What makes someone “evangelical?”

What makes someone “evangelical?” October 12, 2011

Yesterday I listened to two fine presentations by a notable and influential evangelical scholar.  They were about the necessary marks of authentic evangelical faith.  He discussed three broad groups of evangelicals in Britain and America since WW2: the broad coalition evangelicals centered around Billy Graham and his ministries (including the National Association of Evangelicals), the neo-Puritan evangelicals (which seemed to me to be those I have called here “neo-fundamentalists”), and the “Bebbington-quadrilateral evangelicals.”  The first group tended to play down the importance of doctrinal orthodoxy and include as many born-again Christians as possible among the ranks of the evangelicals.  The second group has capitalized on what is perceived as doctrinal drift among the first group and has emphasized Reformation (mostly Reformed) orthodoxy as crucial to evangelical identity.  The third group views evangelicals as marked by four (or five) common features (family resemblances): biblicism (broad defined), conversionism, crucicentrism and activism (mostly evangelism).  I have added respect for the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy to that list.

But the speaker argued that what all these various groupings of evangelicals have in common is one thing: insistence on the born again experience as necessary for authentic Christian existence such that we (evangelicals) are the only real Christians going to heaven.  The neo-Puritans add thick doctrinal orthodoxy to that (drawn mostly from the magisterial Reformers and Protestant orthodoxy).  But even they, the speakers argues, are mainly concerned about preserving and protecting the centrality and cruciality of the born again experience.

This explains, he argues, why there was so much across-the-board condemnation of Rob Bell’s inclusivist proposal in Love Wins.  While Bell stopped short of endorsing all out universalism, he did open the door to salvation without conversion (e.g., in a postmortem opportunity).  This, the speaker argues, explains the deep and broad negative reaction to Love Wins among evangelicals.  Any hint of opportunity for salvation apart from a conversion experience in this live threatens evangelicals’ commitment to the necessity of a born again experience.

Thus, this speaker is arguing that ALL evangelicals (well, there may be a few exceptions) recognize AT LEAST ONE BOUNDARY around evangelicalism: the necessity of a born again experience.  Anything that threatens that is anathema.

This blog is dedicated PARTLY, at least, to exploring the reality of evangelicalism and evangelical faith.  This is an interesting proposal from an astute scholar of evangelicalism who has taught in two evangelical institutions for twenty-some years.  My own thought is that while evangelicals do want to preserve and promote the born again experience (however exactly conceived–whether instantaneous or a process) many, especially when pushed, admit that such an experience may not be necessary for reconciliation with God (salvation as forgiveness).  I know many evangelicals who, when pushed on the matter, admit that Old Testament “saints” were and are saved without anything resembling evangelicals’ born again experience.  Then, when asked to reflect on that, many are willing to admit that God may have ways of saving the lost we know little or nothing about and that may include imputing righteousness to them without an explicit born again experience such as we have and promote.

This raises many questions.  Are only evangelicals saved?  Is salvation limited to those with a born again experience?  If so, how are the Old Testament people of God saved?  What about the Jew or God fearer with Abrahamic faith who died one month or one year after Jesus’ death and resurrection without ever hearing of him?  Are all the unevangelized automatically hell bound?  Can an unevangelized person have a born again experience?  Must he or she?  These are crucial questions for evangelicals to consider.  They’re not new questions, but I doubt there are many, if any, new questions.

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  • This is interesting because I know of people in the neo-Puritan camp (mostly Presbyterians as opposed to TULIP-Baptists) who take the whole idea of Covenant Theology to making room for ‘children of the covenant’. Where a child born into the covenant community may mature to being a saved believer without any kind of recognized ‘conversion.’

    • rogereolson

      Yes, that’s one of the possible exceptions I wanted to ask the speaker about. But don’t these covenant theology neo-Puritans believe the child MUST grow up to have some kind of conversion experience? Even my aunt’s Christian Reformed pastor preached the necessity of conversion at her funeral and invited responses of faith to salvation.

      • I only met two people who said they were raised as Covenant Children and saved by that means. Both remarked of having a realization of their salvation when they became teenagers – but not necessarily a ‘conversion experience.’ I don’t know what to make of it.

