What do we mean by "evangelical"?

- a response by Dr. Leon Morris

An evangelical is a gospel man, a gospel woman. "Evangelical" derives from 'evangel' : "gospel". By definition an evangelical is someone concerned for the gospel. This means more than that he preaches the gospel now and then. It means that for him the gospel of Christ is central. It is, of course, his message and he preaches it, constantly. But it is more than a subject of preaching. The gospel is at the centre of his thinking and living.

The Apostle Paul reminded the Corinthians of the gospel he had brought them by saying that it is of the first importance that "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures" (1 Cor.15:3). It seems to me that everything that matters to the evangelical arises from this basic proposition.

"Christ died." The cross is the great, basic act of God. "For our sins." That is the stubborn fact that made the cross necessary. It points to the truth that there is that in every member of the human race which makes for evil rather than for good. This has been caricatured as though evangelicals were saying that every member of the race is as bad as he can be. They are not. They are saying that none of us is perfect. None of us always does what deep in his heart of hearts he knows he ought to do. None of us measures up to God's standard.

This stops the evangelical from being swept off his feet by the promise of any earthly utopia. He will join as readily as the next in any scheme for the betterment of others. It is part of the outworking of the love he sees on the cross that he does so. These days we are realizing more of the importance of this part of our duty to our neighbour than we used to. That is all to the good. But the evangelical does not put his trust in human endeavours. He is a pessimist. He sees that dictatorships of the left and dictatorships of the right alike end up in oppression. He sees that democracies all too often end up in muddle and soulless bureaucracy. He will do his best to make any system work, but his trust is not in systems. Every system has to work on the raw material of sinners. The evangelical is clear-sighted about this. That man is a sinner puts a firm limit on his ability to do good.

And it puts an end to the possibility of his attaining the ultimate good. The fact that he is a sinner means that he cannot work out his eternal salvation. Sin leaves its mark on life here and has consequences for the hereafter.

But the great, wonderful truth is that "Christ died for our sins." What was impossible for men God in Christ has perfectly accomplished. He has defeated sin now and for eternity. The evangel is a message about a salvation with both temporal and eternal consequences.

Evangelicals insist with Scripture that the atonement is objective as well as subjective. It does have its effect on us, but its effect is not limited to our subjective experience. Whole books have been written on the atonement and they will doubtless continue to be written until Christ comes back. They help us understand a little of that great atoning act but none of them fully explains it. How can they? They are written by sinful people, people who are themselves immersed in the world's evil and are making their own contribution to it. They cannot stand outside it and see what needs to be done about it. But for the evangelical the significant thing is not our inability to explain it. The significant thing is that Christ died for our sins. Whatever needed to be done He has done. Nothing can be added to that perfect divine work.

For that reason the evangelical will find himself called upon to protest from time to time against systems which claim to be Christian but which do try to add to Christ's work, whether by calling on men to accomplish their salvation by their good deeds or by their liturgical observances or by anything else. Christ, no less than he Died, no less that. All our shabby shibboleths vanish before His sacrificial love.

Confronted with the cross I may respond and turn to Christ in faith and love. Or I may harden my heart. To respond to Christ's love is to become a different person. The whole set of the life is changed. Evangelicals have always insisted on the necessity for conversion. This may happen in one sudden, blinding experience (as with Saul of Tarsus). Or it may happen gradually (as with Timothy). The time is immaterial. The turning is everything. And it happens to all who come to Christ. The evangelical despairs of no one. The evangelical is an optimist.

It is easy to see the cross as a magnificent incentive to laziness. Christ has done everything. I can do nothing. Therefore I will do nothing. But that is not the way the New Testament sees it. John can write, "Herein is love, not that we love God (we will never understand love if we start from the human end), but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins." Then he goes on, " Beloved, if God so loved us we ought to love one another, too" (1 Jn. 4:10-11). Notice John's verb. We ought, we ' owe it' to love one another. Love is not an occupation for somewhat soppy and sentimental citizens with a distaste for determined action. It is a demand made on all God's people as their response to His great love and it is love that overflows in activities for others as 1 Corinthians 13 makes clear for all time. Love is demanding. Christ did not die, as someone has put it, "for the flim-flam of respectable Christianity". Away with that kind of nonsense! Christ died for our sins, died to put them away so that we become loving people.

