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Timely Messages from Honored Guests

Evangelical and Unashamed

Os Guinness is an internationally renowned speaker and the author of numerous books, including Time for Truth, The Gravedigger File, and Long Journey Home. An Englishman, he was born in China and holds degrees from the universities of London and Oxford.

“Do you mind my asking?” The speaker hesitated and dropped his voice as if about to say something embarrassingly personal.

“Forgive me for putting it so bluntly.” And he hesitated again, finally coming to the point with a kid-gloved delicacy, “But are you . . . an EE-VAN-gelical?”

“Absolutely,” I said, “I’m an evangelical. But probably not in the sense you mean. I have no interest in cultural evangelicalism. I am an evangelical in the tradition of John Stott, William Wilberforce, John Wesley, Martin Luther, or further back still, of St. Francis of Assisi.”

That little exchange earlier this year with one of the world’s most famous journalists illustrates a major obstacle to any attempt to win back our culture for Christ. In the English-speaking world, the term evangelical has become so distorted that it hangs like a millstone around the necks of those who accept it and rises up like a stumbling block for those on the outside.

Indeed, evangelicalism today is a prime blockage to evangelism and the cause of the gospel itself, and not surprisingly, the number of ex-evangelicals, post-evangelicals, former evangelicals, and disgruntled evangelicals is growing by the day, especially among the younger generation.

Should we then abandon the term? Not at all. Words that are not essential should be discarded when encrusted with alien meanings over time, but words that are essential should be restored and brought back to their original power and freshness—and to do that with the word evangelical is close to the essence of the term itself.

What does it mean to be evangelical? Put simply, to be evangelical means to define ourselves and our lives by the first things of the good news (the evangel) of Jesus Christ.

Needless to say, this needs to be spelled out more sharply and, more importantly, to be lived out more clearly.

First, to be evangelical has nothing to do with cultural and political identifications. It is neither the Republican Party nor the Democratic Party at prayer. All such lesser badges and trademarks come and go, but to be evangelical is an allegiance to Jesus Christ that transcends all other loyalties in life.

Second, to be evangelical is not to be fundamentalist. Unquestionably there is truth to the current comment that “a fundamentalist is an evangelical with guts.” But whereas fundamentalism is an essentially modern reaction to the modern world, evangelicalism is as old as the first response to the gospel itself.

Third, to be evangelical is more than being a subscriber to a list of doctrines, such as the authority of Scripture and the importance of new birth. It is a radical commitment of heart, mind, and will, to the truths and the way of life opened up by the good news of Jesus. Such a commitment entails firm convictions such as the authority of God’s Word and the necessity of new birth. But it is the decisive response to the announcement of the good news, rather than formal acceptance of a short or long list of doctrines that constitutes what it is to be evangelical.

Expressed more positively, to be evangelical is to be part of one of the three great traditions in the Christian faith: Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Evangelicalism. But while each tradition carries and sustains an element that is vital to faith—“right belief and right worship” for Orthodoxy, “universality” for Catholicism—neither of the other two are as early and as central as the defining feature of Evangelicalism: the passion to be as close and as faithful to the first things of the gospel as it is possible to be.

This means, on the one hand, that to be evangelical is not to be exclusive or contradictory to the other traditions in the Church. St. Francis, for example, was deliberately “evangelical,” and widely described so in his day, because he tried to live as close as possible to the way of life of Jesus, including His poverty.

On the other hand, to be evangelical also means to be committed determinedly to the principle of ongoing reformation. The presence of sin and the passing of time mean that spiritual life declines, error and heresy overgrow truth, and the need for reformation and revival is constant. But the answer for the Church is never to go forward, seduced by the fallacy of “the newer the truer” or “the latest is greatest.” As both St. Francis and Martin Luther demonstrate clearly, the Church always goes forward by first going back—which is the heartbeat of what it means to be evangelical.

At a time when the term evangelical has become so empty and distorted that many are turning away from it in disgust, we have to raise the question: Is there something wrong with the gospel, or is there something wrong with us? Our problem today is that evangelicalism has become more cultural than evangelical. It is time to go back once again to the first things of the Good News that is the best news ever—and so to be evangelical and unashamed.