Last Sunday, we started a series called “What is an Evangelical?” The focus of the series is on the essential characteristics of evangelical Christianity. My hope is that by examining four distinguishing marks of evangelicalism we can overcome some of the stereotypes that hang around evangelical culture. Or perhaps it’s more about making sure that we don’t feed those stereotypes unnecessarily.
But it may be that I’m assuming a bit too much. The media makes much of evangelicals as a distinct sector of (especially American) society. But some of this discussion may have missed us. Maybe we haven’t paid attention to the times when the target of a news story is not merely “Christian” but specifically “evangelical.”
So what is the stereotype I’m referring to? Put variously, it might be called “born-again” Christianity and come with a claim that evangelicals are mainly about marking lines between those who are “in” and those who are “out” based on a certain kind of conversion experience; it might be seen as a literalistic Bible-culture Christianity that is unwilling to pay any attention to the culture of the world around us (think of old-time preachers who claimed to read no book but the Bible) or is overly defensive about certain scientific claims about our world; it might be associated with pulpit-pounding evangelism that knows only the horrors of hell as a subject matter.
Stereotypes and misconceptions usually have some relation to the truth, and as we’ll see, the fact (often marked by a specific experience) of regeneration matters to evangelicals, even if we shy away from the phrase “born again” because of the associations it carries. So too does the Bible matter, as we’ll be looking at tomorrow, but submitting to its authority brings freedom and life to us because there we meet the one who is the Lord of the whole world, and who reigns over and can redeem and use much that is in the world. Evangelism is also of great importance to evangelicals, who takes Jesus’ great commission seriously and see that one of our great tasks is to share with others the good news we’ve accepted, even if past evangelistic methods have made the story of Jesus look like something other than good news.
This is the stereotype we are working against. What we are working for is to discover what Scripture shows to be the life of gospel people (and remember, evangel and gospel are both renderings of the same Greek word, euangellion). Last week, through looking at two passages that have the word gospel at their centre (Romans 1:1-7 and 1 Corinthians 15:1-10), we noted four common emphases to which gospel-people cling. These are:
– “the gospel he promised beforehand through his prophets in the Holy Scriptures…” Romans 1:2
– “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures… he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures…” 1 Cor. 15:3-4
2. Christ and his cross:
– “the gospel…regarding his Son…who through the Spirit of holiness was appointed the Son of God in power by his resurrection from the dead: Jesus Christ our Lord.” Romans 1:3-4
– “Christ died for our sins…” 1 Cor. 15:3
3. Holy/godly/obedient lives
– “the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake…To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be his holy people…” Romans 1:5, 7
– “…by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect.” 1 Cor. 15:10)
4. A mission to share the good news
– “Paul…called to be an apostle…Through (Christ) we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith…” Romans 1:1, 5
– “For what I received I passed on to you…” 1 Cor. 15:3
The question we need to ask ourselves as we prepare to look at each of these over the next four weeks in church is the question of their importance in our lives. Each of these evangelical distinctives stands at or near the centre of our vision of Christian life. Do we recognize areas of weakness, or perhaps of uncertainty? Do we lack confidence in Scripture, or struggle to make it a priority to “pay attention to it” (2 Peter 1:19)? Do we lack understanding about Christ and the meaning of his death and resurrection for us, or do we fail to glorify him through our actions? Have we allowed the Holy Spirit to touch and transform the entirety of our life? Do we fear conversations with others about our trust in Jesus, either out of embarrassment, shyness, or anxiety about being “stumped” by a question our friends may ask? With these questions in mind, I’m excited about these four weeks ahead as we explore together what it means to be evangelicals.