Putting the Evangel in Evangelicalism

Recently there has been discussion about the term “evangelical.” What does it mean? Who are evangelicals? How do we know? It’s a good thing because clarity on truth is a good thing.

The word “evangelical” comes from the New Testament Greek word which means “gospel” or “good news.” Thus, “evangelical” means having to do with the Christian gospel. Understanding the Christian gospel, then, is needed to define who and what constitutes an “evangelical.”

If anyone would speak accurately of the Christian evangel, they must do so from the source of the evangel; the Bible. We could reference many passages, but if I were to choose one, it would be 1 Corinthians 1:18-31. To be sure, the passage was not written to 21st century Westerners in order to recalibrate flawed definitions of “evangelical.” However, it was written to pleasure-loving, professing Christians living in a worldly culture, to recalibrate their understanding of the evangel, or the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The writer of 1 Corinthians was the most evangelical evangelical in Christianity; the apostle Paul. He wrote this section of Scripture to teach a correct theological and philosophical understanding of the Christian gospel. In doing so, he zeros in on the centerpiece of the gospel, the cross of Jesus Christ. The cross refers less to the wooden object and more to the meaning and implications of what God did through the cross.

I am not insisting that Christians embrace the term, “evangelical.” It might be better if we don’t. But if we do, we need to think of it in terms of the biblical evangel. According to the biblical evangel, “evangelical” means more than voting conservative, attending weekly religious services, and owning a Bible. It’s a worldview centered on the message of the cross of Jesus Christ. The message of the cross is at least that Jesus Christ died on the cross for our sins. But for clarification sake, we can say more than that, especially today. There are lots of things I would like to say to those who take a more mainstream evangelical label. But if I had to boil it down to a few points, I would say these things.

  1. The evangel, or Christian gospel, is an intentionally offensive message to natural human sensibilities.

“For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing” (1 Cor. 1:18)

In first century Mediterranean culture, the mention of “cross” did not conjure up thoughts of pretty jewelry or pleasant church architecture. The very mention of “cross” was offensive and obscene in common society. Crucifixion was a perfected form of execution reserved only for society’s most despicable criminals. The process began with the condemned individual undergoing scourging and whipping. Then, they would carry their own execution tool out to the death site, often while jeering bystanders pelted them with various items. The criminal was then nailed through, fastening them to the cross. Soldiers lifted up the cross and slammed it down. Criminals hung there until death by asphyxiation, exposure, or trauma. God could have chosen many ways for his beloved Son to pay for our sin. He did so through that most offensive form of execution, reserved only for society’s most disgraceful criminals. God decided that the evangel would have crucifixion as its centerpiece.

Archaeological evidence gives further insight into how shameful the idea of a crucified God was to the culture. In 1857, excavators uncovered graffiti etched on an ancient building at Palatine Hill. Sometime in the early centuries of Christianity, someone carved a human with the head of a donkey hanging on the cross. Underneath the cross was a man paying homage to the crucified donkey, with the inscription, “Alexamenos worships his God.” A religion with its Lord crucified for one’s moral violations against God was the single most foolish idea to the common mind. Thus, the gospel was an utter mockery.

In the first few centuries, a true evangelical—a cross-embracing, gospel-believing person—was not considered a decent, upstanding citizen, but a complete lunatic. You were not decent, but despicable for believing such obscenities. As a Christian, you would be the object of mockery. You were a threat to decent society. As such, you needed to be taken into the middle of the Mediterranean and thrown in with a massive rock tied to your ankle.

And God designed the saving evangel that way on purpose; in that time and culture. Being an evangelical then meant embracing a culturally offensive evangel.

  1. By God’s determination, the Christian gospel divides the human raise into two absolute categories.

“For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18).

Culture praises itself for permitting all to categorize themselves in self-determined ways. Sensible society preaches many ways to God, many paths up the one mountain, many afterlifes, and many truths. Speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have, because, there is your truth, my truth, and no truth’s truth.

The Christian evangel rains a deluge on this self-worshiping parade, preaching a crucified Jew, who demands total exclusivity. By God’s design, the cross categorizes humanity into two categories, absolutely. There are “those who are perishing” and “those who are being saved.” That’s it. Your moral Mormon neighbor is in the same category as your immoral satanic uncle as your undecided conservative brother; perishing. The true evangel divides humanity in a way that offends humanity, and on purpose.

  1. God designed the Christian gospel to operate in such a way that man cannot save himself by his effort.

“For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:19-21).

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The apostle asks, “Where is the wise man?” Greek, and other cultures, boasted in the philosophers and great thinkers as heroic icons of ideas and intelligence. But God annuls their wisdom as impotent to meet man’s greatest need.

