Who Is an Evangelical?: A Review

When my professor said, he did not understand Henry David’s Thoreau’s book, Walden, my shoulders relaxed. Moments earlier, he had criticized my paper on Walden for having failed to grasp the point of Thoreau’s recounting of ants, birds, and rainstorms. The professor of literature then went on to say, he could not help me improve my essay because Thoreau had stumped him as well. According to my literature professor, Thoreau was so unique that he defied categorization.

The same could be said of the term evangelical. Though the word remains tied to the “born again” concept, no one has been able to standardize the content, belief, or practices of those who march under the evangelical banner. According to a 2020 Lifeway study, 26% of evangelicals deny the divinity of Jesus and 42% believe all religions lead to God. Evangelicals possess a wide array of theological, sexual, and political views that often conflict with their evangelical neighbors.

In his book, Who is and Evangelical: The History of A Movement in Crisis, historian and Baylor University professor, Thomas Kidd, steps into this quagmire, seeking to define the seemingly undefinable. He writes, “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit (4).” Sadly even as the ink dries on the pages of this 2019 volume, this definition has already begun to dissolve into ill-defined gray matter. In the before mentioned 2020 Lifeway study, only 32% of self-identified evangelicals believed the Bible was true and only 49% of the respondents affirmed the need for the Holy Spirit to give new birth. The new birth, evangelical language of Whitefield and the pietist which emphasized the importance of the Holy Spirit has not aged well, making the movement which transcends both denominational and sociological definitions that much harder to define.

Who is An Evangelical?

Despite the book’s title, Kidd appears comfortable with the ameba like nature of the evangelical movement. As Kidd tracks the development of evangelicalism which begins with George Whitefield and ends with Donald Trump, he chronicles a movement that has been forever unsettled. Evangelicals embraced African Americans, Hispanics, and female converts while simultaneously advocating for slavery, segregation, and restrictive male headship. According to Kidd, the movement has been shaped by a never-ending onslaught of small and large conflicts.

But in 1951 at the behest of Billy Graham, evangelism entered a new and a defining crisis. That year Graham asked the nominal religious and non-evangelical General Dwight Eisenhower to run for president. By supporting Eisenhower and eventually Nixon, Kidd believes Graham transformed evangelism from a movement of spiritual conversion into an organization that promoted the civil religion of spiritual patriotism. From that point on, Kidd claimed white evangelicals egged on by the secular media would confuse, “political power and access to Republican leaders with the advancement of God’s kingdom (93).” This blending of faith and politics benefited the Republican party far more than it advanced the cause of Christ. But instead of abandoning the party and calling a spade a spade, Kidd reports that 81% of white evangelicals doubled down on their commitment to political power and voted for President Donald Trump. By supporting a man whose life contradicted the values of the gospel, evangelicals revealed that their movement was now more politically than spiritually minded.

At this juncture, Kidd’s thesis becomes clear. He writes not so much to define the indefinable but to call the ameba of evangelism to return to the pond of theology. Kidd laments the notion shared by some, “that political behavior is what makes an evangelical and evangelical (151).” He goes on to write, “Partisan politics have come and gone…But conversion, devotion to an infallible Bible, and God’s discernable presence are what make an evangelical and evangelical (156).” In other words, evangelicals should first and foremost be born again believers instead of political activists.

Analysis

I concur with Kidd’s overarching analysis, appreciating his ability to deal with hundreds of years of history in the span of 156 pages. But I also think the conciseness of the volume stunted the development of his argument. Though Kidd ties evangelicals to the Holy Spirit, he does not tease out how an evangelical’s understanding of the Holy Spirit shapes that soul’s understanding of scripture which in-turn shapes the evangelical’s understanding cultural engagement. I’m curious to know if Whitefield’s, Graham’s, and A.W Criswell’s accommodation to worldly norms was spawned by a spiritism that allowed them to negate the teaching of the Scriptures. In other words, did these men misstep because they were following their impression of the Word or the Spirit?

Lastly, I wish Kidd had interacted more with the works of his historical mentor George Marsden. Though Kidd locates the downfall of evangelicalism in the 1950’s, he does not intently interact with the patriotism of the World War 1 era that transformed how many conservative churches viewed politics. Since Kidd locates the start of evangelicalism in the 1700’s, he should have allocated more space to the Woodrow Wilson era.

