What is evangelicalism?

Evangelicalism: A talk given to the Ipswich Sea of Faith group.

Personal introduction: brought up within an evangelical tradition.

Immensely uneasy with labels.

cf. The Puritan, Thomas Goodwin writes, “As for my part, this I say, and I say it with much integrity, I never yet took up party religion in the lump. For I have found by a long trial of such matters that there is some truth on all sides. I have found Gospel holiness where you would little think it to be, and so likewise truth. And I have learned this principle, which I hope I shall never lay down till I am swallowed up of immortality, and that is, to acknowledge every truth and every goodness wherever I find it”.

Other influences on my own Christian development: flirting with the charismatic movement; and time spent in an Orthodox seminary.

What is evangelicalism?

Not new. In fact, it has been at the heart of orthodox Christianity from the very first believers.

John Stott: “The evangelical faith is not a peculiar or esoteric version of the Christian faith – it is the Christian faith. It is not a recent innovation. The evangelical faith is original biblical, apostolic Christianity”

Trace its way right back from Christ through John, Paul, Tertullian, Augustine, Calvin, Luther

But evangelicalism, in the sort of form that we find it today, as a movement is a child of its time: 
Evangelical revival from 1730’s. Four defining attributes: ‘conversionism, activism, Biblicism and crucicentrism’.

It developed – through preaching of Wesleys and Whitefield, Newton, Simeon, Spurgeon, Moody, Moule, Forsythe, Whyte, Martin Lloyd-Jones, John Stott, Jim Packer, Don Carson, John Piper, Tom Wright.

It’s emergence and flourishing are dependent on its time and culture.

1.      in a world where, because of the enlightenment, experience has the last word, more emphasis was placed on personal responsibility for salvation. You could not assume that you were saved by virtue of being a baptised member of 18th century Britain.
2.      today many need to find some secure foundation, some certainties in an increasingly shaky relative world. However, unless you go down the route of extreme relativism (and few do), you have to stand on some principles or a-priori.


  1. Commitment to Jesus Christ, the Son of God (together with Christian church) – rooted in history (cross and resurrection of Jesus). 

    Key text: 1 Corinthians 2:2  “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”

    Emphasis on following Jesus, surrendering to Jesus, WWJD, on a personal relationship with Jesus (quiet time)

    Danger of individualism (co-mission representatives in St Petersburg), of focussing on personal experiences (Missionary going to Brazil). 
    Danger of Jesus-centred spirituality. 

    However growing awareness of Trinitarian theology, and focussing on the Father
  1. Commitment to Scripture – Word of God. 
    Belief that God has spoken: in his Son and through the Bible 
    Sufficiency of scripture (2 Timothy 3:16-17

    Packer writes, “The first foundation-principle is the formal one, namely the authority of the Scriptures, or, more fully, the sufficiency for all questions of faith, life, and action of the authoritative, God-breathed, self-interpreting biblical canon, which the Holy Spirit opens our minds and enlightens our hearts to understand”

    Basic argument on scriptures: Jesus Christ believed the Old Testament scriptures to be the Word of God, and that they are authoritative (Matthew 4:18; John 10:35). He tells the apostles that the Holy Spirit will remind them of all that he has taught (John 14:26). The New Testament are the words of the apostles. They speak of them as scriptures (2 Peter 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The church came to receive them as scriptures, and authorised them as scripture.

    This is not new: favourite text from Chrysostom..

    Key then is how we understand? 

    Interpretive principals:
  • We make the assumption of human authorial intent within the writings, and of a divine authorial intent and a single meaning (eschatological: final and corporate) – and that even though this side of heaven we will never fully understand, that does not mean that we should fully buy into the total scepticism of modern hermeneutics. ‘What does it mean for you?’ will not do.
  • We need to interpret scripture in the light of Jesus Christ. (John 5:39; Luke 24:27; Ethiopian eunuch, Acts 8:34, About whom, I ask, does the prophet say this, about himself or about someone else?’
  • We need to interpret scripture through the lens of the people of God.
    Acts 8:31 ‘How can I unless someone guides me?’
  • We need to interpret scripture by scripture, the Old Testament by the New Testament. Use of analogy (currently reading Philokalia, where in some passages analogies are very far pressed) – control is biblically authorised analogies
  • A hermeneutics, when it comes to scripture, of trust:
    • that all of scripture is inspired – even the difficult parts!
    • an openness to believe that astonishing things happen (up to 20 years ago, it meant evangelicals were ridiculed in academic circles. Today, with quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg uncertainty principal, there is a recognition that we live in an open universe. If you hypothesise an infinite number of multiple universes, someone walking on water in this particular one is a piece of cake)
  • If I don’t understand or find something very difficult – then bracket; or go back to passage (cf. Orthodox: if I don’t agree with prayer, then it is not the prayer that has to change, but me)

    But in the end, the final appeal – in debates about issues (uniqueness of Christ; women as bishops [complementarians, egalitarians], human sexuality, creation, hell, divine sovereignty and human responsibility, prosperity gospel, the role of the Holy Spirit, whether the gospel is about us or about God) – has to be to scripture. You cannot say – at least within an evangelical debate, ‘The New Testament says this, but we cannot accept that today’. In other words, I have to justify ignoring one passage of scripture (eg. food laws), by reference to another. [cf. Wright debates with Piper on nature of justification]

    Emphasis on prayerful reading the Bible. After 27 years of serious reading of the bible, I still find that God speaks to me in very real ways. I have a confidence in scripture as the word of God, but a major hesitation about my own interpretation. 
3.      Commitment to need for conversion:
a person must be born again. Billy Graham

For some: eg. Whitefield, “I know the place! .. whenever I go to Oxford I cannot help running to that place where Jesus Christ first revealed himself to me and gave me the new birth”. Wesley’s conversion also comes after anguished search for faith.

