Archive: What is Evangelicalism?


By Bruce R. Shelley

Condensed by permission from “Evangelicalism in America,” published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan

On his first Sunday in Georgia in 1735, John Wesley, the young Anglican missionary destined to become the founder of The Methodist Church, sought out a leader of the Moravians, a devout band of Christians working in the colony. En route to Georgia, Wesley’s ship had nearly broken to splinters during a storm. The nerves of all on board, including the seamen, had been severely shaken—all, that is, except a group of Moravians. Their peaceableness when the sea split the mainsail, and the joy of their singing, had deeply impressed the fearful missionary. So Wesley, once in Georgia, made it a point to seek out Spangenberg, the leader of the Moravians, to ask for advice about his own conduct.

“Do you know yourself’?” Spangenberg asked him. “Have you the witness within yourself’? Does the Spirit of God bear witness with your spirit that you are a child of God? ”

Wesley was startled at such directness and scarcely knew what to say.

His Moravian interrogator noticed his hesitancy and discomfort and so he pressed home an even more personal question. “Do you know Jesus Christ? ”

Wesley hedged. “I know He is the Savior of the world.”

“True,” responded Spangenberg, “But do you know He has saved you?”

Thoroughly at a loss, Wesley stammered feebly, “I hope He has died to save me.”

But Spangenberg insisted, “Do you know yourself’?”

In order to free himself from a most embarrassing situation Wesley convincingly said he did. “But,” he later added in admirable honesty, “I fear they were vain words.”

That discomforting interview was a landmark in Wesley’s pilgrimage toward assurance of salvation. It is also a disclosure of the inner essence of evangelicalism.

From the Philippian jailer who asked his praying prisoners, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”, to Wesley who squirmed under the heat of Spangenberg’s, “Do you know Jesus Christ?”, to a teenage terror off the streets of New York who bows in repentance at a Billy Graham Crusade, one major theme runs through that type of Christianity called evangelicalism. That theme is the necessity of personal salvation.

The word “evangelical ” is used in our time to designate a group of Protestant churches in Germany, “low church ” sympathies in the Church of England, Christians in the Wesleyan tradition, and American fundamentalists. It is most accurately employed, however, in referring to all within Protestant Christianity who emphasize salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching in contrast to ritual as a means of saving grace. …

In simplest terms, an evangelical is a Christian who accepts and lives the Gospel, for evangelion is merely the Greek word for “good news.” In our English Bibles it is often translated “gospel,” which is an old Anglo-Saxon word meaning “good (god) tale (spell).”

But what is the Gospel? It is the blessed bulletin about Jesus Christ (Mark 1:1). It broadcasts that in Him the promises of God, extended to His people in Old Testament times, are fulfilled. In Him the Kingdom, the rule of God over men, has come (Matthew 4:23 and 12:28) and through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection from the grave, all the enemies of man’s soul—Satan, sin and death—have been defeated. In His cross, rebellious men and holy God are reconciled (II Corinthians 5: 19); and in His resurrection new life becomes a present possibility for every man (Romans 4:25).

Evangelicalism, then, begins its explanation of true religion where Jesus began, with “repent and believe the gospel ” (Mark I:15). It emphasizes man’s need for a spiritual rebirth in the experience of conversion. Man is not by nature what he must be in order to please God. The change of heart he needs comes only by a creative act of God in response to his deeply meaningful repentance and his living faith in Christ. This emphasis on spiritual rebirth is the genius of evangelicalism. On one occasion, somebody asked George Whitefield, the tireless evangelist of the Methodist revival, “Mr. Whitefield, why do you preach so often on ‘Ye must be born again’?”

“Because,” replied the great revivalist, fixing his questioner with a solemn gaze, “‘Ye must be born again’.”

Evangelicals believe that there are two basic types of religion, the interior-personal and the exterior-institutional. They emphasize the first because they are persuaded that the Holy Spirit must do a work in the human heart. Only He can convict of sin and lead the penitent to a renunciation of his sins. And only He can provide the spiritual power necessary to live a transformed life. That is why evangelicals are more concerned about inner personal depth than they are about external churchly conformity.

