What is evangelical?

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For many Christians the gospel (i.e., the message of the Lord Jesus) has the main focus. That explains why Christian faith is also called Evangelical faith. But there also exists a movement that calls itself ‘Evangelical’. What is the difference and is that Biblical?

Evangelical means ‘according to the gospel’. It emphasizes the main focus on the gospel in Christianity and that this should remain so. Seemingly it is necessary that this focus needs to be reminded[1].

Although it is evident that the whole Bible has authority in Christianity, evangelical represents the focus or typification of Christianity on the gospel. The gospel is supposedly enough or the (new) agent representing the whole Bible.

The name ‘evangelical’ is used in all kinds of situations. Fitting or not. This diminishes the assumption that evangelical is a kind of guarantee or hallmark. The problem with specific topics from the Bible, like the gospel, is when these receive a subjective interpretation[2] as it happens. It is clear that evangelical in broad sense should be determined by the gospel.

However, meanings given to certain concepts change from generation to generation[3]. Not only in absolute and general sense, but also in specific and material sense. People change, but also the plan of God materializes over time.

So, it’s not that easy to define what evangelical is in a particular moment. The most simplistic way is to state that the gospel is the focus and content of what is evangelical. But then, what is the gospel actually? What is its scope, given that the Lord Jesus lives eternally?

Word study
The word ‘evangelical’ comes from the Greek word combination eu-angelion. The adverb eu- means ‘good’ and angelion ‘message’. So, the most common translation of evangelical is ‘according to the good message’.

In the Old Testament (OT) ‘good message’ is mentioned several times (for example in 1 S 31:9; 2 S 4:10, Is 52:7) and is expressed with the Hebrew word ‘mevaser (tov)’ based on the verbal root vasar – bringing news or announce. So, evangelical is not limited to the New Testament (NT), as so often is thought[4].

The Hebrew word mal‘koet – message (Hag 1:13) comes from mal‘ak – messenger or angel. That is interesting, because the Greek word angelos (compare angelion) also has those meanings. That shows that in Biblical sense there is a connection between announcing a message from God and angels. That is (good) message that comes from God (Gal 3:19) in all ages.

Gospel and gospel books
The broad understanding of the word gospel, like the way it occurs in the OT, is however not meant with ‘evangelical’. That is limited to the gospel books which are called ‘the gospels’. Often these are understood as representing the gospel.

So, the gospel would sum up the contents of the four gospel books which are about the Lord Jesus. But this cannot be true, since other books of the Bible also contain unique issues about Him which for certain also belong to His gospel.

Still, the gospel books are used as basis for the gospel, because it is assumed these would contain the core issues of it. But the following in these gospels stick out:

• Several other people play an important role
Not just the Lord Jesus, but also others announce words of God in them. In other words, these gospel books contain the message of and about the Lord Jesus mixed together with other messages.

• The Lord Jesus mainly gave teachings on the OT
Again, an indication that the gospel is more than just the gospel books. The gospel seems to be based on the OT and as such has older roots then the teachings of the Lord Jesus.

• The Lord Jesus gave a very original interpretation of the OT
He falls back on the world(-order) which God originally had in store for man. His gospel is thus about very old issues going back to the beginning of the world.

• The Lord Jesus repeatedly made clear He was in the service of God
His gospel is first of all about God, the Father.

• It’s about much more then only about the Lord Jesus
For example, the Lord Jesus is not by accident born in Israel with Jewish parents. Seemingly the people of Israel are a basic element in His gospel.

• The gospel books all have an open ending
They all end with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, but also with the command to announce the gospel to Israel and the world until He would return.

The conclusion has to be that the gospel books and that what is understood as His gospel cannot be the same. At best it can be said that in the gospel books much of His gospel is clearly mentioned and that important elements of it are detailed in them.

Gospel source
Where does the gospel originate? For Christians the Lord Jesus is seen as the unique source of it. But alas, that can only be true in part. Not only must there be parts of the gospel recorded in the OT since it is based on it, but the gospel must have already been announced earlier then by the Lord Jesus. How so?

The traditional standpoint is that only with the coming of the Lord Jesus the gospel was revealed and announced. But the gospel books al begin with events that happened previously of next to the life of the Lord Jesus, like His birth or parts of the life of John ‘the Baptist’ and about some disciples. Also, things are described that happened after the physical death of the Lord Jesus and so, again, could never be told by Him.

The conclusion is therefore that a larger gospel has to be seen overarching that of the Lord Jesus. According to the Bible the gospel is mainly a message which is inspired by the Holy Spirit. How else could the followers of the Lord Jesus, after He was no longer on earth, add things to it and reveal about His gospel, like Paul did?

