By Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh
Special to The Alabama Baptist
The term “evangelical” is a slippery one to grasp, partly because its usage has changed down through the centuries. It even has a different meaning for people on both sides of the Atlantic. Sometimes the term “evangelical” has taken on a political tone, generally right wing, although there are evangelicals such as Jim Wallis of the Sojourner movement who are “left wing evangelicals.”
One common misunderstanding of the term is that many evangelicals are equated to fundamentalists. Although all people who would claim to be a fundamentalist also would adhere to evangelical doctrines, not all evangelicals would be fundamentalist in their theology.
The history of evangelicalism is fascinating, perhaps principally because the shape of current evangelicalism cannot be understood without a reference to the many streams and tributaries of the past. It is a significant movement within the history of the Church — a movement which bridges the divides of denominationalism and has characterized much of the history of Britain, North America and many other areas of the world.
Many evangelicals have only a vague understanding of their roots — roots which reveal strengths and weaknesses. In discovering their history, churches can encounter the rich diversity of a movement that will challenge Christians to live out their faith in a way which is relevant to the culture of the 21st century.
A 1990 survey of the 500 fastest growing Protestant churches in the United States revealed that 89 percent were evangelical. Latin America is expected to become dominated by various forms of evangelicalism by the year 2025.
Once regarded as marginal, evangelicalism has now become mainline — it is not a sectarian sideshow in spirituality — it has moved in from the wings to become a major constituent element of global Christianity. It is a living movement and while holding on to essentials, it has adapted itself to its contemporary context.
The term “evangelical” was first used in Europe in the early 16th century among Protestant Reformers. Martin Luther spoke of “this common evangelical cause.” The word itself comes from the Greek word for “good news” and in the 18th century Isaac Watts spoke of those who were of an “Evangelical Turn of Thought.” One modern author speaks of evangelicals as being “those who believe the gospel is to be experienced personally, defined biblically and communicated passionately.”
Evangelicalism looks back to the Protestant Reformation to discover the distinctive doctrines it holds to be central in its faith, particularly stressing the importance of the watchwords of the Reformation — “Sola Scriptura.” Thus the Anglican evangelical, John Stott, declared in 1977, “We evangelicals are Bible people.”
Evangelicals stress the importance of the cross, faith and the assurance of salvation through the forgiveness of sins. Evangelicals have always stressed a religion of the heart and a personal experience of God’s grace. It was among evangelicals that the Great Awakening of 1740 took place with prominent preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers.
In his book “Evangelicals in Modern Britain,” David Bebbington developed a definition of evangelicalism around a quadrilateral of different terms. He spoke of evangelicals as Bible-based, centering their message on the cross of Calvary, calling people to an experience of conversion and engaging in active service for Christ.
Evangelicalism has always included people with different views on election, baptism, the Lord’s Supper and eschatology, the part of theology concerning death, judgment and the final days. Evangelicals are to be found within Calvinism and Arminianism. At the heart of evangelicalism is a commitment to unhindered access to the Bible and a passionate desire to study it and apply its teaching to daily living.
A famous saying of one of the bestknown evangelicals, Billy Graham, was, “The Bible says,” and this has generally dominated the thinking of evangelicals with regard to what they believe and how they behave, seeking the plain, natural interpretation of Scripture to guide them.
One area which has divided evangelicals is that of “inspiration” and “inerrancy.” Inspiration means the Scripture is God-breathed and is thus utterly reliable and trustworthy. Inerrancy sharpens the focus and claims the Bible is without error in every detail and entirely trustworthy in all its assertions, not just with regard to faith but also in areas of history, geography and philosophy. Sometimes the phrase “plenary verbal inspiration” is used to mean that all its actual words are fully inspired and consequently the very words of God.
Bebbington identified crucicentrism as a further distinctive of evangelical belief. John Wesley wrote that “the substance of all is, ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.’”
However, this emphasis on the cross has often led to the atonement eclipsing the incarnation among evangelicals. Although evangelicals seek to study and expound the whole of the Bible, they believe that to “make any theme other than the cross the fulcrum of a theological system was to take a step away from evangelicalism,” according to Bebbington.
Evangelicals have tended, especially in recent years, to emphasize one way of understanding the atonement, namely substitutionary atonement, which understands that Jesus died to pay the debt we owe, bearing punishment for sins of the world. This is often referred to as penal substitution.
One of the most popular contemporary songs of worship, written by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend from Britain is “In Christ Alone.” The theme of the song is the life, death and resurrection of Christ. It expounds the message of the cross as declaring that:
Till on that cross as Jesus died
The wrath of God was satisfied.