        I wonder what the original Puritans thought about this idea? Bunyan’s autobiography is definitely a testimony of conversion – but it is hard to pinpoint exactly where he receives salvation. In the writings of later Puritans like Matthew Henry they seem to anticipate the Evangelical Awakening preaching of people like Whitefield – preaching that passionately calls forth for repentance, conversion, and new birth.

        I guess it is the Reformed emphasis on ‘catechism’ though that is the formal theological acknowledgement of the need to for Covenant Children to be instructed in truths like salvation by grace through faith; teaching the younger generation with the hope that they will move past reciting words of a catechism to expressing true saving faith in their lives.

        • rogereolson

          I think there’s a difference about this (i.e., infant baptism and “adult” conversion) among Reformed Christians. Some in the Dutch Reformed tradition (not Puritan) seem to believe infant baptism is enough so long as the baptized person grows up to live in the covenant with personal faith in Jesus Christ–no need of a distinct conversion experience. Puritans and their heirs, however, seem to believe “personal acquisition of faith” (an old Puritan idea equivalent to conversion) is necessary for full salvation even if one was baptized as an infant.

      • Calvin Chen

        I do think that, functionally, all evangelicals struggle with answering the question of whether those without a conversion experience can be saved since it is such a defining hallmark of the movement. Evangelical “folk religion” (to use your term) has effectively reduced “justification by grace through faith” to salvation “solo fide” and faith = having a born-again conversion experience. Someone like a John MacArthur would have a more sophisticated version of this, i.e., “Lordship Salvation,” that submitting all areas of life to Christ and forsaking personal idols constitutes true faith – not the worst thing to teach! Mike Horton also pushes back against the excesses of this trend by arguing that evangelicals can turn the Sinner’s Prayer into a “hocus pocus” (or maybe it’s “open sesame?”) to open the gates of salvation.

        FYI within Reformed circles there is a large degree of variance in evangelical identity/sympathy (I say this as someone who works in a broadly evangelical parachurch organization but has spent the last decade in Christian Reformed and PCA congregations but also occasionally interacts with the OPC, URC, RCA, and EPC). Would the speaker only have identified Reformed folks who are also fairly evangelical/pietist/revivalist (e.g., PCA and EPC) as “neo-Puritan”? If so, you’re correct about some cognitive dissonance on salvation in these circles and a strong emphasis on the necessity of conversion experience. However, in more classically Reformed circles (majorities of the CRC and OPC and even some parts of the RCA), I’ve generally found more of an emphasis on grace through faith and sacraments (as Matt W describes above) that is either more predestinarian/covenantal, catholic, or both. “Praying the prayer” is much less emphasized in these quarters and for adult converts, there is a quick nudge toward baptism to “seal” the deal (and I would say equal weight is given to both baptism and “the prayer” as hallmarks of conversion).

        For some perspective on the actual Puritans, see George Marsden’s biography of Jonathan Edwards where he cites New England congregants begging Solomon Stoddard (if I recall correctly, I don’t have my copy handy to check) to baptize their infants so that if they died prematurely they would not burn in hell ;-). I’m sure the relationship between the born-again experience and covenant salvation among Great Awakening Calvinists would be a fascinating study.

    • T. Webb


      As long as you are clear that a “saved believer” in this case is one who actually believes in the good news of Jesus Christ. They are children of the covenant because they are born into a family or household where the Christian faith is believed and taught, and they believe in the good news without having a “dramatic conversion experience”. Such children aren’t “saved” simply because they were baptized as infants or born into such a family (although those may be/are means that God uses toward faith), but they also must have faith in the promises of God.

      I think that Dr. Olsen is correct… the “born again experience” is essential to whatever “evangelicalism” is. A number of years ago an evangelical campus ministry representative seriously questioned whether I was “saved” because I believed in the good news of Christ as an orthodox Protestant, but I never had the “dramatic/crisis conversion experience”. That someone could believe without a conversion experience made no sense to this person, and to many “evangelicals”.

      Peace, Tim

      • rogereolson

        Notice that I have never referred to a conversion as necessarily “dramatic.” I think a conversion experience can happen unnoticed except as one looks back on it and realizes that over a brief period of time he or she came to have a repentant heart and to embrace faith in Jesus Christ. A true conversion experience does not have to be “dramatic.” I don’t know many evangelicals who would say it must be.

