The word evangelical seems to have fallen out of favor, and perhaps for reasons that are understandable. Where the word once had a distinct Christian meaning, in recent years it has come to be conflated with politics as much as religion, with civil issues as much as spiritual. Many wonder whether the term is worth salvaging or if we should simply move on. Many wonder whether Christians should still consider themselves evangelical or whether it would better serve Christ’s cause to find a new self-description.
Michael Reeves has wondered this as well and has written Gospel People: A Call for Evangelical Integrity to address the issue. “This is a book about being people of the gospel,” he says. “In other words, this is a book about what it means to be evangelical. I believe that there is a biblical case to be made for the importance and the goodness of being evangelical.” This is not to say that he will defend everything that calls itself evangelical since “across the world, swathes have come to self-identify as evangelical without holding to classic evangelical beliefs. And then there is the problem of how being ‘evangelical’ has become associated with particular cultures, with politics, or with race.”
He believes that modern-day evangelicalism is facing a crisis of integrity in which many of those who consider themselves evangelicals “are being defined—and even defining themselves—by agendas other than the gospel.” The only solution is to go back to the foundations upon which evangelicalism was founded, “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.” To be people of the gospel, we must begin with the gospel. Evangelicals, after all, are people of the gospel or, as the title of the book says, gospel people. “Evangelicalism, then, must be defined theologically. To be evangelical means to act, not out of cultural or political leanings, but out of theological, biblical convictions.”
So what are these theological, biblical convictions? Reeves traces how the Apostle Paul defines the gospel and says that any teaching that will be consistent with his must be “Trinitarian, Scripture-based, Christ-centered, and Spirit-renewed.” He condenses this down to three r’s: revelation, redemption, and regeneration. Thus at the heart of true evangelicalism are three essential heads of doctrine:
- The Father’s revelation in the Bible
- The Son’s redemption in the gospel
- The Spirit’s regeneration of our hearts
These headings serve as a kind of “table of contents” for the book, with each of them receiving a chapter-length treatment. Having examined each closely, Reeves writes about the importance the Bible places on being gospel people. When we understand this, we’re equipped to know that “with the gospel as our anchor, evangelicals are able to see that not every issue is a gospel issue, and not every error (or departure from our view or practice) is a soul-killing heresy. Some doctrines are more essential and foundational than others.” This means that evangelicals ought to define themselves by the most central, gospel-related issues, not the peripheral ones as is too often the case.
The final chapter is a call for gospel integrity—for those who call themselves evangelical to be evangelical indeed. To display such integrity we will need to examine ourselves and be willing to critique ourselves. Yet we can and must do this. “It runs against the very grain of the gospel we cherish for us to indulge in self-justification. Instead, the evangelical way is not to condone or to flee but to repent and to reform. For evangelicalism, being a gospel movement, is and always has been a renewal movement: we seek to renew ourselves and the church around the gospel (and never vice versa). It is a reformation movement, about adhering ever closer to the gospel in thought, word, and deed. On that reformation hangs the future of evangelicalism.” Only when we have great clarity on the gospel will we unite around the gospel and eagerly promote and defend it.
In the end, Reeves determines that evangelical is too good a word to lose and too significant a term to abandon. Thus it falls to us to embrace it and then ensure we are living worthy of it. “The word evangelical has centuries of pedigree for a good reason. It may have lost some of its value in some places, but that can be regained through reinvestment. And where else can we people of the gospel go? There really is no acceptable and viable alternative with anything like the historical weight or the descriptive simplicity.”
I tend to agree with Reeves that evangelical is a term worth embracing rather than abandoning for, as he says, there is simply no great alternative. There is no other word that has the historical pedigree and the depth of meaning. Hence, it falls to us to continue to use it and, even more importantly, to continue to ensure we are living as people of the gospel. There is lots to commend in Gospel People and it’s a joy to recommend it to you.
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