"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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  • « God as Judge (Quote) | Main | George Whitefield on Effectual Calling »

    Evangelical: A Brief Definition

    Visitor: I am after a brief biblical definition of the "Evangelical Christian" that would not be confusing to the average born again person.

    Response: That is a great question and of late has been somewhat controversial. How do we define "Evangelical Christian" -- I will assume you are after the meaning of this in a traditional, rather than contemporary sense. Also the terms meaning in a positive rather than negative light. If so, then it has historically meant someone who believes and heralds the Gospel of Jesus Christ as He is revealed in the Scripture and that there is no hope for them in the world save in being united to HIm in his life, death and resurrection. In the past this was the unifying factor for persons from a vast array of church traditions, but now the word has, unfortunately, come to mean many things.

    The contemporary use of the word "Evangelical" often refers to an amorphous mass of people with different convictions, confessions and beliefs about the Gospel. Sometimes this even includes persons who do not believe in the authority of the Bible and, like liberal theology of old, believe in a theology based on consensus, modern psychology or worldly politics.

    A Brief Definition:

    To the reformers it was related to gospel recovery, that is, one who adhered to the Reformation's tenets, which means that historically, Evangelicals confessed a belief in the truth of the five solas:

    Sola gratia, Sola fide, Solus Christus, Sola Scriptura, Soli Deo Gloria. In short, they confessed that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in the Person and work of Christ alone as revealed in the Scripture alone, to the glory of God alone. For further exploration of this subject I highly recommend that everyone study the short online document called The Cambridge Declaration. It is really quite helpful. But let's now move into some particulars:

    In an essay a few years back, Michael Horton said that "After 1520 an evangelical was a person who was committed to the sufficiency of scripture, the priesthood of all believers, the total lostness of humans, the sole mediation of Christ, the gracious efficacy and finality of God's redemptive work in Christ through election, propitiation, calling and keeping. The linchpin for all of this was the doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone. Thus, the believer, declared righteous by virtue of God's satisfaction with Christ's holiness imputed (credited) to us through faith alone, is simul iustus et peccator--"simultaneously justified and sinful." Michael Horton

    And is it too much to ask that the definition of a true evangelical also includes Paul's Definition of a Christian? (Phil 3:3): i.e. those "who worship in the Spirit of God, glory in Christ Jesus, and put no confidence in the flesh." No confidence means none, zero... that apart from the Holy Spirit we are spiritually bankrupt. It speaks of those who have been stripped of all hope from self (and the human will), and instead depend on the mercy of Christ alone. It includes those who believe the will of the fallen man (prior to grace) is broken to such an extent that it will not and cannot lift a finger toward its own salvation. Total depravity, to a true Evangelical, does not simply mean that the unregenerate have sinful tendencies, but that we are broken and must despair of all hope from our own resources. Jesus Christ alone can save. He does not believe the natural will can just as easily believe or not believe in Christ, but affirms, with the Gospel, that the will is depraved and broken, just as are his other faculties. That which is flesh is flesh... It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail." (John 6:65) To glory in Christ Jesus and have no confidence in the flesh, means to affirm the truth that Jesus Christ has all authority in heaven and earth. He reigns supreme over all things and that He alone can save whom He will (Matt 11:27; Rom 9:15). "it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy." (Rom 9:16) That the fallow ground of the natural man's heart must be plowed up by the Spirit of Christ or he will never despair of self, because he is by nature, hardened to Christ, hostile to God, and is not naturally inclined at all to submit to the humbling terms of the gospel. It requires a supernatural work in his heart to break up the hardness, disarm the natural hostility and place a new heart in Him which loves Christ. So when one confesses that they believe in 'grace alone' they are confessing that the natural will of man is not up to the task of turning to Christ simply using his own resources, but he needs the Holy Spirit. There is nothing that we naturally resist more than to believe this: that Christ alone saves.

    Again, C.H. Spurgeon once said that those who affirm that the natural will of man has the moral capacity to believe the gospel, want to "arouse man's activity: [but] what we want to do is to kill it once for all---to show him that he is lost and ruined, and that his activities are not now at all equal to the work of conversion; that he must look upward. They seek to make the man stand up: we seek to bring him down, and make him feel that there he lies in the hand of God, and that his business is to submit himself to God, and cry aloud, 'Lord, save, or we perish.' We hold that man is never so near grace as when he begins to feel he can do nothing at all. When he says, "I can pray, I can believe, I can do this, and I can do the other," marks of self-sufficiency and arrogance are on his brow.

    I want to recommend a very fine book that deals with the five solas in a way I have seen in no other book, and Pastor Samson, who uses this book, I believe, would heartily concur:

    Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace:
    Recovering the Doctrines That Shook the World'
    by James Montgomery Boice

    Posted by John on April 20, 2006 01:16 PM



    Thank you for posting this very helpful article here. I believe you have it exactly right when you set about seeking to define the term "Evangelical" from a historical perspective. People don't like to do this, as they want to allow for the circle of what is deemed "evangelical" to get wider and wider, until, everyone is included. I've even heard of Evangelical Muslims, Evangelical Buddhists, and Evangelical Hindus.