For others: eg. Edwards – placed no date on their conversion – emphasis on the consequence of conversion; Alexander Whyte, “The new birth that we must all every day undergo, the one all-embracing change of heart that God demands of us in His Son every day, is a complete change of end and intention, a completely new motive. The fall of man took place when God ceased to be man’s motive, and when each man became his own motive and his own end”.

Fundamental need of the human heart is to be made new. We need rebirth by the Holy Spirit.

Language used: ‘born again’, ‘receive Christ’, ‘trust in Christ’, ‘believe in Christ’ (all very Johannine). ‘Become a Christian’

Expressed in a commitment to evangelism: at home and overseas. (Matthew 28:28; Acts 4:12). The belief that this is true for all people, and the challenge for an individual, personal response

4. Commitment to the centrality of God’s love, grace and of the completeness of the work of God on the cross. 
     More of focus on cross than incarnation, but wrong to say that evangelicals neglect incarnation. Rather cross is seen as the supreme moment of incarnation. Christ identifies himself with us, becomes one of us and dies in our place. 

      Key place of John 3:16. The love of God is shown in his sending of Jesus, and in Jesus death for us. 
   Substitutionary atonement: (within Trinitarian framework). Jesus as the ‘lamb of God’, The self-substitution of God. 

    The death of Jesus deals with sin: Sin is our rebellion against God. The cross demonstrates both the wrath of God against sin and sinful men and women, and the love of God in that he deals with the consequences of sin and the power of sin.

Absolute assurance: not in myself, but in what Christ has done.

The glory of the evangelical emphasis on sin: it means I can look at myself totally honestly. I don’t need to pretend to either God or myself. I am probably far worse than I begin to imagine. But it doesn’t matter. God knows, and he still loves. 

Paranoia of any work that takes away from the cross. Suspicion of any ritual that claims to channel faith. (In my own church, debate re lighting of candles; pinning prayers to the cross. Suspicion of anything that hints of pelagianism: by doing this, God will hear my prayer.)

I personally make distinction between something that is useful and something that is required. If a ritual becomes required, then it is better not to do it (eg. the use of icons). But it can be useful.

Evangelicals divide on sacraments: for many, baptism is simply a response of faith and communion is a simply an act of memorial.
More reformed evangelicals, who have a developed covenantal theology, will see baptism and communion as sacraments, and a means of grace, but only by virtue that they take us back to the ‘once and for all’ sacrifice of Christ.

Key principle: is justification by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is all of him. The big enemy of evangelicalism is Pelagianism.  

5.      Commitment to Sanctification (or perhaps this is wishful thinking!)
Debate between those who claimed that perfection was possible – and those who claim that we will always struggle with the old Adam this side of heaven.

Reflected in how Romans 7 is interpreted. Is this the experience of the Christian? Or is it the experience of the defeated Christian who is not putting their trust in Christ? Keswick convention (latter) vs JC Ryle (former, and author of Holiness).

Agreed emphasis on sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in the regenerate, reborn, believer. Emphasis is on growing in holiness; growing to become like Christ – obedience, surrender, self-sacrifice, growth in fruits of the Spirit.

Two dangers: 
a. Moralism: retreat from big issues of society into personal morality issues: Recent Christian Institute lecture on Christian involvement in politics: identified issues of abortion, euthanasia, marriage, freedom of speech, and yet spoke nothing about issues of justice, labelling, attitude to authority, banking, poverty, fair trade.But cf. John Stott, Issues facing Christians Today; TEARFUND; many evangelical missions are committed to holistic mission. 
b. Withdrawal: My parents tell of how evangelicals never went to the cinema or to dances. Tension (which again we find in John) of being in this world, but not of this world. 

6.      Commitment to the people of God: to assembly around the word of God (Mark 3:34).
Vision of the church less as ‘the body of Christ’, and more as ‘the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (
Hebrews 12:23).

A distinction is usually drawn between the visible church on earth and the invisible Church in heaven.

For a movement that can be very individualistic (emphasis on Priesthood of all believers – which, at its worst, can be that each believer is his or her own pope), there is a strong corporate emphasis on worshiping together, meeting together to study the Bible, to encourage each other and to pray.

7.      Commitment to hope of heaven
Tom Wright: Surprised by Hope.   

Issues: universalism, nature of hell, second coming of Christ.
Mark Ashton: On my way to heaven (p21f)

The weakness of evangelicalism
It emphasises the Christ in Us language of the New Testament, but not the Us in Christ language. As a result it can lead to individualism, pride, judgementalism and division (eg. 37th Baptist church of Pennsylvania)

The strength of evangelicalism
It is proving to be an astonishingly effective movement. Its growth overseas is phenomenal, and it still is the evangelical churches which tend to be growing in the UK (or declining slower than some other traditions).

Perhaps one of the reasons, sociologically speaking, is because it is a conviction movement, and in an era where there are currently very few conviction movements (political, ‘create your own universe’) – apart from possibly the anti-conviction movement: ‘there are no convictions’ (but people are not going to die for that) – here is a conviction which, I would argue, is grounded solidly on historic fact (the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ), makes sense of the world, of the messed up nature of the church, of who I am, of my and your part in the world, and which gives us hope. 


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