Am I Evangelical? (4)
In the Evangelical Alliance Basis Of Faith, ‘The substitutionary sacrifice of the incarnate Son of God as the sole all sufficient ground of redemption from the guilt and power of sin and from its eternal consequences’ means that the Cross is at the very centre of Evangelicalism. It is also, by definition, at the centre of evangelism.
The cross is at the heart of evangelicalism and also at the heart of evangelistic preaching, and rightly so. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is what made it possible for human beings to be in an intimate relationship with God. The cross is, therefore, at the very centre of our faith; but what does that actually mean? An exclusive focus on the cross can produce some strange theological conclusions, and it is important to always remember that Jesus didn’t stop at the cross, but that he went on to rise from the dead and ascend to his Father in heaven.
The focus on individualism has produced some strange theological planks upon which we are invited to walk, but what is at the end of the plank? For example, according to John Sanders, ‘apart from human preaching there is no salvation.’ This makes me feel very sorry for deaf people who will never hear any preaching, and also makes me cautious about many people in the Far East who are becoming Christians with no human agency involved at all. Or at least it would make me cautious if I agreed with Sanders. I don’t agree with him, and I find his assertion to be nonsense. God is never at the mercy of human beings and he can act sovereignly exactly as he chooses, and the sooner we learn that, the better it will be for us.
On its own, the cross is not good news. On its own, the cross apparently preaches condemnation. Is that what Evangelicalism is about? The resurrection and ascension are what turn the cross into a symbol of victory. Preaching Christ crucified is fine, but we also need to live Christ resurrected and ascended.
ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE
If the history of Evangelicalism teaches us anything, it teaches us that what is meant by the term today is not what was meant by it in previous generations. It teaches us that Evangelicalism is not a monolithic structure of unity and harmony; it certainly has immense diversity, and this can be both a weakness and a strength.
One very important statement made by Bebbington can be passed by all too easily: ‘The diversity of the Evangelical movement created tensions’. Indeed it did, it still does, and some would say that what really characterises Evangelicalism is not diversity, but fragmentation. Furthermore, it is difficult to see what is going to prevent Evangelicalism from fragmenting even further.
That fragmentation is never more evident when disputes about theology and doctrine crack the thin veneer of unity among Evangelicals; for then, suddenly, as David Watson observed in the foreword of Richard Watson’s book: ‘We have exchanged our knowledge of God for heady disputes about theological words.’ Of course we don’t call them disputes, rather we claim that we are stoutly defending the faith. But are we? Or are we trying to defend our vague understanding of evangelicalism? Are we only protecting our idea of the truth and shooting at anything that seems to challenge or threaten our theological position?
Peter Cook considered that the pietistic evangelicalism of the post Second World War period had the highest motives, for, ‘All it wanted to do was to hold Christians together safe from the world, and, especially in the Church of England, safe from “Rome”.’ High motives? Perhaps; but is Evangelicalism really only about defending ourselves from the Roman Catholic Church? Is that all it is about? If Evangelicalism is only or primarily about being against something, then I will question its right to exist and ask why it should be listened to at all.
Alistair Ross had been on the receiving end of bitter attacks as an Evangelical because he dared to think differently, and he stated that ‘A danger that the Evangelical Church needs to face it is schizoid approach to life, in which right theology is more important than right practice.’ The trouble is that Evangelicals can’t agree what right theology is, so perhaps that is why they hardly ever focus on right practice. ‘Right’ in this context seems to mean whatever the individual wants it to mean.
Cook further observes that, in 1966, there was ‘A split in the Reformed evangelical movement between the pure church party led by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones into the British Evangelical Council (which many felt went into a cul-de-sac) and those who believed in ecclesiastical involvement.’ The British Evangelical Council failed to rally together extra-denominationally all evangelicals into a powerful movement to capture the British scene, as Dr Lloyd-Jones had hoped. As a consequence, notes Cook: ‘Evangelicals were more divided than ever.’ It is, however, worth noting the inclusion of the word ‘Reformed’ in Cook’s observation.
Divided Evangelicals might be, but there is no shortage of activity in Evangelical circles. Is it true, as Tozer has said, that most of our present evangelical activity ‘is little more than weak humanism allied with weak Christianity to give it ecclesiastical respectability?’ Does Evangelicalism parade some sort of symbolic unity while, all along, it has slipped into the error of believing that religious activity equals spiritual life equals spiritual unity?
I must agree with Tozer that ‘Evangelical Christianity is on a dead-end street if it is going to continue to accept religious activity as a legitimate proof of spirituality.’ A dead-end street is precisely the course I believe Evangelicalism is indeed on, for, as Cymbala noted: ‘Too much of our religious life is made up of programs and human ideas, talents and strategies. We need something with the mark of heaven upon it.’ Amen to that. Yet, consider this: What happens if the mark of heaven is seen on something that is not regarded as Evangelical?
Martyn Lloyd-Jones said that it was time Evangelicals faced up to the issues raised by the biblical doctrine of the church for, too often, it seemed to him, they appeared ‘more concerned to maintain the integrity of their denominations than anyone else’. I believe that this very truth has led to Evangelicalism generally being very widespread, but very shallow. As Lloyd-Jones said, ‘the main trouble in the church today – and I am speaking of evangelical churches in particular at this point – is the appalling superficiality.’ There is no virtue in being united in shallowness.