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reprinted from the Autumn 1996 edition of Essentials  



Hands up if you're an Evangelical...

By Ivan Lee

Ivan Lee is minister at St Aidan's Anglican Church Hurstville Grove
  In the not too distant past, few would have dared to, let alone wanted to, put their hands up in such an honest admission in mixed company. However, times have changed, and it seems that more and more hands are willing, even eager, to go up in the air. Now, this is a good thing.... I think!  
  Does this mean Evangelicalism is on the ascendancy? I hope and pray so. And no doubt, now as always, God is raising up people who know what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is, who fully put their trust in it, who seek to live it out faithfully in their lives, and who boldly proclaim it to others. This is definitely A GOOD THING, for this is how Christ is honoured - by confident speaking (of God's truth) and by courageous living (in the footsteps of Christ).  

A "fuzzy" notion

  Unfortunately, I notice that being Evangelical has developed into a rather "fuzzy" notion, mainly because I hear people using the term in so many different ways in general conversation. "Evangelical" is used to describe:

This article is reprinted from the

  - someone who talks about their relationship with God in a warm and "personal" way rather than in an academic or "churchy" way, (but who may nevertheless be unclear about how we are justified by faith in Christ); or,

Autumn 1996 edition of Essentials

  - a less ritualistic or less formal style of church meeting, (but a local church can be "Low Church" or "not High Church" but still not Evangelical - for "Evangelical" is not simply what you have left when you're not something else!); or,  
  - a group that is "into" church growth or even evangelism (but which may not have an Evangelical understanding of what the gospel is)  
  And so, although "being Evangelical" has increased somewhat in political or ecclesiastical correctness (which is nice - who wants to be politically incorrect?!), it is unfortunate that fuzzy thinking about "being an Evangelical" has also increased. This is NOT A GOOD THING. Why not? Because the label can become so broad, so comprehensive, that in the end it is either unhelpful and confusing, (we think we agree when we don't), or a convenient way of avoiding conflict or disagreement ("He or she is an Evangelical, so don't be critical..."). In practice, then, Evangelicalism becomes a kind of "style" of doing things, or a kind of "experience".  

Theologically defined, not experientially

  Putting it simply, my main point is: Evangelicalism needs to be theologically defined, rather than experientially defined. Now by "theological" I do not mean so technical or complex that only the academic elite could ever understand it. What I mean is that Evangelicalism is about a certain understanding of who God is, of how God reveals himself to us, of what was happening on the Cross of Christ, of how to live as we await Christ's return, etc. And all these understandings, these beliefs, Evangelicals seek to gain from Scripture Alone. These understandings, these beliefs, are what makes an Evangelical an "Evangelical" rather than something else.  

My concern is if we make personal, subjective, experience the defining factor then eventually the edges between Evangelical and non-Evangelical will become very, very blurred. Unless you weave a fair bit of theology into your personal "story" or "experience", then don't be surprised if people conclude that your story and experience is not really any different to that of any other religious experience (Christian or non Christian).


But what about experience?

  But what about "experience"? Yes, being Evangelical is an "experiential" thing - for faith without works is most certainly dead. The pages of the New Testament do describe the experiences of the first Christians. You cannot BE an Evangelical without experiencing the Evangel, the Gospel. Yes, Evangelicals are very much interested (or at least they should be) in an experiential Christianity, not in dead formalism or merely religious ideas. But he or she wants to be confident that it is truly "God" they are experiencing, and not a clever imitation or their own imagination.  
  After all, every-body (unless they are a dead-body) has conscious experiences every day, and sometimes in certain circumstances our experience may be particularly intense or out-of-this-world. The vital question is, WHAT are we experiencing? Our experiences are not reliably self interpreting. My experience may tell me I am worshipping "God", but the bible may tell me I am in fact worshipping idols!  
  It's not a matter of whether you choose theology or experience. Both are unavoidable - we are all "theologians" (we have ideas and beliefs about God) and we are all "experientialists" (we all live life in the body - to my knowledge no one has managed to live without one!)  
  The question is: Which interprets which? Evangelicals must allow the bible to interpret our experiences, not the other way around. We tell our teenagers to let their heads guide their hearts (or hormones), or soon they will be in trouble. Evangelicals need to keep their heads too, and allow God's word to scrutinize and interpret our experiences, or else we too will be in trouble. In what I call a "false ecumenism", people claim a unity through common or similar experience but they actually hold differing views of God, revelation and even salvation. Surely there is something wrong! Such unity is only possible by relegating theology as secondary to experience. I would hate to see real biblical unity or real biblical Evangelicalism similarly watered down.  

Two objections

  Let me try to anticipate two objections - surely our experience affects our theology, and surely no one has a monopoly on the "right" theology. I agree, on both points. But it is precisely because of these two points that our varied (and conflicting) experiences and our human (and sinful) limitations could never ever tell us accurately who or what "God" is and how we can experience him/her/it/them. God has graciously revealed his character and purposes to us in the bible, and so we must humbly work together at understanding this bible and allow it to interpret our experiences and correct our imaginations. We must resist the temptation to allow our experiences to formulate what we think God might be like or what might please him. The bible has a name for this - idolatory! Rather we must submit (a politically incorrect word!) our experiences to his Word, and allow HIM to tell US the meaning of our experiences.  
  But God's Word has more than interpretive value. God's Word actually has the POWER to convict us of sin, to lead us to repentance, to bring us to faith, to save us and to guide us. It is God's Word that brings us into authentic Christian experience. The apostle Peter reminds us that we are born again through the living and enduring word of God (1 Peter 1:23). The author of Hebrews tells us that the word of God is living and active, sharper than any double-edged sword... it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).  

