Evangelical is an adjective which, by its literal definition, should apply to all Christians. Five hundred years ago, however, it became a popular way of identifying distinguishing one group of Christians, those who upheld the doctrines of the final authority of the Scriptures and justification by faith alone, from others. It became, in other words, a synonym for Protestant. Since that time, especially in the English-speaking world and particularly in North America, it has come to be used to distinguish a certain kind of Protestant from others. This is partially because some Protestants now deny the doctrines of justification by faith alone and the final authority of Scriptures but it is also because in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the meaning of the word evangelical changed. In these centuries an evangelical came to be distinguished from other Christians more by a particular experience – a conversion in which he has made a decision for Jesus – than by particular doctrines. Today, there are those who call themselves evangelicals on the basis of their conversion experiences who do not hold to the doctrines of Reformation evangelicalism.
What Does Evangelical Mean?
The word evangelical has two parts One of those parts is the suffix –ical. This suffix converts other parts of speech into adjectives, words which ascribe qualities to nouns, pronouns, and other substantives. An adjective formed with the suffix –ical, ascribes the qualities of the word to which the suffix is added, to the noun which it modifies. Evangelical, therefore, ascribes the qualities contained in the word “evangel” to the nouns it modifies.
Evangel is not a word we use in English, except as part of compound words like evangelical. It is the Latinized form of the Greek word euangelion. In euangelion, the prefix eu-, which means “good” is added to the word angelion, which means “news” or “message”, to get the simple meaning “good news”. It can refer to good news of any sort but it also has a more specific meaning, because it is the name given to the message of Christianity. When it is used in this sense, it is usually rendered in English as “gospel”. It is the Christian message, the gospel, that the evangel in words like evangelical and evangelist, refers to.
What is the Christian gospel?
Jesus of Nazareth, after being baptized by John the Baptist, went out into the wilderness to fast, pray, and be tempted for forty days, and when He returned began a ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing. He called the message He preached “the gospel of the Kingdom.” The message was that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Later, after Jesus died, rose again, and ascended to Heaven, His Apostles also called the message they preached “the gospel”. St. Paul, in the fifteenth chapter of his first epistle to the Corinthian church identified the Apostolic gospel as the message that “Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures.”
While Jesus’ gospel of the Kingdom and the Apostolic gospel of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection have different content, both messages are ultimately about the same thing – Jesus and the mission He came into this world to accomplish. That is why the first four books of the Christian Scriptures, each of which is an account of Jesus, His ministry, His teachings, and His death and resurrection, are also called gospels.
Jesus preached the gospel that “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” to God’s covenant people, Israel. The way He formulated His gospel it would not have meant much to anyone other than the Jews. They were the ones to whom the promise of the Kingdom of God had been given. They were God’s people. God had made promises to their patriarchs, delivered them from slavery in Egypt, made a covenant with them, and then brought them into the land of Canaan which He had promised them. In that land and under that covenant, they entered into a cyclical pattern of rebellion and idolatry, followed by judgement, repentance, restoration, and then a falling away again from which they were not able to break free. Eventually, God’s prophets warned them of a judgement in which they would be removed from the land God have given them. These warnings were tempered with promises that God would restore them and that He would break the cycle Himself. He would send them a Saviour-King, from the line of David, Who would establish the Kingdom of God and rule in justice and mercy forever. When this happened God would make a new covenant in which He would write His laws on the hearts of His people rather than upon tablets of stone. When Jesus preached “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” He was telling God’s people that these promise were about to be fulfilled. That is why it was “good news”.
The Kingdom of Heaven was at hand because He Jesus, was Himself the promised Saviour-King, the Messiah, the Christ. At one point in Jesus’ ministry, He asked His disciples first Who men said that He was, and then Who they said that He was. In response St. Peter, speaking for the Apostles, said that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. Jesus confirmed this and then began to tell His disciples that He was about to go to Jerusalem, where He would be put to death and would rise again on the third day. By telling them this after their confession of faith that He was the Christ, He linked His death and resurrection with His being the Christ. They had recognized Him as the Messiah, now He was explaining to them what it meant for Him to be the Messiah. The Christ was come to deliver God’s people from more than just the political oppression that was the consequence of their rebellion. He was come to deliver them from the sin which brought about the judgement in the first place. His death would be the sacrifice that would take away the sin of the world once and for all, reconciling man to God, bringing forgiveness, righteousness, and everlasting life.
Once these events had taken place, the Apostles had encountered the Risen Christ and witnessed His Ascension into Heaven, and the Holy Ghost had come upon them at Pentecost, they began to proclaim the “good news” of His death and resurrection, bringing remission of sins and everlasting life to those who believe. At first they preached this message to Jews in Jerusalem and the surrounding region. Then they took the message to the Gentiles as well. While “the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” was good news to the Jews, the message that God had given His Son to be the Saviour of the world, through His death for our sins, and that He had raised Him from the dead to be a Living Saviour to all who put their trust in Him, was good news for everybody, and “the power of God unto salvation to everyone who believeth, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek”. (Rom 1:16).
If the evangel is the Christian gospel, the message that God has given the world a Saviour, His only-begotten Son Jesus Christ, Who took away our sins by dying for us on the cross, and Who was raised from the dead to life eternal which we are invited to share through faith in Him, then evangelical should simply be a synonym for Christian.
Evangelical is not used as a synonym for Christian, however, but as a way of distinguishing one kind of Christian from another. This began five centuries ago at the time of the Reformation. There were many factors that contributed to the Reformation, including the rise of the nation-state in the late-medieval/Renaissance period which created a demand for national churches and the cultural divide between countries with more Germanic languages and cultures and those with more Latin languages and cultures, the former tending to become Protestant and the latter tending to remain Roman Catholic. Ultimately, however, the Reformation was a response to theological and ecclesiastical corruption in the late medieval church.
