What is an evangelical?
For a thoughtful answer—a masterful example of clear thinking and concise expression—I’d recommend listening to this lecture by John Stott. (It’s 47 minutes long; I’m not sure what year it was delivered. If you know the provenance, please let us know in the coments below.)
A few years ago, when Stott was 85, he gave an interview to CT where he was asked to define the essence of evangelicalism. It’s a good summary of his classic lecture:
An evangelical is a plain, ordinary Christian. We stand in the mainstream of historic, orthodox, biblical Christianity. So we can recite the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed without crossing our fingers. We believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit.
Having said that, there are two particular things we like to emphasize: the concern for authority on the one hand and salvation on the other.
For evangelical people, our authority is the God who has spoken supremely in Jesus Christ. And that is equally true of redemption or salvation. God has acted in and through Jesus Christ for the salvation of sinners.
. . . [W]hat God has said in Christ and in the biblical witness to Christ, and what God has done in and through Christ, are both, to use the Greek word, hapaxmeaning once and for all. There is a finality about God’s word in Christ, and there is a finality about God’s work in Christ. To imagine that we could add a word to his word, or add a work to his work, is extremely derogatory to the unique glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
In the lecture Stott operates with four main headings:
- The claim of evangelicalism
- The distinctives of evangelicalism
- The concern of evangelicalism
- The essence of evangelicalism
What follows is a brief summary of what Stott said in his important talk.
1. The Claim of Evangelicalism
Evangelicalism is not a novelty, and it is not a deviation. It is neither neither new nor odd.
2. The Distinctives of Evangelicalism
At the center of the evangelical faith lies the Bible as our authority and the cross as our salvation.
By what authority do we believe what we believe?
- Catholics emphasize the church, the magisterium and the role of tradition.
- Liberals emphasize reason, conscience, and experience
- Evangelicals recognize tradition and reason, but as subordinate authorities to the only supreme authority, Scripture
How can I, a lost and guilty sinner, stand before a just and holy God?
- Catholics emphasize the priesthood and the sacraments as necessary to meditate salvation between God and us
- Liberals emphasize good works, individual and social righteousness, as at least contributing to our salvation
- Evangelicals affirm ministry, sacraments, and good works, but our focus is on the cross—what God has done in Christ for us
We affirm two unpopular but important words: inerrancy (Scripture in the original is without error in all that it affirms when interpreted correctly) and substitution (Christ died not only on our behalf but in our place, with the result that substitution is the very essence of atonement (not just a theory among many)
3. The Concern of Evangelicalism
As evangelicals we desire to bear witness to the unique glory of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Insisting on our distinctives in not on account of having a sinful party spirit, or because we are arrogant, angular, awkward, uncooperative, obstinate by temperament. No, it’s precisely because we are determined to proclaim and defend the unique glory of Jesus Christ.
We believe God has spoken fully and finally in Jesus Christ.
We believe God has acted fully and finally in Jesus Christ, especially in the finished work of the cross.
In Christ we have God’s last word to the world (revelation), and God’s last deed for the world (redemption). God’s word and work in and through Jesus Christ are hapaxfinal and finished once and for all and forever. Hapax (once for all and forever) in Christ is the essence of evangelicalism.
4. The Essence of Evangelicalism
The essence of evangelicalism is humility.
God’s revelation is necessary because we could not know God in any other way; God’s redemption is necessary because we could not achieve it by ourselves, or even contribute to it.
Without revelation we would be lost in our ignorance; without redemption we would be lost in our guilt.
Evangelicalism denies self-salvation and magnifies the grace of God.
If we are to commend evangelicalism, nothing greater is needed than humility.