In his small book, What Is An Evangelical?, Martin Lloyd-Jones says a number of helpful things (along with some pretty unhelpful ones). But one of the helpful ones was this — “The next thing, clearly, about the evangelical is the tremendous emphasis that he puts upon the rebirth. This is absolutely basic to him . . .” (p. 56).
But before proceeding further, it is necessary to head off misunderstandings. An evangelical is someone who emphasizes, as Lloyd-Jones puts it, the absolute necessity of the new birth. But doing this doesn’t mean that he is born again. The Spirit moves as he wills, and not when we snap our fingers, proclaiming the right formulae. Being born again is not the same thing as saying, “You must be born again.” And flipped around, there are saints who do not maintain or emphasize the doctrine of the new birth as I am arguing they ought to — but who are godly, fruitful saints nonetheless. There are plenty of born-again people who wouldn’t call it that, and there are plenty of evangelicals who need to get saved. Life is messy.
Speaking on a personal note, much of my Christian life has been shaped and formed by godly teachers that I would not describe as evangelicals. The patron saint of this weird set up would be C.S. Lewis. He was not an evangelical, but his godliness and insight have been a major contributor in making me a better Christian . . . and evangelical.
Another way of putting this could be fun. Let us speak of visible evangelicalism and invisible evangelicalism. Visible evangelicalism is a set of doctrinal commitments and priorities. I am arguing for the importance of those things, especially as a set of strategic commitments for preachers, which I will explain a bit more further down.
I said in an earlier post that I am a catholic evangelical, not a sectarian one. This means that the boundaries of my fellowship extend beyond what I believe to be important for me to emphasize in my preaching and writing.
In the realm of the visible Church, and using some shorthand, I would define a Christian as one who is committed to the truths found in the Apostles’ Creed. I would define a Reformed Christian as one who is committed to the five solas – sola Scriptura, sola gratia, sola fide, solus Christus, and soli Deo gloria. An evangelical is one who emphasizes a strict biblicism, an activist spirit, and a crucicentric proclamation of the gospel resulting in the new birth. You can see at a glance that most of this last definition is found in the Reformation tradition, with the one exception of emphasizing the new birth. And that was emphasized in certain quarters during the Reformation era also, but not across the board.
So when I said in an earlier post that Jim Jordan was not an evangelical, it is important not to jump to the wrong conclusions. If someone assumes that non-evangelicals don’t believe in salvation by grace, then to say someone is not an evangelical means that they will hear that he “must not believe in sola gratia.” In Jim’s case, that would be crazy — he is thoroughly Reformed, committed to the sovereignty of God in all things, including salvation. It is all of grace. For another example of this same thing, pietist Lutherans are evangelical in the sense I am using, but many other Lutherans are not evangelical at all. But the fact that a Lutheran is not evangelical does not mean that he denies sola gratia — that would be absurd. And a number of non-evangelical Lutherans have a better doctrinal understanding of grace than many evangelicals do. Again, life is messy.
So why go on about this? What’s the importance of it? What’s the big deal? I am arguing this way as a pastor, as a shepherd of souls, as a preacher. I want my people to get their doctrine right, of course, just as I want them to get their worship right, and so on. But fundamentally, I want them to go to Heaven with me. This is the goal of all ministry.
“Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus” (Col. 1:28).
As we have been engaged in the work of establishing our congregation here, over the years I have seen very clearly the ability that (not a few) professing Christians have to be attracted to a work just like ours, to join with us, to check the doctrinal and liturgical boxes, to present their babies for baptism, to come to worship regularly, and yet to live in ways (in private and openly within their families) that the Bible describes as utterly inconsistent with inheriting the kingdom of Heaven. And we must speak about this as the Bible does, when there is biblical warrant for doing so.
“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor. 6:9-10).
“Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these; Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:19-21).
“For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (Eph. 5:5).
So how is a pastor to get at that stuff? I don’t know any other way to be a pastor to such people than to insist, repeatedly, on the necessity of the new birth. If they were regenerate, they wouldn’t be living like that. Everything else we might ask them to do, they have done — and yet the anger continues, the porn use continues, the drunkenness continues, the sorrow that leads only to death continues. If such a person says, defiantly, that he will not quit whatever it is, then of course the problem is solved through church discipline. That’s what church discipline is for.
But what if such a person professes repentance every time (Luke 17:4)? At a certain point, a wise pastor has to raise the possibility that what this parishioner really needs to do is “get saved.” But in order to do that, there has to be a theological framework for it. You don’t want a pornmeister blinking at you uncomprehendingly. “But I am saved. You baptized me.”
As any experienced pastor can tell you, this is not a hypothetical problem. This is life in the visible church, and I really think our discussions of clerical garb should always start with the muck boots.
So I have no quarrel with godly Lutherans who differ with me here. My quarrel is not with Jim Jordan (although I have argued the point with him). My target is manifest ungodliness in covenant members that I have a basic spiritual responsibility for. I don’t want them to go to Hell, and I don’t want to them to be able to pick up the wrong ideas as a shield (that they assembled from the words of good and godly Christians), but which they will use to deflect the words of life away from their unregenerate hearts and souls.
In other words, this is not about my fellowship at all. I am not agitating for division from any of my friends who differ with me on any of this. It is simply about my adoption of an evangelical strategy to keep our efforts at reformation and revival from descending into a chaos of lusts. I believe this is what it means to warn every man (Col. 1:28).