So what is an evangelical?
The Greek word for gospel or good news is evangel, and so the first and primary meaning of the word should be a reference to someone who accepts the truth of that proclamation. And here at the very beginning of our work we see the conundrum that has necessitated further developments of that word. Someone who believes the truth of that proclamation, or someone who really believes it?
The evangel is nicely summarized by the Apostles Creed. This is an objective message, outside ourselves. God, for us men and for our salvation, sent down the Lord Jesus to die for our sins, be buried, and to be raised for our justification. An evangelist is someone who preaches that message, and an evangelical is someone who believes him. But to project our meaning of evangelical back into the early history of the church would be anachronistic. They didn’t talk about it that way.
The word evangelical began to be used widely as a result of the Lutheran Reformation. In this sense it was simply a term for the Lutherans, and referred primarily to the recovery of the objective gospel, the evangel. In this sense, it was like the early church — pointing to the realities of the objective gospel — but in this case the word began to be used to describe those who embraced the recovery of this gospel. There was a great revival of the Spirit going on, but the word was not pointing to anything inside the believer particularly.
Things began to change among the Reformed. As the gulf between Lutherans and Reformed grew, an emphasis on personal regeneration began to grow among the Reformed. In my view, this was the result of the basic disagreement between Reformed and Lutheran on the sacraments. Calvin was closer to Luther than to Zwingli in his view of the Lord’s Supper, but closer to Zwingli in what he believed ought to be the basis of ecclesiastical unity. That watershed was, in my view, highly significant, and helped to get us here.
But for whatever reason, an emphasis developed on distinguishing the regenerate from the unregenerate, even within the confines of the Reformed church, or indeed, especially within the confines of the Reformed church. It boils down to this. If you can have two baptized men, members in good standing in a good church, both of them communing regularly, and both of them deacons, and one of them has God for his Father, and the other one has the devil for his father, then it is necessary to develop a theological category to process this. The Reformed, at least as far as their confessional standards went, developed this with the language of personal regeneration.
Here are a few examples. The Belgic Confession says this:
“We believe that this true faith, produced in man by the hearing of God’s Word and by the work of the Holy Spirit, regenerates him and makes him a ‘new man,’causing him to live the ‘new life’ and freeing him from the slavery of sin” (Art. 24).
The Heidelberg Catechism, asking whether we are so corrupt as to be incapable of doing any good, replies in this way: “Indeed we are . . . except we are regenerated by the Spirit of God” (Q. 8). Regeneration addresses the problem of our innate depravity. In questions 71 and 73, the explicit issue of the distinction between regeneration and the laver of regeneration (baptism) comes up. Baptism with water is the promise of cleansing, and the blood and the Spirit actually wash us from our sins, just as the water of baptism washes our bodies.
The 39 Articles distinguish the damned from the regenerate (Art. IX), and says that baptism is a “sign of regeneration or new birth” (Art. XXVII).
The Irish Articles are quite plain:
“All God’s elect are in their time inseparably united unto Christ by the effectual and vital influence of the Holy Ghost, derived from him as from the head unto every true member of his mystical body. And being thus made one with Christ, they are truly regenerated, and made partakers of him and all his benefits” (Art. 33).
“And because this [one Catholic] Church consisteth of all those, and those alone, which are elected by God unto salvation, and regenerated by the power of his Spirit, the number of whom is known only unto God himself: therefore it is called the Catholic or universal, and the Invisible Church” (Art. 68).
The Canons of Dordt are explicit and detailed on this subject.
“Moreover, when God carries out this good pleasure in his chosen ones, or works true conversion in them, he not only sees to it that the gospel is proclaimed to them outwardly, and enlightens their minds powerfully by the Holy Spirit so that they may rightly understand and discern the things of the Spirit of God, but, by the effective operation of the same regenerating Spirit, he also penetrates into the inmost being of man, opens the closed heart, softens the hard heart, and circumcises the heart that is uncircumcised. He infuses new qualities into the will, making the dead will alive, the evil one good, the unwilling one willing, and the stubborn one compliant; he activates and strengthens the will so that, like a good tree, it may be enabled to produce the fruits of good deeds” (Art. 11).