By this time the clarity of the gospel message had become obscured. The fathers of the Church had correctly understood the nature of the Church. It was not just a collection of individual believers, but an organic community, with a corporate identity, whose members were joined to one another to make a whole in a way similar to how the organs in a body work together to make a whole. It was even more than this, however, because it was, as St. Paul had written, the body of Christ Himself and thus the continuation of His Incarnation on earth. The Church fathers built their ecclesiology and indeed their entire theology around the doctrine of the Incarnation, which doctrine was under heavy attack from the false teachers known as the Gnostics in the early centuries of the Church. There was nothing wrong with any of this but by the sixteenth century, although the Church continued to teach that Jesus Christ had obtained salvation for fallen, sinful, man through His death on the cross and resurrection, Scriptural teaching on how that salvation comes to us personally had come to be neglected through the emphasis on the corporate, organic, Church. In that neglect, some rather horrible theology regarding personal salvation had developed.
In this late medieval theology, the sacraments of the Church were treated as steps on the road to salvation. The promise of heaven at the end kept people on the road, as did the threat of hell if they abandoned it. This theology offered a false hope to those who thought that by being members of the church and doing all the right things they would eventually make it to heaven and denied to others, under deep conviction of their sin and need for God’s forgiveness, the assurance of the latter available in the gospel to all who believe. To make matters worse, it told people that while they would go to heaven if they were baptized church members, who confessed all their sins and did the proper penance, regularly partook of the Eucharist and underwent the last rites, they would have to spend a period of time in purgatory first. There were ways of shortening this period, for oneself and for one’s deceased love ones, according to this theology, all of which were available in exchange for giving money to the Church.
On All Hallows’ Eve in the year 1517, an Augustinian monk, Dr. Martin Luther, nailed a document consisting of ninety-five theses, objecting to the sale of indulgences, on the door of All Saints Church in Wittenberg, at the university of which Dr. Luther was a professor. Luther had become a monk, after being nearly struck by lightning in a storm. Under deep conviction of sin, he was unable to find peace through confession and penance. At the University of Wittenberg, however, where he was required to study and teach the Bible, he found assurance of his salvation when he realized that the Bible, especially the epistles of St. Paul, clearly taught that God justifies people, i.e., declares them to be righteous, not because they deserve it or have earned it with their works, but as an act of undeserved kindness, made possible through the gift of God’s Son to be our Saviour through His atoning death and resurrection, and that this justification is available through faith in Jesus Christ. Luther called this the doctrine of justification by faith alone, not meaning by the word alone – or sola - that faith justifies a man upon its own merits, apart from the grace of God and the atonement of Christ, but rather what St. Paul meant when he wrote “without works.”
Luther’s attacks upon the sale of indulgences – which Pope Leo X was using to fund the reconstruction of St. Peter’s Basilica – brought him into conflict with Church authorities. He defended his position with the teachings of the Scriptures and insisted that his opponents do the same, refusing to recant his teachings unless they could show him from the Bible where he was wrong. That the Bible, God’s own written Word, was the final and supreme authority over the teachings, traditions, and councils of the Church, became, alongside justification by faith alone, the doctrinal foundation of Luther’s theology and of the Reformation. Luther did not want to found a new sect but to reform the existing Church. In 1521, however, he was excommunicated by a papal bull and summoned before a diet of the Holy Roman Empire assembled at Worms. There he was asked to recant which he refused to do. The division between Lutheran and his followers and the papacy became permanent and grew into the largest division in Church history since the Great Schism which divided the Greek and the Latin Churches.
Luther and his followers were called Lutherans by the Roman Catholic Church, to Luther’s own displeasure. The term Lutheran came to apply to a more specific kind of theology after disagreements arose between Luther and the other Reformers and the term “Protestant” came to be applied to all the Reformation churches in general. The term Luther and the other Reformers preferred for their movement, however, was evangelical. This was the first use of the term evangelical to distinguish one kind of Christian from another. Used this way, as it still is in parts of continental Europe, evangelical is synonymous with Protestant.
The central tenets of evangelicalism, then, when it first emerged as a movement within Christianity, were the supreme authority of the Holy Scriptures and justification by faith alone. Since the Reformation, especially in the last two centuries, many within Protestant churches have moved away from these two doctrines – although not necessarily back towards the late medieval theology the Reformers objected to. This is one reason why the term evangelical is now used to distinguish certain Protestants from others. The supreme authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone remain the central doctrinal tenets of evangelicalism. In the last half of the Twentieth Century, however, some who still call themselves evangelicals have compromised one or both of these doctrines. The reason they have been able to claim the label evangelical while compromising these Reformation doctrines is the other reason why the term evangelical now refers to some Protestants and not others. In eighteenth century England and even more so nineteenth century America, evangelicalism became a movement within Protestantism, a movement that still held to the final authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone but which now had a new emphasis on a certain kind of experience that distinguished it from other Protestants.
The Strength of Reformation Evangelicalism
Reformation evangelicalism’s biggest strength was its clear understanding of the New Testament’s teaching regarding personal salvation. In the Gospel of John everlasting life is repeatedly promised to those who believe in Jesus. The way these promises are worded, the interpretation “yes, it is necessary that you believe in Jesus, but if you don’t also meet these other conditions you will not have everlasting life even if you believe in Jesus” would violate the text. St. Paul repeatedly states that works do not play a part in our justification before God. “Therefore, by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight” (Rom 3:20), “Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law” (Rom 3:28) “But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5). In the epistle of Galatians, especially the third chapter, he makes it clear that this is not true only of initial justification but of the ongoing work of the Spirit in the lives of Christians as well. Nor can these plain meaning of these verses be escaped by arguing that they are talking only about the “works of the law”, that another kind of works, “the works of love” are necessary conditions in addition to faith, because making the “works of love” into conditions which must be met in order for us to be accepted by God eliminates any meaningful distinction between them and “works of the law”. Even the absence of baptism, the rite by which new believers publicly identified with the faith and were brought into the Church (Acts 2:41, 8:12, 36-38, 9:18, 10:47-48), which St. Peter associated with the remission of sins (Acts 2:38, 1 Peter 3:21) and St. Paul associated with the believer’s union with Christ (Rom. 6:3-4), is not an absolutely essential requirement in addition to faith in Jesus according to St. Mark’s account of the Great Commission (Mark 16:16).
