by Phil Johnson
The defining principle of historic evangelicalism was an unwavering devotion to the gospel. But the broad movement that calls itself "evangelical" today no longer stands for any clear point of view and can't seem to find consensus on even the most basic of gospel truths. How did that happen?
he word evangelical used to be a good one. The term dates back at least to William Tyndale, and it refers to the belief that the gospel messagethe evangelis the vital heart of all Christian truth. To a real evangelical, everything that is of primary importance in Christianity is embodied and summarized in the gospel, and any belief system based on an aberrant gospel is not authentically Christian.
Evangelicals' passion for keeping the gospel at the center explains why historic evangelicalism has always been theologically conservative, biblically based, warm-heartedly evangelistic, and dynamically experiential.
But the contemporary evangelical movement has become something completely different. Evangelicals can't even seem to agree among themselves anymore about what the gospel is or whether the factual and doctrinal details of our message are really even all that important.
It is remarkable that almost every trend in the evangelical movement today attempts to redefine the very points of gospel truth earlier evangelicals had universally deemed essential. That's true of the New Perspective on Paul, for instance, which proposes a wholesale reinterpretation of what Paul meant by "justification." It's true of Open Theism, which redefines God Himself (denying His sovereignty and His foreknowledge) and then relentlessly shaves the hard edges off every doctrine thought to make Him seem "too harsh"starting with substitutionary atonement. It's especially true of postmodern and Emergent approaches to Christianity, where almost anything goes and every truth of Scripture, including the gospel, is reimagined daily.
Yet postmodernism, Open Theism, and the New Perspective (along with several other ideas and movements that aren't really evangelical at all in the historic sense) have managed to make themselves at home under the broad tent of the contemporary evangelical "movement."
How did it come to this?
For the past fifty years or so, people calling themselves "evangelical" have been systematically watering down the gospel; filtering out the hard parts; and trying every way they can think of to tone down the offense of the cross. They have been serving up "gospel lite"a pale imitation of the true gospel, specially distilled to taste good and go down easy. As more and more "refinements" have been made to the recipe, few people in the movement seem to be asking whether the message we're now collectively proclaiming to the world even has enough gospel left in it to be considered authentically evangelical. (It's my conviction that the correct answer to that question is no.)
The problem can be traced, I think, to a craving for academic respectability and worldly admiration. In the middle of the 20th century, several leading evangelicals proposed a whole new kind of evangelicalismless militant, more tolerant, and (above all) shrewd and market-savvy about public relations. They seemed to operate on the assumption that the way to win the world is by making the evangelical movement and its message as appealing as possible to worldly people. In other words, let's "sell" Christianity the way Budweiser sells beer.
Why not? If they like us, surely they'll like Jesus, too.
The early compromises were subtlejust a shading of the message here and there to make it sound more positive and winsome. Instead of starting with sin, the way Romans 1 does, evangelicals decided that God's love made a more harmonious opening note for our gospel presentation: "God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life."
By the 1970s evangelical preachers seemed to have little to say about sin and human depravity. And the wrath of God was hardly mentioned even in a whisper. The problem of sin was never actually denied, mind youit was merely shifted more and more into the background. The gospel's call to repentance was dropped in favor of urging people to seek "a personal relationship with God."
Soon evangelicals weren't mentioning sin at all anymore. It was as if they suddenly forgot that the human dilemma is all about eternal and spiritual matters. Instead, by the mid 1980s, the issues that dominated evangelical pulpits were temporal and psychological: low self-esteem, interpersonal relationships, a sense of purpose in life, a feeling of belonging, and (of course) how to be happy, healthy, wealthy, and successful. The gospel was presented as the answer to all those questions, and little else.
By the 1990s, some evangelicals were making scarcely any reference to the gospel at all. They were so bent on winning the world's admiration that their "outreach" strategy was reduced to trivial attempts to put some kind of spiritual-sounding spin on virtually every kind of worldly entertainment. And if they couldn't make something sound spiritual, they would sometimes do it anywayjust to entertain.
During the heyday of the seeker-sensitive movement in the early 90s, someone showed me a video featuring one megachurch's idea of how evangelism ought to be done. It was a 90-minute variety show, featuring comedy, drama, and dancing. Not one mention was made of the gospel and not one verse of Scripture was ever cited during the entire parade of acts. It was sheer entertainment. But then at the very end, an "invitation" was given, encouraging those who wanted their lives to be more meaningful to "accept Christ." Nothing in the entire presentation had given viewers any clue about who Christ is, what He did, why we need Him, or what it means to believe in Him. In other words, the gospel was totally missing.
I remember thinking even then that the quest for milder-than-ever flavors of Gospel Lite had already destroyed the evangelical movement.
Now, after several years of that kind of gospel-deficient ministry, multitudes of people who think of themselves as evangelical believers are suffering from severe spiritual malnutrition. And without any clear concept of the gospel to guide them, they are gullible, naïve, and susceptible to whatever false doctrine or spiritual ambiguity happens to be currently in vogue.
There's no denying that the evangelical movement has utterly lost its way. If that fact weren't already sufficiently clear, the point has now been punctuated emphaticallytwice in the past yearwith the resignations of top leaders from the movement's two most important umbrella organizations.
First it was the president of America's flagship evangelical society, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). Exposed in a sordid scandal involving repeated instances of infidelity, homosexuality, and drug trafficking, he admitted that he was a "deceiver and liar"and that he had been so "for all of my adult life."
Fewer than six months after that story broke, it was revealed that the president of the movement's largest and most important academic fraternity, the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), had quietly converted to Roman Catholicism. He eventually resigned from ETSeven though (judging from various evangelical op-ed pieces and discussions on the Internet) he might well have been able to hang onto his post as ETS president if he had so desired. Majority opinion within the organization appeared to be in favor of keeping him in office. It seemed as if no one could think of any fundamental difference remaining between evangelicals and Roman Catholics.
When the NAE president disqualified himself, evangelicalism's house organ, Christianity Today, was having its 50th anniversary celebration. The magazine had marked the half-century mark by sponsoring a series of articles about the future of evangelicalism. In the first of those articles, CT's editors more or less admitted they aren't sure what a correct definition of evangelicalism would be nowadays. But their working description of the movement began with the observation that evangelicals are now amazingly broad, diverse, and ecumenical. Those, of course, used to be the primary badges of liberal Christianity.
When the leaders of evangelicalism's two most important organizations both default within six months' timeone because of moral failure, the other because of doctrinal defection, we might conclude that the demise of the contemporary evangelical movement stems from a failure of leadership.
I think it would be a mistake to conclude that the blame for evangelicalism's demise lies merely (or even primarily) with the style or character of the movement's current or recent leaders. It's actually a much bigger and more widespread problem than that. The real root of evangelicalism's problems goes back to the whole movement's blithe and chronic neglect of the gospel as it is presented in Scripturestarting several decades ago. All those attempts to tone down and tame the gospel have changed the fundamental character of evangelicalism's message. By systematically doing away with all the hard parts of the message, evangelicals have essentially done away with the gospel itself.
It is not now and never has been a valid goal to make our gospel message more winsome, more politically correct, more sophisticated-sounding, or simpler than it already is. Since Scripture recognizes and makes no apology for the fact that the message of the cross is itself a stumbling block and mere foolishness to unbelievers (1 Corinthians 1:23-25), Christians who are determined to devise a smart-sounding or inoffensive message are not being faithful ambassadors for Christ. He has commanded what our message should be. Our only duty is to deliver it without altering the sense of it.
Evangelicals for the past half-century have done a miserably poor job at that task, and it's time to take our calling more seriously.