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What is an Evangelical and Who Cares?

I wrote in The 10 Second Rule, that some words wear out. By that I meant, that over time certain words lose their original meaning. The term evangelical is just such a word. Today most Protestants consider themselves evangelicals unless they are theological liberals.

To be an Evangelical has also become synonymous in the general public’s mind with “Republican right wing evangelical,” and therefore associated with a political party.

So what is an evangelical?

The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) and Life Way Research spent a few years a decade ago trying to find a common definition to clear up the confusion.

Rather than trying to define an evangelical by behavior, they choose to define one by what they believe – their theology. However, to my way of thinking, our behavior flows from whatever it is that we truly believe therefore you cannot separate the two. I’ll try to illustrate how that works in real life as we work through these ideas.

In the end, the NAE simply restated what most true evangelicals have always believed.

An evangelical believes with conviction;

  1. The Bible is our highest authority for faith and life.

  2. All true evangelicals have the responsibility to personally encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

  3. Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

  4. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Who cares?

Why do we care who calls themselves an evangelical or not? Well, for one, many people like to think of themselves as a “conservative Christian,” but in fact, they aren’t! In a national phone survey conducted by Life Way Research, 59% of Protestants self-identified as evangelicals. However, only half of them strongly agreed with all four statements above and therefore, at least by that definition are not evangelicals at all!

What the researchers concluded was, that the term conservative Christian, or evangelical has drifted to mean Christians who are conservatives on social issues, but not necessarily on theological issues.

You know you’re an evangelical if…

Jeff Foxworthy is a stand-up comic, who’s trademark jokes begin with this line, “You know you’re a redneck if…” And then he’ll deliver a humorous punch line that has some exaggerated truth in it.

So, here’s why being a true theological evangelical is so important today, and how that ought to work itself out in how we behave.

  1. You know if you’re an evangelical if you have enough concern for spiritually lost people to regularly share the gospel with them. If you don’t do that, you should not consider yourself an evangelical.

  2. You’ll know if you’re an evangelical if you make your moral choices based on the Bible, regardless of what your friends think, or what you personally desire. So, if you’re publicly or privately living in unrepentant sin, you’re not an evangelical, regardless of your insistence that you, “believe in the Bible.”

  3. You’ll know you’re an evangelical if you are convicted that without a person believing in Jesus Christ as the only way to be right with God, they are lost. If you believe there are other ways to God, you are not an evangelical.

  4. You’ll know if you’re an evangelical if you consider God, speaking through the Bible, to be your ultimate spiritual authority, and not your church, or any human. And that the purpose for your very existance is to live out the teachings of Jesus.

Are all true Christians, evangelicals?

I need to say that even if you don’t believe strongly in the four pillars of evangelicalism, you still may be a Christian. Why? Because to be a true follower of Jesus, requires more than simply believing a set of doctrinal positions. Jesus never called us to be evangelicals. True followers of Jesus regularly confess and repent of their sins. They love God and want to live for God. They love others as much as they love themselves.

The defining character of true faith in Jesus Christ is courageous obedience to everything Jesus taught – and not doctrinal perfection!

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