Final Thoughts

I think at the end of the day, Kidd would agree that no one can finally say who is an evangelical. But he also believes that the message of evangelicalism can be historically defined as a “message of conversion and eternal salvation, not partisan politics (10).” Though I do not agree with all of Kidd’s analysis, I believe his attempt to return the evangelical ameba to the pond of theology is needed. May we all swim in the waters of spiritual reflection.

Blessed are the Peacemakers

The soul does not have to walk past bloated horses, screaming men, or dead children to understand the cruel nature of human conflict. The little girl that has hidden under her unicorn blanket while her parents send hateful words screaming across the living room knows the importance of peace. War whether in the macrocosm or the microcosm is horrid thing.

But despite the commitments of the United Nations to help people, “practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbors,” the world remains ravaged by wars. The followers of Christ should not be surprised by the inadequacies of governments and agencies for humanity has a natural disposition for war. As soon as the news of a bad report card or of a broken antique vase hits our hearts, the booming cannon of anger forcefully sounds again. Despite humanity’s attempt to establish peace through calls for moderation, the promises of hugs, and the gains of technology, harmony remains elusive.

Jesus Calls for Peacemakers

Still, we want peace. The human heart readily identifies with Jesus’s proclamation, “Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God (Matt. 5:9).” To find this peace, souls must first discover how one becomes a son or daughter of God. In other words to promote peace, men and women must first experience the peace God. Jesus serves as the foundation of all earthly peace.

How Does Jesus Display Peace?

As the prophet Isaiah noted, Jesus is the “Prince of Peace (Is 9:6).” When baby Jesus arrived in the manager, he brought peace to those with whom God is well pleased (Lk 2:14). This was unusually fantastic news!

At birth, no one is blessing to God. Since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit at the dawning of the human age, humanity has suffered from the effects of sin. Having declared war against God, men and women unceasingly choose evil because their natures possess an eternal bent towards selfishness and violence. This lack of righteousness in the human society ensures that war will continue to flourish both in our homes and on the international stage. No one could please God. No one could lay claim to the peace of heaven.

At this juncture, the glory of Christ becomes even more glorious. He exercises the roles of prophet, priest, and king so that God can find us pleasing. Jesus comes as an infant to pursue the salvation of the lost. The Gospel of Mark reports that Jesus came preaching, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.” As the perfect prophet of God, Jesus condemned sin and then called sinners to repentance. Thankfully, his call to holiness transcended the scope of the legalist, white-collared grandmother who is always wagging her finger. Acting as the final high priest, Jesus offered his life as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. He made repentance possible, dying so that no one else has to sacrifice for their sins. Christ accomplished it all, trading his life for us. Thus at the moment of repentance, the sinner takes possession of Christ’s righteousness. When God sees the redeemed, he sees his son with whom he is well pleased. In Romans 5:1 Paul sums up God’s plan for peace, writing, “Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” Then as king, Jesus reigns. He continual works for the good of his children interceding for them, directing them back towards grace when they stumble into selfishness and war. Through his pursuit, salvation, and care of sinners, Jesus brings peace to earth.

Who is a peacemaker?

A peacemaker is someone promotes peace because he has experienced the peace of Christ through repentance and faith. As a new creation, Christians possess the tools needed to foster peace: confession, truth, forgiveness, and forbearance. In other words, those who experienced peace with God will in-turn become the purveyors of peace on earth.

Confession

Sin is the soil that sustains war and violence. If unconfessed sin exists in the believer’s life, she will be unable to help her neighbor. In other words, those who hope to bring others to peace while sharing intelligence and military equipment with the terrorists of pride, selfishness, and lust will harm both themselves and those they wish to help. Jesus noted, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” Before the believer can help someone else, she must repent of her own sin and rest in the peace of a clear conscience. Only once the log is out of her eye can she move forward to help her husband, children, coworkers, church members, and in-laws.

Truth

After self-examination and repentance, the peacemaker should bring the word of truth to bear on the lives of others. To borrow the well-used expression, the Christian must call a spade a spade. Instead of looking the other way when she spots her friend’s husband checking into a motel with a women not her friend, she address the situation pointing to Matthew 5:27-32 and a host of other passages that condemn adultery. Similarly, Paul tells Titus to address those start fights writing , “As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice have nothing more to do with him (3:10).” The peacemaker engages sin with truth for the purpose of correcting errors and erroneous behaviors. In bringing the ethic of Jesus to bear on all of life, she fosters both peace with God and peace among men.

