Christmas is just around the corner! Crossway+ members can receive 50% off hundreds of books and Bibles in our 2022 Christmas Gift Guide through 12/25.

Podcast: What's Happening to Evangelicalism? (Michael Reeves)

This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.

What Does “Evangelical” Mean?

In today's episode, Michael Reeves discusses the term “evangelical” and the different ways it’s used in our culture today, how we should respond to the cultural baggage often associated with the term, and the crucial theological underpinnings of a truly evangelical worldview.

Gospel People

Michael Reeves

Should Christians abandon the evangelical label? Michael Reeves argues from Scripture and church history that Christians should return to the evangel—the gospel—in order to identify the clear theology of evangelicalism.

Subscribe: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Google Podcasts | RSS

Topics Addressed in This Interview:

00:52 - What Does It Mean to Be an Evangelical?

Matt Tully
Mike, thank you so much for joining me today on The Crossway Podcast.

Michael Reeves
It’s an absolute pleasure to be with you, Matt.

Matt Tully
It’s good to talk with you again, and this morning about a pretty important topic—this idea of who we are as evangelicals and the value of that term going forward. At least to me as I look out at the landscape around us, maybe especially in the US, it seems like more and more Christians, including many pastors and church leaders, are rejecting the label evangelical. Just to kick us off here, if someone you didn’t know, after finding out that you were a Christian, asked you, But are you an evangelical?, how would you respond to that question?

Michael Reeves
It is a difficult one we need to be sensitive to according to people’s different situations. We need to be contextually sensitive. In some places and at some times the word evangelical has unhelpful or negative or misleading connotations, that were I simply to say, I am an evangelical, they actually would not hear what I’m meaning by that. So, we need to be careful with the word. At the opposite end of the spectrum there is a danger of those who would call themselves gospel Christians—or, classically, evangelicals—to say, Well, evangelicalism is so corrupted we can just ditch that label and come up with something new. That’s my fear today, that tribalism will simply increase as people think, Let’s dump this tarnished label that’s been appropriated by so many people we don’t really agree with, and we can just come up with something new. The issue is that evangelicalism has a biblical and historical pedigree, and simply to jettison it and try to come up with something new means whatever you come up with that’s new could wear thin awfully quickly. It could just accelerate the process of tribalization that we’re seeing today.

Matt Tully
That’s such an interesting comment. We are all so aware of the issue of tribalism these days. It feels like we’re all talking about that increasingly. You write in the book, “When we re-brand ourselves every ten years, the idea that we might represent the historic, catholic faith becomes laughable.” Elaborate on that idea. Are you essentially arguing that by retaining this label, even if it is tarnished in some people’s minds, is that actually part of the answer to our tribalism? Is that part of the way that we get past this tribalistic moment that we live in?

Michael Reeves
Ultimately and primarily I’m not interested in the label as such. Maybe in certain situations the label evangelical is just too difficult to use. To some extent that’s okay. I want to be wary of doing that too quickly because I don’t think there is another label that sufficiently gets what it means to say, We are a people of the gospel first and foremost. There’s no other label that does that. People have tried and tried again and again, and it simply hasn’t worked. What I would be most concerned with is seeking to bring those people who, whether or not they would self-identify as evangelical, want to be people of the gospel, let’s get a clarity together on what the gospel is and unite there to say, Yes, whether or not evangelical in our situation is a word that’s actually going to be helpful, let us be a people of the gospel.

Matt Tully
What does that uniting look like practically? If there isn’t a shared label for who we are—a shared identity that we can proclaim to the world—what does it look like to unite around the gospel?