We of the human race know a love for attractive people, for beautiful people, for those who love us. Christ's love is for sinners (Rom. 5:8), a love which puts away sin and rebukes all our self centredness so that love becomes our mainspring. This means in the first instance that we love other believers. The evangelical sees the church, the beloved community, as an integral part of the purpose of God. And in the second instance it means loving those outside. It means being loving people, for we are the followers of Him who died for sinners. It means evangelism as we bring to sinners the best gift we have.

Evangelicals have sometimes been regarded as hard-liners, people without sympathy for those who deviate by a hairsbreadth from our respectable orthodoxy. Who can say that we are guiltless? "Envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness" are endemic in the human race and we have our share. Repentance for our past sins and a discovery of ways in which we can show that loving response which the New Testament sees as flowing from the cross is therefore an authentic part of evangelicalism.

But the cross speaks not only about love but about lowliness. Nowadays we are told that "small is beautiful". Put in these terms the thought is new. But its essence has always been part of evangelical religion. The cross condemns all self-seeking. How can anyone who has entered into the meaning of the cross seek great things for himself? The evangelical is a servant of God's people, a servant of the church, and a servant of the community of which is a part. He is one who has heard a call to take up his cross (Luke. 9:23). His life style is different because of what the cross means to him.

There is a further implication. The standard set before him is one he cannot reach. He knows that. But he knows too that on the Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit came down on the infant church in the likeness of cleansing fire and powerful wind. "It was not yet 'spirit'", John wrote concerning Jesus' life, "because Jesus was not yet glorified" (Jn7:39). But when Jesus had accomplished His great work the Spirit came. The indwelling and empowering of the Spirit is an integral part of the Christian life as the evangelical understands it. He uses words like 'sanctification' and 'holiness' which speak of the need for a standard he can never reach for himself but which speak also of what the Spirit does in the believer.

"Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures." The reference to Scripture means that the death of Christ was in line with the will of the Father. A great divine purpose was worked out in the atonement, a purpose revealed in the Bible.

Evangelicals have always put a great emphasis on the place of the Bible. This has not been out of perverse dogmatism, but from a profound conviction that it is important to the Christian faith. Many religions in the world are religions of ideas. One could say that in those cases it is the ideas and not the people who originated them that matter. It could be said that it does not greatly matter whether Gautama Buddha or Muhammed ever lived. What matters is that there are certain great ideas associated with their names and that by those ideas millions of our fellow men live.

But this kind of reasoning does not apply to Christianity. It is true that Christianity has some great ideas and it does not matter greatly who originated them. But what Paul is telling us is something different. He is saying that something happened. Christ died. This is not simply an idea. It is a historical fact. The gospel message is that once God came into history in the person of Jesus Christ. He came to live a life of lowly service and to die on Calvary's cross "for our sins".

Christianity is a historical religion in a way that no other religion is. Unless we have access to the facts we are cut off from our roots. And our access is by way of "the Scriptures". They are the means God has given us to bring us the gospel. So evangelicals have always thankfully received this good gift of God and have regarded it as of the utmost importance that we have a Bible on which we can rely. They point to the express teaching of our Lord himself and to that of the apostles. And they point to the necessity for the facts of the gospel to be reliably attested.

There are other things that evangelicals hold. I am not giving an exhaustive list of evangelical convictions. I am saying that they all stem from the evangel . The whole system of the evangelical is the outworking of the gospel. With whatever blunderings and mistakes the evangelical tries to unfold the implications of salvation through the cross and to live by them. The evangelical man or woman is, above all else, a product, and a bearer of the gospel.


Reprinted with permission from "Working Together", the magazine of the Australian Evangelical Alliance, 1998 Issue 4.

*Rev. Dr. Leon Morris was a founding member and former Chairman of the Evangelical Alliance of Victoria. A former principal of Ridley College, Melbourne, he is an internationally renowned New Testament scholar, and has had a very fruitful ministry worldwide, as a speaker, theologian, and author of fifty one books, of which nearly two million copies are in circulation.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2001