This New Testament truth, and the related Johannine truth that by believing in Jesus Christ one can know that one has everlasting life (1 John 5:9-13), were made presented with absolute clarity in the teachings of Martin Luther and John Calvin, who taught that justification by faith alone, sola fide, was the article upon which the Church of Christ stands or falls, and that assurance was of the very essence of justifying faith.
If Reformation evangelicalism’s greatest strength was in the area of personal salvation there was a corresponding weakness in the area of the church as a collective body. The emphasis upon personal salvation led to the idea of Christianity as a private religion, a one-on-one relationship with God, and as a result Scriptural teaching about the church as a community of faith, as the collective object of God’s grace, began to suffer. The emphasis upon the Bible as the final authority led to the creeds, the writings of the Church fathers, and the church’s history of interpreting and applying the Scriptures, to be neglected and even dismissed. One result of this was that a heresy that plagued the early church returned in the nineteenth century to reshape evangelicalism.
The Evangelicalism of the Eighteenth Century
In the eighteenth century, revivals broke out in Europe, and especially in England and her colonies in North America. Out of these revivals, a new evangelicalism arose as a movement within Protestantism, rather than synonymous with Protestantism as sixteenth century evangelicalism was. Among the most important leaders in these revivals and the new evangelical movement were John and Charles Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards. The Wesleys and Whitefield were Anglican priests, but Jonathan Edwards was a minister in the non-conformist Congregationalist Church. John and Charles Wesley were Arminians, Whitefield and Edwards were Calvinists. What crossed the lines of these rather significant theological and denominational differences to create a distinct movement within Protestantism was a common emphasis upon a personal conversion experience.
This was a new emphasis. Not that previous evangelicals – or previous Christians in general – had denied the necessity of conversion. Nobody is born a believer so obviously to be a believer at some point one must be converted, i.e., become a believer. Earlier evangelicals, however, emphasized the content and object of faith, rather than the experience of conversion. The gospel, to Luther and Calvin, was not a set of instructions as to how a person can “get saved”, and both men would have considered that terminology to be an expression of damnable heresy. The gospel, was a message of good news, about how God has acted to save sinners, in the giving of His Son through His Incarnation, Atoning Death, and Resurrection. Jesus is the Saviour, it is by dying for us on the cross that He saved us. The benefits of this salvation come to us through faith, but faith is not our contribution to our own salvation. It is the appointed means of receiving salvation and is generated within us by the Holy Spirit through the means of the gospel message itself, as conveyed to us through the preaching of the Word and through the sacraments. The gospel directs our faith away from ourselves, our deeds, our experience, and even our faith itself, to Jesus Christ, His deeds, and His promises.
Reformation evangelicalism, in other words, whether Lutheran or Calvinist, had a monergistic doctrine of salvation. In salvation, God is the sole actor, the sole worker. Man contributes nothing to his salvation, he only receives it. Later, nineteenth century evangelicalism would depart from this entirely and embrace a synergistic view of salvation, in which God and man are co-workers, in which man makes a decision to be saved. Although the evangelical movement would continue to affirm “justification by faith alone”, its adoption of synergism stripped this doctrine of much of its meaning and power.
Eighteenth century evangelicalism had not yet departed this far from Reformation theology. It was a step in that direction both because it placed a new emphasis upon experience and because some of its leaders, the Wesleys, held to Arminianism which is a moderate form of synergism. John Wesley’s own testimony of conversion, however, is not of his having “made a decision for Jesus” but of going to a meeting where Luther’s preface to the Epistle of Romans was read where:
while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death (1)
Charles G. Finney – the Father of Modern Evangelicalism
What we call “evangelicalism” today, is a movement that began in the nineteenth century. It’s most distinctive characteristic is the preaching, in vulgar language and style, of the gospel to mass crowds of people. It is the most fitting expression of Christianity for an era of cheapness, vulgarity, mass production, mass society, and mass democracy. Such a movement could only have been born in one place.
The father of modern evangelicalism, was an American named Charles Grandison Finney. As a young lawyer working in New York, Finney came under conviction of sin in 1821 and headed out into the woods determined that “I will give my heart to God, or I never will come down from there.” After undergoing an experience which he described as a baptism of the Holy Spirit in which “I could feel the impression, like a wave of electricity, going through and through me. Indeed it seemed to come in waves of liquid love, for I could not express it in any other way” he returned to his law office the next morning to tell his client “I have a retainer from the Lord Jesus Christ to plead his cause and cannot plead yours.” After a brief period of training he was ordained by the Presbyterian Church – despite his contempt for the distinctive of Presbyterian theology – and became an itinerant evangelist.
Finney thought of the gospel more as an ultimatum than a message of good news about what God has done for us in Christ out of His love and grace. His sermons challenged his hearers to make a decision or take a stand for Jesus and provided them with the opportunity to do so there on the spot in the form of an altar call, an evangelistic method which he popularized.
While there is nothing wrong with prophetic ultimatums and calls to repentance, which in many cases are sorely needed, in Finney’s case his evangelistic methodology reflected deep theological error.
