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What’s an Evangelical?

 

What’s An Evangelical?

The Cruciality of the Cross

 

What’s an evangelical? Better, who is an evangelical? Simply put, evangelicals are those who glory in the cross of Christ.  Our faith arises from it; our thinking converges on it; our life radiates from it.

Evangelicals are aware that the cross has made atonement for all humankind as God made “at one” with Himself disobedient, defiled sinners who were otherwise hopelessly separated from Him by a gaping chasm they were never going to be able to bridge.

Evangelicals know that while God is love [1st John 4:8 ] and can therefore do nothing but love, when God’s love encounters human sin his love “burns hot”, as Luther liked to say.  God’s anger or wrath, then, is never the contradiction or denial of his love. (Indifference is always the antithesis of love. After all, the people with whom we are angry we at least take seriously; the people to whom we are indifferent we’ve already dismissed as insignificant.) God’s anger “heats up” only because He loves us so very much and so very relentlessly that He can’t remain indifferent to us and won’t abandon us. Profoundly He loves sinners more (or at least more truly, more realistically) than we love ourselves, since our self-love, perverted by sin, issues only in self-destruction. And as the cross on which He “did not spare his own Son but gave Him up for us all” [Romans 8:32 ] makes plain, He longs to spare us torment more than He longs to spare Himself.

We must make no mistake. Because God is holy, sin breaks His heart. More than merely break His heart, however, sin also mobilizes His anger and provokes His revulsion. Then what is God to do with women and men whose ingratitude and insolence have grieved Him, angered Him and disgusted Him?  One option is to resign them to what they deserve – except that it’s no option at all, since love is all God is and therefore all He can do. For this reason He sets about recovering and restoring those who were created in His image.  Meant to mirror his glory, they now glorify themselves, therein rendering His image unrecognizable.

If the predicament of sinners is to be relieved, then those living in the “far country”, so very far from the Father as to be pronounced “dead, lost” [Luke 15: 24 ] have to be reconciled to Him.  Since they are currently in the far country, why don’t they just get up and “go home”? There’s more to it than this. In point of fact they are where they are not on account of their sin (a misunderstanding heard too often) but on account of God’s judgement. Our foreparents, we should recall, didn’t cavalierly sashay out of the Garden of Eden or confusedly stumble out or defiantly parade themselves out. They were driven out. Who drove them out?   God did. He expelled them by a judicious act. Sin, contrary to much popular thought, does not estrange us from God. Sin mobilizes God’s judgement, and God’s judgement ensures our alienation from Him. Therefore the invitation to be reconciled to Him can’t be issued until His judgement has been dealt with. The cross is that love-fashioned deed of mercy wherein the just Judge absorbs His righteous judgement upon sinners, thereby allowing them to “come home” without in any way “fudging” His holiness or compromising His integrity or submerging His truth.  Only because “in Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself” can the apostle urge, “We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.” [2nd Corinthians 5:19, 20]

God’s tireless pursuit of people who persist in fleeing Him culminates in the cross, wherein He finally overtakes them and wraps them in the arms of the crucified.  But of course the cross doesn’t appear out of nowhere and insert itself in the year 27 C.E. It was anticipated through the God-appointed sacrificial system of the Older Testament. For centuries God had been schooling a people, Israel , in the necessity, meaning and ethos of sacrifice, always preparing for the Advent of Israel’s greater Son.

Reflecting the outlook of the Older Testament, the Newer reflects the priority of the cross on every page.         One-half of the written gospels is given over to one week of Jesus’ life, the last week wherein His cruciform earthly ministry (John Calvin maintained that the shadow of the cross fell on Jesus’ life and ministry from the day He was born) crescendos to the climax of the cross. The first half of the epistles announces the gospel of the cross; the second half unfolds the nature and pattern and rigour of Christian discipleship in the light of the cross. All evangelical understanding, then, emanates from the cross, as do all evangelical faith and obedience.

Evangelicals, then, are those who cherish the “word of the cross”, grounded in the atonement, as the “word of truth, the gospel of your salvation”. [1st Corinthians 1:18 ; Ephesians 1:13]

 

The Place of Proclamation and the Necessity of Decision

Evangelicals characteristically find themselves constrained to proclaim this message just because the message itself is inherently missiological.  In other words, the proclamation isn’t an “add-on” or an after-thought. Proclamation remains an aspect of the message itself: “gospel” defines itself as “gospel announced”.  So far from resembling proselytizing or even propaganda, the proclamation of the gospel belongs to the logic of the gospel.  Evangelicals, then, are aware that mission is to God’s people as burning is to fire. Burning characterizes fire; apart from burning, fire has no existence.  Mission establishes the church and characterizes it, for God’s people are created by the revelation of the cross.  We cling to it. We exist for the purpose of announcing a crucified and risen Lord who “fills all things” [Ephesians 4:10; 1:23] Indeed, since Christ “fills” every nook, crevice and corner of the universe; since Christ therefore laps everyone’s life at all times, evangelicals understandably continue to point to and point others to the One whose coming to them spells only blessing.