Some pastoral problems: assurance, legalism and discouragement

  There are real pastoral problems, not just theological ones, when we give too much authority to our experiences. (I agree that experience has significant authority in our lives - it is unavoidably true of all of us - but we must realise the limits and ambiguities of our experiences and make them secondary to biblical truth.)  
  Firstly, we can lose our assurance of salvation (one of the great hallmarks and benefits of being an Evangelical). In a past era, Christians looked for "evidences" of God's work in their lives to see if they were truly one of the elect. You can see where that leads! The trouble is, how much "evidence" is enough evidence. The equivalent today is: how much experience is enough experience to convince us we are really God's people? No, our assurance of salvation lies, not in looking internally, but externally at the promises of God and putting our trust in them.  
  Secondly, we can end up with a very subtle legalism. The hidden message is: "Unless your Christian experience is X, Y, Z, (ie. like the preacher's experience) then something is wrong!" As encouraging as Christian biography may be, there is always the inherent danger that the reader feels sub-Christian long before the last chapter. Christian biography can either inspire or expire us! It's like a pastor of a dying congregation reading too many books on church growth (actually, books on how some churches have grown). I'd like to see church growth books come with a warning sticker: Excessive reading may be hazardous to your spiritual health. If you or your church is at a low ebb, you will find the scriptures far more encouraging than either biography or church growth stories.  
  It really is pastorally unhelpful to hold up a certain style of experience as being the model. The more I have observed "Christian experience" (actually I prefer to talk about experiences Christians have - there is no one standard subjective experience), the more I am convinced that how we exactly "experience" God depends on how God has made us - our personality, our temperament, our upbringing, our culture, etc. Our experiences are as unique as our personalities and personal circumstances.  
  Thirdly, I do not believe it is helpful to define Evangelicals or Christians as those who have the same experiences. Some see the New Testament as a record of the apostles' experiences, and the record is there so that today we too can have the same experience and so be Christians. However, we today are not having the same, or even similar, experiences that the apostles had. They "saw" the Lord Jesus. We, on the other hand, live by faith without "seeing", as we await the Son from heaven. We ought not be discouraged if our experiences don't seem to be the same as theirs. Jesus said to Thomas "Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (Jn 20:29)  

An Evangelical spirituality?

  It is not uncommon for Evangelicals to be accused of not having much spirituality. Now, this may not be such a bad thing. Much of the "spiritualities" I read and hear about make me think that having no spirituality may be a good thing! However, that is a related but different subject which I will leave for now. But let us ask ourselves: Does the average Evangelical today lack a proper seriousness in their walk with God and a sense of "doing business with God", a lack of deep devotion and personal engagement with God? If so, the problem is not with being an Evangelical - the problem is not being Evangelical enough.  
  Just one example: Perhaps out of fear of being legalistic (eg. you must read the bible everyday, and the earlier in the morning the more spiritual), we have lapsed into a total lack of discipline, into sheer neglect of paying attention to the living voice of God. Another contributing factor may be that we have replaced a proper fear of God with a non-threatening mateship of God. But if we do not allow God to be God, and to speak to our hearts, our hearts will eventually stop responding. And of course once the heart is lost, our faith becomes mere activism - and one day we will wake up and realise our "experience" is rather shallow and hollow - and IT IS!  
  What is the solution? You can go to the supermarket of spiritual techniques and exercises. Or you can go back to the simple and glorious gospel of Christ, back to the foot of the cross, back to the grace and forgiveness of God, and back to the scriptures - the living and powerful word of God. If there is an experiential "void" amongst Evangelicals today, then let us admit our failure! (The cross allows us to do that, remember) But the solution will not be to chase the wind of experiences. We will either get depressed and give up, or neurotically jump from one experiential bandwagon to another to another...  
  The solution is an old cliche: Back to the Bible! When people tell me they have trouble praying, I sometimes say, "Stop trying!" For prayer is not a spiritual exercise to get to God. Prayer is our response to the God who has spoken. So, blow the dust off your bible, open the scriptures, and come face to face with the living word of God, for that is where God himself will address our shallow experience and lead us into a deeper experience of his love and grace.  

A theology of experience

  True Christianity involves both mind and emotion. But it is through the mind that we understand the word and truth of God, which hopefully leads to a passionate turning to God in repentance and faith. Remember the road to Emmaus story in Luke 24? Beginning with Moses and the prophets, Jesus interpreted to them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself (v 27). Later they said to each other, "Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the scriptures?" (v 32)  
  In a postmodern age which values experience above truth (above any content actually), we Evangelicals need greater theological clarity, not less. To be truly Evangelical, we need to theologise about life (a theology of experience) AND live out our theology. By nature, we all incline towards being either theoretical or practical. Working hard at both is our great challenge and privilege under God. So now, hands up if you're an Evangelical!  

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