Finney was a professor of theology at Oberlin College, which he served as president from 1851 to 1865. His lectures on theology given at the college were later collected and published as his Systematic Theology. In these lectures there is the kind of emphasis upon God as law-giver, administrator, and judge that we would expect from a former lawyer. There are 34 lectures in the 1878 expanded edition, the first third of which pertain to moral law and government, and obedience and disobedience to it, in one way or another. The thirteenth and fourteenth lectures are about the atonement. The doctrine of the atonement taught by Finney is not that of orthodox Reformation evangelicalism.
Finney taught what is called the “governmental theory of the atonement”. In this theory, Christ’s death does not pay the penalty for the sins of the world or offer full satisfaction to God’s offended honour and justice. Indeed, Finney denied that Christ’s death could do either. He did not believe that either guilt or righteousness could be transferred from one person to another. He argued that Christ’s death could not have satisfied retributive justice against sin because “To suppose, therefore, that Christ suffered in amount, all that was due to the elect, is to suppose that He suffered an eternal punishment multiplied by the whole number of the elect.” (2) Instead, he wrote, “The atonement of Christ was intended as a satisfaction of public justice”. What he means by this, is that God was willing to pardon repentant sinners, but not if it created the impression that His law could be broken with impunity. The atonement was necessary to show that God did not pardon sinners lightly and without cost. In this theory, our sins were not imputed to Christ, He did not pay the full penalty for them, but He rather died as a representative of sinners, with this death being accepted instead of the full satisfaction of justice, to ensure that the pardon of sinners did not undermine God’s law and create anarchy.
The problems with this doctrine are multitude. It is a rationalistic doctrine, that draws its conclusions from human reasoning. It is also blasphemous. The reason, according to orthodox theology, that Christ’s suffering and death upon the cross could completely satisfy God’s retributive justice against all the sins of the whole world, is because the Person doing the suffering and dying is Himself eternal and infinite. To deny the infinite value of Christ’s atoning death is to deny the infinite value of His eternal Person. The orthodox doctrine of Christ’s atonement as penal substitution and satisfaction explains how God can save sinners without compromising either His justice and holiness on the one hand or His love and mercy on the other. Finney’s theory does not do so, but instead says that God out of His benevolence is quite willing to set aside the demands of His justice and holiness to pardon sinners, but requires an atonement for utilitarian, pragmatic reasons.
This doctrine suggests a weak view of God’s holiness and justice. A weak view of God’s holiness and justice usually goes hand-in-glove with a weak view of man’s sinfulness. That is the case with Finney. The sixteenth lecture in his Systematic Theology is entitled “Moral Depravity.” The term depravity, he says, “implies deterioration, or fall from a former state of moral or physical perfection”. (3) He distinguishes between physical depravity – disease – and moral depravity. The latter he says “is the depravity of free will, not of the faculty itself, but of its free action.” What this means, as Finney goes on to make clear, is that moral depravity means sinful choices and actions, not a sinful nature. “Moral depravity cannot consist in any attribute of nature or constitution, nor in any lapsed and fallen state of nature; for this is physical and not moral depravity.” (4)
This is a major heresy. Orthodox Christian doctrine teaches that man was created with a good nature in God’s own image but that when man sinned his nature was corrupted and that fallen, sinful, nature has been passed on to all subsequent generations of men. What Finney taught is virtually identical to the heresy of Pelagianism taught by and named after fourth-fifth century Celtic monk, Pelagius. Pelagius denied original sin and taught that man retains the capacity to reject sin and choose God by the power of his own will. Pelagius was opposed in his own day by St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, and his doctrine has been consistently rejected by orthodox Christians. Finney’s Pelagianism was certainly a departure from Reformation evangelicalism. Luther and Calvin were both Augustinians and in their theology, as in St. Augustine’s, the fact that man since the fall is sinful by nature and unable, therefore, to produce anything from his own will that is untainted by sin and acceptable to God is connected to the fact that salvation is by God’s grace alone like the two sides of a single coin.
The evangelical movement has not followed Finney in his denial that man’s nature and the faculty of his will are corrupted by sin. The influence of Finney’s Pelagianism, however, is quite visible in evangelicalism. Indeed, it can be seen in the distinguishing characterstic of modern evangelicalism.
“Born Again” Christianity
The third chapter of the Gospel according to St. John begins with the account of how Nicodemus, a Pharisee and a religious leader, came to Jesus and was told “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Nicodemus did not understand what this meant and asked Jesus how a man could re-enter the womb to be born a second time? Jesus answer was:
Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Marvel not that I said unto thee, Ye must be born again. The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit. (vv. 5-8)
Note carefully what Jesus says about the new birth here. The new birth which is necessary for one to enter the Kingdom is not a second physical birth but a spiritual birth. The spiritual birth is brought about by the Holy Spirit. Man can observe the effects of the spiritual birth but has no influence over when and where it occurs.
While the teachings of Reformation evangelicalism are consistent with what Jesus said here, the teachings of nineteenth and twentieth century evangelicalism are not. Contemporary evangelicalism is also called “born-again Christianity” but in its teachings, being born again is something you decide to do. There are countless evangelical books and tracts with titles like “how to be born again.” But “how to be born again” is precisely the question Nicodemus had asked only to receive the answer from Jesus, that being born again was not something he could do or have any control over, but was entirely the work of the Holy Spirit.
Many find this to be a threatening doctrine. If regeneration – theology’s technical term for the new birth – is essential to one’s entering the Kingdom of God, and is also a sovereign act of the Holy Spirit over which one has no control whatsoever, does this not mean that we are left with the uncertain hope that we will be among those God sovereignly choses to regenerate?
If that was where Jesus had left it that would be the case. In His response to Nicodemus’ next question “How can these things be?” He offers a certain assurance of salvation to anyone who is looking for one. He says:
And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life. For God so loved the world, that gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (vv. 14-16)
This has been called “the gospel in a nutshell”. God loved the world, and showed that love by giving the world His Son Jesus, Who would be crucified in order that everyone who believes in Him will not perish eternally, but have everlasting life. This is a testimony of hope and promise, presenting people with a Saviour in Whom to believe, and assuring them of everlasting life if they do believe. Nicodemus, and anyone else who believes this gospel, has in the gospel God’s word that he as a believer has everlasting life in Christ.
