What does it mean to be an evangelical? This question has been debated for some time, but it has become particularly acute in the political divisions of the last few years. To some, the word evangelical has become more of a political identity than a religious identity. Perhaps then we should abandon the word and go by “Christian” or “Jesus-follower” or something else? That might be wise in some contexts, but the rich history of the word and its technical meaning make me want to salvage it.
“Evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means “gospel” or “good news.” It is a word that has been used by Protestants since the beginning of the Reformation in the sixteenth century, and it became more familiar after the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century. It identifies Protestant Christians as people of the gospel. Evangelical Christians have always been people of the Bible, based upon the theological principle that the final authority on all matters of faith is Scripture alone (sola Scriptura). But they also agreed about what the Bible taught. In other words, evangelical Christians have also always been people of the gospel—namely, the good news that justification, or a right-standing before God, comes by faith alone (sola fide). These two theological principles are a good place to start when it comes to defining what it means to be an evangelical, even if they cannot provide a full definition.
In the last century or so of American Christianity, the word evangelical has often been used in contrast with mainline Protestantism. Mainline denominations accepted the historical-critical approach to the Bible that questioned traditions like the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and the miracles and resurrection of Jesus. This approach to the Bible led to a new religious system: liberal theology. In contrast, evangelical Protestants upheld the traditional view of the authority and inerrancy of the Bible. Institutions like Cairn University were formed in the Bible college movement because mainline seminaries had embraced liberal theology. The Evangelical Theological Society (ETS) was formed to give scholars who held to inerrancy a place to discuss ideas from a common perspective. So in some ways, the last century of American evangelicalism has focused more on the theological principle of sola Scriptura. But we cannot forget that the Reformers and evangelists of the Great Awakening also agreed about what Scripture taught—that justification comes by faith alone (sola fide).
Do modern evangelicals agree that Scripture teaches this doctrine? On the one hand, I think sola fide has had a pervasive influence on American Christianity. It is almost axiomatic for American Christians to say that salvation is by faith alone, apart from what we do. Sometimes this doctrine has been wrongly exaggerated. Some American Christians will say that it does not matter what we do, because salvation is entirely by grace and faith. But the Reformers and evangelists of the Great Awakening did not teach this. Evangelical Christianity historically has embraced both that justification is by faith alone and that our works really matter, because genuine faith is always accompanied by love and good works. On the other hand, it seems rarer to me that evangelicals will actually articulate sola fide as an identifying mark of evangelicalism and advocate for it as a theological principle worth defending. Instead, we tend to point to more subjective markers of evangelical identity like having grown up in an evangelical church, enjoying praise and worship music more than hymns, or having a warm sense of piety.
But having a warm sense of piety or even being “biblical” is simply not enough. Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example, claim to be biblical and even hold to inerrancy. This prompted the ETS a number of years ago to add a sentence on the Trinity to its very brief doctrinal statement about inerrancy. Still, technically, the doctrinal statement of the ETS is open to both Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox Christians who can all affirm that the Bible is without error and that God is triune. In what sense then is it “evangelical?” One could say because it is not liberal. This is true. But I suggest that it is not enough to affirm inerrancy or sola Scriptura without also affirming what evangelical Christians have historically said the Bible teaches: sola fide. Without this second theological principle, we risk devolving into theological confusion, even while claiming to be “biblical.”
I teach a senior-level class on Romans each year in which I attempt to show students that sola fide is rooted in the text of Scripture. As Paul puts it in a key verse, “We hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom. 3:28). I explain to students, however, that many question the Protestant interpretation of this verse. Does Scripture really teach that justification is by faith alone? A classic Roman Catholic response is that Paul was simply teaching that we are not justified by the ceremonial works of the law. After all, doesn’t James teach us that we are justified by our moral works? “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:24).
Very similar is the “New Perspective on Paul” that has been widely embraced in the academy. In this view, Luther misunderstood Paul and read him through the lens of his own battle with the medieval Catholic Church. Paul was not concerned about legalism or trying to be saved by doing good works. Ancient Judaism was not legalistic and did not teach one is saved by works but rather was a religion of grace. So, what Paul really means when he says that no one is justified by works of the law is that you don’t have to be Jewish to be saved. “Works of the law” in Paul refers to aspects of the law that mark out Jewish identity: circumcision, Sabbath keeping, and the food laws. In this sense, no one is justified by works of the law.
Or, in an evolution of the “New Perspective” that has had increasing influence in the last several years, some scholars argue that Paul only proclaimed faith in Christ to the Gentiles. He held to two ways of salvation: Salvation was by faith in Christ for the Gentiles but by law-keeping for the Jews. Thus, when he says that no one is justified by works of the law, he is only referring to Gentiles. One can imagine how attractive this view is in a pluralistic society that questions whether there is only one way to God.
My point in outlining all of this is to say that many who study Paul’s letters question the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Are they right? I don’t think so. If you sat through my Romans class for a semester, I would try to show you why. But for now, I will point to Romans 4:1–8, where Paul says that both Abraham and David were justified by faith and “apart from works” (4:6). Paul contrasts the faith of Abraham with the wage earned by a worker: “Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” (4:4–5). And he quotes from David’s reflection on his sin with Bathsheba: “David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: ‘Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin’” (Rom. 4:6–8). The “works” David lacked in that situation were not ceremonial or particularly Jewish works. He had broken the murder and adultery prohibitions of the Ten Commandments. Thus, he was justified before God by faith alone, through the forgiveness of his sins.
The last few paragraphs are an example of what I mean by articulating and advocating for sola fide. This is what we as evangelicals should do. We should not advocate for sola fide in a way that ignores Scripture for the sake of tradition, for that would contradict sola Scriptura. But we should do it in a way that goes back to Scripture to rediscover what other evangelical Christians have learned before us.
Perhaps it is not surprising to hear a theologian argue we should have an objective, theological measure for defining evangelicalism rather than a subjective, pietistic definition (and certainly rather than a political definition!). I am not suggesting that we should abandon piety. But I am suggesting that true piety before God and a true experience of God is rooted in the true gospel of God, the euangelion, that we are justified by faith in Christ alone.
Dr. Kevin McFadden is professor of New Testament at Cairn University, author of Faith in the Son of God: The Place of Christ-Oriented Faith in Pauline Theology, and the coauthor of Biblical Theology According to the Apostles. Kevin and his wife, Colleen, are members of Trinity Community Church in Abington, Pennsylvania.