What is an Evangelical?
Evangelicalism: A Brief Definition
The word evangelical comes from from the Greek New Testament word for the 'gospel' or 'good news' of Jesus Christ. We are 'gospel people', committed to simple New Testament Christianity and the central tenets of apostolic faith, rather than to later add-ons. As such, we seek to maintain and present the authentic teaching 'once for all entrusted to the saints' (Jude 3). As the leading Anglican Evangelical John Stott points out, this means that Evangelicalism is neither 'a recent innovation' nor 'a deviation from Christian orthodoxy'.
The shape of Evangelicalism as we know it today was formed more decisively by the Protestant Reformation.
Led by Martin Luther in Germany, John Calvin in Geneva and Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Protestantism was driven by the 'rediscovery' of core gospel truths which had been neglected by the medieval Catholic Church.
These truths can be summarised in five 'solas'.
The first of these is Sola Scriptura - 'By Scripture alone'. God's objective truth is supremely revealed through his Word in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible always takes precedence over reason, tradition, ecclesiastical authority and individual experience.
The second is Sola Gratia - 'By grace alone'. Salvation is given to people by divine grace or 'unmerited favour' only, not as something earned through doing good things. Salvation is an unearned gift from God to sinners for Jesus' sake.
The third is Sola Fide - 'By faith alone'. People are made right with God only by faith, without any mixture of - or need for - prior good works. However, genuine saving faith in Jesus Christ is always evidenced, but never determined, by subsequent good works.
The fourth is Solus Christus - 'Christ alone'. Jesus Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and that there is salvation through no other 'name', meaning that salvation is 'by Christ alone' and can be found 'in Christ alone'.
The fifth is Soli Deo gloria - 'Glory to God alone'. This is the conviction that glory is to be ascribed to God alone, since a person's salvation is accomplished solely through God's will and action. The gift of faith in Jesus Christ is created in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit alone.
The following five points, adapted from key studies of the movement by David Bebbington and Alister McGrath, represent a workable summary of Evangelical characteristics:
- Biblicism - Through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, the God who is objectively 'there' has revealed universal and eternal truth to humankind in such a way that all can grasp it.
- Christocentrism - God's eternal Word became human in the historical man Jesus of Nazareth, who definitively reveals God to humanity.
- Crucicentrism - The good news of God's revelation in Christ is seen supremely in the cross, where atonement was made for people of every race, tribe and tongue.
- Conversionism - The truth of the eternal gospel must be appropriated in personal faith, which comes through repentance - that is, a discernible reorientation of the sinner's mind and heart towards God.
- Activism - Gospel truth must be demonstrated in evangelism and social service.
Adapted from an essay by Rev Dr David Hilborn
Former Head of Theology
Evangelical Alliance UK