Before He gives these assuring words, Jesus explains what they have to do with being born again. Believing is not something we do in order to be born again. Faith is not an act of the will. It is a conviction brought about by testimony – as St. Paul explains “faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17) We can resist convicting testimony by the force of our will but we cannot generate faith at will. Jesus tells Nicodemus, that people find it difficult to believe Him when He testifies of things within their common sphere of experience – earthly things. How then will they be able to believe Him if He testifies of things outside of their experience, heavenly things, which only He as the One Who came down from heaven has firsthand experience of? The answer is that the Holy Spirit must convict people of the truth of His testimony. That is the only way they can believe. That is what the new birth is. The person who believes the gospel of Jesus Christ and in believing finds assurance of salvation has been born again.
The idea that the new birth is a decision we make comes from the Pelagian heresy of Charles G. Finney. In his lecture on “Moral Depravity” in his Systematic Theology, he says that the Bible calls upon unregenerate men to “repent, to make to themselves a new heart” and in his next lecture “Regeneration” he asserts that there are three agents in the new birth – the Holy Spirit, “the sinner changing his ultimate choice, intention, preference, or in changing from selfishness to love or benevolence; or, in other words, in turning from the supreme choice of self-gratification, to the supreme love of God and the equal love of his neighbor” (5), and other agents “one or more human beings concerned in persuading the sinner to turn.” Finney begins this lecture by saying that the reason orthodox theologians attribute the new birth to the Holy Spirit alone is because of their “dogma of constitutional moral depravity”, i.e., the Scriptural and orthodox doctrine of Original Sin, thus grounding his doctrine of decisional regeneration – the distinctive mark of contemporary evangelicalism – in his Pelagianism.
Shallow Conversions and Distorted Gospels
It has been observed from the beginning of the revivalist era that many who “make decisions for Christ” show little to no interest in any Christianity that goes beyond this initial experience. This is to be expected when the gospel message has been distorted. The doctrine that the new birth is a decision we make, an act of our will, is itself a major distortion of the gospel as we have seen. In evangelicalism that teaches this doctrine, a further distortion of the gospel has arisen in the evangelical lingo that has developed as a substitute for the Scriptural invitation to “believe in” Jesus Christ. Examples of this lingo include “give your heart to the Lord”, “invite Jesus into your heart”, “accept Jesus Christ as your personal Saviour”, and “make a commitment to Christ.” While some of these expressions are loosely based upon Scriptural texts each of them calls for an act of the will, none of them clearly says to believe in Jesus Christ rather than in our own efforts to save ourselves, and the differences between these expressions generates endless confusion.
Many evangelical leaders have recognized that there is a problem here and that the gospel as presented by mainstream evangelicalism is badly distorted. Some of these have called the evangelical movement to return to the evangelical theology of the Reformation. Others however, have proposed solutions that make the problem worse and distort the gospel further.
A classic example of this was the book The Gospel According to Jesus which came out in 1988. The author of this book, John F. MacArthur Jr., is the pastor of the non-denominational, evangelical megachurch Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, a popular radio Bible teacher, and the President of Master’s College and Seminary. The book’s main concerns that today’s evangelicalism is not presenting the gospel accurately and is producing many false conversions are legitimate concerns. MacArthur correctly identified the symptoms of the problem:
Listen to the typical gospel presentation nowadays. You’ll hear sinners entreated with words like “accept Jesus Christ as personal Saviour”; “ask Jesus into your heart”; “invite Christ into your life”: or “make a decision for Christ.” You may be so accustomed to hearing those phrases that it will surprise you to learn none of them is based on biblical terminology. They are the products of a diluted gospel. It is not the gospel according to Jesus. (6)
He did not, however, diagnose the problem correctly. He did not attribute this diluted gospel to the shift towards an experience-defined evangelicalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but instead blamed it upon the theology of Dallas Theological Seminary founder Lewis Sperry Chafer, in particular Chafer’s distinction, based upon 1 Corinthians 2-3, between “spiritual” and “carnal” Christians.
Having failed to diagnose the true cause of the problem, he proposes a solution that is worse than the disease. He redefined faith so as to eliminate the Pauline distinction between faith and works. Traditionally, theologians have broken down faith, which in the Bible is an internal conviction of the reality and trustworthiness of God (Heb 11:1, 6), into three parts – notitia, assensus, and fiducia. Notitia means understanding, assensus means agreement or assent, and fiducia means trust. MacArthur, however, redefined fiducia to mean obedience. He wrote that it is “a volitional element…which is the determination of the will to obey truth.” (7). Since obedience is the same thing as works, by redefining fiducia in this way, MacArthur smuggled works into faith, undermining the Pauline/Reformational doctrine of justification, and oblitering the Scriptural distinction between the way of salvation and the effects of salvation. Furthermore, by saying that fiducia is a “volitional element” he contradicted his own earlier assertion – on the same page –“that faith is not something conjured up by the human will but is a sovereignly granted gift of God” and essentially endorsed the Pelagian heresy of Charles Finney which is the true source of the problem he was trying to fix!
