Being an evangelical in today’s climate and culture has varied meanings. I keep hearing it in polispeak and cringe every time it’s used. Especially when it is associated with the “religious right.” Ugh. Is it a political party? I think not. But others think so. Writing in a Washington Post article recently, Thomas S. Kidd shared this same frustration:
I would suggest that something more complicated is going on, something that may have given a generation of Americans the wrong idea about evangelicalism — and U.S. politics. What has happened is nothing short of a watering-down and politicization of the term “evangelical”… Early evangelical leaders such as George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by the way we use the word “evangelical.” Those original evangelicals were fighting against the idea that Christianity is mostly cultural or political — not primarily about one’s relationship with God … These vague associations have turned “evangelical” into a term that luminaries like Edwards and Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.
I couldn’t agree more. The term has been hijacked to the point that it has lost its true meaning. Does watching Fox News makes one an evangelical? Do we believe that the election of a person to the Oval Office is the hope of our world’s woes? Apparently so. It’s embarrassing. Welcome to the movement of a Christless Christianity.
Phil Johnson (executive director of Grace to You) has spent some time dealing with this subject. In his 2009 session at the Shepherds’ Conference, he answered the question “What is an evangelical?” I would highly recommend giving it a listen. In it he states that the term “evangelical” is likely the most abused term in the entire religious lexicon. The subtitle to his message says it all, “examining the ever-changing definition.” He’s right, the label has become meaningless.
The original term actually comes from the Greek word εὐαγγέλιον meaning “the good news” or “gospel” of Jesus Christ. At the heart of this label is the doctrine of justification by faith alone. To be justified is to be pardoned of one’s own sin and to be given a right standing before God. Mind you, this can only occur with the conviction of sin. The conviction of sin is act of God’s grace in opening our eyes to His glorious gospel.
What this means is that a genuine, biblical evangelical will be a promoter of God’s Word—the Bible. He or she will unashamedly identify with an unadjusted gospel; committed to what it communicates; knowing that it will offend natural-man evangelicals, whose message is absent of the holiness of God, the reality of man’s sin, and the Person and work of Christ Jesus.
Thanks for reading my rant, but that was just the beginning.
Here’s the real rub: few who claim to be evangelicals know much of what they are actually promoting. Much to our shame, the contemporary Christian culture is not reading from, delighting in, nor meditating on His Word daily. Sadly, this waters down our witness to the world. We don’t know the truth. Our words are weak and our deeds even more so. Truth is seen as relative and love is turned from God and neighbor onto self.
In a post from last week (Have You Not Read?), I had shared that reading the Bible should be the daily practice of the people of God. And the more I think on this, the more I’m being challenged about my view of the Bible. My attitude towards God is revealed by my approach to His Word. If I will not make the time to read God’s Word, then what does this say about my love for God? I might as well be called a contemporary evangelical instead of a historical one.
This is what caught my attention as I began reading D. A. Carson’s book Collected Writings on Scripture. If you are not familiar with Carson, you should be. The man is both biblical and brilliant in his books, articles, and commentaries. He is the research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Ill.
Here’s what struck me from the first few pages of his first chapter:1
In this skeptical age it is doubtful if an articulate and coherent understanding of the nature of Scripture and how to interpret it can long be sustained where there is not at the same time a grasp of the biblical view of God, of human beings, of sin, of redemption, and of the rush of history toward its ultimate goal.
For instance, if it is true that the Bible tells us about God, not least what kind of God He is, it is no less true that unless God really is that sort of God it is impossible to appreciate the Bible for what it is. To approach the Bible correctly it is important to know something of the God who stands behind it.
God is both transcendent (i.e., He is “above” space and time) and personal. He is the sovereign and all-powerful Creator to whom the entire universe owes its existence, yet He is the God who graciously condescends to interact with us human beings whom He has Himself formed in His own image. Because we are locked in time and space, God meets us here; He is the personal God who interacts with other persons, persons He has made to glorify Him and to enjoy Him for ever.
In short, God has chosen to reveal Himself to us, for otherwise we would know very little about Him. True, His existence and power are disclosed in the created order, even though that order has been deeply scarred by human rebellion and its consequences (Gen 3:15; Rom 8:19-22; see Psa 19:1-2; Rom 1:19-20). It is also true that rather a dim image of God’s moral attributes is reflected in the human conscience (Rom 2: 14-16). But this knowledge is not sufficient to lead to salvation.
Moreover, human sinfulness is so ingenious that not a little energy is devoted to explaining away even such revelation as this. But in His unmeasured grace God has actively intervened in the world He made in order to reveal Himself to men and women in still more powerful ways.
Carson then reminds his readers that God has revealed Himself in a variety of ways. In the Old Testament by providence (e.g., Joseph), miraculous events (e.g., burning bush, fire at Mount Carmel), prophetic words (“the word of the Lord”), and by poetry and songs (e.g., Psalms).
In the New Testament the “long-awaited self-disclosure of God” was seen in the birth of a baby in a dirty old manger. It is the first coming of the Son of God, Jesus Christ. We can drink in much on the Person and work of Christ in these pages. Including the “ultimate self-disclosure” that will one day occur, the second coming, when every knee will bow to the victorious King of kings, Lord of lords (Phil 2:11; cf. Rev 19-22).
The point to emphasize is that a genuinely Christian understanding of the Bible presupposes the God of the Bible, a God who makes Himself known in a wide diversity of ways so that human beings may know the purpose for which they were made — to know and love and worship God, and so delight in that relationship that God is glorified while they receive the matchless benefit of becoming all that God wants them to be.
Therefore, we can determine what kind of evangelical a person is today by what he or she delights in. A desire to approach God’s Word will require an investment of time. The one who gives of this regularly is the one who genuinely honors the God behind it.
1 Carson, D. A. Collected Writings on Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010). 19-21.