  • Timothy

    To return to the issue of bounded and centred sets as explained by Hiebert, I think it legitimate to use the term evangelical in the sense of a bounded set precisely because of the key aspect of conversionism as a defining characteristic of evangelicalism. It does act as a boundary. But it is an interesting characteristic as it also means that evangelicals HAVE to define “Christian” in centred set terms. A Christian is defined by reference to his/her relationship to God and not through boundaries. If this distinction holds, it relativises the term “evangelical” as for evangelicals it is the category Christian which is crucial and not whether one is an evangelical or not.
    Incidentally, over on the Gospel Coalition Site at the moment there is some stuff on the nature of the Gospel Coalition in the light of some controversy over the so-called Elephant Room. In that stuff they talk of ‘boundary-bounded’ sets and ‘center-bounded’ sets. Is the latter an oxymoron? Surely a set defined by its centre is not bounded but centred? Have they, or have I misunderstood the categories?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t have time to go there to try to understand what they’re talking about. But in his chapter in the new evangelicalism book (to which I contributed a chapter) Al Mohler argues that evangelicalism is both a bounded and centered set. I suppose such could exist, but I would simply then call it a bounded set. As I have said many times before, evangelicalism is a movement and movements by definition cannot have boundaries. However, so far, anyway, it does seem that all or almost all evangelicals believe in the necessity of a born again experience. Of course, they interpret it differently. And I suspect there are evangelicals who don’t believe it is necessary. To have a bounded set there has to be a magisterium to define and patrol the boundaries. I suspect many in the Gospel Coalition want to be that magisterium. I’m not about to bow to that whether the proposed magisterium be conservative, liberal or moderate. It’s simply impossible for a movement to have a magisterium.

  • Great questions.

    I often think that lack of good answers is largely due to how the questions are framed, and the imprecise terminology used within the questions themselves.

    For example, “salvation” is a slippery term. So also is “born again.” With a different understanding of the gospel and evangelism, I think some of these questions simply disappear.

  • I believe that many evangelicals do not believe a born again experience, and/or some sort of conversion, are essential to being in God’s good graces (being “saved”). Why? Because I believe most think that the very young, and those with limited mental capacities, are in God’s good graces. Most evangelicals think that any three-year old (some evangelicals think only three-year olds of believing parents), should the child die, would be saved, would not be forever outside of God’s good graces. Most also probably (although I’ve never seen this discussed in print) believe that those from birth mentally incapacitated or incompetent– incapable of grasping notions of sin, forgiveness, atonement, resurrection, or whatever else one is supposed to believe in, or even the idea of putting your trust or confidence in Jesus–are in God’s good graces. I don’t know what evangelicals would think of those who become mentally incapacitated or incompetent later in life after they may have had opportunites to acknowledge their “away from God” condition and a need to repent that; are they in God’s good graces? Seems odd not to think so. Imagine evangelizing to someone after an accident or injury that leaves them mentally incapacitated. Is their failure to confess and repent, and so have a born again experience, supposed to count against them forever? I am just wondering. In any case, even if you don’t like my examples, it seems that most evangelicals do not think a born again experience is essential.

    • rogereolson

      It seems to me this is an area of inconsistency among evangelicals. All my life (in evangelicalism) I’ve heard BOTH that a person has no hope of eternal salvation apart from being “born again” AND that there are exceptions (such as you mention and the one I mentioned–Old Testament “saints” such as Abraham and Moses and etc.).

  • Phil Miller

    Dr. Olson,
    I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while now, but I’ve never commented. I read your book, The Story of Christian Theology and have recommended to quite a few people since then. I really appreciate your perspective on things.

    Anyway, I find what you say in this article to be very true. I think a lot of it comes down to how we view the Gospel. What is it and what is it about? It seems to me that a lot of Christians don’t want to give up the idea that the Gospel is about us, and about how God interacts with us personally. The late Michael Spencer who started the Internet Monk site used the term “transactionalism” to describe this view. The Gospel message is boiled down to people making a deal with God. If I respond to God in a certain way, He’ll in turn bless me in some way (or on the other hand, send me to Hell if I respond in the wrong way).

