Evangelical Theology is the set of doctrines held historically and traditionally by the Church throughout its history. It is rooted in Scripture and cannot contradict anything Scripture teaches. Evangelical theologians typically distinguish cardinal doctrines from doctrines of secondary importance. It is the cardinal doctrines that are deemed essential to hold if one is to be evangelical in his/her understanding of God and his relation to our world.
Evangelical Theology articulates the beliefs taught in Scripture about God and his relation to humans and the universe in which they live. Certain doctrines (the cardinal ones) must be held and understood as the Church has historically held them if one is to be evangelical. There are doctrines of secondary importance, and evangelicals hold various views on them. But evangelicals maintain that it is impossible to be consistent with evangelical theology if one’s secondary doctrines contradict or otherwise do not fit with the core, cardinal ones. This essay focuses on the primary doctrines of evangelicalism.
Scripture is not written as a systematic theology, though it contains many theological claims. Through proper exegesis, using a literal-grammatical-historical hermeneutic that seeks to articulate what the author intended to say, it is possible to discover the major beliefs about God, humans, the world, and their relations to one another that Scripture affirms. These doctrines, once identified, can be codified into a statement of faith that presents the “facts of the faith” (i.e., things one must believe in order to be consistent with the world-view and faith that Scripture affirms).
Evangelical Affirmations Regarding God, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and Scripture
Evangelical theology begins with the foundational belief that there is a God who has revealed himself in many ways in our world, most specifically through his Son, Jesus Christ, and through the sixty-six books of the Bible. Evangelicals believe that the Holy Spirit moved and superintended the biblical authors as they penned the books of Scripture. The result is a book that is both divine and human in origin and is revelation from God of what he wants everyone to know. This inspiration of Scripture extends to every word of the Bible, so that all of it is God’s word. As his word, it is totally truthful in everything it affirms. Scripture alone is the final authority for all matters of faith and practice among believers and non-believers. Scripture alone is the only form of revelation in which God not only clarifies the lostness of human beings in their sin, but also explains and offers the divine remedy for their otherwise hopeless situation.
Evangelical theology also affirms that God exists and that there is only one God. It further holds that Scripture reveals that three distinct persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) share the divine essence co-equally and simultaneously. Thus, they are a trinity. The term does not speak of multiple gods but multiple persons in the one divine essence. Any subordination among the persons is solely based on their functional roles outside the trinity. In their very being (apart from whatever they do), they are equal, yet distinct manifestations of the one divine nature.
According to evangelical theology, approximately two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ, the second member of the trinity and God’s Son, came to earth as the incarnate God-man. As a result, he has a totally divine nature and a totally human nature. These two natures in Christ are distinct and yet inseparably united. There is no transmission of his divine attributes to his human nature, nor of his human attributes to his divine nature. Jesus lived among humankind, was crucified, rose again, and ascended into heaven where he dwells with the Father. But like the Father and Holy Spirit, Jesus is omnipresent, so there is no place in the universe where he is absent.
Evangelical Affirmations Regarding Humanity, Sin, and Salvation
Human beings, male and female, were created in God’s image. No other creature has this characteristic and the dignity it involves. As created, Adam and Eve (the first man and woman) were righteous in that they had never committed a sin. Sadly, they succumbed to Satan’s temptation, became sinners, and dragged the whole human race into sin with them. As a result, every mere human born after Adam and Eve is guilty of their sin and possesses a morally corrupt nature. In addition, all humans have a propensity to sin, fall to Satan’s temptations, and are guilty before God of sinning. Though humans may sense their guilt, they are hopeless to remove it by themselves so as to have a saving relationship with God. Only by divine revelation in Scripture can they know God’s remedy, and only through the enabling power of the Holy Spirit can they choose to accept Christ’s payment for sin on their behalf.
God, because of his great love for his human creatures, sent Jesus to earth to procure their salvation. In his life, Jesus showed what perfect, godly living is. But Scripture is clear that the wages of sin is death, not living a sinlessly perfect life. No mere human’s death can pay for his/her sins, let alone the sins of others, so as to remove the penalty. But Christ, as sinlessly perfect, as our substitute, could and did pay the price for the sins of everyone who ever lived, so that humans can have their sins forgiven and can establish a saving relation with God if they choose by faith to accept Christ’s payment for their sins.
Evangelical theology also maintains that the Holy Spirit, the third member of the trinity, convicts the world of sin and righteousness and judgment (John 16:8). He does so to move humans’ wills to accept Christ as personal savior from sin. When they do turn to Christ as savior, the Holy Spirit regenerates them and gives them a new nature (one positively disposed to obey God), indwells them, and as they yield their will to obey Christ they grow in their faith as the Holy Spirit sanctifies them. Believers are also ordered to be filled with the Holy Spirit. This filling does not make it impossible for humans to sin, but it does enable them to obey and follow God, something they could not do totally on their own. The Holy Spirit also shows believers what God would have them to do in general and in specific situations, and he enables and empowers them to do it.
