January 2018

January 2018

Are We Evangelicals?

We tend to hear a lot these days about Evangelicals. They are the dominant form of American Christianity.  They’re a political force to be reckoned with. They support this candidate or policy and oppose that one. Obviously Evangelicals are important. But who are they? And do we count as Evangelicals?

The word “Evangelical” comes from the Greek word for Gospel: “ev” means “good,” and “angel” means news, so an “Evangelical” is someone who is in some way characterized by the Good News, the glad tidings of great joy concerning Jesus Christ—the Gospel. In this sense the term “evangelical” (small “e”) was first applied to Luther and his adherents. In fact, to this day the Lutheran Church in Germany is simply called the “Evangelical Church.” That is why our Missouri Synod congregations, including our own Holy Cross, tend to be called “So-and-so Evangelical Lutheran Church.” We preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ and are characterized by the Good News that He, through His suffering, death, and resurrection, has accomplished the salvation of the world and gives us the forgiveness of sins, which we receive by faith alone. In that sense we would certainly be considered “evangelicals.”

But what about the uppercase “E”? As a movement, American Evangelicalism is distinct from the broader category of evangelicalism in which we would be included. American Evangelicalism can trace its roots to America’s First Great Awakening, the revival that took place in the 1730’s among Reformed Protestants. It can also be traced to John Wesley, founder of Methodism, who underwent an adult conversion experience: while hearing a reading of Luther’s Preface to Romans, in which Luther praises the living and active nature of truly saving faith, Wesley felt himself “strangely warmed,” and for the first time sensed himself to be assuredly saved, by faith alone.

These early roots of American Evangelicalism have led to the current defining characteristics of the movement: 1. A conversion experience; 2. Assurance of salvation; 3. Commitment to the Bible; and 4. Missionary fervor. Ideally, we evangelical Lutherans share points 2, 3, and 4. We are assured of our salvation: through the proclamation of the Gospel, we can be assured that our sins really are forgiven for Jesus’ sake, and that we will go to heaven when we die and inherit the Kingdom of God at the second coming of Jesus. We are committed to the Bible: everything we teach must be drawn from Scripture alone, which we regard as the pure Word of God and as our sole authority for teaching and practice. We possess missionary fervor: because we know that forgiveness and salvation come by faith alone, and that faith comes by hearing, we want our neighbors, both near and far, to hear the Gospel and become heirs with us of the grace of life.

Point 1, however, is where we part company with American Evangelicals. There are many of us evangelical Lutherans who came to faith as adults and can remember a specific conversion experience, but most of us came to faith as infants, being born again of water and the Spirit through the sacrament of Holy Baptism. I myself, for instance, have never had a conversion experience. For as long as I can remember, I have trusted in Jesus Christ for my salvation. Certainly my faith ebbs and flows. I have my dark days, and I have those times when I especially feel the activity of the Spirit of God within me. But I, and probably most of you, have never experienced conversion. This would be regarded by most of our Evangelical brethren as a serious deficiency, and some might even question our salvation due to the lack of conversion experience.

There are other, less tangible differences between evangelical Lutherans and American Evangelicals. We Lutherans tend to be old-fashioned, favoring the ancient forms of worship inherited from our fathers, while Evangelicals tend to adopt more recent trends and revivalistic methods, viewing modern trance-inducing worship music as essential in allowing the Holy Spirit to transform the hearts of worshipers. We hold firmly to our old confessional commitments (in our case, the Book of Concord), while Evangelicals tend to eschew such labels and often congregate in “non-denominational” churches. We are committed to the role of the blessed Sacraments in creating and sustaining faith, while Evangelicals tend not to believe in baptismal regeneration or the real presence of Christ’s body and blood in Holy Communion. And there are a host of other differences.

But when you hear about Evangelicals in the news, particularly as a political force, it’s worth knowing that you fit pretty well into that category. As a rule, Evangelicals are opposed to abortion, same-sex marriage, and other forms of state-supported immorality. We are too. No evangelical Lutheran can in good conscience support a political candidate who promotes abortion or same-sex marriage. In the ways that matter to the media, we are little different from Evangelicals. While recognizing the things that divide us, we can count many Evangelicals as our brethren in the faith, who fight the good fight alongside us. God grant us faithfulness in confessing what distinguishes us from American Evangelicals, and brotherly love in laboring alongside them in His kingdom.


Pastor Neuendorf