“And this is the regeneration, the new creation, the raising from the dead, and the making alive so clearly proclaimed in the Scriptures, which God works in us without our help. But this certainly does not happen only by outward teaching, by moral persuasion, or by such a way of working that, after God has done his work, it remains in man’s power whether or not to be reborn or converted. Rather, it is an entirely supernatural work, one that is at the same time most powerful and most pleasing, a marvelous, hidden, and inexpressible work, which is not lesser than or inferior in power to that of creation or of raising the dead, as Scripture (inspired by the author of this work) teaches. As a result, all those in whose hearts God works in this marvelous way are certainly, unfailingly, and effectively reborn and do actually believe. And then the will, now renewed, is not only activated and motivated by God but in being activated by God is also itself active. For this reason, man himself, by that grace which he has received, is also rightly said to believe and to repent” (Art. 12).
The Westminster is strongest on this subject in the chapter on the effectual call, which is, in effect, another name for the same reality of a regenerating conversion.
“They who are effectually called and regenerated, having a new heart and a new spirit created in them, are further sanctified, really and personally, through the virtue of Christ’s death and resurrection, by his Word and Spirit dwelling in them; the dominion of the whole body of sin is destroyed, and the several lusts thereof are more and more weakened and mortified, and they more and more quickened and strengthened, in all saving graces, to the practice of true holiness, without which no man shall see the Lord” (WCF 13.1).
The Confession openly acknowledges that members of the visible church can be unregenerate.
“Although hypocrites, and other unregenerate men, may vainly deceive themselves with false hopes and carnal presumptions: of being in the favor of God and estate of salvation; which hope of theirs shall perish (WCF 18.1).
Now the Reformed had this emphasis, and it was a pronounced emphasis. But they did not call what they were talking about evangelical — that had to await further developments.
The Reformed emphasis and heritage was overwhelmingly predominant in the English-speaking world (as distinct from the Lutheran emphasis), and this lasted for about 150 years, after which there was a great Evangelical Awakening (there’s our word again) in England. It was called the Great Awakening here. Led by Whitefield and Wesley, a spotlight was put on the necessity of the new birth, but the spotlight was on getting people to experience it, and not just affirm it.
Whitefield remained within the Reformed and Calvinistic heritage, while Wesley veered from it. But both pressed the absolute necessity of the new birth. The negative result of this was a disparagement of the institutional church, while the positive result was that a bunch of people got saved. Over the next century and a half, the need for personal regeneration came into high prominence in the revivalistic movements that swept certain portions of North America, Scotland and Wales.
This revivalistic approach did not overemphasize personal regeneration; they actually under-emphasized everything else. Over time, this evangelical tradition developed its own culture (although it was largely an ecclesiastical culture), and the last and best representative of this tradition (in the Whitefieldian or Edwardian stream of it) was Martyn Lloyd-Jones. In the Wesleyan stream I would put revivalists like D.L. Moody and Billy Graham. Ironically, the non-Reformed stream has had a larger impact on the surrounding culture outside the church than the Reformed stream of it has, at least in North America, which is one of those weird, go-figure things.
I am a product of this evangelical culture. I am conversant in it, and in some ways, at home in it. But after Jimmy Carter made it okay for everybody to be “born-again,” North American evangelicalism exploded and became a huge mountain range of cotton candy, and of course, that kind of thing makes me crazy. I have been at war with that stuff for some decades now. But the older, sober forms of evangelicalism — represented by men like Carl Henry, Lloyd-Jones, or A.W. Tozer — is worthy of our respect, a respect that I love to render. They were guarding something that I also want to guard, even as we labor to restore some of the lost reformational emphases — such as the need for a higher view of the Church, and a resultant Christendom. I think the world of Lloyd-Jones, but of course, because of a number of things that I am laboring to bring back, I have no reason to think that he would think the world of me. I actually think he would look at me with squinty eyes.
I don’t want us to be playing evangelical whack-a-mole. The earthier aspects of the Reformed faith were whacked for the sake of revivalism. But if we whack “revivalism,” and begin to neglect preaching for true and abiding conversion, then we are just going to rebuild the kind of cobwebby Christendom that the next Kirkegaard will have a ball making fun of.
Now I am a minister in the Communion of Reformed Evangelical Churches. What does “Evangelical” mean here? The reference in our name affirms the fundamental need for a new birth for all men, but only as our respective Reformed confessions articulate it. I have drawn a connection between our North American forms of evangelicalism and the classic evangelicalism of the Reformed confessions, but it is not “non-evangelical” to disagree with me about that connection. There are any number of ministers in our gathering of churches who do not have the same warm spot in their heart that I do for the two sober clowns remaining in the modern circus of evangelicalism, and that is perfectly okay. But all of us are committed to our classical and confessional expressions of the reality that our use of the word evangelical points to.