Michael Reeves
I think this is something that Paul’s letter to the Romans sets out the need for. In Romans 1–11, Paul says, Here’s the gospel. If you look in Galatians 1, he’s very stern in saying, You may not depart from the gospel to another gospel which is no gospel at all. And yet, in Romans 1–11 he sets out the gospel. Chapters 1–4 is here is Christ, the completely sufficient Savior; therefore, justification by faith alone. Chapters 5–8 explain the Spirit’s essential work of regeneration in our hearts, giving us new birth into Christ. And I think Romans 9–11 is really answering the question of early Romans 9: Has God’s word failed? He sets up the gospel at the beginning of Romans 1. He says the gospel is promised through the prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was made known to be the Son of God, in power through the Spirit. The gospel is a Trinitarian gospel, made known through the Scriptures—it’s a Scriptural gospel—concerning the Son—it’s a Christ-centered gospel—made known through the Spirit—it’s a Spirit-effective gospel. We are born again, regenerated through the power of the Spirit. That’s the gospel that holds us together (Rom. 1–11). But then in Romans 12–16, interestingly, he goes on to say, Now, love one another with brotherly affection. Watch out for those who cause division. He talks about those issues that could divide us—things we eat, special days, our different opinions on matters like that—and says, Those things shouldn’t divide us. That is setting out for us what it means to be people of that gospel, that we find our unity in that Scriptural, Trinitarian, Christ-centered, Spirit-effected gospel, meaning that we can believe other things that are important to us. That could be our particular view of baptism or how the church should be governed. Those things matter, but they’re not the gospel. We can have differences that won’t effect our evangelical unity. What that unity then looks like—this is what your question really was, Matt—it need not be an institutional unity. We don’t all have to join the same organization. We don’t all have to carry the card that says I belong. When Jesus prays for unity, he’s not praying that we all sign up to some organization; he’s praying that we might have a spiritual unity, that we might be able to love one another as brothers and sisters knowing that we are children of the same Father, called by one gospel. Recognizing that we actually have some differences here, I don’t believe everything that every other evangelical thinks. I would strongly disagree on some things, and yet I can treat them as brothers and sisters if we share this gospel.

Matt Tully
That’s such an encouraging word, and yet at the same time it does seem like in our social media-fueled culture today where there is so much of this public performance element to our Christianity, the disunity that we see at organizational or institutional levels almost seems to overwhelm any unity that we might—or even dictate the unity or lack of unity—that we might experience on a one-to-one basis with the Christian living next door. Do you get what I’m saying? How do we deal with that reality that we’re facing?

Michael Reeves
I think that reality is the fallout of not being very clearly people of the gospel rather than people of some issue or denomination or sect or party—I follow Paul, I follow Apollos. What very quickly happens is that even people who want to say, I’m a person of the gospel, we very quickly will take something away from the gospel and think it’s not so significant. Or, we’ll add something to it. We can so easily say here’s the cultural issue of the moment—whether it’s a political issue or a moral issue—and we can put those other issues before the gospel. Or, not just those sort of issues; we can put the personalities we respect, with their particular little shibboleths—their little ways of doing things—and we can find ourselves just retreating into a little cultural silo where, in my silo, we all follow the ways to walk and talk, the ways to dress that our three leaders love. The guys in that silo, they dress differently. We almost just feel that we’re talking about different gospels because actually, we’ve centered in on a personality or a cultural political issue rather than uniting ourselves in the gospel. Tribalism is a first sign of a loss of true gospel-centeredness.

Matt Tully
I want to get into some of the core doctrinal commitments that undergird this identity that you’re calling for evangelicals to embrace and maybe recover again. But before we get into that, one tricky part of this whole conversation, at least in my experience, is that for some people (certainly not all people) the rejection of this label evangelical is also accompanied by, at times, theological and ethical shifts as well. We have some people who are retaining these core doctrinal commitments but just don’t like that label, but others who are actually moving in terms of what they profess to believe. I think that dynamic can sometimes muddy the waters in these conversations where we’re not always sure what is going on under the surface. Have you seen that? Do you resonate with that concern?

Michael Reeves
I think that’s been one reason why people have said, We want to dump evangelicalism because it becomes far too broad and mushy a label, and so it’s just not really reflecting who we are anymore. But I think that gets things the wrong way around. You don’t define what Reformed is by looking at everything in the world that calls itself Reformed—or Presbyterian or pick your label. But we’ve done that with evangelicalism. We have looked at everything that calls itself evangelical and said, Well, I’m not all of that. I’m similar to some of it but not all of it. Therefore, evangelical is just too broad for me. But the way we need to define evangelicalism is theologically. We need to ask, What does Scripture say about what the gospel is? To be people of the gospel is to be people together of that gospel proclaimed in Scripture. Someone could be called in the media an evangelical, but if they’re not actually heralding that gospel, then they’re not being evangelical. Equally, someone who is not known as an evangelical, if they are heralding that gospel, effectively, they are an evangelical, whether or not they own the label.

13:19 - Does Evangelicalism Have a Theological Foundation?

Matt Tully
Let’s talk about that theology then. I think that’s one of the common critiques that we’ve heard of evangelicalism through the years that as a movement, if we can call it that, it has historically been conspicuously lacking of any kind of theological or doctrinal foundation. It is, historically speaking, far more shaped by our culture’s embrace of things like individualism or capitalism or maybe a focus more recently on the therapeutic than any kind of distinctly theological commitments. Do you think that’s a fair critique of evangelicalism historically?