    I think the antidote to this type of thinking is getting back to the original meaning of the word “gospel”. The Gospel is a proclamation about something God is doing through Christ, and something that is going to happen regardless of our participation in it. If Caesar announced that he was taking over a country and sent out messengers posting bills on trees saying somoething like, “Good news citizens! The Empire is breaking into this town!”, the townspeople could certainly choose to cooperate or to rebel, but in the end, the empire was taking over regardless. So that’s how I have come to see the Gospel message.

    It seems odd to me that when I describe this view to some of my evangelical friends I get weird looks. For co-opting the term “evangelion”, a word that describes what God is doing, it certainly seems we have managed to turn it around to be all about us. I find once we start thinking in terms of the Kingdom, the question of who is and who isn’t saved start becoming not as central.

    • rogereolson

      I hope you’ve read some of Scot McKnight’s recent books and especially his newest one The King Jesus Gospel. He is making the same point.

  • David Rogers

    I think there may need to be, at some point, an exploration/explication of the phrase “born again experience.” I had an interesting moment a few years ago when a dedicated Christian lady said she had never “prayed to receive Jesus into her heart.” She had definitively and consciously committed her life to discipleship to Christ and firmly believed in his saving death, resurrection, and living reign in heaven and return. She had been raised in a tradition of confirmation class and baptism (immersion) but she had never formally bowed her head and said words to the effect of asking Jesus to “come into her heart.” From her perspective she did not have an “experience” as some would label a conversion “experience”.

    Should we instead talk of a born again commitment since the term “experience” may convey more of a specific kind of point-in-time type of extraordinary emotion-bursting event? Should the question be oriented around whether one has a definitive, conscious, intentional commitment to be a disciple of the living and returning Christ? I emphasize the term “living” and “returning” to differentiate from those who would claim to follow the philosophy and ethics of Jesus of Nazareth but not actually believing that he actually lives at the right hand of the Father now and is returning.

    • rogereolson

      I think most evangelicals would say such a person had a born again experience whether she knows it or not. Many evangelicals will accept that a born again experience can be gradual and processive and does not have to be datable.

  • John Metz

    Another great post.

    According to much of what I read, many in your “favorite” camp of evangelicals talk much more about having a change in worldview than they do about being born again. This often appears to describe what perhaps could be only a change in philosophy not a born again experience or regeneration. It seems that there is a growing rejection of the life or organic aspect of God’s salvation.

  • Zach

    Imputation……sounding a bit neo-Calvinist, are we? 🙂

    • rogereolson

      Wesley believed in imputation of righteousness. So do I. So does N. T. Wright. For him, however, it’s not Christ’s righteousness that is imputed but just righteousness (as a standing and condition).

  • Dennis

    If this scholar’s assessment is true then half of the evangelical community are more appropriately termed “Post-evangelical” (including the elder Billy Graham).
    I’m curious, does this scholar consider his criteria of the born again experience a positive or a negative perspective for the faith? Does he stand behind it as the appropriate measure of true belief?

    • rogereolson

      No, he was speaking sociologically, not normatively or prescriptively.

  • Dennis

    “What about the Jew or God fearer with Abrahamic faith who died one month or one year after Jesus’ death and resurrection without ever hearing of him? ”

    This is a powerful rebuke to the necessity of a born again experience and demands attention.
    I’ve always thought passages like Acts 17:30 extended to all people who have never heard the gospel after the ressurrection as well, but I don’t think many would follow this logic.

    • rogereolson

      I’m really surprised at how restrictivists brush this question aside. They need to answer it. One said that God “grandfathered” them in–but only the first generation, not their children. Huh?

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Evangelicalism is one flavor of Christianity. To exclude all others outside Evangelicalism is not for them (us) to decide. We need to do the best we can in being faithful to God and let Him sort out the rest. When Jesus talks about His other sheep that the disciples know nothing about, when Jesus reverses the “then-accepted wisdom” about God’s Kingdom and its members, when Jesus makes promises to thieves about paradise that he has only just met, it should soften any formula that Evangelicals ossify about how God will conduct judgement on the last day.

    As John Fischer wrote: “Jesus is the only way, but there’s more than one way to Jesus”.