MacArthur is correct, of course, that the grace of God is transformational, that God is not content to pardon and forgive sinners while leaving them in bondage to sin. God’s grace transforms sinners into saints. This is a lifetime process, however, that is not complete until the believer enters the presence of the Lord. Furthermore, God’s grace operates in us by way of the means of His Word. His Word contains both Law and Gospel. The Law tells us what God demands of us, the Gospel tells us what God has freely given us. The Law shows us our sinful condition and our need of God’s grace. The Gospel tells us that God has given us everything we need in Jesus Christ. The Gospel tells us that everything God has given to us in Jesus Christ is ours through faith, which faith the Gospel itself is the means of generating. St. Paul in the epistle to the Galatian Church tells us that just as the Gospel and not the Law is the effective means of our justification – our being declared righteous by God – so the Gospel and not the Law is the effective means of our sanctification – the process whereby God transforms us from sinners into saints. What God demands of us in the Law, He gives us in the Gospel. While MacArthur accuses others of the heresy of antinominianism, by reading all of the demands Jesus made of His followers into the word “believe” in His Gospel promises, MacArthur is himself guilty of heresy of Galatianism, the mixing of Law and Gospel. Galatianism is a worse heresy than antinomianism because it compromises both the righteous demands of God in His Law and the freeness of His grace in the Gospel.
In The Gospel According To Jesus, MacArthur said little about assurance of salvation. What he did say is only half correct. He was right that contemporary evangelicalism may give many the false assurance that they are right with God because they have “made a decision”. He was wrong, however, to assert that “Genuine assurance comes from seeing the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in one’s life.” (8) This was the Puritans’ doctrine of assurance. (9) It is also the mistake of those turned away by Christ at the judgement in Matthew 7:21-23, of the goats in Matthew 25:31-46, and of the Pharisee in Luke 18:10-14. Those who Jesus says will come to Him at the judgement saying “Lord, Lord” – clearly they believed in “Lordship Salvation”- will point to the works they did in Jesus’ name, the goats believe that they have done the works of mercy and are surprised to hear Jesus say that they have not, and the Pharisee attributes the ways in which he differs from the publican, not to himself, but to God.
There are two parts to assurance, an objective part and a subjective part. Subjectively assurance is the experience of being certain of one’s salvation, objectively assurance is that which that certainty is based upon. Objective assurance should not itself be something subjective. One’s experience, whether it be a one-time event such as conversion or a lifetime of good works, is subjective. Scripturally, the Gospel itself is our objective assurance. The Gospel tells us that God has given us a Saviour in Christ and promises everlasting life to everyone who believes. Scripturally, therefore, the subjective experience of certainty of salvation comes by believing the Gospel for ourselves. It is indistinguishable from saving faith, as the Protestant Reformers correctly taught.
Evangelicalism, Fundamentalism, and Scriptural Authority
When in the nineteenth century, the distinguishing characteristic of evangelicalism ceased to be the doctrines of the Reformation and became a conversion experience in which a person made a decision for Jesus, this prepared the way for the erosion of orthodox doctrine in evangelicalism in the late twentieth century.
In the nineteenth century, while North American evangelicalism was re-defining itself around the doctrine of decisional regeneration, the Bible itself and the orthodox teachings of historical Christianity were being challenged in European academia. In the universities, it had become fashionable to think of theology as an intermediate stage in the development of human knowledge, superior to primitive mythology and superstition, but inferior to a scientific materialism in which the world is explained without acknowledging any reality beyond what is immediately available to reason and the senses. In the nineteenth century this sort of thinking began to seep into theological seminaries where it brought about a rationalistic rewriting of Christian theology. According to this new rationalistic “Christianity” the Bible was not actual revelation from God but a fallible record of man’s thoughts about God, Jesus was “divine” in the sense that there is a spark of the divine in all of us but He was not the eternal, omnipotent, Son of God come down from heaven to save mankind, the Gospel accounts of His birth and miracles were embellishments of His life which the early Christians borrowed from pagan mythology to deify Him, His Resurrection was not a literal event that actually occurred but a literary way of describing His disciples’ feeling that He was still with them in their hearts, and that stripped of all this mythological accoutrement, the real essence of Christianity is that under the Fatherhood of God all men are brothers, who ought to love and be nice to one another and to seek an end to social injustice caused by an inequitable division of the earth’s resources. This new theology was called modernism or liberalism and in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it spread throughout the Protestant denominations in Europe and in North America.
Orthodox Protestants resisted the influx of this unbelief disguised as faith into their churches. In 1910, the evangelical Bible Institute of Los Angeles (now Biola University) published the first of twelve volumes entitled The Fundamentals: A Testimony of the Truth. Edited by A. C. Dixon and R. A. Torrey, these volumes consisted of essays by conservative Protestants defending the authority, inspiration, and inerrancy of the Holy Scriptures and the historical, traditional, and Biblical doctrines of the Christian faith concerning the deity, incarnation, Virgin Birth, miracles, atoning death, and bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ, and critiquing liberalism and various other modern isms that were then in conflict with Scriptural orthodoxy. The contributors included Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists and Baptists from the United States, Britain, and Canada. The title of these pamphlets, later re-issued as a four volume hardback set, is one of the reasons why the cross-denominational, conservative Protestant movement in opposition to the growing liberalism in the early decades of the twentieth century came to be known as “fundamentalism”.
Fundamentalism was unsuccessful in its efforts to prevent a liberal takeover of the leadership of the mainline Protestant denominations and their seminaries. In fact the liberals became so powerful in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America that in the mid 1930’s they were able to defrock conservative theologian J. Gresham Machen. When Princeton Theological Seminary, the prestigious school at which Machen taught, began to move in a liberal direction in the late 1920’s, Machen protested and with several other conservative professors and students, left to found Westminster Theological Seminary. A couple of years later he organized the Independent Board for Presbyterian Foreign Missions for conservative Presbyterians who did not want to support missionaries who were promoting liberalism instead of Christianity. At the next meeting of the General Assembly of PCUSA he, and all the other members of the IBPFM were stripped of their ministerial credentials. Machen then led a conservative separatist movement out of the PCUSA that formed the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.
