Being Evangelical isn’t new – though some would (rightly I believe) think that we have lost our moorings. It was the 14th Century firebrand, priest and pre-Reformer who was known in his day as doctor evangelicus. Doctor of the “evangel” or the Gospel. 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. Luther in turn 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.”
And “evangelical continued to gain popularity, and achieved its widespread use during the 18th century in the revival movement associated with Wesley and Whitefield. That is the heritage of Evangelicalism. A heritage all but lost today, as it was in J. C. Ryle’s day when he sought to rearticulate its foundations.
So far, we’ve looked at 2 of those foundations from Ryle’s essay: “Evangelical Religion.”
(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.
(b) The second leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption.
(c) The third leading feature of Evangelical Religion is the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the nature of the salvation which He has wrought out for man.
Its theory is that the eternal Son of God, Jesus Christ, has by His life, death, and resurrection, as our Representative and Substitute, obtained a complete salvation for sinners, and a redemption from the guilt, power, and consequences of sin, and that all who believe on Him are, even while they live, completely forgiven and justified from all things,—are reckoned completely righteous before God,—are interested in Christ and all His benefits.
We hold that nothing whatever is needed between the soul of man the sinner and Christ the Saviour, but simple, childlike faith, and that all means, helps, ministers, and ordinances are useful just so far as they help this faith, but no further;—but that rested in and relied on as ends and not as means, they become downright poison to the soul.
We hold that an experimental knowledge of Christ crucified and interceding, is the very essence of Christianity, and that in teaching men the Christian religion we can never dwell too much on Christ Himself, and can never speak too strongly of the fulness, freeness, presentness, and simplicity of the salvation there is in Him for every one that believes.
Not least, we hold most firmly that the true doctrine about Christ is precisely that which the natural heart most dislikes. The religion which man craves after is one of sight and sense, and not of faith. An external religion, of which the essence is “doing something,”—and not an inward and spiritual one, of which the essence is “believing,” this is the religion that man naturally loves. Hence we maintain that people ought to be continually warned not to make a Christ of the Church, or of the ministry, or of the forms of worship, or of baptism, or of the Lord’s Supper. We say that life eternal is to know Christ, believe in Christ, abide in Christ, have daily heart communion with Christ, by simple personal faith,—and that everything in religion is useful so far as it helps forward that life of faith, but no further.
J. C. Ryle, Knots Untied: Being Plain Statements on Disputed Points in Religion (London: William Hunt and Company, 1885), 5–6.
Indeed, it is this Christ-centered focus that ought to inform all of what it means to be an Evangelical. Not our politics. Not our race. Not our denominational distinctives – but Christ, the eternal Son of God as our only means of reconciliation to the God the Father – through His life, death, burial and resurrection. Any religious or thought system which does not put Jesus Christ and His finished work on our behalf at the very center – isn’t simply non-evangelical – it isn’t even Christian. Christians, evangelical Christians can and do believe more than this – but cannot be in any sense Christian or Evangelical if they do not at least hold to this. Jesus Christ and Him crucified. The whole of our salvation is to be found in Him.