nothing less than the blood of God the Son applied to the conscience, and the grace of God the Holy Ghost entirely renewing the heart. Man is radically diseased, and man needs a radical cure. I believe that ignorance of the extent of the fall, and of the whole doctrine of original sin, is one grand reason why many can neither understand, appreciate, nor receive Evangelical Religion. Next to the Bible, as its foundation, it is based on a clear view of original sin.”
RAF: Dare I say that if many would accept the 1st feature as a given, many others who think of themselves as Bible-believing, evangelical people in practice, if not in concept, reject this second notion. In the age of self-actualization, personal empowerment and hyper-motivationalism, the thought that any of us – with the possible exceptions of names like Adolf Hitler or maybe Ted Bundy – are not bad people at our core, but basically good. But a sound evangelical – Biblical understanding of human nature since the Fall in Eden is that of thoroughgoing and humanly irreversible corruption and enmity with God. And it is why we need to be so Gospel-centered. Why we so desperately need a divine Savior who can raise us from our spiritual death, cleanse us from our inward defilement, atone for our cosmic crimes against our Creator, and clothe us with His own righteousness that we might be reconciled to God. It is why we need Jesus Christ.
This, is absolutely central to Evangelical Religion as Ryle puts it. And he is right.