The first usage of the term Evangelical in recent church history was in Germany at the time of the Reformation. In 1517 Luther nailed his thesis to the church door at Wittenberg. Two years later his followers were called Lutheran’s by their enemies but Luther preferred the term Evangelical.

When Luther finally broke from Rome and established churches free from Rome’s jurisdiction he called the new movement the Evangelische Kirche (evangelical church). It was a church built upon the true Gospel of Jesus Christ as opposed to a church built upon tradition, heresy and man-made regulations as that at Rome most certainly was.

The term Protestant was not used until 1529. The meaning of the Word is ‘to protest or to proclaim.’ Luther and many others were protesting against the error of Rome but were also proclaiming the truth of the simple Gospel of Christ. Philip Schaff the great church historian stated that the term Protestant must be supplemented by the term Evangelical for this reason: “The gospel of Christ, as laid down in the New Testament, and proclaimed again in its primitive purity and power by the Reformation, is the basis of historical Protestantism, and gives it vitality and permanancy.”

Writing in 1520 Luther said “We were all Hussites without knowing it.” By this he meant they had discovered the same truths of the Gospel and were holding to them in the same way John Huss (1373-1415) of Bohemia had done 100 years previously and for which he was martyred. His ministry and martyrdom gave rise to a spiritual movement called the Hussite’s which spread to other lands and later resulted in the Moravian revival. Huss had previously been impacted by the writings of John Wycliffe (1329-84) of England who through preaching the simple Gospel of the Bible had birthed a spiritual movement called the Lollards. These poor but profound preachers spread everywhere preaching the simplicity of the Gospel.

This reveals something of the unbroken line of leaders and spiritual movements which ran from the days of the apostles down to the days of the Reformation and onwards who held to the clear truths of the Bible.

In the mind of the Reformers to be Evangelical meant having a true grasp and understanding of the Gospel as a result of a conversion through justification by faith. That’s why they stood for Sola Scriptura – the Scripture alone. To be Evangelical meant that they believed the written Word of God was absolutely authoritive over every doctrine, tradition and practise in the church, in ministry and in life. Because of Sola Scriptura many spiritual leaders and movements were birthed in the following centuries that were Christ-centred. Evangelicalism has always been Bible-based and as a result of that has been Christ-centred.

The Reformation in Europe spread quickly from Germany to every corner of Europe raising up national reformers. They were not dealing with just a veneer of church order, structure or government; they were dealing with the foundation, the most vital issues of the Gospel, of justification by faith alone and the place of God’s Word in the Church. It was the beginning of a fresh return to the church of the Bible. To be evangelical meant conformity to the written Scriptures. Those who make light of the Reformation just show that they know little or nothing about it.

A return to the Gospel as presented in the Scriptures literally shook Europe from top to bottom and inside out, socially, politically and spiritually. Countries like Switzerland renamed individual counties ‘Evangelick Cantons.’ Through forty days of Gospel preaching John Knox saw Scotland set free from darkness, superstition, religious tradition and bondage. This return to an Evangelical Gospel led to great multitudes of genuine believers being martyred across Europe over the next 100 years. This was a spiritual revival.

William Tyndale

One of the greatest English Reformers was William Tyndale (1494-1536). The Lord used him in translating the Bible into the language of the English people. He was eventually martyred for his zeal in proclaiming the true Gospel. The first recorded usage of the term ‘Evangelical’ in the English language was made by Tyndale in his writings in the year 1531. Within his writings he spoke freely of the true Gospel as “evangelical truth.” In the following year Thomas More wrote a six-volume response to him in which he talks of Tyndale and his ‘evangelical friends.’ So from its first usage in English it not only defined the Gospel message but those who believed it as well.

The term Evangelical was then brought into the English language and used widely by those who held fast to the same fundamental doctrines of the Gospel which Tyndale held to, defended and died for.

In the 17th century men like Samuel Rutherford in Scotland and John Owen in England freely used the term Evangelical not for a party-name but for true Bible-believing Christians of whatever denomination. The Covenanter’s and Puritan’s of both nations continued their pursuit of a full reformation of the Church by the Word of God. The Reformation was a beginning not an end. During this era the Lord blessed the preaching of the Gospel by pouring out His Spirit a number of times to speed the work forward.

The breadth of Evangelicalism has been its recondition of all those who uncompromisingly hold to the foundational truths of the Gospel which makes Christ preeminent and central in all things.

Evangelical has always been broader than finer points of teaching concerning church structure, the Lord’s Table or baptism. Men have stood on either side of such arguments yet been solidly Evangelical. But let a man weaken on the foundational truths of the Gospel and he has departed from being Evangelical. A church group, denomination or movement is only Evangelical while it remains faithful to the truth of the Gospel.

John & Charles Wesley

In May 1738 almost 200 years after the Reformation young Charles Wesley (1707-88) while reading Luther’s commentary on Galatians was convinced, converted and found peace in Christ Jesus. Just three days later John Wesley (1703-91) was converted as his heart was strangely warmed at a meeting of Moravians where Luther’s commentary on Roman’s was being read. These two brothers as well as a great host of other preachers were to be used in God’s hand to proclaim the Evangelical Gospel with great power during what was called the Evangelical Revival (Awakening). But this was only another stage in the Lord’s progressive work; not the beginning of Evangelicalism. Through their preaching, their writings and their hymns the truth of the Evangelical Gospel spread to the ends of the earth.

To be continued…

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