Forgiveness

After sharing truth, the believer should extend forgiveness. The peacemaking progress often breaks down at this juncture. The human soul craves vengeance. It desires to know that the villains who called them names, stunted their careers, and destroyed their friendships have suffered through at least one night of the silent treatment. But this is not the heart of Christ. He welcomes sinners. When the prodigal son returns to his Father, the Father runs to him throwing a feast for him. Such should be Christian forgiveness. As Jesus tells his listeners in Matthew 5:44-45 “But I say to you, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven.” The moment a person confesses their sin and asks for forgiveness, the believer should extend the hand of fellowship and bring the war to its God intended conclusion. The list of misdeeds are burned, the internal bitterness is tossed out, and the urge for vengeance is abandon. In their place now sit mercy and grace.

Forbearance

Lastly, the peacemaker forbears. He does not give up after one conversation. He does not quit and wait for those in a state of war to make the first move. He pursues his enemies and those engaged in combat. Even when they mistreat him or respond to his initial offerings for peace with a list of his past failures, he does not retreat. He keeps pursuing peace for Christ, pursing the man despite his hatred and mistreatment of The believer. The apostle John reminds us that, “In this is love not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved if God so loved us, we ought to love one another (1 Jn 4:10).” When Jesus arrived, he did not find you or me residing peaceable in a garden, musing about the origins of dreams. He found us in a state of all out rebellion, brandishing machine guns and machetes in an effort to overthrow God’s sovereign decrees. Still, Jesus loved us and pursued us to the point of death. If God cast us off because we did not respond to the first gospel plea that we heard, how many of us would reach heaven? If God can endure thousands of rejections, should we not do the same?

Final Thoughts

Often Christians fear confrontation because it threatens to create more confusion and war. If John responds to the truth of the gospel with anger know the whole church is consumed with gossip as texts go around asking church members to either side with John or the church’s elders. Though mishaps happen, this fear overlooks one important truth: God’s spirit dwells in all of his people. In Philippians 4:7, God promises that “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your mind in Christ Jesus.” When the believing soul calls another believing soul to peace, the peacemaker do so knowing Christ is also guarding the brother at war. In other words, the call to peace will always resonate with the believer. And if the call of peace is rejected and the one at war proves to be unredeemed, the Christian should not lose heart. He has helped a confused soul understand its spiritual state. The knowledge of sin proves to be the foundation of evangelism that allows the gospel to penetrate. The Christian does not despair but rather pursues the man at war afresh seeking to lead him to peace.

Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are The Pure in Heart

Though the modern man and woman no longer scales Mount Olympus looking for Zeus, both still yearn to experience the divine. When their plane flying thousands of feet above the mountains dives uncontrollably to the earth, the modern person still longs to know that the blackness of death will open to the glories of heaven. Despite the advancements of technology, philosophy, and political theory, the human condition remains the same. We long to see God.

While technology has not altered the soul’s yearning for something more, it has rechanneled it. Men such as Augustine, Luther, and others have repeatedly documented the follies of attempting to find God through animal sacrifices, ritualistic chants, and sacred pilgrimages. In his massive volume entitled, The City of God, Augustine chronicled the futility of paganism and concluded that the pagan sacrifices of Rome “do nothing to either injure those whom they hate or to benefit those whom they love.” Following the lead of Augustine, western men and women have stopped looking for the divine in nature and began searching for the divine within their souls.

As the platonic philosophers of old, people have begun to believe that each soul has been seeded by the universe with a spark of divinity. To connect with the divine, the modern soul thought it must immerse itself into its own thoughts, impulses, and emotions, believing such activities would lead the soul back down the pathway to god.

The lurch towards the god within has also infiltrated the church. Christians of all stripes and sizes frequently base their ministries, teachings, and decisions upon their own mystical thoughts, citing their personal encounters with the divine.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus diverges from the preoccupation with self and directs his listeners to the path of purity, declaring, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God (Matt 5:8).” To see God, men and women must become pure.

Jesus and the Impure

Though direct, Jesus’s statement always proves troubling. In stark contrast to the pop song which proclaims our souls to be both broken and beautiful, Jesus asserts our souls to be broken and vile. A few chapters later in Matthew 15, Jesus defines the heart as being the source of all human trouble. He said, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone (Matt 15:19-20).” Jesus does not believe the human soul is a diamond mine to be carefully explored and excavated. He proclaims it to be a storehouse of manure that must be cleansed. In other words, Jesus requires his followers to be that which they naturally are not: pure.

