What everyone’s been waiting for: all those who love Jesus committed to working together for the spread of the gospel.
Not so fast. This is merely a term I conflated from “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” and “Together for the Gospel.” But if there really is such a movement, what should its membership be like and what should its rallying cry be? These two qualifications require defining three words: Evangelical, Protestant and Gospel. To define them, one needs to go back to the halls of church history, namely, to the first century church and to the 16th century Protestant Reformation.
The Gospel Before All Other Gospels
Defining what the Gospel is requires going back to the apostolic age of the church, because the apostles themselves referred to it more than 70 times, with Paul writing the best summary:
Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved… For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures (1 Cor 15:1-4).
Zacharias Ursinus (1534-83), one of the writers of the Heidelberg Catechism, summarized the gospel based on Q&A 18, 19 and 20, as:
the doctrine which God revealed first in Paradise, and afterwards published by the Patriarchs and Prophets, which he was pleased to represent by the shadows of sacrifices, and the other ceremonies of the law, and which he has accomplished by his only begotten Son; teaching that the Son of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, is made unto us wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption; which is to say that he is a perfect Mediator, satisfying for the sins of the human race, restoring righteousness and eternal life to all those who by a true faith are ingrafted into him, and embrace his benefits. 1
Together for the Gospel or T4G, a network of pastors whose goal is to encourage other pastors to “stand together for the gospel,” has this to say about what the gospel is:
The Gospel is the joyous declaration that God is redeeming the world through Christ
(Matt 1:21; Luke 1:68; Eph 1:7; Col 1:20), and that he calls everyone everywhere to repent from sin and trust Jesus Christ for salvation (Mark 1:15; Acts 2:38; 17:30).
The word gospel comes from an Old Anglo-Saxon word gōdspel (gōd “good” and spel “story”), used to translate the word for “good news” in Latin. 2 In the original Greek, the word used is euangelion (eu “good” and angelos “messenger”), which was Anglicized into “evangel.” 3
Evangelical before Evangelicalism
An evangelical then refers to a person or an institution that believes and stands for the evangel or the gospel as defined above. Beginning with the Reformation in the 1520s, Martin Luther and all Reformers were aptly, but derogatorily called evangelicals by Catholics such as Erasmus, Johannes Eck and Thomas More. Luther himself called the churches that broke off from Rome as evangelical churches. What primary tenets did these churches have in common to be called evangelical? Michael Horton writes,
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 peculator – simultaneously justified and sinful.” 4
That’s a tall order for any church after the Reformation.
When Protestant Meant Reformed
From the early middle ages, Rome has persecuted anyone who did not bow to the Pope, and many who dissented from Catholic doctrines, corruption and abusive practices were sent to the dungeons and the stake. Luther and the Reformers all throughout Europe tried what others before them failed to do – bring back Rome to the Scriptures – but in vain.
Although John Wycliffe (1324-84), Jan Hus (c. 1369-1415), William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536) and others preceded the 16th century Reformers, history credits Luther as the spark of the Reformation after he posted on October 31, 1517 his 95 Theses against the abusive doctrine, sale and use of indulgences by the Roman church. Pope Leo X and Emperor Charles V issued the Edict of Worms excommunicating Luther as a heretic, calling for his arrest, and banned anyone daring to “receive, defend, sustain, or favor” him or his writings. 5
In 1526, the political atmosphere took an ominous turn as the Turks threatened Europe. The Emperor, now at odds with the Pope in a power struggle, saddled with a war against France, and concerned about the unrest in his kingdom brought about by the Reformation, convened the First Diet of Speier (Spires). This council reversed the Edict of Worms and gave religious liberty to all, Catholics and Reformed.
A short three years later, in 1529, the tables were turned again: this time, it was in favor of the Catholics. The action of the First Diet of Speier was overturned by a Catholic-dominated Second Diet of Speier, so that the Emperor now demanded total submission to the Roman pope. Six Lutheran princes and representatives of 14 German cities responded with a “Letter of Protestation.” Thereafter, anyone who opposed the Roman church was labeled a Protestant, a name used by Catholics to demean their opponents.