Such proclamation, needless to say, isn’t announced in a “Who cares?” attitude, as if the hearer’s response were of no significance, or at least of no eternal significance. What’s at stake in any announcement of the gospel is always more than a “response” that is little more than whim or preference or even prejudice. What’s at stake is nothing less than the hearer’s salvation.  For this reason the declaration of the gospel always elicits a particular decision from the hearer, that “U-turn” which scripture labels repentance. With appropriate sobriety and suitable solemnity – yet also with unrestrained joy – the decision the gospel elicits is an “about-face” from darkness to light, from indifference or hostility to love, from death to life. The lattermost point must be given its full weight: the decision to which the gospel summons the hearer has everything on earth and in heaven hanging on it.

This decision, we should note, need not be made in an instant; in fact more often than not it isn’t made in an instant.   The fact that the process of deciding is protracted in most cases doesn’t detract in the slightest from its veracity.   Nevertheless, at some point the decision needs to have been made as the rebel surrenders, the icy heart is thawed, and the spiritually inert is resurrected and Love is loved.

 

Covenant Faithfulness and Lifelong Repentance

The God who has promised ever to be our God, God for us, never rescinds His covenant with us.  In turn He longs for us ever to be His people as we own our covenant with Him. Finding us to be covenant-breakers with Him, however, He gives us His Son and directs us to the Nazarene as the one instance of human covenant faithfulness to the Father. For this reason the decision of faith and obedience that we make, we must make not once only; rather the decision has to be renewed every day.  Every morning we must recommit ourselves to our Lord, to His truth, to His way, and – no less, even perhaps hardest of all – to His people. In Luther’s famous tract, The Ninety-Five Theses that he nailed to door of the Wittenberg church in 1517, the first thesis sets the tone for all that follows and suffuses it. Luther’s first thesis will ever remain the “bass note” for all of us: “The Christian life consists of daily, lifelong repentance.” In other words, every morning we have to re-orient ourselves to our Lord, determined to identify ourselves with Him and follow Him today amidst all dangers, deceptions and distractions.

Yet the decision we make, while it’s unquestionably the inception of the Christian life, isn’t the termination of that life. Much arduous discipleship lies between commencement and completion.  More than a few trials will have to be resisted.  Barnabas and Paul, eager not to misrepresent the rigours of discipleship, are found “strengthening the souls of the disciples, exhorting them to continue in the faith …saying that through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God .” [Acts 14:22 ] If evangelicals uphold justification by faith as the beginning of the Christian life and its stable basis, no less ardently do they insist that sanctification, holiness of heart and life, must be pursued at all times and in all circumstances.

Holiness

Holiness is simply the believer’s conformity to the will and way of the Master.  Holiness is God’s purpose for His people.  While the word-group in scripture referring to election or predestination occurs approximately fifteen times, the word-group pertaining to holiness occurs 833 times.  Plainly the category of holiness dominates scripture and should therefore be the Christian’s preoccupation.

Cherishing the Great Commandment (“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength….” [ Mark 12:30 ]) as well as the Great Commission (“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations….” [Matthew 28:19]), evangelicals remain convinced of the “Root” Commandment: “You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” [Leviticus 19:2] This “root” commandment reverberates like a bell throughout the length and breadth of the bible. Like all commandments, however, the predominant commandment is at the same time the predominant promise: not only must God’s people be holy; God will see to it that His people are holy. God will guarantee for people consecrated to Him everything that He requires of them.  Then God’s people may and must obey Him in matters great and small as they are conformed to that “… holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”   [Hebrews 14:12]

Such holiness, John Wesley liked to say, pertains to “heart and life”. Holiness of heart (i.e., a supposedly grace-wrought disposition) not giving rise to holiness of life is no more than a religious self-indulgence, a pietistic trip “inward” that sceptics rightly see to be rationalized selfism. Holiness of life not grounded in holiness of heart, on the other hand, is no more than self-righteous legalism, and exhausting as well.  Holiness of heart and life together attest a simple yet glorious truth that evangelicals will never surrender: God can do something with sin beyond forgiving it.  What can He do?   Not only can He relieve us of sin’s guilt; He can also release us from sin’s grip. Deliverance from both the guilt and the power of sin remains a vivid conviction in the evangelical consciousness.

 

Constant Conversion

The decision for faith, then, with concomitant inner and outer holiness, might appear to be an end in itself.  In truth it is and it isn’t.  It’s an end in itself in that faith binds us to Jesus Christ, and our union with Him is an end in itself.  Any utilitarian consideration or motive here merely attempts to use Him, rendering Him a means to end, a tool we can exploit for some “goody” apart from Him.  He is our greatest good, our eternal good.  He gives us His unique gifts only in the course of giving us Himself.  Therefore He can never be a means to anyone’s end.  At the same time, the decision for faith invariably binds us not only to Jesus Christ but also to that body of which He is head; namely, the church. Since believers are bound to Jesus Christ, head and body, we must daily renew our commitment to Christ’s people even as we admit with our Puritan ancestors that the church is a “fair face with an ugly scar”. And since in Christ God has “so loved the world” [John 3:16 ] as never to abandon it, the conversion of which evangelicals speak must be a daily-renewed conversion to Christ, His people and the world.

