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What’s In A Name?

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Joe Carter recently declared that he would be the last evangelical in America. He was being a little tongue-in-cheek of course, but the point was clear. He thinks the label “evangelical” is a good one and and one worth holding on to. “Naturally, I understand why some of my fellow evangelicals prefer not to be saddled with the label. The negative connotations imbued by both our friends and our enemies have weighted it down with unnecessary baggage. But I don’t think we should drop it altogether, especially for higher-level terms like ‘Christian’… I think being an evangelical is the best way for me to be Christian; for better or worse, I’ll never abandon the tradition or the label.”

I found this interesting because I’ve been reading the forthcoming book by David F. Wells and in this volume he suggests that perhaps it is time to let go of the “evangelical” label. Here is his defense and his proposal of an alternative:

Those who still think of themselves as being in the tradition of historic Christian faith, as I do, may therefore want to consider whether the term “evangelical” has not outlived its usefulness. Despite its honorable pedigree, despite its many outstanding leaders both past and some in the present, and despite the many genuine and upright believers who still think of themselves as evangelical, it may now have to be abandoned.

If the word “evangelical” has outlived its usefulness, what is the alternative? Here, I am flummoxed. My own labels are too ponderous to be used widely. I am reaching out for help. I am advertising for a new label!

In this book, I am … going to think of myself as being a biblical Christian first and foremost, as being in continuity with Christians across the ages who have believed the same truth and followed the same Lord. The period in which these truths were brought into the most invigorating, health-giving focus was the Reformation. I therefore think of myself as reformational in the sense that I affirm its solas: in Scripture alone is God’s authoritative truth found, in Christ alone is salvation found, it is by grace alone that we are saved, and this salvation is received through faith alone. It is only after each of these affirmations is made that we can say that salvation from start to finish is to the glory of God alone. These affirmations do not stand simply as solitary, disconnected sentinels but they are the key points in an integrated, whole understanding of biblical truth. It is this which gives us a place to stand in the world from which to understand who we are, what the purposes of God are, and what future lies before us. These are the things that historic Protestants believe and that is what I am.

And this is what I think offers the only real hope for our postmodern world. Not only so, but it carries in it the best help for the evangelical world in its wounded and declining state today. I do not know what the evangelical future will be but I am certain that it will have no good future unless it finds this kind of direction again.

This will take some courage. The key to the future is not the capitulation that we see in both the marketers and the emergents. It is courage. The courage to be faithful to what Christianity in its biblical forms has always stood for across the ages. So, let’s begin exploring what this might mean for us today.

I’d love to know what you think. Is the term “evangelical” saddled with too much baggage? Is it time just to let it pass into history like so many words and labels before it? Or, because it is a word with such a noble heritage and with such a profound meaning, is it one we should cling to? Is it a label you wear proudly or with shame?


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