Evangelicals Talk Funny

Another reason for questioning the unifying character of evangelicalism is the way rank-and-file born again Protestants talk about Christianity. Word choices are telling. For instance, Mark Galli wrote recently about the phrase “Lord and Savior,” as in accepting Jesus as one who rules and saves a believer:

Evangelicals are, as the previous essay suggested, Jesusy people, and by that, they mean something specific. To become a Christian, we “accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior.”

The order is important. We do not customarily say we believe in Jesus as “Savior and Lord.” Yes, in one sense, the evangelical narrative that goes like that: We are saved by Christ, and then we begin to obey him as Lord. To put it theologically, justification and then sanctification. That is certainly the chronological order of our spiritual journey.

And yet, we habitually talk about Jesus not as “Savior and Lord” but as “Lord and Savior.” The order is crucial for evangelical theology. Jesus Christ, the Lord of heaven and earth, became our perfect substitute on the cross.

In contrast, Presbyterians speak about Christ’s offices as prophet, priest, and king:

Q. 24. How doth Christ execute the office of a prophet?
A. Christ executeth the office of a prophet, in revealing to us, by his word and Spirit, the will of God for our salvation.

Q. 25. How doth Christ execute the office of a priest?
A. Christ executeth the office of a priest, in his once offering up of himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and reconcile us to God; and in making continual intercession for us.

Q. 26. How doth Christ execute the office of a king?
A. Christ executeth the office of a king, in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.

Is this a big difference? Well, yes. The Shorter Catechism’s teaching captures practically all of “Lord and Savior” and then fills in lots of details. Which means if someone talks about Christ as prophet, priest, and king, and you know to look up the Shorter Catechism, you may grasp what they mean. “Lord and Savior”? Be prepared for 10 different answers from as many evangelicals.

The piece that provoked attention to differences in language was a recent survey by LifeWay Research. These are the questions they put to Americans to quantify how many evangelicals live in the U.S.:

Evangelical beliefs are defined using the NAE LifeWay Research Evangelical Beliefs Research Definition based on respondent beliefs. Respondents are asked their level of agreement with four separate statements using a four-point, forced-choice scale (strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree). Respondents are categorized as having evangelical beliefs if they strongly agree with all four statements:

— The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

— It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

— Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

— Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

In contrast, here is what you need to affirm to become a Presbyterian:

(1) Do you believe the Bible, consisting of the Old and New Testaments, to be the Word of God, and its doctrine of salvation to be the perfect and only true doctrine of salvation?

(2) Do you believe in one living and true God, in whom eternally there are three distinct persons—God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit—who are the same in being and equal in power and glory, and that Jesus Christ is God the Son, come in the flesh?

(3) Do you confess that because of your sinfulness you abhor and humble yourself before God, that you repent of your sin, and that you trust for salvation not in yourself but in Jesus Christ alone?

(4) Do you acknowledge Jesus Christ as your sovereign Lord, and do you promise that, in reliance on the grace of God, you will serve him with all that is in you, forsake the world, resist the devil, put to death your sinful deeds and desires, and lead a godly life?

(5) Do you promise to participate faithfully in this church’s worship and service, to submit in the Lord to its government, and to heed its discipline, even in case you should be found delinquent in doctrine or life?

Someone who answers in the affirmative to those questions would not necessary disagree with the LifeWay Research assertions. Nor would they necessarily agree. These are different questions that regard believers either as abstractions (LifeWay) or as members of Christ’s body, the church. Even better (confirmation-bias alert), elders and pastors put those membership vows to people in person and ask follow-up questions to make sure the person being examined understands and believes what she is saying. For LifeWay, a phone line or cell separates the pollster from the would-be evangelical. As valuable as survey research may be, it is a long way from letting churches identify (imperfectly) those who put their trust in Christ.

Not only do Presbyterians and evangelicals speak differently, the also don’t act the same way. Evangelicals use science to identify believers. Presbyterians use the agencies of the church.

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