But that larger gospel was and is not only been passed through by the Holy Spirit, but according to the Bible, also by angels. In short, the conclusion has to be that the source of any gospel is God, the Father.

Gospel content
What is the gospel about? Again, most Christians feel the urge to narrow its contents down to the Lord Jesus[5]. So, traditionally its contents is limited to the message of His coming to earth (birth), His life, teachings, works of salvations, suffering & death, resurrection & ascension, function in heaven and return.

Problem is however that the Lord Jesus in most of the Bible hardly plays a role. That puts the finger at a serious lack of Biblical basis for the conviction that His gospel supposedly sums up the whole Bible[6]. The Bible is however mainly about religious teaching imbedded in the history[7] of the people of God. The gospel of the Lord Jesus has to be a message that agrees with the Bible[8].

But what is the content of that specific gospel of the Lord Jesus? Is that really only limited to Him? Since He is just only a part of that which the Bible is about, the content of the gospel must also be about much more then only about the Lord Jesus[9]. Generic issues in the gospel of the Lord Jesus are[10]:

• God has a unique divine Son
Although this fact is already mentioned in a hidden manner in the OT, the physical coming of the Son of God was a unique revelation in Biblical history.

• The Son of God has broken the power the satan[11]
The consequence of the sacrifice of the Son of God[12] gives humans the possibility to return to their original state.

• God will again reign over creation[13]
This is the end goal of the salvation plan of God, but it also means that in the current state of creation God cannot be and doesn’t want to be almighty.

It has to be clear that the Bible is about more that these issues and that after the ascension of the Lord Jesus new messages of God have followed[14] and will still follow. The gospel of the Lord Jesus is limited to the first coming of the Son of God, the Lord Jesus, to the earth[15].

It’s remarkable that most Christians only see the ‘positive’ aspects of the gospel. It is also interpreted in a universalistic way; it is supposedly meant for everyone and likewise also ‘works’ for everyone. But the above-mentioned issues imply that what in the Bible is defined as good, not always is positive for creatures.

Eternal or temporal message?
The gospel of the Lord Jesus contains both eternal and temporal aspects, but in general sense it only has temporal meaning. It is by nature a message (compare: news) and not Torah (religious teaching)[16].

As soon as the gospel is announced that then actually diminishes in meaning. That which is new and unexpected is gone once announced. By nature, the gospel is aimed at conversion. After conversion a life as disciple follows who has to be getting acquainted with the whole Bible. Then a gospel has achieved its goal, but it is always useful to test faith whether it still lives up to its goal. Whether the generic issues still have the central focus in the life of a believer.

But when God will continue to fulfill the generic issues of the gospel of the Lord Jesus, it will further diminish in importance. When the whole of the Salvation plan of God finally in the (far) future shall be completed, the gospel will have become something from the old creation, but will remain memorable[17].

Evangelical movement
After the Second World War the Evangelical Movement (EM) came up. This had several characteristics, like:

• Making the gospel known in an easier way[18] (no thorough Bible study, no difficult words)
o God is love and wants to give His love to every human
o Making all man know they are sinners and therefore need to be saved
o The only answer to the problems of life is to engage in a spiritual relationship with the Lord Jesus
• Emphasis on personal conversion
o Serving God requires a radical different living attitude
• Emphasis on the workings of the Holy Spirit
o Being Spirit filled (rebirth) has great importance for holding unto the revival and the renewal
• Activism, like Outreach (approaching people on the street or being accessible without ‘high thresholds’)
o Address and answer the needs of people
o Focused on the restoration of broken lives[19]
• Unrelated to the traditional churches
o Establish a new Christian denomination, without becoming an institution
o Anti-dogmatic
o Return to the original Christian faith of the first Christians
• Modern approach, but still conservative
o Music and singing is used often
o Modern technology is used
• Cheerful / positive[20]
• Mission oriented
o Spreading the gospel amongst the unbelievers (abroad)

Original conviction of this EM was that the traditional churches were unable to achieve the command to spread the gospel in word and action. So, the EM (implicitly) distinguished itself against those churches. Some even stated that those churches no longer were led by the Holy Spirit[21]. The communities that originated from the EM initially wished to be independent of them[22].

In the meantime, the EM has become fragmented in different groups of which some have rather sectarian orientation[23]. A large diversity within a movement, such as the EM, requires a high level of tolerance, patience and acceptance. However, a strong mutual coherence is lacking in the EM. So, it has actually become a big collection of groups rather than a unity.

Since the EM originally was mostly active in the ‘Christian west’, a part of it has gotten intertwined again with traditional western Christianity and has meanwhile become very attached to it[24].

