What is an evangelical? In a word: imputation. If there is one animating idea that separates evangelicals most precisely from Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline Christians, and from the rest of the world’s religions, needless to say, it’s that Christ’s righteousness is imputed, not imparted, to the believer, so that the Christian, while still a sinner, nevertheless stands justified in God’s sight for Christ’s sake. We cannot become more or less justified, anymore than Christ can become more or less the final, perfect sacrifice for sin who has paid in full the debt owed to God for the cost of sin.
If we are in Christ, by faith, then all that is Christ’s is ours, and all that is ours, namely the charges against us, are His.
Herein is true freedom, victory, and royal dignity. As Luther, the original evangelical, stated so elegantly:
This is that mystery which is rich in divine grace to sinners: wherein by a wonderful exchange our sins are no longer ours but Christ’s, and the righteousness of Christ not Christ’s but ours. He has emptied himself of his righteousness that he might clothe us with it and fill us with it; and he has taken our evils upon himself that he might deliver us from them.
This is a spiritual power, which rules in the midst of enemies, and is powerful in the midst of distresses. And this is nothing else than that strength is made perfect in my weakness, and that I can turn all things to the profit of my salvation; so that even the cross and death are compelled to serve me and to work together for my salvation. This is a lofty and eminent dignity, a true and almighty dominion, a spiritual empire, in which there is nothing so good, nothing so bad, as not to work together for my good, if only I believe. And yet there is nothing of which I have need—for faith alone suffices for my salvation—unless that in it faith may exercise the power and empire of its liberty. This is the inestimable power and liberty of Christians.
It is nothing less than the end of penitential religion.
Miss this, and you’re off the evangelical path.