The spiritual descendants of Wesley and Whitefield differ from many in contemporary Christianity in holding that conversion is a definite, decisive, and profound experience. Without endorsing his total philosophy, evangelicals share the views of Soren Kierkegaard, the nineteenth-century Danish Socrates, when he insists, “As an individual, quite literally as an individual, to relate oneself to God personally is the formula for being a Christian …. If once this occurs, then it is an event incomparably more important than a European war and a war which involves all the corners of the earth, it is a catastrophic event which moves the universe to its profoundest depths. … He whose life does not present relative catastrophes of this sort has never, not even in the remotest approximation, had recourse as an individual to God—that is just as impossible as to touch an electrical machine without receiving a shock.”

The indispensable means of gaining God’s new life, evangelicals are persuaded, is by believing the Gospel. Doctrine, then, is important. Evangelicals hold with all orthodox Christians the great cardinal truths of God’s revelation. They confess the divine Trinity; they accept Christ’s deity and atoning death; they look for a bodily resurrection and a judgment to come; they believe in the Church and the necessity of grace. Evangelicalism cannot long survive without orthodox beliefs. In evangelicalism, personal faith is wed to propositional faith. Jesus did not say, “Repent and believe your personal impressions.” He preached, “Repent and believe the gospel!

Evangelicals know, however, that the balance between truth as proposition and truth as personal is a delicate one. On the one hand, the loss of spiritual dynamic often jeopardizes basic doctrinal truths. The followers of Wesley agree with Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s colleague, when he observes that theology is a matter of the heart as well as the head. Cold hearts, they know, find it hard to embrace the great revealed truths of God’s Word. In a lukewarm congregation, the surrender of basic truth is so gradual that it is hardly perceptible. First comes a de-emphasis on the value of doctrine. Then, old terms are used with new and equivocal meanings and the naive are misled. The process can only end in spiritual destruction.

On the other hand, churches sometimes react to a loss of spiritual power by seeking to strengthen their theological positions. As W. Curry Mavis argues, “Theologians then compensate for the loss of inner vitality by rigidly defining doctrinal positions. Theological i’s are dotted and doctrinal t’s are crossed with a note of ultimate finality. This leads to a doctrinaire situation which is lifeless and empty.”

For these reasons, evangelicals, while holding to orthodox beliefs, insist that Christianity is more than theological orthodoxy and religious conservatism. It is a spirit, a concern for sinners, a way of life. Its master motif is the salvation of souls; its guiding image the redemptive Gospel of Jesus Christ. All other considerations are subordinated to this standard.

“Orthodoxy, I say, or right opinion,” Wesley once said, “is but a slender part of religion at best, and sometimes no part at all. I mean, if a man be a child of God, holy in heart and life, his right opinions are but the smallest part of his religion: if a man be a child of the devil, his right opinions are no part of religion, they cannot be; for he that does the works of the devil has no religion at all.”

It was this recognition that truth is to be tested by love, that the practical and experiential outcome of belief counts for more than mere soundness of view, which marked the evangelical approach to doctrine.

This pre-eminent concern for experienced Christianity explains why evangelicals have differed with each other over the relation of God’s electing choice to man’s free will, and yet have found unity in the message of salvation.

In his book Protestant Thought Before Kant, A. C. McGiffert makes a discerning observation. “It is not surprising,” he says, “that the Calvinist Whitefield regarded Wesley’s Arminian views as extremely dangerous, and that the two men fell into open and bitt er controversy. But it is an interesting commentary upon the Gospel’s indifference to philosophy and theology that men representing … two radically diverse types of thought should both accomplish so tremendous practical results.

Ever since the time of Wesley and Whitefield there has been both Arminian and Calvinistic evangelicalism. But the underlying interest of the two types has been essentially the same, and their differences superficial and unimportant. …

Not all evangelicals will agree that the difference between Calvinists and Arminians are unimportant. But all will concur that the Gospel is the one indispensable particular for Biblical Christianity. …

That dimension of depth in faith, which evangelicals seek, has too often been missing in Christendom. The difference between profession of an orthodox creed, evangelicals are persuaded, and the personal experience of Christ is the difference between thumbing through a National Geographic and standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. The Church has known her periods of decadent orthodoxy, but she has never witnessed a decadent evangelicalism. When the spirit of evangelicalism dies, it ceases to exist.

In harmony with this dominating theme of regeneration, evangelicals stress certain other doctrinal motifs. For example, the fall of man …. “We are already bound hand and foot,” Wesley preached, “by the chains of our own sins. These … are chains of iron and fetters of brass. They are wounds wherewith the world, the flesh and the devil have gashed and mangled us all over. They are diseases that drink up our blood and spirits, that bring us down to the chambers of the grave. ”



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