This began to happen in other denominations as well and in the 1930’s and 1940’s, fundamentalism evolved from a cross-denominational attempt to prevent liberalism from taking over the mainline Protestant denominations into a separatist movement. Not everyone who held to fundamentalist beliefs was happy with this new separatism, however, and in the 1950’s the separatists and the non-separatists went their separate ways. The separatists continued to call themselves fundamentalists while the non-separatists announced the beginning of a “new evangelicalism.” While this was the non-separatists own coinage, it was the fundamentalists who latched on to it as a term of opprobrium against the non-separatists. The “new evangelicals” themselves preferred to just call themselves “evangelicals”. (10)
The new evangelicals believed that fundamentalism’s separatism would make the movement increasingly isolated, self-righteous, and bitter, and the fundamentalists believed that the new evangelicalism would grow in its accommodation of liberalism to the point that the two would be scarcely indistinguishable. Each group was correct in its predictions about the other group.
It was only a few years after conservatives left the PCUSA to form the Orthodox Presbyterian Church that the conservatives themselves split, and a faction went off from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church to form the Bible Presbyterian Church. This happened among other fundamentalist denominations as well. After the fundamentalists and the new evangelicals fell out with each other, fundamentalist debated the degrees of separation among themselves – and this had nothing to do with Kevin Bacon. Should a fundamentalist separate only from heresy or should he separate from those who are orthodox and do not themselves separate from heresy? The latter is second degree separation and the debate did not stop there but went on to third and fourth degree separation as well. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a younger generation of fundamentalists such as Jerry Falwell that sought closer ties with the more conservative among evangelicals were dubbed “pseudo-fundamentalists” because they were not separatist enough.
Among the new evangelicals, however, doctrinal drift quickly set it. In the 1960’s and 19070’s, several evangelical leaders began to question the full inerrancy of the Bible. This became a significant enough problem that in 1984, in his last book published before his death later that year, Francis Schaffer described evangelicalism as a “house divided” on the watershed issue of Biblical inerrancy. Schaeffer wrote:
There is only one way to describe those who no longer hold to a full view of Scripture. Although many of these would like to retain the evangelical name for themselves, the only accurate way to describe this view is that it is a form of neo-orthodox existential theology. The heart of neo-orthodox existential theology is that the Bible gives us a quarry out of which to have religious experience, but that the Bible contains mistakes where it touches that which is verifiable—namely history and science. But unhappily we must say that in some circles this concept now has come into some of that which is called evangelicalism. In short, in these circles the neo-orthodox existential theology is being taught under the name of evangelicalism. (11)
This is only the beginning of evangelicalism’s doctrinal compromise and accommodation to an increasingly anti-Christian zeitgeist. In his fifth chapter, Schaeffer discusses how many evangelicals have adopted a “socialist mentality”, allowed humanism to seep into their thinking during their academic studies instead of insisting that Christ is Lord of all including the humanities, and accommodated to “the world spirit of this age” in the “whole area of marriage, family, sexual morality, feminism, homosexuality, and divorce”. (12). Evangelical compromise in these areas has gotten much worse in the almost thirty years since Schaeffer identified these problems.
What Schaeffer was decrying here, the acceptance of the ill-named neo-orthodox view of Scripture by those who call themselves evangelicals and the subsequent infiltration of evangelicalism by all sorts of unbiblical ideas was made possible by the shift in the nineteenth century away from defining “evangelical” by the doctrines of the Reformation to defining it by a conversion experience. If an evangelical is someone who has made a decision for Jesus then someone who can testify to having made such a decision is an evangelical even if he believes the Bible is not the Word of God but only contains the Word of God.
Evangelicalism began in the Reformation as a necessary response to the way Scriptural teaching about personal salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ had been obscured and corrupted in late medieval theology. Then evangelicalism’s focus shifted from doctrine to experience in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the twentieth century, evangelicalism became part of the fundamentalist movement that fought for the Bible and theological orthodoxy when liberalism began to sweep the Protestant churches then left the fundamentalist movement when fundamentalism adopted an unhealthy separatist mentality. Since then many within evangelicalism have abandoned Scriptural authority and orthodox doctrine a development made possible by the fact that evangelicalism is now largely defined by a shared experience – a decision for Christ – rather than by shared beliefs.
Why had Scriptural teaching about personal salvation become corrupted in the late medieval church making the evangelical Reformation necessary?
It had become corrupted through neglect because theology had focused for centuries upon the church as the collective object of God’s grace. The idea of the church as a collective object of God’s grace was not a wrong idea. It was and is a Scriptural truth. It was wrong, however, to focus so much on one truth that other truths are distorted or lost.
The evangelical Reformers recovered those distorted and lost truths. There is a tendency, however, when a movement is built upon the recovery of neglected truths for that movement to then emphasize those recovered truths to the neglect of the truth that was originally overemphasized. That has gradually happened in evangelicalism and it is one of the reasons the problems we have been looking at have popped up.
The Bible, as the written Word of God Himself, has authority over the traditions and institutional authority of the church. Church tradition, implicitly acknowledges this by its recognition of the Bible as the written Word of God. The Reformers were right to proclaim the supreme authority of the Scriptures. The Latin expression “sola Scriptura” however, had unfortunate connotations. Luther and Calvin had not intended to teach their followers that the ecumenical Creeds, the Patristic writings, and the canons of the church councils should be ignored. It was neglect of the lessons contained in these very things that allowed the Pelagian heresy to resurface and to have such an influence over the evangelical movement.
Salvation is the gift of God, given to us in the Person and Work of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which we personally receive by believing in Jesus. This is taught throughout the New Testament. Martin Luther was right to say that this is the article by which the church stands or falls. The church, however, is not just a collective term for individuals who have believed in Jesus.
