Does the word 'evangelical' mean anything anymore?

By Randy Alcorn, president Eternal Perspective Ministries

Editor’s note: With the author’s permission, AFA Journal condensed Randy Alcorn’s column which was posted on July 15, 2011.

November 2011 – I’m writing this while returning from the International Christian Retail Show, the annual Christian book convention. I’m sitting in the Atlanta airport, reflecting on some of my conversations the past four days. I did many interviews about recent and forthcoming books, and talked with lots of evangelical booksellers, publishers and authors.

As usual, many of the conversations were very encouraging. And, also as usual, some of the conversations left me with a heavy heart.

One bestselling, high-impact evangelical author, who I know and like, asked me what I thought of Rob Bell’s book Love Wins. This person loved it and said it reflected and reinforced his own viewpoint. He passionately made the case to me that we really have no way of knowing whether Muslims or Buddhists or Hindus will go to heaven when they die (not former adherents to those religions, but current ones, those who have never responded to Christ).

I hear this more and more, not only among theological liberals, but also among evangelical Christians. I saw it at ICRS in Atlanta, in books prominently displayed in the booths of some evangelical publishers. I’ve heard it at “evangelical” colleges. I’ve seen it at “evangelical” ministries who, in their attempts to be more broad and inclusive, seldom share the gospel of Christ with anyone.

I didn’t grow up in an evangelical church. I grew up in a non-Christian home and came to Christ as a teenager. I’ve seen very different kinds of evangelical churches, and I have a broad appreciation of many of these differences. But now, at an ever-accelerating pace, the word “evangelical” and even the term “Bible-believing” seem to be losing their historic meaning.

Is the extent of the need to hear the Gospel and respond to it in Christ-centered repentance really so unclear in Scripture? Are matters of salvation, judgment and eternal destiny really gray areas or secondary issues subject to in-house evangelical disputes?

Or is the Bible emphatically clear on the point that any person without Christ, whether Muslim or atheist or Baptist, will go to hell, not heaven? Here are just two passages. Please consider them carefully:

“Jesus said to him, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’’ (John 14:6).

“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name [but that of Jesus Christ] under heaven given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).

So why all this new uncertainty among evangelicals about salvation and hell and who will go to heaven? There are more and more every year who think, “There’s no way to know the truth, so let’s not be dogmatic.” They say this about things that God has actually revealed in His Word, which people have given their lives for to get into our language so we could know what God has said to us. I feel like right now among evangelicals – including authors, musicians, speakers and pastors – there’s a runaway train of unbiblical and unclear thinking.

We are improvising theology on the fly with little regard for the Scriptures or the historic orthodox Christian faith. We act as if the Christian faith began with us, and we are perfectly free to modify it in light of the latest cultural winds. To put it bluntly, there is not only more and more false doctrine in churches, there is also more and more of it coming from evangelical pastors, authors, publishers and colleges.

If one can be an evangelical Christian, and especially an evangelical pastor or leader, and not believe that an able-minded adult (whether raised Baptist, Lutheran, Muslim, Hindu, agnostic or atheist) must repent of sin and place his faith in Christ in this life in order to go to heaven, then … what is left that an evangelical must believe to still be an evangelical?

There are many former evangelicals that do not want to be called theological liberals. I understand this. But regardless of what term they find to describe themselves, wouldn’t it be more clear and honest not to use the term “evangelical”? When publishing books that deny the Scriptures and deny salvation in Christ alone, wouldn’t it be better to no longer call themselves evangelical publishers?

When 50% or more of their professors do not believe what the Bible teaches, wouldn’t it be more honest (though financially costly) for colleges no longer to call themselves “evangelical” and no longer to put in catalogues doctrinal statements that many of their faculty members do not believe?

By being inclusive of nearly everything, doesn’t the term “evangelical” really end up meaning
almost nothing?  undefined