Gospel of John

What is evangelicalism?

J.C. Ryle opens his book Knots Untied with an essay on evangelicalism. He writes, “It may be laid down as a rule, with tolerable confidence, that the absence of accurate definitions is the very life of religious controversy … Without further preface, I shall begin by explaining what I mean when I speak of ‘evangelical religion’” (p. 1).

When Ryle wrote this essay, he sought to clarify what the evangelical party in the Church of England believed. There was no shortage of misunderstanding in his day on what an evangelical Christian was. It seems that things have not changed.

“Evangelical” today

Today the word evangelical carries with it many connotations. To some, evangelical is synonymous with anyone who has a big truck complete with a Trump flag. More broadly, for many, the word refers to any white conservative.

For exvangelicals (a rising number of people who distance themselves from their evangelical backgrounds), on the one hand, evangelicalism is understood as that brand of Christianity that pushes “out of date,” “fundamentalist” views—such as the Bible being the literal word of God and Jesus’ death on the cross being an atonement for sin. On the other hand, there are certain exvangelicals who maintain belief in the truthfulness of the Scriptures. To them, evangelical churches are those churches that water down the teaching of Scripture and do everything they can to try to get people in their pews—or theater seats. These kinds of exvangelicals tend to leave seeker-driven churches for liturgical traditions.

Throw out the word?

It seems that, because of the various understandings of the word evangelical, defining oneself as an evangelical Christian is unhelpful. Should we drop the word from our vocabulary?

Perhaps. If someone comes up with a better word to more clearly articulate the meaning behind evangelicalism, I may be ready to accept it. Then again, we should ask: is it better to throw a word out because people attach wrong meanings to it or to provide a proper meaning for that word?

As an example, consider the word catholic. Anglicans recite the Creed on Sundays: we proclaim every week that, “We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.” For many people who do not grow up in a liturgical setting, catholic means Roman Catholic. However, catholic here does not refer to Roman Catholicism. The word refers to that which pertains to the whole—in time and space. And universal would not be a great substitute because it doesn’t carry the same rich meaning as catholic. So we Protestants do not throw out the word catholic, even though there are some Christians who misunderstand its meaning. Rather, we clarify our terms.

I propose that we do the same thing for the word evangelical. Though it is different from catholic (in that it is harder to define), I think that the word should be reclaimed, not given up on. And I think that a good way to do that is to consider how Ryle defined “evangelical religion.”

What is evangelicalism?

Evangelical derives its origin ultimately from the Greek euongelion, which means “gospel.” It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that serves as the root of the very word “evangelical.” However, Ryle does not spend time defining the word itself. Instead, he gives five “distinctive doctrinal marks” of evangelicalism. He remarks later in his essay that these five features are not unique to evangelicalism; rather, the difference between the evangelical and the non-evangelical is the level of importance laid upon these marks. I agree with Ryle that these features mark proper evangelicalism.

Mark 1: Evangelicalism sees Scripture as supreme authority

The evangelical believes that Scripture is the “only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy” (3).

Paul tells Timothy, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,” (2 Timothy 3:16). The words of Holy Scripture are not the words of men, but of God (2 Peter 1:21). This makes Scripture the ultimate authority over all people and the standard by which every bit of doctrine or practice is judged. This is what the evangelical believes, first and foremost.

It’s also what the Anglican is to believe. Article 6 of the 39 Articles of Religion states, “Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation; so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.”

Mark 2: Evangelicalism emphasizes human sinfulness and corruption

Before the cure can be determined, the illness must be accurately diagnosed. And because the evangelical believes Scripture is completely truthful, he believes what it says about humanity’s sickness: “‘None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one’” (Romans 3:10b-12).

Sin has infected the entire person. In fact, it has killed the person: “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked,” (Ephesians 2:1-2a).

Article 9 agrees with the Scriptures: “Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam (as the Pelagians do vainly talk), but it is the fault and corruption of the nature of every man that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam, whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil …”

The problem of humanity is our rejection of God. For this we deserve the wrath of God. Because this mark is foundational to evangelicalism, it necessarily leads to the heart of evangelical belief.

