The Protestant Reformation recovered the gospel of God's free grace that had been obscured in the medieval church by a moralism that dismissed man's deep depravity, by a sacerdotalism that interposed a religious caste between men and God, and by an ecclesiasticism that erased the Creator-creature distinction the church itself became the new Incarnation. At the heart of the reform was a renewed emphasis on the Biblical-Pauline-Augustinian gospel: salvation solely by the grace of God on the grounds of Christ's atoning work, appropriated by faith alone. The Reformers and their churches were proud to be known as "evangelical," since they saw themselves as preaching the pure evangel, the gospel message. This is the Biblical evangelicalism.
But what passes for evangelicalism today is at most points far removed from the evangelicalism of the Reformation, as it is more generally removed from Biblical teaching at other points. When friends ask whether I am an evangelical, I am quick to say, "No." Because they often identify "evangelical" with "Bible-believing" and "gospel-preaching," I take time to explain that it is precisely because evangelicalism does not believe the Bible properly or preach the gospel faithfully that I do not consider myself an evangelical and cannot be a member of an evangelical church (this is largely true of modern fundamentalism, simply a more restrictive and provincial version of evangelicalism). What are perhaps the three chief distinctives of evangelicalism stand in sharp contrast to a Biblical, Reformational belief and practice of Christianity.
A Subjective, Not Objective, Gospel
While modern evangelicals profess a firm belief in the Bible, at the center of their religion is not their view of the Bible, but their view of the gospel. Evangelicalism prides itself on the centrality of the gospel and of salvation. It is just here, however, that evangelicalism is perhaps the most polluted. In fact, ironically enough, the evangelical view of the gospel is much closer to that of medieval Rome than it is to the Biblical gospel of the Reformation. The Council of Trent, the Roman Catholic response to the Reformation, held that salvation is a cooperative endeavor between God and man. God sets the process in motion (at baptism), but man helps the process along. According to Rome, man's free will plays a big part in his salvation. The Reformers correctly recognized that this destroyed the gospel of the grace of God. It opened the way for man to assert his own contribution, goodness, and righteousness. For evangelicals, this is almost uniformly their own "decision." At this point, they are at one with Rome.
Evangelicals are advocates of "decisional regeneration." Evangelicalism is essentially born-againism, the institutionalization of the conversion experience. The important thing about salvation is man's experience, his feelings about being saved. A heavy dose of this experientialism was introduced into the church in eighteenth-century Wesleyianism, and it has been a mark of evangelicalism ever since. Wesley's experience was that he was "strangely warmed" when he heard the gospel, and this experience became a centerpiece of his theology. (To be fair, Luther's soteriology too was somewhat autobiographical, but it led him back in the direction of a salvation solely by the work of God.)
For Calvin, by contrast, our salvation rests in the objective work of Christ's atonement. Men are not saved by what they experience; they are saved by what Christ accomplished. In His great redemptive work on the cross and in His resurrection, Christ secured the salvation of His people, fulfilling the claims of the law in judicially substituting for the sins of unbelievers. When the gospel is preached, it efficaciously and irresistibly draws those whom God chooses. Christ their Redeemer conquers them. They are brought to their knees in humble submission and can do nothing other than exercise faith in the redeeming work of Jesus Christ. This experience, though essential, is a result of Christ¹s objective atonement and the Holy Spirit's application of the gospel.
For evangelicals this is too sophisticated and too "intellectual." The really central fact of salvation is that God has forgiven their sins, accepted them into His family, made them happy, and prepared them a home in heaven. For evangelicals, the gospel centers on the will and pleasure of man; for Reformationists, the gospel centers on the will and pleasure of God.
Because to be an evangelical means to embrace just their man-centered form of gospel, we cannot be evangelical.
New Testament, Not Biblical, Religion
The Reformed wing of the Reformation expressed the unity of God¹s covenant in both Old and New Testaments. The evangelicals stress the disunity of those covenants for evangelicals, the goal of the Faith is to reproduce "New Testament Christianity." Evangelicals believe in a one-quarter Bible; Reformed Christians believe in a whole Bible. Evangelicals routinely dismiss the authority of the Old Testament. The Old Testament law, they assert, is part of the "old" covenant, and it was only for ancient Israel in any case; today we listen only to the words of Jesus, John, Paul, and so forth. Evangelicals are among the loudest in insisting on "believing the Bible from cover to cover," but they do not believe that three quarters of what appears between the covers has any relevance for today. They talk sanctimoniously about "strict Biblical inerrancy," but this usually is simply pious gibberish because they deny that the provisions of the new covenant were operative in the Old Testament (Gal. 4:22-31). They don't see much of the gospel, if any at all, in the Old Testament. And because evangelicalism centers on the gospel, this means that the Old Testament is largely irrelevant. Functionally, therefore, the term "Bible-believing" does not apply to most evangelicals.
A Narrow Gospel, Not the Full-Orbed Faith
This leads directly to the final characteristic of evangelicalism, which Bible-believing Christians must expressly repudiate. For evangelicals, it is the evangel, the gospel (narrowly and erroneously defined, of course) that should absorb our lives. For Reformationists, it is the sovereignty of God and His absolute regal authority in the earth that is absorbing. The evangelical gospel is not merely warped; it is narrow. The evangelical gospel is an end in itself. "Keeping souls out of hell" is what life on earth is all about. For Reformationists, life on earth is about absolute submission to Christ the kingly Redeemer and diligent work to extend that kingship in the earth. Evangelism is an essential means to that end, but not the end itself. To assert that evangelism is an end in itself is to espouse a warped, man-centered theology. The end is God's glory and, with reference to His plan for the earth, the gradual but relentless expansion of His kingdom (Mt. 6:33; 13:31-34).
Evangelicals are intensely interested in evangelism their sort of evangelism. Because this evangelism is not only warped but also narrow, it does not relate to most aspects of life. Because evangelism is the center of their religion and because it does not relate to most aspects of life, the religion itself does not relate to most aspects of life. Because their religion does not relate to most aspects of life, they tend to think like worldlings and downright humanists in those areas unrelated to their narrow religion. This is why, for one thing, the evangelical apologetic method compromises the gospel, as Cornelius Van Til so potently demonstrated.
The evangelicals are willing to compromise anything, even God Himself, for the sake of their precious idol, their narrow, warped evangel. This is why a majority of them see nothing whatever wrong in sending their children to covenant-breaking government schools, adopting covenant-breaking secular psychology, teaching covenant-breaking evolutionary science, electing covenant-breaking political candidates, and endorsing covenant-breaking Bible translations. These are areas beyond the purview of their narrow gospel. Everything beyond the scope of their narrow gospel is fair game for a "neutral"(i.e. covenant-breaking) perspective.
For these reasons, wherever modern evangelicalism has blossomed, it has torpedoed historic Biblical orthodoxy; eviscerated a strong, theologically anchored faith; and emasculated a robust, red-blooded, full-orbed religion. Its success has been the failure of Biblical Christianity.
Consequently, to be an evangelical in the modern sense is to dilute and eventually destroy the Faith.
- P. Andrew Sandlin
P. Andrew Sandlin is a Christian minister, theologian, and author. He is the founder and president of the Center for Cultural Leadership in Coulterville, California. He was formerly president of the National Reform Association and executive vice president of the Chalcedon Foundation. He is a minister in the Fellowship of Mere Christianity.. He was formerly a pastor at Church of the Word in Painesville, Ohio (1984-1995) and Cornerstone Bible Church in Scotts Valley, California (2004-2014).