‘I’m an Evangelical’: Rescuing the Term

from Nov 16, 2015 Category: Articles

Modern evangelicalism was born in a joke told by George Whitefield during the First Great Awakening. The joke goes that a man dies and meets St. Peter at the gates of heaven. He asks St. Peter if there are Anglicans in heaven. “No, sir,” replied St. Peter, “there are no Anglicans in heaven.” That always got a laugh. Then the man asked if there were Presbyterians. Same answer. Then the man asked about Baptists, people “of the Methodist Way,” and Congregationalists. He gave the same answer for them all. Exasperated, the man asked, “Then tell me, St. Peter, who is in heaven?”

Christians, sir, Christians are in heaven,” St Peter said.

Thus began what we call evangelicalism. The idea of there being a broader term that encompasses a whole range of Protestants quickly gained traction. The church historian David Bebbington offered a definition for evangelicalism. The “Bebbington quadrilateral” identifies four things that mark evangelicalism:

  1. Biblicism: a high view of the authority of Scripture.
  2. Crucicentrism: a view that gives central place to Christ’s atonement on the cross.
  3. Conversionism: a view that prioritizes the necessity of the new birth.
  4. Activism: a view that emphasizes the gospel as being lived out in discipleship.

Evangelicalism comes from the Greek word euangelion. This compound word means “good news.” When Jesus entered the synagogue at Nazareth and was handed the scroll of Isaiah, He declared that He was there to proclaim the “good news” (Luke 4:18). As Jesus continued His earthly ministry, He continued His singular focus on proclaiming the “good news.”

The question is, What is the good news? Recently, former pastor Rob Bell has contended that the term evangelical has been hijacked by the Religious Right and represents that particular political and social agenda. Bell asserts that good news is not about being anti-gay, anti-science, or anti-immigrant. Instead, according to Bell, the good news means “loving your enemy and standing in solidarity with everybody who has been kicked to the edge by the empire.” It means serving the thirsty, the hungry, the homeless, and the socially marginalized. Bell also speaks of the original intent of Jesus’ message of good news, “which is the good news of God’s love extended to everybody who has ever felt the boot of the empire on their neck.”

Jesus speaks similarly in Luke 4:18–19 (quoting from Isa. 61:1–2). The full statement reads:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

But we need to keep reading. We learn something crucial in Luke 5. When confronted with the paralyzed man let down through the roof by his friends, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20). That was probably not what either the paralyzed man’s friends or the paralyzed man himself had in mind as their greatest need. Jesus would indeed go on to take care of the need they wanted him to address. Jesus healed the man, and he got up and walked out. But the greater thing that happened that day was not the healing of the man’s paralyzed body; it was the raising of the man from spiritual death. It was the forgiveness of sins.

The bad news is not primarily hunger, thirst, oppression, and marginalization. Those are all forms of bad news, but they’re not the bad news. They’re merely symptoms of the bad news. The truly bad news is this: we are sinners and under the wrath of Holy God. The bad news is death. If you are hungry and then find nourishment, you will still die. If you are oppressed and then liberated, you will still die. Let’s not confuse the symptoms with the disease.

If that’s the bad news, then the good news is this: Your sins are forgiven. You are no longer under God’s wrath, but you have been reconciled to Him and are at peace (Rom. 5:1). Death no longer reigns. You have eternal life. All of this is the good news and is available to anyone who trusts in Christ through faith and repentance. An evangelical is one who not only has been brought to believe this good news, but is also one who lives to proclaim it. We preach the good news of Jesus Christ, not simply the good news of happy circumstances. And, in proclaiming it and making disciples, we love and serve others. We help the weak, feed the starving, and welcome the marginalized. The good news has its own “symptoms.”

We preach the good news of Jesus Christ, not simply the good news of happy circumstances.

The irony of Bell’s claim of the hijacking of the term is that he himself hijacks it and co-opts it. He claims loudly, “I’m an evangelical,” all the while having no sense of the gospel. He confuses the gospel with the benefits of the gospel. Sadly, he’s not alone. Many people want peace and joy while at the same time rejecting the Jesus of Scripture. But you cannot have life while at the same time rejecting the giver of life.

Nevertheless, evangelical is still a helpful term, if rightly understood. It’s not a term that moves us away from theology (or moves us to a bad theology), but rather it moves us right to theology—right to the core of theology by remembering who Jesus is and what He did. To be an evangelical is to be about the gospel, and the gospel is ultimately content-rich.

We need to return to that rich content of the gospel, to the full-orbed story of Jesus’ message of good news—not just select passages. As chapter after chapter of Scripture unfolds before our very eyes, we see all the richness and all the dimensions of Christ’s work and what He accomplishes for us. We also see that Jesus Himself was never selfish with the message. Jesus never thought anyone too low for His good news. He also never thought that any were too high for it either. Even Roman centurions, swords at their side, heard and believed His message of good news. The gospel is for Jew and Greek, the Religious Right and the Secular Left, the city and the country, the banker and the mechanic, the rich and the poor—for we are all under the curse of death. “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom. 7:24–25).

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.