Michael Reeves
No, I don’t think it is. I hear that a lot, but that strikes me as a very recent American reading of the situation. In writing this book, I found it interesting reading a lot of American writers and quite often they would equate American with evangelical. As a Brit I’m thinking, Excuse me. Where do I fit in? I think of myself as an evangelical, but I’m not an American.

Matt Tully
Is that just a symptom of Americans’ tendency to, across the board on many things, just think that the world revolves around us?

Michael Reeves
I wouldn’t put it as a national selfishness quite, but just that the scene is so big that you almost don’t need to look beyond your own borders to see. There’s quite enough to take in.

Matt Tully
There’s a lot going on.

Michael Reeves
But realistically, it’s just not like that in other parts of the world. The way that evangelicalism in the US is so tightly bound up with the political, and the racial as well, just is not true of other parts of the world. Those American concerns don’t translate outside of America neatly. Sometimes they will a little bit, but non-American evangelicals just aren’t a political or racial blog. Those kind of critiques of individualism and capitalism simply don’t apply. The reality is that the US is not actually the global heartland of evangelicalism; it’s South Korea, Nigeria, and places like that where actually there are more evangelicals. There are more evangelicals in Brazil. Therefore, we mustn’t allow global evangelicals—or global evangelicalism—simply to have to dance to the tune of a recent American anomaly.

16:09 - Global Evangelicalism vs. American Evangelicalism

Matt Tully
Help us then, as an example, understand this global phenomenon a little bit better. Explain what evangelical means in the UK context. What would be the associations that someone might have on the street when they hear you say, Yes, I’m an evangelical.

Michael Reeves
I think the key difference between America and almost everywhere else is how deeply embedded in the culture evangelicalism is in the States. Therefore, and this is a lot of the discomfort that people have, is the sense that there are unregenerate people who don’t savingly know Jesus, love and trust him who would call themselves evangelical—who might be ignorant of key gospel doctrines, and yet call themselves evangelical. That’s because in past generations evangelicalism embedded itself quite deeply in the culture in America. Whereas you see, whether it be Europe, Africa, Asia, in those places evangelicalism has just not got into the mainstream of the culture. It’s been persecuted, isolated; therefore, if an American were to see those evangelical scenes, there might be some cultural differences, but I think what they would tend to be surprised by is the simple orthodoxy of those evangelicals. The kind of things that an American evangelical dreads about evangelicalism are rarer in those contexts.

Matt Tully
That’s so helpful. That’s one of the catch 22 of the cultural dominance that evangelicalism has experienced in the US over the last one hundred years is that it can lead to these kinds of nominal expressions of it.

Michael Reeves
Absolutely.

18:11 - 3 Theological Distinctives of Evangelicalism

Matt Tully
In your book you highlight three doctrinal heads out of which flow the key theological distinctives that you would see as important for historic evangelicalism. You’ve already kind of hit on these, but I wonder if you could do so again. What are those three heads?

Michael Reeves
What I’ve tried to do is argue it through how Paul repeatedly speaks of the gospel, whether that’s in Romans 1 like we looked at earlier or in his other letters. I’ve tried to say what are the characteristics of the gospel as Paul talks about it? Again and again you see in his letters these key things: it’s a Trinitarian gospel, it’s a biblical gospel, it’s a Christ-centered gospel, it’s a Spirit-effected gospel. It’s a gospel that is God-centered; it’s concerned with the Triune God and the work of the Triune God. The revelation of the Father; it’s a scriptural gospel. The redemption of the Son; it’s concerning his redemption. It’s not just an empowerment of us, but we need a Savior which is Jesus Christ. And it’s the regeneration of the Spirit. By regeneration, there are two facets to that. The Spirit not only gives us a new birth (that’s how we normally talk about regeneration) but the Spirit also ongoingly renews us, bringing us into the likeness of Christ. So, the Spirit regenerates us in the double sense—the initial and ongoing sense. I think we’ve got to have all that in mind when we’re thinking about what are the essentials of the gospel: the Triune God with the Father’s work of revelation, the Son’s work of redemption, and the Spirit’s work of regeneration.

Matt Tully
I think it’s so helpful how you unpack that structure that you see there because there are so many other theological and ethical and spiritual elements that flow from those three core fountainheads. Just today in our conversation I think we can only explore one of those, but you start with this one, and I think it’s got a certain preeminence or foundation.

