Evangelicalism: Becoming Part of the Kingdom of God
This is my second post in a series on modern evangelicalism. The term “evangelical” has been so casually used and misused over the past twenty years that many of us have only a vague sense of what it means, except perhaps for its connection to Republican politics. Yet in 2022, the term “Evangelical” as it was understood in the twentieth century can and should describe both Republicans and Democrats. The older understanding of the term needs a little updating, just as all enduring movements, even Christian movements, need fresh examination from time to time. But a renewed understanding of the term “evangelical” can help a wide group of Christians to work together for God’s glory.
Twentieth century evangelicalism had three main thrusts, two drawn from Reformation ideas, and one from the early twentieth century. First, adapting the anabaptist idea of believer’s baptism, it stressed the personal salvific experience of every individual Christian, teaching that one needs to make a profession of faith (usually something like a sinner’s prayer) to gain salvation and a good relationship with God. Second, following sola scriptora (“scripture alone”) it emphasized the Bible as the principal source of knowledge about God and the relationship between God and humankind. Third, following more general Christian thinking around the turn of the twentieth century, evangelicalism urged Christians to address social needs in the world, working with anyone who might genuinely affect change, Christian or not.
As these three ideas easily cross denominational lines, evangelicalism has always been a unifying movement, encouraging all kinds of Christians to bring the gospel to people, diligently interpret the Bible, and work together to benefit society. And it still can be a unifying force in Hampton Roads (and the rest of the world) in 2022. But we evangelicals run into problems when we lose sight of the point of personal salvation, Bible prioritization, and working to impact society. So I’m writing a few post to try to steer us back to a sound theology that helps us to be better followers of Christ.
I begin with the profession of faith because for several hundred years much of American Christianity has seen this as the marker for determining who is and is not a Christian. For many people, once you’ve recited the sinner’s prayer with sincerity, you’re saved and on your way to a good relationship with God. But if you have not recited such a prayer, then your salvation is in doubt and your relationship with God is suspect.
Yet while many of us like to talk about the sinner’s prayer, the New Testament has very little to say about such a thing. Acts has a few striking stories of conversions: Saul/Paul’s powerful story appears three separate times (9:1–17; 22:3–15; 26:9–17), and we also find Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26–39) and the conversion of the Philippian jailer (Acts 16:16–31). Yet in none of these does anyone quite say a sinner’s prayer. And outside of Acts, we see even less about conversion. The thief who hung on a cross next to Jesus converts, but there is no real prayer, just a statement of belief (Luke 23:39–43).
Especially curious is the case of the disciples. One would think that if praying to receive salvation is important, the New Testament would tell us the point at which the original eleven apostles became “saved.” We do see accounts of some of the first disciples’ decisions to follow Christ: Peter, Andrew, James and John in Matt 4:18–21; Levi in Mark 2:14; Philip and Nathaniel in John 1:43–50. But these are not salvation accounts, since the gospels make it clear that the disciples did not even understand that Jesus was destined to die on the cross until near the end of his ministry. So when and how did the disciples get “saved?” The New Testament does not say.
Yet the New Testament does give us plenty of call stories like the above-mentioned gospel accounts (and I would argue that the conversion of Saul/Paul is as much a story of call as it is of conversion). So even though some individual verses like, say, John 3:16 stress salvation, the New Testament seems more interested in stories about call. Why?
My own experience has helped me to find an answer. In my younger years I prayed personally with about ten folks to receive Jesus (besides altar calls). Of those, only two became serious followers of Christ; the others lost interest, sooner or later.
What struck me then, as now, is that I never had a moment’s doubt that these two individuals would have come to faith in Christ with or without me. They had clearly heard Christ’s call and were doing Bible study with me as a way of answering that call. I don’t think that praying the sinner’s prayer with those two accomplished much of anything; they were getting saved with or without me. My value to them was not helping them to prayer the sinner’s prayer, but helping them to learn about the Bible, God, and Christian life.
Through my life I’ve met many others who accepted Christ during altar calls yet are in no way faithful Christians. At this point, I believe that’s the rule, not the exception. While an emotion-laden moment can change a person’s life, most human decisions that are based on in-the-moment feelings do not last. These include the moment of praying to receive Christ after a heavy sell.
John’s gospel emphasizes this point. John 6:60–66 reports that many who had imagined themselves to be disciples turned away after a difficult teaching. But the gospel of John is crystal clear that the disciples named in John 1:40–50, along with Thomas (“Doubting” Thomas, 11:16!) remained faithful to the end. The key, then, is not in just becoming a disciple; rather, the key is living out a real commitment to Christ.
Like many evangelicals, I cannot honestly point to a personal moment of conversion because I do not recall any time when I did not believe that Jesus died for my sins, then rose again. But I can point to a few times in my life when I made conscious decisions to take my faith seriously. And I like to think that all other believers can name moments when faith impacted the course of their lives. This certainly can happen at the time we pray a sinner’s prayer. But it can also happen later, or, as in the cases of Jesus’s disciples and my friends above, before one says a prayer.
The moment that a person decides to take Christ seriously is the key moment in the New Testament. Again, Matthew 4 is not about conversion; the disciples had no clue about Jesus’s mission or the theology surrounding his death for human sin. But the moment when they drop their nets to follow Christ is crucial because from that point their commitment to follow is clear. Their theology and beliefs change massively over time, and they undergo period of weakness. But their commitment to follow does not change.
When we follow the New Testament in prioritizing commitment ahead of a momentary profession, our faith becomes more like the faith of the disciples. Perhaps 25% of Americans call themselves “Evangelical;” even more of us call ourselves “Christian.” But how many so-called “evangelicals” think of themselves as Christian just because they said a prayer and “believe” the right things? A sinner’s prayer can be helpful, but according to the New Testament one needs to make a serious commitment to truly be part of the Kingdom of God.
Since I come to this series talking about unity, I need to mention an important benefit of stressing commitment above and beyond the sinner’s prayer. I recently finished a terrific book, Love Your Enemies, by Arthur C. Brooks. A devout Catholic, economist, and politically conservative commentator, Brooks demonstrates that as people of faith – including evangelicals – take their faith more and more seriously, they are less and less inclined to use divisive actions and words. This means that if evangelical behavior seems unpleasant at times, the way to go is not to criticize evangelicalism per se, but rather the opposite: to encourage people to be more evangelical – that is, to put more time and energy into reading and thinking about the Bible and what it has to say about the mission of God’s people. Christians who make a serious commitment to following Christ as per the Bible become better Christians, and have a more positive impact on people around them.
Most of us have preached and/or taught that the Great Commission, Matt 28:18–20, stresses not the creation of converts, but the creation of disciples. What we are prone to miss, however, is that the reason that Matthew ends with this instruction is that discipleship is the major theme of the book! Matthew is not just an account of the life and teaching of Jesus; it also describes discipleship: Jesus’s ministry begins with him calling his disciples, and ends with him giving them his final instructions.
It is not bad to encourage people to say a sinner’s prayer in a tense moment. But let’s not overemphasize the fact that such a prayer has been made. Instead of stressing the moment of salvation, let’s share with each other our stories about how we decided to take our faith seriously, and remind each other of our ongoing commitment to living in a way that glorify God, as informed by his word.