“Evangelical” is a term we have heard used a lot in recent years, particularly during the election season. According to a Pew Research study, about one in four American adults belongs to an evangelical Christian denomination. This makes evangelicals the most common religious group before those without religious affiliation. While it has become an umbrella term for Christians and a political identifier for many, this isn’t the correct definition. So what is the real meaning of an evangelical Christian? In what ways does it differ from other Christians?
While the term evangelical is often vague, it is a specific identifier. The term comes from the Greek word, euangelion, which means Good News or Gospel. Simply put, an evangelical Christian is a person who believes in the importance of sharing the Good News of Jesus with others.
Often, the phrase “evangelical Christian” is used in other ways. Some use the term to separate Catholics from Protestants. Others use it to refer to Protestants who are politically conservative.
There is also debate around when evangelicalism began, but most agree that it began in the 18th century. Many protestant reformers used the word to describe their faith, even before the 18th century. Beyond the 18th century, the term “evangelicalism” has been used to describe Christians who are born again, have a relationship with God, and are called to spread God’s message around the world.
During this early period, many evangelical leaders emerged. These were scholars and preachers who are now identified as leaded the evangelical movement. Some of these leaders include John Wesley, Jonathan Edward. In later years, Charles Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody were added to this list.
Another figure widely associated with evangelicalism is the late Rev. Billy Graham. Many said he was responsible for the rise of evangelicalism. While he is one of the most popular evangelicals to date, even he said he was unsure how to define an evangelical Christian. “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody too,” Graham said.
Several churches, organizations, and denominations identify as evangelical. While the term has a quilted history, it has become a general term. Specifically, during the Great Awakening period, evangelicalism was a term also used to describe revivalism. As previously mentioned, the term has now become associated with the religious right and conservative Christians, though it is more complicated than that.
The call of an evangelical is similar to the call of a disciple. Christian disciples are those who accept and assist in spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ. Discipleship calls believers to live by faith in God, propelled through the power of the Holy Spirit.
One important identifier of an evangelical Christian is that they believe God’s Word. Not only do they follow Jesus, but they abide by His Word daily. Jesus said, “If you abide in My Word, you are truly My disciples” (John 8:31). When someone abides in the word of Jesus, they live out His Word. They are not persuaded by the world’s truths, never allowing it to supersede the truth of God.
Another quality of an evangelical Christian is that they place their full trust in Christ. Jesus said in Matthew 11:24, “Therefore I tell you, whatever you ask for in prayer, believe that you have received it and it will be yours.” Evangelical Christians know that prayer is a key part of their relationship with God, and it is an integral part of their daily practice. We live in a fast-paced, demanding word. Evangelical Christians center their lives around Christi. They know where their help comes from.
Evangelical Christians depend on Jesus. Matthew 7:7-11 says, “Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks, it will be opened.” When we are mature in our faith, we can see the fullness and greatness of God. We are also able to grow in our ability to depend on God completely.
Evangelicals respond to their call to discipleship, to share their lives more fully with others. Jesus said, in the Great Commission, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’ Simply put, an evangelical Christian is someone who has responded to the call of the Great Commission, to go into the world and teach the Gospel of Jesus to the world.