Does Heart = Mind?

At this juncture, some theologians have found hope in a modernist understanding of the analogy of the heart. While they admit the things of the heart such as emotions and feelings are broken by sin, these theologians believe the human intellect has survived the brokenness of the world. If men and women will but think, they can find purity.

Sadly for them, Jesus did not equate the heart with children’s valentine’s day cards that say, “I love you. Be Mine.” When Jesus spoke of the heart, he spoke of the essence of a person. It contains all notions of thinking, reasoning, feeling, understanding, and interpreting. Jesus has implied that the very center of human personality is fallen. Even human thought is prone to error and mistakes (Rom 1-2). There is none righteous no not one. No man or woman can ascend to heaven for no mind is pure. No heart is pure.

From Sin to Purity

Thankfully, the God who calls his followers to do the impossible does the impossible for them. When Jesus died upon the cross, he offered his blood as the final purifying sacrifice. When men and women in ancient Jewish world committed sins or developed a significant skin disease, they had to offer sacrifices for their cleansing (Lev. 14-15). Through the blood of birds and sheep, the unclean were cleaned and allowed to commune with God’s people. Through Jesus’s sacrifice upon the cross, his blood cleanses us from all sin. As Jesus told Peter before he died, Jesus’s blood makes his children “completely clean (John 13:10).” Those who understand their spiritual poverty, mourn their sins, and embrace humility, pursuing righteousness will find the comfort of divine forgiveness and they will be cleansed from their sins.

What is Purity?

Though the believer must still pray for the kingdom to come and for God’s will to be done in his or her life, they know they will one day attain true perfection for they have been washed in the blood of the lamb. The hope of being perfectly like Jesus tomorrow propels the Christian to purity today. The apostle John writes, “We know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure (1 John 3:2-3).” Those who have been washed in the blood of the lamb publicly follow God attending church, praying, and serving their brothers and sisters in Christ. But they do more. They welcome correction and confess sin. Instead of rationalizing their greed, lust, or anger, they confess those faults to God; they pray for deliverance, and welcome accountability and change.

The British pastor and friend of Billy Graham, John Stott, helpfully summed up the concept of the pure in heart writing,

The pure in heart are those whose life, public and private, is transparent before God and others. Their very heart – including their thoughts and motives – is pure, unmixed with anything devious, underhanded, or sordid. Hypocrisy and deceit are repugnant to them; they are without deceit.

Unlike the Pharisees and scribes who did great deeds to earn the applause of their neighbors while inwardly running amuck with covetousness, lust, and pride, the pure in heart are sincerely pure both without and within. As they sit in their easy chair or mindlessly stare at the shower wall as the water runs through their hair, their mind does not tolerate ungodly humor, provocative daydreams, or small amounts of deception. As theologian D.A. Carson noted even in neutral, the people of God pursue purity. Jesus produces purity.

And purity leads to unhindered access to God. Though men such as Moses and Peter have caught glimpses of God’s glory, no human being has fully encountered the glory of God on earth. God told Moses in Exodus 33:20, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” The apostle John describes Jesus as the full manifestation of God’s Truth and Grace. Still those who beheld Jesus did not see the full glory of God. When Jesus did pull back the curtain in Matthew 17:2, the gospel writer said Jesus’s “face shone like the sun and his clothes become white as light.” No one has seen God, but the pure will see him soon. Those who are washed in the Jesus’s blood and who have pure hearts will behold that which Moses could not behold, the glory of God. When the soul feels tempted to sin, we do not simply gamble human relationships or earthly gains. We risk the most exclusive ticket in the universe which grants accesses to the presence of God.

As we cling to that ticket, we experience God daily through the Scriptures and prayer. We also get glimpse of Jesus when we watch our church sung of our savior on Sunday mornings and when our sister in Christ extends mercy to her mother-in-law. Those who obediently follow God regularly see him as they live out their faith eagerly looking forward to the day with then will see God in all his glory.

Final Thoughts

To discover God, the soul must not look within but without to the Scriptures. Their as it encounters Jesus, it will find the pathway to heaven. In the text of the Bible, the heart will find the blood of Christ which cleanses the heart making all things pure, securing our accesses to heaven. As Jesus said, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God.”