As seen from the above historical sketch, Evangelicals and Protestants emerged during the early years of the 16th century Reformation of the Church. The words Evangelical, Protestant and Reformed are thus synonymous when they developed during that period of church history. The doctrine, worship and piety associated with Luther, John Calvin, John Knox (c. 1510-72), Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) and other leaders of the early Reformation period were practically identical, with the exception of the dispute over the real presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper.
Many Different Gospels
If Gospel, Evangelical and Protestant are defined by the above parameters, most “Gospel,” “Evangelical” and “Protestant” churches today would make the Reformers roll in their graves. The many gospels that are preached – health and wealth, emergent, freewillism, easy-believism, moralism, self-esteem, open theism, seeker-sensitivism, and pop psychology – are a “different gospel” that for Paul is accursed
(Gal 1:8, 9). This is why T4G is “convinced that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been misrepresented, misunderstood, and marginalized in many churches and among those who proclaim the name of Christ.” But nice evangelicals often indict those who see the importance of a pure gospel, and say that Roman Catholicism embrace the same gospel, as Rick Warren says,
“We have far more in common than what divides us… Now there’s still real differences, no doubt about that. But the most important thing is if you love Jesus, we’re on the same team.” 6
Evangelicals without Evangel
Evangelical churches today have forgotten the formal and material principles of the Protestant Reformation. The formal, Sola Scriptura or the authority and sufficiency of Scripture alone, has been replaced by neo-Gnostic and mystical emphasis on new revelations by the Spirit and religious experience, or by “me and my Bible” biblicism, or by the liberal rejection of the perfections of Scriptures. The material, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide and Solus Christus, or justification by grace alone through alone in Christ alone, has been supplanted by decisional salvation, inclusivism and pluralism.
W. G. T. Shedd once wrote in 1886,
The secularisation of Christianity and the Church is one of the evil tendencies of the day, and is one phase of the universalism which the church is now called upon to oppose… Now, the attempt is to make the Christian religion a universal religion by emptying it of its distinguishing tenets, flattering it into a system of morality, and converting “the righteousness which is of faith” into “the righteousness which is of the law.” 7
Back in 1920, B. B. Warfield wrote a prophetic warning about “a plan of union for evangelical churches” with a creed that “contains nothing which is not believed by Evangelicals,” and yet “nothing which is not believed… by the adherents of the Church of Rome”: 8
There is nothing about justification by faith in this creed… There is nothing about the atonement in the blood of Christ in this creed… There is nothing about sin and grace in this creed… We need not confess our sins anymore. 9
Doesn’t Robert Schuller teach that sin is merely a lack of self-esteem? Does Joel Osteen ever preach Christ’s bloody sacrifice? In the 1997 Evangelicals and Catholics Together statement, the signers, which included many prominent evangelical leaders, “[agreed] with what the Reformation traditions have meant by justification by faith alone (sola fide).” But what is lost to the evangelical signers is that Rome’s “justification by faith alone” is not the same as the Reformation’s sola fide. In fact, the Catholic Council of Trent’s anathemas against the Reformers’ doctrines of justification by faith alone and total depravity are still in effect to this day:
Canon 4. If any one shall affirm, that man’s freewill, moved and excited by God, does not, by consenting, cooperate with God, the mover and exciter, so as to prepare and dispose itself for the attainment of justification; if moreover, anyone shall say, that the human will cannot refuse complying, if it pleases, but that it is inactive, and merely passive; let such an one be accursed”! (emphasis added)
Canon 24.-If any one saith, that the justice received is not preserved and also increased before God through good works; but that the said works are merely the fruits and signs of Justification obtained, but not a cause of the increase thereof; let him be anathema.
