SC Seminar: Phil Johnson on Evangelicalism

Phil Johnson, Speaker

Evangelicalism is a “mixed multitude.” Each time that term is used in the Old Testament of the KJV, it is used despairingly. We are living in a time of apostasy that is not too different than some of the times described in the book of Judges. We have reached a time where everyone does what is right in his own eyes.

He says he is tempted to stop calling himself Evangelical to distance himself from those who claim the label, from Joel Osteen to Tony Campolo to some Catholics and now, even some Mormons! However, he affirms the historical definition of Evangelicalism, and his spiritual fathers are Evangelicals.

A lot of Evangelicals are fed up with the superficiality of the movement, and are following the path of Francis Beckwith, and run to Rome. Others, like Frankie Schaeffer, have gone to Eastern Orthodox churches. Still others are turning to the Emergent Churches.

Has the movement gone astray because our parents and grandparents followed the historic principles of Evangelicalism, or is it because we have abandoned them? Johnson argues the latter.

To begin, he recommends What is an Evangelical? by Martin Lloyd-Jones. He also recommends Kevin DeYoung’s blog summary (1,2,3,4).

What does Phil mean, “Evangelical principles?” Two-pronged non-negotiables: the authority of Scripture and the truth of the Gospel. Here are a few essentials he listed:

  • Exclusivity of Christ
  • Justification by Faith
  • Substitutionary atonement
  • Biblical inerrancy

In Reformation terminology, it is sola scriptura and sole fide.

The Gospel is the central issue. John made it clear in 2 John that we must not entertain those who bring a different Gospel. In verse 7, he calls them “deceivers” and “antichrist.” Paul, in Galatians 2:8, announces that those bringing a false Gospel must be accursed. Even in the first century, there was a battle for the Gospel.

A broad, bird’s eye view
The next world-wide battle over the Gospel came in the fifth century, centering around Augustine and Pelagius. Followers of Pelagius were “in love with free will,” and all sinners need to do to save themselves is to stop sinning. It is a denial of the necessity of grace.

Augustine, interestingly, did not appeal to the pope. He appealed to the Scriptures and saw the need for divine grace to initiate our response to God. He did this even though he was, at times, inconsistent with this position.

Move on to the Middle Ages and Anselm of Canterbury. He taught that Christ’s death was to appease the Father. Many before him taught that Christ’s death was merely a ransom to Satan, but Anselm emphasized the wrath of God against sinners. This laid the foundation for the Reformation.

In 1531, Tyndale first used “evangelical.” He invented this adjective to speak of Gospel truth.

Sir Thomas Moore seems to be the first to use it to speak of a movement. A Catholic, he used it as a pejorative against Tyndale “and his evangelical brother Barnes.” Moore was one the first to burn Protestants at the stake.

The phrase “Evangelical,” then, became to be associated with Protestants. These folks taught that justification is a legal transaction, a forensic term. It requires the grace of Christ, against Rome’s view of progressive grace. Catholics invented Purgatory to cleanse people from sin, the Reformers looked to Christ. That is why the current fad of “Catholic Evangelicals” is oxymoronic.

Evangelicalism congealed in the Protestant Reformation. Later, it came to distinguish between the “Reformed” Reformers and the Anabaptists. The Radical Reformers tended to reject sole fide, as did early Arminians.

One of John Wesley’s major contributions was to hold to Arminianism as well as bringing in sole fide. Johnson described Wesley as “one of those blessedly inconsistent Arminians,” and thus “Evangelical Arminianism” was born (to distinguish it from historical Arminianism).

English Baptists likewise adopted Evangelical principles, gaining them the same title.

Thus, historic Evangelicalism is to hold a narrow view of the Gospel. Indeed, no Evangelical before 1840 questioned biblical inerrancy. Historically, Evangelicals have held to the substitutionary atonement, a fact that is troublesome to “Emergent-ing” churches.

Johnson might call himself, then, a “paleo-Evangelical.”

Spurgeon wrote against those who say “We are Evangelical” but decline to say what that means. In the latter 1800’s, teachers increasingly called themselves Evangelical but refused any creed.

In the early 1900’s, modernists infiltrated the mainline denominations, calling themselves “Evangelicals.”

There are two fatal blows to the Evangelical movement in the 20th century. The first were a parting of ways between the Evangelicals and the (historical) Fundamentalists. The Fundamentalists affirmed good things, but out of the hundred or so chapters of the Fundamentals, only one chapter was dedicated to justification by faith. Fundamentalists from the 1920’s on were more focused on prohibition and dress codes. The Evangelicals, on the other hand, began to distance themselves from these “militants,” and began to compromise. So, this division caused irreparable harm to both movements.

The second was the rise of neo-Evangelicalism. These folks wanted to repudiate the separatism of the Fundamentalists, which opened the door to communion with non-Evangelicals. They also wanted to open the door to theological dialog, which included (in the case of Christianity Today) all but historical Evangelicalism. By the end of the twentieth century, the only thing marking Evangelical churches was an emphasis on shallow entertainment and having positive attitudes.

Get the Lloyd-Jones book mentioned above for more information. Know this: the movement is practically dead. The task is to call people to the Gospel, the power of God to salvation, thus calling for a return to the historic position.

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