Michael Reeves
I think you’re absolutely right. That’s a theological description, but it actually has all sorts of essential, practical outworkings that because we believe in the need for regeneration, that’s why we believe in the importance of holiness. That’s why evangelicals are passionate about evangelism and missions. Some of those things that people have talked about classically as evangelical concerns, they’re right. But I wanted to embed them theologically to see that those classical evangelical concerns are not random. They flow out of those central gospel concerns. Those central gospel concerns also are not just persnickety theologians who like doctrines. To have a gospel concern means that if I believe in the Spirit’s regeneration, I don’t believe in dead orthodoxy. To be evangelical is not simply to tick a certain confessional box. It means that my heart renewed—I was once lost, but now I’m found—I will sing with delight in my God. My desires are different. It’s not just orthodoxy; it’s orthocardia—it’s a right heart, a worshiping heart. That’s implied in evangelicalism.

22:04 - Does Belief in the Supremacy of Scripture Result in Shallow Theology and Disunity?

Matt Tully
Let’s talk about one of those heads in particular. The supremacy of Scripture is the language that you use, and in evangelicalism it is well-known. We follow in the footsteps of the Reformers and affirm the supreme authority of Scripture over our lives and our thinking about God. And yet, one common critique that we’ve heard over the last few decades is that this doctrine of sola Scriptura, in practice, has led to this interpretive free-or-all when it comes to what we think Scripture actually says. I think even some would go further and say that free-for-all is at the root of evangelicalism’s shallow theology and even our disunity. We don’t have core applications of these basic fountainheads of doctrines. We don’t have unity because we all interpret the Bible however we see fit, and there’s no authority there. One of the related observations that many will make about evangelicals is that we are often not very well rooted in our own history. We don’t appreciate the value of church history like other Christian traditions like Catholicism or even Anglicanism might. What do you make of that? Is that a valid critique that maybe contributes to this “me and my Bible” mentality that can sometimes be at play?

Michael Reeves
Yes, I think that is true. What you see in that “me and my Bible” historically, theologically ignorant evangelicalism is very different to the Reformer’s evangelicalism. You see again and again Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin are saying, Our agreement with the ancient church is closer than that of the Roman Catholic church is. We seek not to change or bring in something new, but to retrieve the orthodoxy of the ancient church. By reformation, they meant this is retrieval of orthodoxy, reforming ourselves according to old orthodoxy. They’re not seeking to do something new. I think part of the evangelical mindset that has become historically and theologically suspicious has been we want to be people of the Bible. Therefore, I don’t want to listen to what some egghead theologian tells me. I just want to read my Bible. The issue is that God gives his Bible, his Word, to his church as a whole. We see this in Paul’s letters that these are letters to be read out to the whole church. Therefore, we read Scripture—although we do it individually as well—we’re seeking to do so as the church, which means that we want to have a unity with our brothers and sisters, both dead and alive. It’s actually not an evangelical thing to say, I don’t care what any other Christian thinks because while it is true that Scripture is supreme over the thoughts of all other people, it is helpful to hear what wise Christians have said about Scripture. And some of those—in fact, most of those—wise Christians are dead, and therefore, it’s good to read some historical theology and make sure we’re in line with the great tradition of the church, just as we don’t want to be falling out with other parts of the church today. We’re prepared to because Scripture is supreme, but it grieves us to do so.

Matt Tully
What does that look like practically for you? You’re a historian, you’re the president of a seminary, you teach history and theology. What does it look like as you think about and try to balance ultimate submission to Scripture’s authority—and ultimately, that means what you perceive it to be saying—and also wanting to allow the witness of church history, the witness of creeds and confessions and catechisms and other figures in the church to speak into how you are interpreting the Bible? How do you hold that in balance?

Michael Reeves
In my seminary, I teach heresy, but I don’t preach it. What I mean by that is I want my students to know what Arianism is, what Pelagianism is, what various heresies are. I want them to understand them. That’s teaching. I don’t want them to believe them. I want them to know them so that they can refute them. That means that I want to preach Scripture to them. I want them to love the gospel. But I also want to teach them Augustine, Athanasius, Calvin, Edwards, Luther, and so on. What I love doing when I teach—and let’s take Augustine—I love letting students spot how you read one sentence of Augustine and you can feel, That’s the wisest thing I’ve ever heard anyone say outside Scripture. And then in the next sentence you can think, I’m not even sure that this guy is a Christian! To read guys like that, it builds discernment, and that’s what we need. To be able to say, Yes, there are great things to learn in an Augustine and a Luther, but that doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. Just as, in someone who is really not a hero, there can still be things to learn. Discernment means growing in the ability to be able to take the gold and sift out the dross, which there will be in everyone.

