What is an evangelical? Let’s tackle this question. It comes up a lot, especially around election season. But we’re wondering who is an evangelical? What is an evangelical? We hear the term used in statistics and polls, and we hear all kinds of things about them. Let’s see if we can give some definition to this term.
You could say that the terms “evangelical” and “evangelicalism” began with a joke often told by George Whitefield in his revival preaching. He would say a person died, went to heaven, and there they were met at the gates of heaven. He asks Saint Peter, “Saint Peter, are Anglicans in heaven? Saint Peter would say, “Oh no, there are no Anglicans in heaven.” The colonists loved that one. Then he would say, “Saint Peter, are there Presbyterians in heaven?” “Oh no, there are no Presbyterians in heaven.” And he’d go on through the list. “Are there Congregationalists? Are there people of the Methodist Way? Are there Baptists?”
Finally, this exasperated individual says to Saint Peter, “Well tell me, sir, who is in heaven?” And Saint Peter says, “Christians, sir. Christians are in heaven.” Some historians have said that at that moment— at that joke— evangelicalism as a trans-denominational movement was born.
We certainly do see an emphasis on the evangel, or the gospel, in this era of the Great Awakening. It was really a two-fold emphasis. One emphasis is the need to personally believe in Jesus Christ and to not simply rely on being a member of a church. Sometimes this is called nominalism. Nominalism says, “I can rely on my church membership or the fact that I was baptized into a certain tradition, and that makes me a Christian.” This emphasis, especially coming in the time of the Great Awakening, objected to that and said you must be born again. The other emphasis on the gospel is not only the need for it personally but also the need to share it, to evangelize. There was a modern contemporary manifestation of this movement of evangelicalism in the middle of the twentieth century. Two people played a key role in this. One is a theologian, the other is an evangelist.
The theologian was Carl F.H. Henry. In 1947, he published his book, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. It is not a very big book, but this short book had quite an impact, and one of the things Henry said was that as evangelicals we’ve abandoned the institutions of culture, the institutions of learning, and the institutions of the arts, and this has left us with an uneasy conscience. We are called to be salt and light in the world, and we must engage the world.
That same year, Billy Graham held his first crusade in Grand Rapids. He spoke to about six thousand people, and from there it escalated. In 1949, there were the Los Angeles crusades, and then the big one in 1957, the New York City crusade. What was this young, dynamic, charismatic Billy Graham saying? “You must be born again.” Between Graham and the crusades and Henry and his book, we see this emergence of evangelicalism in this post-war moment, in not only America but in a way, around the world.
David Bebbington, a historian who teaches at the University of Sterling in Scotland, famously came up with his quadrilateral of four beliefs to define an evangelical. Are you ready? Here we go. One is biblicism. Evangelicals have a high view of the Bible. Number two is crucicentrism, emphasizing the atoning work of Christ on the cross. Number three is conversionism, the need to be converted. There you go, you must be born again. And number four is activism. The gospel needs to be expressed in action. It needs to be lived out. These are a few touchstones for you to understand the term evangelical, and what it means to be an evangelical.