But also, all kinds of charismatic groups have come up that come quite close to the esoterically movement. A new branch of the EM is the Messianic Movement in all kinds of forms, in which an emphasis is put on Israel and Judaism.

There exist EM branches of which it is the question whether or not they still represent the Biblical gospel of the Lord Jesus and how long it will take before these will succumb (become fragmented) in lack of coherency and continuously fall back on the assumed generality of the gospel. Also, in the EM there is church abandonment[25].

Of the above-mentioned characteristics not much is still upheld in the current EM. The EM however has added or skipped things to the gospel. Also, the EM has difficulty of dealing with Israel. Partly this is due to Israel’s strong emphasis on exclusive collectivity.

The EM is nowadays known as the ‘third way’[26] in western Christianity, next to the catholic and protestant way[27]. But the boundaries between the three ‘ways’ have become blurred and nowadays there is also overlap between them[28]. The binding factor is western Christianity[29]. Although that is wearing off[30]. 

Importance of evangelicals
Evangelicals keep on reminding Christianity to continue holding unto the gospel of the Lord Jesus. The EM attributed to that by showing that this can be done in a modern, active, less traditional bound and in all kinds of ways. This of course influenced the existing traditional churches, which, as a consequence, became somewhat more evangelical.

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[1] Evangelical implies the awareness that Christianity tends to deviate from the gospel and that continuous correction towards it is necessary.
[2] As time went by certain accents were emphasized and more focus is given to parts of the gospel. An internal focus increases. Something which is epidemic in Christianity.
[3] Concepts are part of language and language changes through all kinds of influences and for divers reasons.
[4] This shows Christian arrogance.
[5] Some Christians go even that far by stating that the whole Bible, the whole of the salvation plan of God is only about the Lord Jesus. This extreme christocentrism is a deviation. It is untrue (not Biblical).
[6] Most Christians think that therefore His gospel is unique and new in the Bible. But that is also in conflict with the Bible.
[7] This history is necessary to learn how to apply the Biblical religions teachings in life.
[8] This implies that the Bible contains multiple messages of God. An example of such a different gospel is the history and relationship of God with the people of Israel.
[9] Thus, the significance of the gospel of the Lord Jesus has to be relative and diminishing in importance.
[10] Not all encompassing and also not in a specific order of importance.
[11] Although this is a messianic achievement, it doesn’t announce that the Lord Jesus is the messiah of Israel. That still remains to be seen.
[12] God accepted this sacrifice as acquittal and through it He can again have direct access with the believer.
[13] This is an unfulfilled aspect of the gospel of the Lord Jesus.
[14] The revelation of John can be seen as a gospel on itself.
[15] At His return a new gospel is to be expected.
[16] It also has a ‘lower’ status that Torah.
[17] This diminishing (temporal) significance of the gospel of the Lord Jesus is not always realized, but also has to applied to what is called Evangelical.
[18] This anti-intellectual principle, which in part was needed, has as a consequence that not enough space can be given for thorough contemplation. But also, this principle is also used in attempts to combat thoroughness in a fundamentalist way. Whilst however especially an evangelical renewal asks of thorough contemplation. This lack has caused a loss in support and credibility.
[19] As a consequence, ‘normal’ lives are seen as less interesting, since God supposedly didn’t perform spectacular miracles in them.
[20] Despite the fact that the Bible message in itself is rather gloomy. This is however only just emphasized after the conversion.
[21] The EM characterizes itself by overrating the potential of the Holy Spirit.
[22] So, an overarching organization that continuously reconnects with the gospel was rejected. Meanwhile several Evangelical overarching organizations did emerge after all.
[23] Inward looking groups that refuse to be corrected by the general EM or Christianity and show superiority behavior.
[24] Some critics therefore state that in some Evangelical groups the gospel has become dominated again by tradition and secularism.
[25] A growing number of believers who choose to experience their religious life individually (outside the framework of a church or congregation).
[26] However the singular word ‘way’ is not quite exact. The EM is a movement and not one framed in denomination. It is a totality of many denominations. Maybe it is better to name the EM the ‘alternative way’.
[27] Although the EM in common language is wrongly named protestant.
[28] Difference is that the two traditional main denominations are frame in. So, when boundaries are crossed over this leads to conflicts about upholding its own tradition.
[29] The EM in the main upholds the decisions of the first church councils of Roman/Greek Christianity and also follows the main traditions, like celebrating the Sunday, Christmas, Easter and Pentecost, and deems church founding and church community essential.
[30] There are for example developments of discarding the most fundamental western convictions, like the church and the Trinity. But doubts are, understandable, especially about the godhead of the Lord Jesus.