  • Craig Wright

    When I taught on the subject of universal reconciliation in adult Sunday School at the local church, catalyzed by Rob Bell’s book, I found that one thing that bothered some people was the idea of a second chance (after death). This led me to believe that a number of evangelicals think that they, themselves, are getting what they deserve, because they made the right decision, they get to go to heaven, and the rest of the folks out there don’t.

    • Absolutely spot on in my experience.

      I asked the question recently: if there was no hell would you still be a Christian? I got mixed replies which shows that many people are Christians for its hell-avoidance by-product. Some of the younger folk said they wouldn’t be because they wouldn’t want to miss out (I’m sure we can all guess what they meant by that).

  • Kyle Carney

    I think this is an extremely astute observation. However, what about those who were baptized as infants? I would still call them evangelical if they have an active relationship with God. I am still learning a lot about this area of reformed theology as I grew up baptist. However, I would like to think more about this myself.

    • rogereolson

      All my Reformed relatives believed (and I hope still do) that a baptized child must grow up to be born again through repentance and faith in order finally to be saved. Their infant baptism doesn’t save them, but it includes them in the covenant people of God.

      • Kyle Carney

        I am sure they do believe that. It’s hard for me to fully understand as I have been listening to some of Michael Horton’s programs. He is a very helpful thinker, but sometimes the emphasis on us having no role or will in salvation gets confusing when you think about infant baptism. For reformed folks, it seems infant baptism makes perfect sense because the faith of the parents is sufficient for grace to be “in” the covenant community of God. So, I guess the confusing part for me trying to understand them is that I cannot figure out what they mean by “in.”

        I do appreciate that they often appeal to mystery at this point in their discussions of God’s grace; however, I (as a craedo-baptist) think this is telling of some inconsistency in paedo-baptist systems of thought. However, maybe I will discover something new later if I continue to understand it more.

  • Josh Thiering

    a guilty conscience?

    • rogereolson

      Wouldn’t that mean there area lot of atheist evangelicals? 🙂

      • Josh Thiering

        Well Richard Dawkins is “Missionary” because he does ask for money. So maybe one day he will be evangelical too!

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    Roger wrote: “It seems to me this is an area of inconsistency among evangelicals. All my life (in evangelicalism) I’ve heard BOTH that a person has no hope of eternal salvation apart from being “born again” AND that there are exceptions (such as you mention and the one I mentioned–Old Testament “saints” such as Abraham and Moses and etc.”).

    Ivan responds: Read again my manuscript, Chapter 4, “Born Again: Two Thousand Years Ago!” I believe it will go a long way in clearing up what you have rightly called an “inconsistency among evangelicals” concerning the true meaning of “Born Again.” Here below is an excerpt from my new book entitled, “Dropping Hell and Embracing Grace” (now at the publisher’s and due for release before Christmas).

    Copyrighted excerpt by Ivan A. Rogers: “Of course, it would be impossible for anyone to reenter a mother’s womb for rebirth. But when Christ was resurrected from the dead, the womb of his heart was ‘full-term’ with a new and improved infant humanity – just ready to be delivered. Thus, when he was reborn from his tomb/womb of death, so, too, we emerged in new birth with him at that very same instant” (see Eph 2:4-10).

  • I thought the definition of evangelical was someone who believed the bible was the word of God (which means different thing to different people) – but that now seems very imprecise.

    I guess it is someone who believes the good news which is why I guess you’re talking about a conversion experience being important – presumably that includes ones that are just repentance & belief but no hint of a supernatural experience.

    Personally I think post-mortem conversion (a position I sympathise with – no-one can seriously suggest the absolute awfulness of what people interpret the bible to say about hell). I think post-mortem conversion would be absolutely beautiful to watch and be part of, not diminished as the guy you went to hear suggests. Perhaps he needs a more eternal perspective on these things.

    • Nicolas

      even P T Forsyth believed in God’s provision of a chance for post-mortem conversion !
      — not to forget Luther and Isaac Watts and ….

  • JenG

    I have considered this a lot too and blogged on it… here are my thoughts.

    If salvation is only possible through acknowledging the right set of information and believing it with absolute certainty, there is no hope for people with even the slightest inclination towards post-modernism and of course those who have never been presented with this information. This should cause us to reconsider our traditional beliefs about the nature of salvation and the function of Christ’s work on the cross. Could it be that we’ve been looking at this all wrong? Or at least a little bit wrong? Maybe Christ did more on the cross than we have given him credit for. Maybe His grace is even stronger than we’d imagined.

