What is an Evangelical Christian, Anyway?
Since moving to Utah a few years ago, I’ve found it hilariously difficult to describe my faith in a simple and succinct way. The label “evangelical” probably best describes what I believe and how I worship, but the thing is, most evangelicals simply refer to themselves as “Christian” in most places across America. Also, absolutely nobody seems to know the meaning of the word “evangelical!” Honestly, we evangelicals have been spoiled. Let’s say you’re in Oklahoma or Massachusetts, for instance. An evangelical and, say, a Roman Catholic will meet. As they discuss their beliefs, the evangelical may simply say, “I’m a Christian.” The Roman Catholic will know something of what he means and respond, “Oh! Yeah, I’m Catholic.” The evangelical will know what he means, too. The two will immediately have a basic understanding of the historic and theological similarities and differences of their respective belief systems. Here in Utah, though, that don’t fly! “Christian” is a hot-button word here in Utah. So, we spoiled-evangelicals have to learn to define ourselves in some other way. I’ve tried “Bible-Believing-Christian,” but that’s almost as bad for a friendly conversation. So, what are we nameless people of faith to do? “Evangelical” best describes the broad faith tradition of Redeemer Church and our members. Redeemer is affiliated witht the Southern Baptist Convention, more specifically, but Baptists and many other denominations share the essential “evangelical” beliefs. Many in our state, though, don’t understand the close relationship we share to these other denominations, so it’s a bit misleading to claim the smaller name, without reference to our larger evangelical faith. Problem is, it seems the word, “evangelical” is an opaque mystery to most, who don’t have a master’s degree in theology! Well, we evangelicals are gonna have to buck up, and be willing to describe ourselves to the world. So, here’s my first attempt at making the concept of an evangelical Christian more well known, so that maybe we can name ourselves as a faith community again without making a whole state confused, or even mad at us! Please, help us spread the word, so we moniker-impoverished people will have a name to call our own again!
MILLION (or more) Evangelical Christians Worldwide
It’s a bit tricky at the start to describe an evangelical Christian, because evangelicalism is not defined by a single organization. “Evangelical” is an umbrella term that covers many Baptists, Calvary Chapels, Bible Churches, Orthodox Presbyterians, Evangelical Lutherans, Christian Reformed churches, many denominations with ‘evangelical’ in the name like the Evangelical Free Church, and many others. There are relatively small differences between these churches regarding minor issues (often called ‘non-essentials’) of doctrine and practice, but all evangelical churches hold the same essential beliefs, and are united in them. In fact, people regularaly and easily leave one evangelical church or denomination to join another evangelical church or denomination, and nobody is concerned. There is more that unites us than divides us. Of course, ‘evangelical’ describes a belief system, not an organization. This means that individuals and entire churches may change their beliefs and no longer be ‘evangelicals’ anymore. It’s more of a movement within hearts and minds than something that applies to you simply because you attend a church or name yourself by a denomination. There are somewhere between 300 million and 550 million evangelical Christians worldwide, with about 28% of Americans professing an evangelical faith. Evangelicalism is growing, too! From 1960 to 2000, evangeilcal growth outpaced the global population rate by THREE TIMES! We’re a pretty populous yet nameless people! Still, in Utah, only 2% of the population is evangelical, which is the lowest in the country. In the Provo-Orem Orem area, where Redeemer Church is located, only 0.48% of the population is evangelical. This is the least evangelical metro area in the nation! So, it only seems right that we very few evangelicals here, should lead the way in promoting a new name for ourselves, in a place where people don’t know who we are or what we stand for. At least, they don’t yet! We evangelicals are excited about our faith and want people to find the great joy we know through knowing God in all His glory and grace!
1) God is Holy and Wholly Good.
2) Man rebelled against God and is worthy of God’s just condemnation.
3) Jesus took the penalty for believers’ just condemnation and grants believers’ his just reward forever!
4) If you truly believe that you don’t deserve it, but that Jesus paid it all for you out of his amazing grace and love, then you will be reconciled with God, your heart will begin to be changed, and you will receive the highest rewards of Heaven in the presence of God forever!
