One 2020 survey found that 30 percent of American “evangelicals” believe that Jesus is not God; 65 percent believe he is instead the first being created by God; 46 percent believe the Holy Spirit is a force, not a person; and in any case, 23 percent feel that belief is a matter of opinion, not objective truth.1 One might quibble with such statistics, but there can be doubt that large numbers of self-confessed “evangelicals” in the United States are not robustly evangelical in their beliefs.
Those figures will undoubtedly be lower in other parts of the world where “evangelicalism” is less a part of the culture. But even then, the picture is often far from rosy. In country after country, we hear stories of abusive and self-serving evangelical leaders. And they are surely only the more noticeable symptoms of a deeper malaise. The same spiritual emptiness that causes dramatic and high-profile falls from grace also stifles heartfelt worship in the pew. It leeches courage in the face of opposition. It opens the gates to charlatans who offer counterfeit gospels. It encourages a defensive maintenance mode of church management and a hollow, functional approach to the Christian life. In other words, even where evangelicals still confess the faith of the gospel, they can be unworthy of the name.
So no, evangelicalism today is not truly or fully evangelical. At worst, when a non-Trinitarian is described as “evangelical,” it is hard to know what is meant by the word. No wonder many distance themselves from it. At best, all evangelicals fail. None are completely faithful as people of the gospel.
We should not seek to excuse ourselves or gloss over the problems. It runs against the very grain of the gospel we cherish for us to indulge in self-justification. Instead, the evangelical way is not to condone or to flee, but to repent and to reform. For evangelicalism, being a gospel movement, is and always has been a renewal movement: we seek to renew ourselves and the church around the gospel (and never vice versa). It is a reformation movement, about adhering ever closer to the gospel in thought, word, and deed. On that reformation hangs the future of evangelicalism.
The Apostolic Challenge
At the end of the first chapter of his letter to the Philippians, Paul issues an evangelical call to constant reformation. He writes of “the gospel of Christ” and “the faith of the gospel,” urging his readers to live as people of the gospel.
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. —Phil. 1:27
Paul wrote as a prisoner, torn between life and death. For himself, he would “depart and be with Christ, for that is far better” (v. 23), and yet he knew “to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account” (v. 24). But whether he lived or died, his ultimate concern was not what might happen to him, but what will happen to the gospel. From that concern erupts a passionate double plea: (1) to live worthy of the gospel of Christ and (2) to stand firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel. It is a summons of apostolic authority to all the renewal we need.
Live Worthy of the Gospel
“Evangelical identity is, in the end, a matter of evangelical integrity,” writes Albert Mohler.2 Without such integrity, the world will see no more than a travesty of the gospel and a distortion of what it means to live in its light. Thus, if evangelicalism is to have a future worthy of the name, we who would be people of the gospel must cultivate an integrity to the gospel, and on more than paper. Mere subscription to a formula is not enough.
But what does evangelical integrity look like? The subject Paul turns to (with a connecting “So”) in Philippians 2:1–11, having just called them to live worthy of the gospel, is surely indicative:
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
I suggest that at the heart of evangelical integrity is humility. That might seem a laughable claim amid all the empire-building and hubris that has blackened the name of evangelicalism. And there is something about evangelicalism that can make it a fertile soil for pride. Evangelicals are people of the word, and so learning is in the blood. Yet learning so commonly fosters arrogance. Then there is that confidence that we have the truth, an assurance that can buckle into a pharisaical censoriousness that makes many seek refuge elsewhere. John Stott maintained that “the supreme quality which the evangelical faith engenders (or should do) is humility.” And yet, he admitted, “Evangelical people are often regarded as proud, vain, arrogant and cocksure.”3
What effect should the gospel have on us, though? “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). For in the gospel is revealed the glory of the living, triune God, and in his light we creatures and sinners are exposed for the little wretches we are. The more we see of the gospel, the more the three persons of the Trinity (and their work of revelation, redemption, and regeneration) are glorified, and so the more we diminish. Through the gospel, we come to realize that without God’s revelation, we are left groping in the darkness of ignorance. Without the redemption of the Son, we are utterly lost in our guilt and alienation from God. Without the Spirit’s work of regeneration, we are helplessly mired in our sin. In the gospel, God is exalted, and we delight to be abased before him. And only then, when he is lifted up, are people drawn to him (John 12:32).
Times of reformation and renewal in the church have always been marked by this perspective. A fresh sight of the glory and grace of God awakens people both to who he is and to who they are. Unlike how they once thought, they realize that he is great, glorious, and beautiful in his holiness—and they are not. At the sounding of the gospel and the lifting up of Christ, they are like Isaiah, whose vision of the Lord in glory, high and lifted up, caused him to cry “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa. 6:5). Alternative gospels, where sin is a small problem and so Christ a small savior (or assistant), never have the same effect.
That sight of God in his glory—now by faith, but one day face to face—is what we are made for. It is through that wonderful sight that we are transformed into his image and become more fully alive and human (2 Cor. 3:18). The humility we learn at the foot of the gospel, glorying in Christ and not ourselves, therefore turns out to be the wellspring of all evangelical health. When our eyes are opened to the love of God for us sinners, we let slip our masks. Condemned as sinners yet justified, we can begin to be honest about ourselves. Loved despite our unloveliness, we begin to love. Given peace with God, we begin to know an inner peace and joy. Shown the magnificence of God above all things, we become more resilient, trembling in wonder at God, and not man.
This was the evangelical transformation Martin Luther experienced through the gospel. Luther often described himself as an anxious young man, being so wrapped up in himself that everything frightened him. Even the sound of a leaf blown in the wind would make him flee (see Lev. 26:36). That changed through his encounter with the gospel of Christ, as Roland Bainton recounts in the splendid final words of his biography:
The God of Luther, as of Moses, was the God who inhabits the storm clouds and rides on the wings of the wind. At his nod the earth trembles, and the people before him are as a drop in the bucket. He is a God of majesty and power, inscrutable, terrifying, devastating, and consuming in his anger. Yet the All Terrible is the All Merciful too. “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord . . .” But how shall we know this? In Christ, only in Christ. In the Lord of life, born in the squalor of a cow stall and dying as a malefactor under the desertion and the derision of men, crying unto God and receiving for answer only the trembling of the earth and the blinding of the sun, even by God forsaken, and in that hour taking to himself and annihilating our iniquity, trampling down the hosts of hell and disclosing within the wrath of the All Terrible the love that will not let us go.4
This, concludes Bainton, was the effect:
No longer did Luther tremble at the rustling of a wind-blown leaf, and instead of calling upon St. Anne he declared himself able to laugh at thunder and jagged bolts from out the storm. This was what enabled him to utter such words as these: “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.”5
The evangelical humility Luther found before the majesty and mercy of God was not gloomy or timid, forlorn or feeble. It was full-throttled, joyous, and valiant.
That is the stamp of the humility that is found in the gospel, and the look of evangelical integrity. It is the bearing of one refreshed by the gospel. Captivated by the magnificence of God, such evangelicals will not be so drawn to man-centered therapeutic religion. Under the radiance of his glory, they will not want to establish their own little empires. Their tiny achievements will seem petty, their feuds and personal agendas odious. He will loom large, making them bold to please God and not men. They will not dither or stammer with the gospel. But aware of their own redemption they will share his own meekness and gentleness, not breaking a bruised reed. They will be quick to serve, quick to bless, quick to repent, and quick to laugh at themselves, for their glory is not themselves but Christ. This is the integrity found through the lifting up of Christ in his gospel.
Evangelicalism is in need of much healing, but it needs no other cure than the gospel itself. It needs only integrity.