 

Kingdom of God

To say we must love the world as Christ loves us it is to say that we shan’t adulate it uncritically or fawn over it or seek to profit from it; rather we shall long for the full manifestation of its redemption.   To this end Christians understand that they have been commissioned to render visible that kingdom which Jesus Christ brought with Him in His resurrection from the dead.  When we pray “Thy kingdom come…” we are praying for the coming manifestation of a kingdom that has to be in our midst just because the King is in our midst.  A king – anywhere – without a kingdom is no king at all.  Jesus Christ, risen from the dead and present with His people, meets us again and again, not infrequently startling us as He acquaints us with Himself afresh. Since He has promised to abide with us until history is concluded, His kingdom has to have arrived. While it is discerned through the eyes of faith to be sure, it remains invisible to all others. Then one of the church’s tasks is to render indisputable and undeniable that kingdom which is simply the entire creation of God healed.  Not surprisingly, then, evangelicals have been at the forefront of the abolition of the slave trade, the amelioration of working conditions in factories and mines, the expansion of literacy, the providing of medical assistance, ministries to the incarcerated, the elevation of women, and the relief of human distress of every kind.   Believers’ holiness of heart and life lends visibility to a world from which Christ’s victorious cross has already seen “Satan fall like lightning from heaven”, heaven being the invisible dimension of the creation. [Luke 10:18]

 

Evangelicalism’s Vulnerability

Honesty compels us to admit that evangelicalism is susceptible to distortion and prone to unravel. Rightly emphasizing Christian experience as the gospel “opens the heart” (as happened with Lydia , Acts 16:13 ], the evangelical consciousness is always in danger of confusing experience of the Spirit with experience-in-general, especially where experience-in-general is riddled with romanticism or nostalgia or religious sentimentality. In other words, despite evangelicalism’s insistence on orthodoxy (correct thinking about God and the proper glorifying of Him), evangelicalism remains susceptible to heterodoxy (i.e., false belief and erroneous glorifying of an other-than-Christ).  Evangelical zeal must always be balanced by the tested wisdom of Christians who lived and learned, suffered and witnessed before us.   This great weight of Christian wisdom, found in the church’s tradition, is commonly known as “catholicity”.

 

 

Evangelicalism and Catholicity

Two things are to be noted here. One, the word “catholicity” is spelled with a lower case “c”.         Upper case “C” normally refers to Roman Catholic. Roman Catholicism is one denomination within the Christian family.   The catholicity of the church, however, is the accumulated wisdom of Christian memory that is found in all denominations.

Catholicity preserves both identity and universality.[1]   Identity is that which distinguishes the church from the world; universality, that which impels the church to give itself for the world. Needless to say, only that church which is self-consciously different from the world can ever exist for the world.

The missionary enterprise of the early church attests its catholicity. (We should note here that the missionary thrust of the church isn’t the church’s invention, the church somehow arriving at an insight that the church’s Lord somehow lacked. While Jesus told the Canaanite woman, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel ” [Matthew 15:24 ], unquestionably the seeds of the Gentile mission are found in Jesus’ ministry, particularly in His appearances to His followers during the “forty days” between His resurrection and His ascension.)   At first Peter opposed this expression of catholicity, Peter maintaining that all Gentile Christians first had to become Jews.         Plainly Peter thought that the church’s universality threatened its identity – and he had to be helped to a new perspective.

From a different angle of vision, it’s evident that the unique message of the church guarantees its identity; the assorted converts to the church guarantee its universality.   Both identity and universality have to be held in exquisitely fine balance if the catholicity of the church is to be preserved.  Evangelicals who are properly catholic balance evangelism with training in discipleship and Christian nurture.   We balance outreach with worship.  We balance contemplation of our reigning Lord and commitment to the world’s grief.

Evangelicals who are aware of their catholic heritage balance justification (a new standing before God) and sanctification (a new nature from God); the decision for faith and growth in faith; the call to repentance and the call to sainthood; the Reformation (doctrinal restatement) and revival (the Spirit’s flooding over large numbers of people who have not yet welcomed the gospel offer). Evangelicals who know the true meaning of “catholic” embrace both specially endowed leaders and ordered ministry; both spontaneous exclamations of praise and sacramental practice.

In all of this, theologians (including those who amplify the doctrinal statements of such bodies as the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada!) preserve catholicity by defining the faith so as to combat heresy arising from within the church, and also by defending the faith so as to combat misinterpretation arising from outside the church.  By defining the faith, theological statements preserve identity; by defending the faith, theological statements preserve universality.  The first sentence of the Apostles’ Creed exemplifies both.  “I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of heaven and earth” plainly speaks of universality; “and in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord…crucified under Pontius Pilate” speaks of identity.   Doctrine, adequately articulated, always fulfils both purposes.

 

 

[1]I am glad to acknowledge my debt to Jaroslav Pelikan, The Riddle of Roman Catholicism, and Donald Bloesch, The Future of Evangelicalism.