Evangelicals also believe that all who have placed their faith in Christ as savior are baptized into his body, the Church. This covers all believers in Christ both now and throughout Church history. Evangelicals also hold that believers should form individual churches in the localities where they reside. These churches are for the spiritual feeding, spiritual growth and care of those in the church. They are also tasked with winning non-believers to Christ. Jesus also ordained that believers observe two ordinances/sacraments, baptism and the Lord’s Supper. These are tangible ways that believers can show their connection and allegiance to Christ and can remember his death, burial, and resurrection.
Evangelical Affirmations Regarding the End Times
The Church has historically held that its Savior, Jesus Christ, will return to earth to set up his kingdom and rule over all people. However, there are differences of opinion as to when Christ will return, the exact nature of his kingdom, and when it begins. Postmillennialists believe that during our current age more and more people will come to Christ and cultures will be gradually Christianized. At some imperceptible point, the world will move into the kingdom era. At the end of the kingdom era, Christ will return visibly and physically to earth (hence, the label post- millennialism), there will be one final judgment (Rev. 20:15-20; Matt. 25:31-46), and God will institute the eternal state.
Amillennialists, who often prefer the term realized millennium, hold that at his first advent Christ brought his kingdom to the world and offered himself as king. Though most people reject Christ as savior, through the spread of the gospel and positive response to it Christ extends his kingdom. The kingdom is mostly spiritual in its nature, though of course, as people accept Christ, they can make the world more godly than it would otherwise be. However, unlike postmillennialists, amillennialists do not see the world becoming more godly and/or Christianized. Rather, amillennialists believe that as the current age moves toward its climax, conditions on earth spiritually and otherwise will become more evil and less godly. At the end of the current age, Christ will return to earth physically and visibly, there will be one final judgment followed by implementation of the eternal state.
Premillennialists hold that as the current age comes to an end, the world will enter into a special seven-year time of trial and tribulation. Premillennialists believe that Christ will return for his Church either at the start, the middle, or the end of the tribulation to take believers home to be with him (1Thes. 4:13-18; 1Cor. 15:50-57). This event is known as the Rapture of the Church; when it happens Christ does not actually return to stand on planet earth, but believers (both living and dead) will rise to meet him in the air. At the end of the tribulation, the Lord will return to earth from heaven, followed by the “armies of heaven” (Rev. 19:11-21). He will destroy the nations that have come against him and his people, and he will begin his kingdom rule. This millennial kingdom will last 1000 years. At its end, Satan (who has been imprisoned for the 1000 years) will be loosed and one last time will lead a rebellion against God and his people. It will not succeed, and Satan will be cast into the lake of fire (Rev. 20:1-10). At the end of the kingdom, God will destroy the current heavens and earth, there will be a general resurrection of the dead, and the Great White Throne Judgment will occur (Rev. 20:11-15). Losers at this judgment will be cast into the lake of fire to be tormented forever. In contrast believers will spend eternity with God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). After the Great White Throne Judgment, God will create a new heaven and new earth (Rev. 21-22; 2Pet. 3:10-13) and institute the eternal state.
Despite the above-noted differences of opinion about the end-times, all evangelicals believe in the resurrection of all the dead. Those who have placed their faith and trust in God will be with him eternally to experience all the blessings their salvation brings. Those who do not have a saving relation with God will be cast into the lake of fire. There they will remain to experience conscious punishment which will last forever. Evangelicals believe that there will be no second chance after death for these non-believers to turn to God and be saved. The time to accept Christ and establish a saving relation with God is during our natural life on earth.
The preceding description of evangelical theology highlights its core, cardinal doctrines. Of course, evangelicals also hold many secondary doctrines on a variety of topics like the number and role of elders in a local church, how humans’ immaterial part is transmitted from one generation to another, the timing of the Rapture of the Church, etc. There is latitude of viewpoint concerning those secondary beliefs, so long as one holds nothing that would contradict or deny the central tenets of the faith as taught in Scripture.
- Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985)
- Bruce Demarest and Gordon Lewis, Integrative Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987)
- Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995)
- Crossway Books’ Foundations of Evangelical Theology Series, John S. Feinberg, general editor. Including:
- David Clark, To Know and Love God: Method For Theology (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010)
- John S. Feinberg, Light In A Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture (Wheaton: Crossway, 2018)
- John S. Feinberg, No One Like Him: The Doctrine of God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006)
- Steven Wellum, God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016)
- Graham A. Cole, He Who Gives Life: The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Wheaton: Crossway, 2007)
- Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan and Demons (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019)
- Thomas H. McCall, Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Wheaton: Crossway, 2019)
- Bruce Demarest, The Cross and Salvation (Wheaton: Crossway, 2006)
- Gregg Allison, Sojourners and Strangers: The Doctrine of the Church (Wheaton: Crossway, 2012)
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