Mark 3: Evangelicalism focuses on the work and office of Jesus Christ

I should reiterate that Ryle does not presume to say that Christians who do not define themselves as evangelical do not trust in Christ and his atoning sacrifice. The difference that Ryle focuses on here is between the Christian who puts too much stock in things like the sacraments as a means of saving grace, and the Christian who holds that the only thing between him and Christ’s benefits are “childlike faith” and that “all means, helps, ministers, and ordinances are useful just so far as they help this faith” (5).

Later in his essay, Ryle will denounce any claim that says the evangelical does not care about the sacraments. The evangelical should love and use the means of grace that Christ has instituted, but the evangelical does not put them in the place of Christ himself.

The evangelical is busy with the gospel. He places no saving hope in the church or her ministers—he rests in Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. He says with Article 11, “We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works or deservings.”

Mark 4: Evangelicalism looks to what the Holy Spirit does within, not what man does without

When I first read this part of Ryle’s essay, I wasn’t sure I agreed with him. At first, it seems that he puts a lot of confidence in what people feel. He says, “We hold that as an inward work of the Holy Ghost is a necessary thing to a man’s salvation, so also it is a thing that must be inwardly felt” (6).

I disagree with the notion that you must look within yourself to see if you are saved. I hold that someone should not busy themselves so much with what they feel within but with what God’s word objectively says. However, Ryle is not saying here the thing to which I object.

Ryle does not advocate for feeling if you are saved or not. He is writing against the idea that one can trust that he is in Christ purely on the basis that he goes to church or takes the Lord’s Supper. He writes that the evangelical does not look toward his baptism or church membership as a sign of God’s saving grace. He argues against putting assurance in one’s outward practice, and he says that what matters is that a person notices the inward working of the Holy Spirit.

If you are a Christian, perhaps you know what Ryle refers to. It is less of a feeling and more of an inward confidence that you are not of this world. The evangelical focuses on this inward spiritual work as more essential to assurance than serving as an acolyte or cooking in the church potluck.

Mark 5: Evangelicalism values the outward fruits of the Holy Spirit

“Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgment; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively Faith insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit” (Article 12). The Holy Spirit works within us and His fruits will become manifest in the true Christian.

But wait a minute—didn’t Ryle just say that we cannot put any assurance in outward practices?

It’s true that we cannot look to what we do as surety of our salvation (even pagans feed the hungry). However, Scripture tells us to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12) and to be led by the Spirit (Galatians 5:18-23). 1 John 2 reveals that we know we have come to know Christ if we obey his commands.

A tree is known by its fruit, and the Christian is known by his works. Of course, this doesn’t mean evangelicals believe Christians don’t sin (1 John 1 quickly dispels that thinking), but the evangelical does believe that the Christian will not continue to habitually sin (Hebrews 10:26).

This, of course, is a process in the Christian’s life. Ryle does not give a complete explanation of the long, hard process of sanctification. That is not his goal. Instead, his purpose is to explain that the evangelical places importance on the outworking of the Holy Spirit in his life. He does not believe that he can confidently call himself a Christian if he goes to church on Sunday while regularly and willfully engaging in and enjoying a hellish lifestyle the rest of the week.

Moving Forward

These five marks are not the only features of evangelicalism, but I think that Ryle rightly calls them its “leading features.” I believe we can use these five marks for a meaningful understanding of what an evangelical should be.

Also, while he does not believe that evangelicals are tied to one tradition, Ryle shows in the rest of the book that evangelicalism finds its best home in Anglicanism.

So, if you find yourself confused as to what evangelicalism is, here are my suggestions: (1) seek to understand how other people are using the word in conversation [define your terms]; (2) adopt Ryle’s five marks as your own understanding of what evangelicalism is; and, (3) become an Anglican.


Editor’s note: Page numbers are from the edition by Charles Nolan Publishers (2000), ISBN 0967760321. An earlier printing is available as a digital edition.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), Copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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