The church in the New Testament has a corporate identity. It is an organic community, whose members are joined to one another to make a whole the way the organs in a body are linked to make a whole. Indeed, according to St. Paul it is the body of Christ Himself. The fathers of the church were correct to understand the church and its sacraments to be extensions of the principle of incarnation. The Incarnation was the miraculous event in which God the Son came down from Heaven and was born a Man, Jesus Christ. Through this miracle, God Who is Spirit, was manifest in the flesh. After Jesus ascended back to Heaven, the Father sent down the Holy Spirit to collectively indwell Christ’s disciples and unite them into His body the church, in which His presence on earth is continued. In the sacraments ordained by Christ – baptism and the Eucharist – God’s Word is joined to physical elements – water, bread, wine – which become vessels of the Word. As the invisible God was made manifest in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, so His Word is made tangible by being joined to the water of baptism and the bread and wine of Communion.
Unfortunately, much of evangelicalism, in its emphasis on personal salvation, has lost sight of these truths or even rejected them altogether, associating them with the errors of Rome. As a result, evangelical ecclesiology tends to show the strong influence of the liberal individualism of the modern age. Evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to separate the church as an organized institution from the church as the mystic body of Christ. The latter they tend to see as individuals who share a common faith in Jesus Christ (in Reformation evangelicalism) or who have made a decision for Jesus (in nineteenth century evangelicalism), and the former, the organized, institutional, church they tend to see as a human construction, created by individual believers to facilitate common worship and the spread of the gospel. Hence the willingness to separate from the organized, institutional church and abandon it to heresy among twentieth century fundamentalists. Prior to the evangelical movement separatist movements from the established church had generally been led by non-Trinitarian heretics.
What evangelicalism desperately needs is to abandon the influence of Finney’s Pelagianism, return to the Scriptural doctrines of the Reformation, and to balance these doctrines with a renewed emphasis upon those truths within the larger tradition of Christianity that it has neglected since its legitimate protest against the errors of Rome.
(2) Charles Finney, Finney’s Systematic Theology: The Complete & Newly Expanded 1878 Edition, (Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 1994), p. 219
(3) Ibid, p. 243.
(5) Ibid, p. 274.
(6) John F. MacArthur Jr., The Gospel According to Jesus: What Does Jesus Mean When He Says “Follow Me”?, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1988), p. 21. At the time MacArthur wrote this book he denied the eternal Sonship of Christ. In 1999 he announced that he had changed his mind and now believed in the eternal Sonship. In his previous understanding he had distinguished between Christ’s deity and His Sonship. The problem with that view is that Christ’s eternal Sonship is an essential element of the doctrine of the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are eternal, the Son is not created but is eternally begotten of the Father, whereas the Holy Spirit is neither created nor begotten, but proceeds (whether from the Father alone or from the Father and the Son is a point of contention between the Eastern and Western Church – the eternal Sonship of Christ is not). MacArthur, upon changing his views, still did not seem to appreciate how serious an error his previous position was.
(7) Ibid, p. 173.
(8) Ibid, p. 23.
(9) The Puritans were a group of English Calvinists who were not satisfied with the reforms in the Church of England and demanded that the episcopacy be abolished and that Anglican rituals and practices be stripped of everything coming from the Catholic tradition that could not be shown to be commanded by the New Testament. They were also republicans with a tendency towards sedition. In the seventeenth century they deposed King Charles I of England in the English Civil War, and installed the dictator Oliver Cromwell as regnant governor of England. Anthony M. Ludovici described the Puritans as a class of merchants, enriched in the sixteenth century with lands expropriated from the Church by King Henry VIII, who deposed King Charles because he opposed their plans to replace beautiful, rural, English villages with ugly, industrial, cities and turn their fellow Englishmen into wage-slaves in their factories. Anthony M. Ludovici, A Defence of Aristocracy: A Textbook For Tories (London: Constable and Company, 1915, 1933) pp. 103-236. According to Ludovici the reason the Puritans wanted church services to be free of liturgical beauty and to consist of long, boring, sermons, and sought to ban all entertainment on Sundays, was to make the day of rest so miserable that the workers would be glad to return to the factories. Calvinism, like the Reformer it was named after, placed a strong emphasis upon the doctrines of election and predestination – that God had chosen in eternity past whom He would save and predestined His elect for heaven. Calvin like Luther, had taught that assurance of salvation was to be found by looking away from oneself to the promises of God in Christ. He wrote “But if we are elected in him, we cannot find the certainty of our election in ourselves; and not even in God the Father, if we look at him apart from the Son. Christ, then, is the mirror in which we ought, and in which, without deception, we may contemplate our election. For since it is into his body that the Father has decreed to ingraft those whom from eternity he wished to be his, that he may regard as sons all whom he acknowledges to be his members, if we are in communion with Christ, we have proof sufficiently clear and strong that we are written in the Book of Life”. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, III:24:5. The Puritans, however, had abandoned Calvin’s teachings on assurance and taught that the Christian must seek evidence of his election through rigorous self-examination. Needless to say, this teaching generated more doubt that assurance and in many cases drove people insane (the poet William Cowper being a famous example of this).
(10) The history of fundamentalism, evangelicalism, and their divergence from each other is told by historian George M. Marsden in his Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) and his Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminar and the New Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995). For the same history from perspectives within the fundamentalist movement see George W. Dollar’s A History of Fundamentalism in America (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1973) and The Fight For Fundamentalism: American Fundamentalism 1973-1983 (self-published, 1983) and David Beale, In Pursuit of Purity: American Fundamentalism since 1850 (Greenville: Bob Jones University Press, 1986).
(11) Francis A. Schaeffer, The Great Evangelical Disaster (Westchester, Illinois: Crossway Books, 1984) pp. 49-50)
A Protestant Christian, patriotic Canadian, and a reactionary High Tory with a libertarian streak, at the same time a monarchist, indeed a royal absolutist, and a minarchist.
You can e-mail me at gerrytneal(at)hotmail(dot)ca