What is an “evangelical”? There is a series of similar words that are commonly confused such as “evangelical”, “evangelism”, “evangelistic”, “evangelise”, “evangelist” and “evangelicalism”. These words carry so much meaning to the initiated but are quite confusing to others.
They all start with “evangel” for they are all about the gospel. “Evangel” is the anglicised version of the Greek word for gospel. These different English words are just different grammatical forms of the word gospel.
Evangelise is a verb. It means to preach the gospel. “He evangelised (preached the gospel to) the crowd.”
Evangelist is a noun. It refers to the person who preaches the gospel. “I pray that my grandson will become a great evangelist (preacher of the gospel).”
Evangelism is a noun. It refers to the activity of preaching the gospel. “Her evangelism (preaching the gospel) was mainly through letters.”
Evangelistic is an adjective. It describes an activity as gospel preaching. “The Billy Graham crusades were essentially evangelistic (gospel preaching).”
Evangelicalism is a noun. It refers to the gospel preaching movement that spread from the 18th century to today. Its early leaders were men like George Whitfield and John Wesley. There are many organizations that have Evangelicalism (the gospel preaching movement) as their origin.
But the most important and yet complicated word is “Evangelical”.
“Evangelical” is both a noun and an adjective. Some people use it in negative way, they use it to indicate “over-zealous salesmanship of beliefs”. These beliefs may or may not have anything to do with the gospel.
However Christians use the word “evangelical” quite differently. We use it as a noun to refer to somebody who believes the gospel and bases his/her life on it. And we use it as an adjective to describe an activity, organisation or person that accepts and promotes the gospel.
In one sense it does not matter how words are defined. They come into fashion and are altered by usage. Yet these words have particular meaning within Christianity. We use them to pinpoint particular views, movements and people. The key word here is “evangelical”.
The popularity of the word “evangelical” to describe the eighteenth century movement has given rise to its specific meaning.
It was a Protestant movement. So it accepted the great reformation truths such as the authority of the Bible, the finished work of Christ in his sacrificial death for sin and justification by faith alone.
But the evangelicals had particular emphasis upon regeneration and conversion—upon being born again and repenting. So it was a movement that called upon Protestants to wake up and repent. It called upon the Protestants to respond personally to the gospel.
In one sense any and everybody who believes the gospel is an evangelical. It is like the words Catholic Orthodox or Charismatic. Anybody who is Christian at all would want to say that they are all these. Catholic refers to the universality and wholeness of Christianity. To be orthodox is to be faithful to the teaching of Christ. To be charismatic is to accept and use the gifts given by God. All Christians of any or every brand would claim to be evangelical, catholic, orthodox and charismatic.
But yet these are the terms used to distinguish us from each other. The Anglo-Catholics (commonly called the High Church) were a nineteenth century movement. They tried to take the Anglican Church out of Protestantism and back to pre-Reformation days and practices. They emphasised the priesthood, rituals and a Roman Catholic understanding of the sacraments. This was their evangel—their gospel—but it was in opposition to the Evangelicals.
Similarly in the twentieth century the “Charismatic movement” came with a new emphasis. Their concern was the ongoing experience of the Spirit in the life of the believer expressed especially in extraordinary and miraculous experiences. This was in opposition to evangelicals whose emphasis on the ongoing work of the Spirit was in regeneration and the sanctification of the believer.
The first Christian ministry in Sydney was that of an evangelical. The chaplain of the first fleet, the Rev Richard Johnson, was an evangelical. The great evangelical leaders: William Wilberforce and John Newton (of anti-slavery and Amazing Grace fame) selected him for the post. He was followed by a strong succession of evangelical ministers—not the least the great Samuel Marsden.
Sydney Diocese has always retained this evangelical emphasis. We are heirs of the Protestant Reformation, seen in our Anglican prayer book and 39 articles of belief. We are heirs of the Evangelical Movement—preaching personal conversion through the regenerating work of the Spirit. We believe and preach this way, using the gifts (charismatic) of God to build the universal (catholic) church with the correct (orthodox) gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ contained in the Scriptures.
The centrality of the saving work of Jesus in the Gospel that we preach means that our identification is as Evangelicals rather than as Catholic, Orthodox or Charismatic.
Because the word “evangelical” is a theological and gospel term, it is much more important than “Anglican”. Anglican can refer to your theology—especially amongst Anglican Evangelicals who accept the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer. But in general usage Anglican means “connected to the Church of England”. It is has become an institutional, organisational, cultural and even ethnic term without any particular gospel.
Thus it is important to be an Evangelical first and foremost and an Anglican secondly. Evangelicals have more in common with each other, irrespective of their denomination, than they have with Anglicans who believe a different gospel and way of salvation.