In the classic Rob Reiner film The Princess Bride there is a funny exchange between the pint-sized blowhard Vizzini (Wallace Shawn) and the brave hearted Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin). Vizzini has just cut the rope that Dread Pirate Roberts was using to climb a cliff. When Roberts keeps climbing, Vizzini shouts, “He didn’t fall? Inconceivable!” To which Montoya replies dryly, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”
The term ‘evangelical’ has been around a long time, but considering the way it’s used today in the media and pop culture, I’m beginning to feel like Inigo Montoya; they keep using that word, but I do not think it means what they think it means. In fairness, evangelical has come to mean so many different things to different people that it may have outlived its usefulness. But I still believe it is a very good word, and one I’m glad to claim for myself. And especially since it is a part of our denominational identity as a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, it is well worth defining and defending.
The first thing to be said is that evangelical is a theological, not political term. I suppose that people who identify as evangelical tend to align in some predictable ways around social issues (pro-life, for instance), but it’s been my experience that evangelicals are not politically predictable. I’ve known evangelicals who are conservative Republicans, and I’ve known faithful evangelicals who are liberal Democrats, and every flavor in-between. Some I’ve known can’t be classified politically at all. The news media often seems to assume that evangelicals are white, suburban, middle-class, southern, and Republican. To be sure, millions of self-described evangelicals fit those categories, but just as surely millions don’t. Evangelicals are set apart not by how they vote, but by what they believe about Jesus Christ. Politics are certainly important, but they’re not our defining characteristic.
The term evangelical is rooted in the New Testament. It is derived from the Greek word euangelion; eu meaning “good” and angelion meaning “message” or “news.” So to be evangelical means first to be people of good news. We’re all about the good news of Jesus Christ; his life, his death on the cross for sinners, and his resurrection victory over death. In some sense then, all Christians are evangelical. But historically the term has been applied specifically to Protestants in Europe, and then, beginning in the late 19th century, to a subgroup of Protestants in Great Britain and North America. Today evangelicals can be found in just about every corner of the world.
While evangelicalism is a broad and diverse movement, there are clear convictions that unite us. The evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today recently published the results of a survey of Americans, asking if they affirmed a series of seventeen statements about Christian faith. (April, 2016, but I don’t know how to insert a hyperlink so find it yourself.) They found a cluster of four common beliefs that set evangelical Christians apart:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
These four affirmations are certainly not a comprehensive statement of evangelical Christianity. But the survey found that those who affirmed these four beliefs were most likely to self-identify as evangelical, and also likely to attend an evangelical church regularly.
Over the coming weeks I will unpack each of these affirmations with an eye to what makes evangelical Christians distinctive. Stay tuned.
Pastor Phil Moran