What Does 'Evangelical' Mean?

The term 'Evangelical' Christian gets used a lot, but what does it really mean?


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The word ‘evangelical’ has been thrown around quite a bit, and sometimes people wonder, what exactly does that mean? I guess it depends on who you're talking to, but it's not infinitely flexible. 

The word ‘evangelical’ is used generally to characterize Protestant Christianity, and more than that, Protestant Christianity that is in the spirit of the Reformation. It is a Christianity committed to a biblical inerrancy, and this has always been a part of the mix. The Bible is the Word of God. What the Bible says is what God is saying in any area that it speaks. 

It's not just speaking about spiritual matters, history, or science. That is not the view. Evangelicals, characteristically, have held the Scripture to be inerrant and the Gospel to be a particular thing - faith in Jesus Christ and salvation by faith alone through grace alone. Also, an element captured in the concept of evangelism is that part of our role is to go out and make disciples by communicating this message. 

Characteristically, when you encounter someone who identifies themselves like I do, as an evangelical, they are trying to distinguish themselves from more mainline churches that may not hold strongly to the foundational principles of Christianity, the inerrancy of God's Word, and therefore do not see evangelism as a pressing issue. They think there are other ways to get to God besides Christianity. So, they are not going to be emphasizing that standard equation of salvation by grace alone through Christ alone by faith alone - all the ‘solas’ that we normally characterize or associate with the Reformation. So, that's the package. 

The concept of hell used to be a pretty standard feature in evangelicalism. Now, there are more that have been characterized as evangelical who are beginning to leave the fold on the issue of eternal hell. For some people, that might be up in the air a little bit. 

The things that I’ve identified and I'm offering descriptively are characteristic of what people mean when they use the term ‘evangelical’. When that term gets more and more flexible, that becomes a problem because when terms cease to be meaningful, then they lose their usefulness entirely. One person said – this may be overstatement for this particular issue – but the principal is a good one: “When words lose their meaning, people lose their lives.” 

So, it's important that we are precise about meanings of words and we’re particular. Christianity doesn't mean anything. Evangelicalism doesn't mean just anything we want it to mean. If those are the cases, then communication becomes almost impossible. The word ‘evangelical’ was meant to identify a certain type of Protestant Christian based on their particular theological convictions, which I’ve just outlined.

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Greg Koukl