Evangelicals are aware there are other ways the New Testament reveals further understanding of the cross — as the victory of Christ over the powers of darkness, as the means by which God has reconciled the world to Himself, as well as a demonstration of the love of God toward sinners which calls people to make a response of love and obedience. However, this model tends to be predominant in the thinking of evangelicals in the 21st century.
Bebbington speaks of conversionism as another fundamental feature of being an evangelical. This aspect of evangelical thinking has been stressed because evangelicals see their faith not as a passive assent to propositions but as a living and dynamic relationship. Evangelicals make much of being “born again” and “making a decision” and seeking to “open their hearts to Christ.”
On Jan. 23, 1961, as a young child my brother led me, using a prayer of commitment, to receive Christ as my Savior. Yet J.I. “Jim” Packer makes the comment that “the only proof of past conversion in present convertedness.”
Evangelicals are more and more coming to realize the journey of faith is not only sudden for some but also a long pilgrimage toward the eternal Kingdom.
The doctrine of the Church has not always been high on the agenda of evangelicals. Some would say one of the weaknesses of evangelicalism is its focus on personal growth to the exclusion of the corporate dimension of our faith.
Furthermore the involvement of evangelicals in parachurch agencies can often drain the local church of vital resources, of gifts and money and give a truncated vision of what the Church should be doing in terms of its mission in the world.
Evangelicals recognize they are not committed to any one theory or model of the Church and are to be found in different churches and denominations. This is a strength of evangelicals but it also is a weakness as evangelicals fail to commit themselves to regular engagement in the life of a local church.
This is not a doctrine so much as a further distinctive feature which Bebbington has identified as giving evangelicals an identity.
R.W. Dale spoke of how “work has taken its place, side by side, with prayer.” In the 19th century a Methodist minister was expected to work an average of 90–100 hours a week. The Methodist Connexion soon established a “Worn-out Ministers Fund.” It was their evangelical desire to spread the knowledge of personal salvation which motivated this activity.
In the 19th century C.H. Spurgeon stated, “Brethren, do something, do something, do something. While committees waste their time over resolutions, do something.”
Not only in evangelism but also in social action, evangelicals were tireless in their efforts to bring about change. Elizabeth Fry began to become involved in prison reform work. Thomas John Barnardo of the Plymouth Brethren sought to care for orphans. A group of evangelicals in London had a considerable impact upon British society and worked tirelessly to abolish the slave trade in the British Empire in 1833 through the leadership of William Wilberforce.
Yet the emphasis on involvement in society in mission as well as evangelism was lost by many evangelicals and recovered in the great statements of the Lausanne Covenant in 1974 in which evangelicals began once again to be committed both to the Great Commission and the great commandment. The statement argued that evangelicals:
“Should share His concern for justice and reconciliation throughout human society and for the liberation of men and women from every kind of oppression. … We express penitence both for our neglect and for having sometimes regarded evangelism and social concern as mutually exclusive. Although reconciliation with other people is not reconciliation with God, nor is social action evangelism, nor is political liberation salvation, nevertheless we affirm that evangelism and socio-political involvement are both part of our Christian duty. For both are necessary expressions of our doctrines of God and man, our love for our neighbor and our obedience to Jesus Christ.”
Spirituality seeks to join together devotion, discipline, liturgy and life. It has to do with bringing head and heart together, encouraging a spiritual journey and spiritual formation. Jonathan Edwards received a letter from a young convert who wanted advice as to “the best manner of maintaining a religious life.” Evangelicalism has its own distinctive way of doing this.
The emphasis on the Bible has meant that many evangelicals are enthusiastic about Bible study, Bible exposition and Bible reading because there is the conviction that God speaks directly to people through the Bible. Yet evangelicalism also has focused devotion on Christ and is cross-centered. In Charles Simeon’s words it is “the religion of a sinner at the foot of the cross.”
Furthermore, prayer has always been prominent in evangelicalism — including private, family and corporate prayer. A characteristic of a “godly” evangelical would be that he or she is a “prayer warrior.”
Gabriel Fackre, from the Andover Newton School of Theology in America, speaks of six varieties of evangelicalism. Some years ago Derek Tidball, a British evangelical, talked about the “12 distinctive tribes” of evangelicals in Britain. Yet despite its diversity, evangelicalism is focused on the Bible, the cross, conversion and active service in the cause of Christ.
Evangelicals will continue to be at the heart of Christianity in the global world. Evangelicals in North America are often seen maintaining a common front on theological issues while at times being divided by political concerns.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Kenneth B.E. Roxburgh is professor of religion at Samford University in Birmingham and serves as pastor for preaching and teaching at Southside Baptist Church, Birmingham.
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