The past few days I've been thinking a lot about what I mean when I say that I am "an evangelical." I know that the word "evangelical" can be tricky to define. For example, I was talking to a friend at Annual Conference this last summer. She said something that sounded rather "liberal" in my mind. I responded to her, "Oh, I guess I just assumed that you were an evangelical." She said, "I like to consider myself an evangelical liberal."
I know this is a category that some United Methodists place themselves in, and they have every right to do so. I won't try to explain for them what that means. I just say this to make the distinction between how different people use the word "evangelical." From what I can tell, saying that I am an evangelical, is different from using evangelical as an adjective.
For the sake of distinction, I have at least once called myself "a conservative evangelical." I did so not because I think the adjective "conservative" is really necessary, but to let people know that I'm not an evangelical liberal. I'm an evangelical.
As I've been thinking about this, here is a list of things that I consider to be true of people who are evangelicals. (This is a work in progress.)
1) They believe that Jesus is the only Savior of humankind.
This means that no other religious pathway, other than Jesus, will lead to God. There is no forgiveness of sins without the shedding of blood. Every human being has sinned. The only available candidate to die for another's sins is one who has no sins of his/her own. Jesus, the only sinless human being, is the ony substitute who has ever lived. He paid the sin debt for the entire human race in his blood.
2) They believe that the Bible is God's Word.
This doesn't mean that Jesus is not the Incarnate Word of God. While Jesus is the Incarnate Word of God, the Bible is the written Word of God. One could say the Bible is the Word of the Word (hat tip to Mike Rayson). This means that even the parts of the Bible that are written by Paul, Peter, John, or Solomon, are the Word of God. This also means that in order to get a full picture of who Jesus is, one must look as much at what Paul said about him as one must look at what he said about himself.
3) They believe that the Bible should have the final say in understanding every moral issue. This means that if scientific research suggests that a different moral understanding of a behavior might be appropriate, the evangelical would stick with what the Bible says on the issue.
4) They believe that the miracles in the Bible (the Virgin Birth, the Physical Resurrection of Jesus from the Dead, etc) were actual historical events.
5) They believe that heaven and hell are both very real eternal destinations.
6) They believe that the only way to escape hell is through faith in Christ. They would say that this does not make God unjust, unloving, or unfair, because hell is what humans deserve for being desperately wicked. God's love and desire to redeem wicked human beings is demonstrated in the cross of Christ. Evangelicals do not find the doctrine of hell incompatible with God's incredible love for the human race.
7) They believe the earliest Christians, including the apostles, were evangelicals. This means that being "an evangelical" is not some new invention, but what it really means to be a Christian.
Here's a list of clarification statements to hopefully answer questions before they are asked.
1) Some evangelicals would say that its not possible to be a true Christian unless someone is an evangelical. I would hesitate to say that for a number of reasons, even though I would call myself an evangelical.
2) Evangelicals have made some horrific mistakes throughout history.
3) Anyone who believes the Doctrinal Standards of the United Methodist Church at face value would be what I consider an evangelical.
4) I believe John Wesley was an unapologetic evangelical.
5) An evangelical should never dismiss the social responsibilities that accompany being a follower of Christ, under the argument that right doctrine is more important than right behavior.
6) I believe evangelicals have good things they can learn from liberals ("evangelical liberals" and just plain "liberals").