    However, the term "Evangelical" had a definite meaning in history, and I believe that in our day, when people seek to extend the boundaries of definition for the term, it is a very confusing and backwards step. For instance, to call someone an "Evangelical Roman Catholic" is to completely muddle the historic meaning of the term. To be an Evangelical meant that someone embraced the "evangel," which is the Gospel itself; and at the heart of the Gospel is the biblical conviction that justification is by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. Rome then (in the 16th Century), and now (even after Vatican II), places its eternal anathema on those who preach such a thing. If someone is an Evangelical Roman Catholic, then if we understand the historic use of the term, they are either not a very good Evangelical (they don't understand or embrace the Gospel); or if they do embrace it, then they are not a very good Roman Catholic, because they would be embracing something which stands under Rome's anathema.

    I have used two of Dr. James Montgomery Boice's books while teaching the history and doctrines of the Protestant Reformation in a Bible College setting:

    1. "Whatever happened to the Gospel of Grace?"
    2. "The Doctrines of Grace"

    Both of these are superb, in my opinion, for accuracy, insight and perhaps just as importantly, readability.

    Yes, right on target

    - the only way to protect the solus Christus of salvation is to insist upon the sola gratia and sola fide of justification, and the only way to protect sola fide is to insist upon Solus Christus.

    - the faith-righteousness of justification is not personal but vicarious, not infused but imputed, not experiential but forensic, not psychological but legal, not our own but a righteousness alien to us, and not earned but graciously given though faith in Christ, which faith itself is a gift of grace.

    God's free grace does not allow for conditions, except what Christ has done for us. He accepts us righteous in His sight only for the righteousness of Christ, imputed to us as we are united to Christ by the Spirit.

    The will of man to believe the gospel is not part of this process but the infallible result of it.

    Pastor John

    Thank you for the encouragement and the supplemental material. Very helpful.

    John S...on this same topic - I wanted to mention that most Evangelicals would indeed affirm, with us, that we are saved by "grace alone" but I fear that many of them actually mean something entirely different than we do when they use the phrase. This means that one of the parties changed the historic context and definition of the term to a modern one that suits their theology. So when we speak of it they agree, but only because they have changed the meaning. This is quite disheartening.

    So I believe it is important that we must define terms or we all go happily our ways pretending we believe the same thing. It is painful to look at these differences in the face, but life is often painful, and some will take great offence at this. It must be said nonetheless. Doctrine is important because it reflects the will and truth of God as He has revealed it to us in the text of Scripture.

    Some evangleicals today, when they say they affirm salvation by "grace alone" simply mean that God stands aloof and offers the gospel freely to everyone ... but the natural man, must himself from his own resources have faith in order to make God's grace operative in any sense. The Spirit responds to man's exercise of faith, in other words, not the other way around.

    But when persons in the Reformed tradition speak of grace alone, it not only means an alien righteousness imputed to us freely for the offer but also believe that also includes the idea that the Holy Spirit disarms our hostility toward Christ with an operative grace which then immediately gives rise to belief. That faith is a gift of God. Only as the Spirit illumines our mind, overcomes hostile affections, and removes Spiritual blindness do we then take hold of the merciful command to believe. "We love God because He first loved us."

    To say that grace merely offers the gospel is like telling a blind man he is required to see when we shine a light into his eyes. Only healthy eyes can see and the natural man does not make his own blind eyes healthy. It requires a supernatuiral work of grace. Or, as a moral inability, a mere offer is like requiring a man to pay a debt he is unable to repay. But Christ does for us what we cannot do for ourselves. That is why grace alone means grace plus nothing. We do not believe so that we might have grace, we have grace that we might believe.

    It is Christ's righteousness which is counted toward our account through faith, but we will not take hold of it by faith unless grace overcomes our hatred of God.

    I fear the difference is profound. This is not brain surgury, it just requires that man utterly dispair of all looking to his own resources. The loss of all confidence in self and total confidence in Christ Jesus.

    My church uses this "definition" to describe how it uses the term:

    "To say that we are evangelical today means that we take our stand with all those who believe in what used to be called “the fundamentals”: the existence of the triune God, the deity of Jesus, the virgin birth, and the substitutionary and vicarious atonement of Christ, the physical resurrection of Christ, the sure return of Christ, and the infallibility and divine authority of the Bible which is the only faithful and true authority to what we are to believe and howe we are to live. We joyfully affirm our unity with those from every tradition and denomination who hold to these fundamentals including those true believers in Christ who, for whatever reasons, find themselves members of denominations or churches with which we might have certain disagreements."

    John H.,

    I wholeheartedly agree with your comments above.

    For the Reformers, Sola Gratia (Grace Alone) had a definite meaning... it meant grace at the start, grace to the end, grace in the middle, grace without fail, grace without mixture, grace without addition, grace that allows no boasting, grace that precludes all glorying but in the Lord.

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