Matt Tully
That’s such a good and wise answer, but I think it also can be, if we’re honest, unsatisfying because that process of growing in discernment isn’t always black and white. It’s not like it’s as easy as, Tell me what I can take and what I can’t. We have to trust God for that, we have to talk with each other, and that takes time.

Michael Reeves
Yes. Exactly.

28:25 - How Central Is the Doctrine of Inerrancy to Evangelicalism?

Matt Tully
Most evangelicals also embrace some kind of doctrine of inerrancy—this belief that Scripture is without error. And yet, it seems like that traditional doctrine has been questioned of late. It’s been questioned many times over the years, but even from within the ranks of evangelicalism it seems like it’s more up for debate than it has been in the past. How central is the doctrine of inerrancy to evangelicalism?

Michael Reeves
It is foundational for evangelicalism. We don’t have to call it inerrancy. The label is not what’s significant; it’s the truth that God’s Word is totally trustworthy, in every word and in all its parts. This is not just an evangelical, modern concern. That’s sometimes been the criticism, that this is some modern rationalist thing that’s being cooked up, that on the basis of this human doctrine we can therefore have confidence in Scripture.

Matt Tully
A lot of people want to separate inerrancy from Scripture’s authority or inspiration. They would say they don’t have to go together like evangelicals often want to stick them together.

Michael Reeves
Absolutely. While it is the case historically that a belief in the total trustworthiness and supremacy of Scripture go far back into the depths of church history, and you see theologians from the early church articulating and defending these truths, it’s not just a modern thing. The reason evangelicals hold to them is not because of historical pedigree—though that’s nice to see—but because this is Jesus’ view of Scripture. Jesus very clearly talked about how when, for example, Moses speaks, God speaks, and how the Word of God cannot be broken. It must be fulfilled—Have you not read what the law says? Just as the perfection of Christ means the perfection of his work, the perfection of God’s being means the perfection of his Word. It is because when God speaks his Word, his Word reflects who he is. Because he is totally trustworthy, when he speaks—and this is the doctrine of inspiration, but it’s really expiration about God breathing out his Word—his Word conveys his own trustworthiness. It’s because of Jesus’ view of Scripture that we hold to this.

31:26 - The Heart of Evangelical Integrity

Matt Tully
Maybe as a last question, you note that, “There is something about evangelicalism that can make it a fertile soil for pride.” You then go on to argue that the heart of evangelical integrity is humility. Why do you say both of those things?

Michael Reeves
I say it can be a fertile soil for pride for two reasons. One is we’re people of the book, and knowledge so quickly puffs us up. But also, we want to be faithful to Scripture, and that can so quickly lead to competition—Whose more faithful? So, what I’m actually seeking to do is not be faithful but to be more orthodox than anyone else. It’s that the study and the orthodoxy can be fuel for pride, but the nature of the gospel means that evangelicalism should be characterized by humility. What is the gospel but God speaking out his Word so that we see the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ? Seeing the glory of God in the gospel means we should find ourselves convicted of our sinfulness, aware of our mere createdness and more impressed by Jesus and his glory than we are by ourselves. So, if we’re not humbled by the gospel, we’re not reacting to the gospel rightly. Therefore, at the heart—and this is going to be essential for any unity we’re going to get in the gospel—is humility. We’re never going to have unity if we’re power brokering, if we’re playing power politics. The kind of unity—the anti-tribalism, the brotherly love we want and need that will adorn the gospel in our day—will be found through a lifting up of Jesus Christ so that we are humbled and we find ourselves more thrilled, more delighted with him than we are with ourselves. Therefore, we can give up our little tribal empires and our little cultural ways, for the sake of Jesus’ glory.

Matt Tully
What a great word to end on. Mike, thank you so much for helping us to understand a little bit better this thing that we call evangelicalism and the gospel itself. We appreciate it.

Michael Reeves
Thank you. Great to be with you, Matt.


Popular Articles in This Series

View All

Podcast: Help! I Hate My Job (Jim Hamilton)

Jim Hamilton discusses what to do when you hate your job, offering encouragement for those frustrated in their work and explaining the difference between a job and a vocation.


Crossway is a not-for-profit Christian ministry that exists solely for the purpose of proclaiming the gospel through publishing gospel-centered, Bible-centered content. Learn more or donate today at crossway.org/about.