    We’re in grave danger of painting ourselves in to a theological corner we can’t get out of when we think our modern philosophy and epistemology are intrinsically “Christian” simply because it’s all we’ve ever known and we aren’t sure if our faith can work outside that modern framework.

    An idol is a false image of God.

    Maybe some of our ideas that we cling to so tightly are actually idols masquerading as certainty.

    What if there is a difference between being saved and being a Christian? Let’s say that being a Christian means you have access to certain knowledge (the life of Christ, his death and resurrection, perhaps even the Bible) and then believe it to be true and go on to follow Jesus’ leading in your life. What if salvation is for everyone through Christ, however our sanctification (being made holy) is a voluntary process that can start in this life and then continues throughout life and even beyond death? For everyone. So that aborted fetuses, 3-year olds who die from complications of malaria, 78-year old dictators in bunkers, 41-year old Christian secretaries with breast cancer, 19-year old Buhhdist monks – all still have a fighting chance at heaven. Not all of them lived their lives implicitly (or even remotely) for Christ. And maybe they met him and said no – and that choice is theirs. But maybe they didn’t know at all.

    It’s not good enough to say “the heavens declare the glory of God” and so no man is without excuse. I’d say lots of people have pretty good excuses.

    We’ve GOT to come up with some kind of one-size-fits-all theory for salvation before I can be happy about all this.

    Evangelicals are shockingly Gnostic.

    • rogereolson

      The distinction between “saved” and “Christian” is very important. I wonder why most people I tell and explain it to are shocked? Surely many Old Testament people were/are “saved” without ever being “Christians.” Are they the only ones? That would seem very strange at best.

      • Nicolas

        Thanks for this conversation !
        I just want to add that the descent of Jesus to “proclaim to the spirits in prison” — the wicked generation of Noah’s time (1 Pet 3) is the same as Jesus’ “preaching” the Gospel “to the dead” (1 Pet 4).
        And if Jesus really did this for Noah’s generation — the proverbial “most wicked generation in the OT” — surely he did it for all the previous generations.

  • Scott Gay

    It is hard for me to understand how this discussion takes place without mention of justification by faith alone. It is assuredly as paradoxical as that of the law and gospel Barth’s “Dogmatics in Outline” traces through the statements of the Apostles Creed the love and grace of God and our reponse to that grace. It really should be more widely read. He seems to me to get to the crux of this issue:
    “We may take it that the Western Church has a decided inclination towards the theologia crucis: that is, towards bringing out and emphasizing the fact that He was surrendered for our transgressions. Whereas the Eastern Church brings more into the foreground the fact that He was raised for our justification, and so inclines toward theoloia gloriae. In this matter there is no sense in wanting to play one off against the other. You know from the beginning Luther strongly worked out the Western tendency…..what Luther meant by that is right. But we ought not to erect and fix any opposition; for there is no theologia crucis which does not have its complement in the theologia gloriae. Of course there is no Easter without Good Friday, but equally certainly there is no Good Friday without Easter.”

    I do believe factions in the evangelical community erect opposition. And I do believe that within the evangelical community there is a move toward incorporating a balance, because of the heavy historical leaning toward theologia crucis.

  • DSparks

    The discussions seem rather silly. Either you are following Jesus or you are not.

    • rogereolson

      That seems simplistic; all Christians claim to “follow Jesus.” The question is–what does that mean?

  • Interesting topic. Good to see people thinking seriously about it! I didn’t have time to read all the comments, except the first few and the last two.

    From the perspective of a former Evangelical of many years who is now a “mere” “follower of Jesus,” and a progressive now probably more culturally Christian than theologically so, yes “following Jesus” means little without a fair amount of description. But the same problem of defining/giving parameters exists for those who want to make conversion, confirmation or demonstrating one’s election the criterion (or set of criteria) for salvation. Might it not be quite possible that God doesn’t HAVE any standards for access to “him”? Could, among other possibilities, Barth be right that CHRIST is the elect of God, reconciling everyone, regardless of their knowledge of it or belief in it? (I may have added a bit to his point on the last part, sorry Karl.)