“Where is the scribe?” Jews hailed scribes as the moral-spiritual Olympians of their day. But they too contribute nothing to reconciling man to God.

“Where is the debater of this age?” In ancient culture, celebrity philosophers were praised as the somebodies of society.

The point is clear. Which of the world’s greats has devised a plan to solve the greatest problem of all history? None. God has designed the evangel to work in such a way that society’s lauded contributors and contributions to itself are useless in accomplishing our greatest need; reconciliation to God. The evangel is that God did it: God came, God was incarnate, God lived the righteous life we could not, God was crucified, and God was raised.

  1. God designed the Christian gospel to solicit a response of repulsion.

“For indeed Jews ask for signs and Greeks search for wisdom; but we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:22-23).

Jews demand signs. It’s the common human sensibility that craves a dazzling show; something fancy. Fascinate my fallen feelings. Enchant my emotions with the exotic. Satisfy my superficiality with the sensational. Then, maybe, I’ll consider your God and your message.

Greeks search for wisdom. It’s the human sensibility that worships impressive thinking. Astound me with vain philosophizing about nothing. Hypnotize me with fancy ideas about I know not what. Inspire my intellect and I’ll consider considering your message. Maybe.

But God will have none of it. In fact, he designed the evangel to confront both forms of human arrogance on purpose. It’s going to be a crucified Hebrew; a debased idea in the eyes of the world.

  1. The Christian gospel affirms that God alone is the one who does all the work of salvation.

“God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

“[B]ut to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

Notice the emphasis in both verses. It’s all about God who saves. Man will contribute nothing to what he most needs. And that’s the way God designed the evangel to work. God alone saves. He does everything. If man supposes to contribute, he cannot be saved.

Man always wants to feel like he’s done something. He loves feeling like a contributor. It’s a bizarre form of pride: he won’t take a handout at times because he worships handing out. He loves his works. For that reason, God designed the evangel to begin with God, continue with God, and end with God. God saves, not man. Man attempts to distort that, even if just a tad: “Well, we are not totally fallen. We can decide to believe and ascend to God in our intellect.” “I’m not that bad of a person.” We’ve seen what man chooses when left to himself. The true evangel is the good news that God saves in spite of man.

  1. God designed that the means by which he saves are offensive to natural human sensibilities.

The means of accomplishing our greatest need are offensively simple by God’s design. They do not involve inventing a great machine, accomplishing a great physical feat, or progression in technological advancement.

“[I]t pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe” (1 Cor. 1:21).

Salvation comes through the means preaching. Not a fancy Greek debate with incredibly flowery rhetoric. Just a once-sided, monological authoritative declaration. It’s offensive, which is why God chose it as a means.

Salvation comes through believing. There are no PhDs necessary; no athletic ability that is a catalyst. Physical appearance can in no way assist in salvation. Complex philosophical argumentation is useless. Financial wealth gives zero advantage to your greatest need. Instead, it’s just belief. Believing is that which involves the least human exertion. It’s almost as if God chose the thing that would involve the least amount of human contribution. Man lusts to work up to things through gradual human greatness. But God chooses belief as the means for salvation. It’s offensively simple.

“[B]ut to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24).

Salvation comes through being called. Embracing the evangel is also extremely passive. You cannot be convinced, you have to be called. God has to do all the work by acting on your dead, lifeless, rebellious soul. No one ever had difficulty understanding that, only accepting it.

Thus, God designed the means by which people are saved to the evangel as offensive to natural sensibilities.

  1. God saves unimpressive people by the evangel to shelve human boasting.

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29).

Very few Christians possess a praiseworthy pedigree. That’s God design. Notice the emphasis from the text: “God chose.” In case we miss the point, it’s mentioned three times. God did the choosing. So, if you were God, who would you choose to be your people; your children; your Son’s bride? The richest? Smartest? Strongest? God chose the “foolish,” “weak,” “low,” and “despised.” That’s the profile of a biblical evangelical.

  1. God designed the Christian gospel to show that God is infinitely superior to man.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25).

“And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (1 Cor. 1:30-31).

God’s “foolishness” diminishes our greatest wisdom. His “weakness” dominates our greatest strengths. The cross is a plan thought of and carried out by God to ensure that He gets the glory and we do not. In the gospel, God puts himself both against and superior to man’s wisdom. And he places himself in opposition to man’s pride.

Therefore, what is an evangelical according to God’s evangel? An evangelical is a chosen lowly fool, saved from perishing by no power of his own, but by being called to respond in belief to the preaching of an obscene message centered on a crucified Hebrew who was punished in his place for his sin, all so that boasting rises to God alone.

More could be said regarding what constitutes a correct definition of the evangel in evangelical. These points align us with the definition and implications of the biblical evangel; the gospel of Jesus Christ.



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