It seems that hardly a month goes by these days without there being another account of a leading evangelical who has fallen. Perhaps someone has deserted a doctrine traditionally held dear by fellow evangelicals. Or maybe they have had to resign their leadership in a storm of controversy about their leadership style, or because of a significant moral failure.
Then, of course, there is an increasingly hostile media and society. Evangelicals are branded as fundamentalists and claimed by some to be not too dissimilar from Islamic terrorists. We are “irrelevant,” “stuck in the past,” “on the wrong side of history,” “haters of gay people,” “anti-choice,” “anti-science,” “bigots,” “backwards,” and, in short, people who should not be tolerated because of our perceived intolerance. Sadly of course, some evangelicals definitely do act in a way that encourages this negative impression.
There is also a perception that the evangelical church is shrinking, though Stetzer makes the point, quite rightly, that it is the so-called “nominal” church that is shrinking, while evangelicalism is remaining constant. Nonetheless this represents a radically different environment for evangelicals who are used to the size and influence of the broader church in Western culture providing them with “cover.”
It’s all enough to get a man depressed. It’s enough to cause us to doubt. Perhaps it should cause us to re-examine our convictions. But ultimately neither the hostility of the world towards us, nor the failures of some of our own should make us give up our evangelical convictions. I am an evangelical because my reading of the Bible demands me to be. If everyone else falls away, as Luther said, “Here I stand, I can do no other!”
I am an evangelical because in the Bible I perceive an authority that demands to be heard and obeyed. When I read that Jesus sent his disciples out by telling them that as they go they were to make disciples, “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20), how can I not conclude that I should approach the Bible reverently?
In a previous post I listed six values that define evangelicalism, based on a merger of Bebbington’s quadrilateral and the Solas of the Reformation. That post argues evangelicalism must be seen as a smaller subset of a broader group called Christianity.
As I look again at these values, I realize that these very definitions help explain why I am an evangelical. I suspect most of my colleagues who blog over at the Progressive Channel here on Patheos would both broadly agree with the items I elsewhere argue define a Christian, but struggle to accept these Evangelical values:
1. A literal (where appropriate) approach to the whole Bible as the sole source of authority in the believer’s life ( = “Biblicism” or “Sola Sciptura,” which means “Only Scripture”)
In fact the very failures of evangelical teachers remind me that I better not depend on any of them as my sole source of authority in life. They are unreliable, Gods word is unchanging. I am convinced that the Bible is the only reliable place where I can hear God’s direction for my life. As Paul put it:
All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17)
2. A strong focus on personal response of faith to the gospel ( = Conversionism and Sola Fide, which means “Faith Alone”)If Paul was right to say, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3.28), then how can we not believe that it is personal faith that is critical to salvation? For that matter, how can we not seek to promote saving faith in others?
3. Activity to promote the conversion of others. ( = Activism)
As I already referred to earlier, Jesus left a clear parting command: to spread his gospel throughout the world, making disciples of all nations.
Ultimately, as far as I can see more than any other Christian group, evangelicals evangelize. We might struggle, we might get discouraged at times, we might need to find new ways of evangelizing in this hostile world, but how can we fail to share this message? If evangelicals were removed from the earth tomorrow, I would question how much evangelism would remain.
4. A focus on the cross of Jesus as the only means of salvation. ( = Crucicentrism and Sola Christa, which means “Only Christ”)
Essentially this point refers to our belief that Jesus came and lived the perfect life, died an undeserved death, and rose to a victorious new life, all in place of us, and all for our benefit.
It has been very popular lately to criticize notions of Jesus taking the punishment for our sins. As a result many preach an anaemic “gospel” without a real understanding of the seriousness of sin, and a God without wrath.
As I read Isaiah 53, I am forced into the traditional evangelical position that Jesus was led like a lamb to the slaughter for our sake. Without this, and without his glorious physical resurrection, there is no good news.
5. Grace alone ( = Sola Gratia)
On this point, all I need really comment is to quote Paul once more. How can anyone reading these words, not come to the evangelical conclusion that salvation is by grace alone?
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience- among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved -and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. (Ephesians 2:1-9)
6. To God alone belongs glory. ( = Soli deo gloria)
I begun this piece by talking about the negative impact of the fall of a number of significant evangelical figures. Of course we must recognize that God raises individuals up to serve him. But when we further elevate such people, we risk placing them on a pedestal reserved in evangelical tradition for God alone. Christ is the head of his Church, not any earthly figure.
If we give glory to men or women and not God, then we risk encouraging pride in them, and we make any subsequent fall by them only more harmful. Evangelicalism has always rejected the pomp and ceremony seen in some other wings of the church. But we have been guilty often of glorifying our leaders. The present circumstances only make me more convinced of the vital place of that truly evangelical call:
“TO GOD ALONE BE THE GLORY!”