Back to who we are and what beliefs define us…. All these different evangelical denominations and churches throughout the world have diverse worship styles, diverse church organization structures, and widely diverse cultures. So what are the essential doctrines that unite and define evangelicals? Well, the doctrines are obviously not simply handed down to the individual churches by somebody higher up on the human heierarchy. So, the first and most important essential doctrine has to do with authority. Where do evangelicals get their beliefs? The answer: evangelicals ardently believe that the Bible alone contains God’s perfect, complete, and reliable Word to mankind. When read as a whole, the Bible clearly tells the “Gospel” story, and individual doctrines are clearly proclaimed that compose the essential doctrines. These core, essential, defining doctrines must be believed if one is said to believe the “Gospel.” The word, “evangelical” comes from the Greek word meaning “Good News.” Likewise, the word “Gospel” is from the Old English words “god” and “spel” which also mean, “good” and “news” (or “story,”) respectively. So, an Evangelical is simply a Christian who believes the Good News (Gospel) about the Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth. This Good News is proclaimed in the story of the Bible. The “Good News” story begins with One Holy, unique God, who is without equal and is in a category by Himself. This One transcendent God is not like us, in the fact that the One God exists as three distinct persons in eternal loving relationship: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God created man, but mankind chose to rebel against God’s one command. From this point forward all mankind have been sinful, meaning we’re in a state of rebellious independence apart from God. The Old Testament largely proves that man is no longer willing or able to live up to God’s righteous standards or to live in right relationship with God. If we look around at our messed up world today, this sinfulness is about the easiest doctrine to believe. Mankind is certainly sinful. Because of our sin, we are all condemned by God’s justice and will spend eternity separated from God and under just punishment. However, out of God’s great love, God the Father sent God the Son into the world. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, stood in our place. On the cross, he was punished, as our substitute, for our sin. Not only did he himself take on the punishment we deserve, Jesus also gave to us the eternal inheritance that He deserves. This “Great Exchange” guarantees eternal life for all who would put their faith in His amazing gift (often called grace), a gift we could never earn. Of course, the gift depends on faith. So, only those who are willing to surrender their own independence and efforts, in order to depend entirely on Christ for life and godliness will receive it. This begins a relationship of unfailing love and reconciliation between God and man. We evangelicals believe it’s our job as believers in this beautifull love story, to make this great hope known to all people. So, if you get to know us, expect that we will want to talk to you about the Bible’s Good News story!
One last thing about us evangelicals: Our history is important. The term “evangelical” has only been used for about five hundred years, but the movement is as old as Jesus and His apostles. Early Christians regularly expressed beliefs that the collected works of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament were the locus of authority for belief and practice. Sadly, as the early church became more and more institutionalized, the teachings of church leaders, patriarchs, popes, and councils came to be promoted as having the same or even greater authority than the Bible. Still, there were always some believers that maintained that the Bible was God’s only authoritative word, not the dictates of men, even church leaders. These Bible-clinging believers saw many contradictions among the teachings of church leaders. They even saw contradictions between what the church leaders taught and what the Bible said. Ultimately, this resulted in the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. These Reformers wanted to reform Roman Catholicism, but ultimately they had to break from it. Martin Luther, the one who began the Reformation, risked his life for what became known as the five “solas” (or “onlys” or “alones”) of the Reformation. Many reformers lived and died for these solas, many being martyred for their passionate faith. These five solas are:
- God’s authrority is expressed through the BIBLE ALONE, not the contradictory words of church leaders or alternate sources of revelation.
- Our Salvation is found in CHRIST ALONE, there is “no other name under heaven… by which man may be saved” (Acts 4:12).
- Our salvation is accomplished by GRACE ALONE. Man’s works can never suffice to bridge the distance between God and man, and the attempt to work our way to God is a prideful and brash independence that belittles God and elevates man.
- We receive salvation on the basis of FAITH ALONE. There is no other way to receive salvation, except to abandon all hopes of being ‘good enough,’ while trusting entirely in the goodness, love, and power of God to bring salvation from condemnation, and salvation to a reconciled love relationship with God that begins at the moment of faith and will last through all eternity in heaven.
- The goal of our faith is the GLORY OF GOD ALONE. We’re not here to promote ourselves, but to lose ourselves in the worship and adoration of God. It becomes our goal in life and death to love and worship God forever. This is where true human satisfaction is finally found. It’s amazing how God fills our hearts to overflowing, and how every other attempt at happiness seems to fall flat. My prayer is that you will find this joy and satisfaction in our amazing God, too.