This is because Rome still insists on the infusion of grace and not the imputation of Christ’s righteousness as the ground of justification:
Canon 11.-If any one saith, that men are justified, either by the sole imputation of the justice of Christ, or by the sole remission of sins, to the exclusion of the grace and the charity which is poured forth in their hearts by the Holy Ghost, and is inherent in them; or even that the grace, whereby we are justified, is only the favour of God; let him be anathema.
Note that Trent’s Canon 4 above is exactly what almost all neo-evangelicals today believe: salvation is obtained by one’s freewill decision to accept Jesus and cooperating with God (synergism), not God’s work alone (monergism).
Recent developments point to the acceptance of even Mormons as “evangelicals.” Dr. Horton writes,
As the formal principle of the Reformation is “scripture alone!,” we today must define “evangelical” according to scriptural teaching… Only in the gradual Americanization of the evangelical faith has this inheritance been jettisoned, as though “scripture alone” meant that to merely adhere to the formal principle of the Reformation was enough. As long as one believed the Bible, one could stand wherever he or she liked on the material principle of God’s method in saving sinners. If this were true, one would have to concede to the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses membership in the National Association of Evangelicals. 10
If today’s evangelicals don’t measure up to the 16th century Reformers’ definitions of what the Gospel is, and what an Evangelical and a Protestant must be, then what would be a fitting label for them? I thought of “God-fearer – certainly many are – but this was used of synagogue-worshiping Jews or their converts
(Acts 10:2, 22; 13:16, 26). How about “deist”? To be sure, there are many deists in the churches, but today’s evangelicals still believe that God is proactive in the universe.
Obviously, Arminians are the overwhelming majority today, so Dr. Horton thought of “evangelical Arminian” but later rightly concluded that the term is an oxymoron, “An evangelical cannot be an Arminian any more than an evangelical can be a Roman Catholic.” The system of doctrine that the Reformers taught is embodied in Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536), while Arminianism didn’t take root until 1618 when followers of Jacobus Arminius (1560-1609) issued the Remonstrance, a Five-Point protest against the Dutch Reformed Church’s Calvinist doctrines. The following year, the Synod of Dort condemned their protest and issued the Canons of Dort, widely known today as the “Five Points of Calvinism.” Thus, if “evangelical” and “Calvinist” were terms applied to the early Reformers, then an Arminian and an “evangelical” are poles apart in doctrine.
Protestants without Reformation
To call today’s believers as evangelicals and Protestants is a great disservice to the great cloud of Reformed martyr-witnesses –”Hus, Tyndale, Hugh Latimer (c. 1487-1555), Nicholas Ridley (c. 1500-55), Cranmer, the Reformed Waldensians, the French Huguenots, and thousands of others – because everything that they have died for have been marginalized, lost or altogether rejected. R. C. Sproul thus indicts current “evangelicals”:
So as we head into the twentieth-first century, it is no longer safe to assume that if a person calls himself an evangelical that he is committed to the battle cries of the Protestant Reformers, either to sola Scriptura or to sola fide. Signs everywhere indicate that evangelicals are disowning the heritage bequeathed to them by their Reformation forebears. And the church is none the better for it, prompting some to say we are entering a new Dark Ages. 11
What then should be the label? Since I was part of the 60s-70s culture, the Jesus Movement by the Jesus People, which evolved into Jesus Freaks, come to the forefront. Although originally from the 60s, “Jesus Freaks” is still contemporary since DC Talk and the Newsboys revived it in song. Much of the Jesus Freaks culture is now mainstream, with its contemporary worship, Pentecostalism, dispensational premillennialism, revivalism, and parachurch outreach, all of which produced the present megachurches. So then wouldn’t the label neo-Jesus Freaks fit today’s “evangelicals”?
In the 16th century, evangelical Reformers recovered the gospel and protested against the errors and corruption of the Church. In the 21st century, churches have largely jettisoned the evangelical gospel and protest against nothing, for as Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, the dominant religion in America (and in the rest of “Christendom”) is “Protestantism without the Reformation.”
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