Friday, November 17, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: The Epistle to the Galatians

Address 1
What Makes an Evangelical Christian?

I begin a series today titled “What Makes an Evangelical Christian?” The English word “evangelical” comes straight out of the New Testament, which is written in Greek. The word is evangelion and it is often translated “gospel.” Thus, for instance, Mark’s story of Jesus opens with the words: “The Gospel (evangelion) of Jesus Christ the Son of God.” And in his first public act, “Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God (evangelion).” The word, translated literally, means “good news.” It is a message that a royal messenger or herald would bring, for instance, if he were announcing a pardon or forgiveness from taxes, or a peace treaty. Needless to say, good news like this was greeted with joy.

To be an evangelical Christian is to receive the Good News of Jesus Christ with joy. It is cause enough for rejoicing when a gospel message comes from a king, but the Gospel Jesus brings is even greater because it is a message from God, the heavenly king. Hence the word “Gospel” means “God’s message, spelled out by Jesus.”

But it is not even enough simply to say Jesus brings a joyous message from God. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is the Gospel about Him. He is not only the bringer but the content of the Gospel; he is not only the medium but the message. Thus John can say that “the Word became flesh,” a living, embodied message. John goes on to say that “those who receive the person of Jesus also receive a power, the power to become children of God, full of grace and truth.”

As I think many of you know, Uganda received the Gospel, the message of Jesus, from English missionaries who called themselves Evangelical. Amazingly, the first Ugandan converts turned right around and became Evangelists, taking the Gospel to tribes in the interior of the continent. And then they passed the Gospel on to their children and children’s children. And so here you are today at Uganda Christian University.

But Africans are not unusual in this respect. All nations have received the Gospel in this way. My family is German by background. They settled in the American colonies before the War of Independence from Britain in 1776. The Germans had received the Gospel from missionaries from Rome many centuries before, and they were revived in their faith in the 1500’s by the great Reformer Martin Luther. These Germans, like Rev. Wolfgang, do not call themselves “Lutherans” but rather “Evangelicals,” or what we call Protestants.

Although my family was German Protestant by birth, I was not raised in any church. By the time I was teenaged, I had never read the Bible and had only a vague idea who Jesus was. I grew up in the 1960’s, a time when many young Americans rebelled against their parents and their society. Like them, I was very idealistic and wanted to make the world a better place. But instead of making it better, I found that I myself was the problem. I was proud and conceited and wanted to make people do my will.

I began to feel the sense of sin, which I had not identified before, and my need for forgiveness. Then through a set of friends and through reading, I began to understand that the Christian Gospel offers a person the greatest forgiveness imaginable – forgiveness of sin against the holy God – and the greatest ideal imaginable – eternal life with Him. In 1966, I prayed before the Cross of Christ and saw Jesus reach down his hand and lift me up. I was baptized and have been a Christian ever since.

I did not at that time call my self an evangelical Christian. I thought every Christian was automatically a believer in the Gospel. You see, I had one advantage over many of you. Because I did not grow up in a Christian family, I had to own the Gospel for myself, and I just assumed that everyone had the same experience I had had. Later, when I went to theological college, I began to discover what we might call nominal Christians, people who bore the name of Christian from their background but who had never received the Gospel. Even later, I met Christians, even priests and bishops, who went about scoffing at and denying the Gospel.

So it raises the question, the topic of my talk: “What makes an evangelical Christian?” Let me answer with four brief “M” words.

First of all, an evangelical Christian is a mere or plain Christian. The famous writer C.S. Lewis wrote a book called Mere Christianity. By using this title, he was suggesting that Christianity is a matter of plain truth. The Gospel itself is simple in its meaning and the simplest people can understand it. The great theologian Karl Barth, who wrote many long books about theology, was asked toward the end of his life whether he could summarize what he had learned. “Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so,” was his answer. There are many complex things about the Bible and about life, but the Gospel is like the eyeglasses that brings everything else into perspective. Some people see being an evangelical Christian as belonging to some particular party or ethnic and tribal group: hence they talk about Catholics and Protestants. But to be a true Protestant evangelical is to believe that the Gospel is true for everyone everywhere.

Secondly, an evangelical Christian has a mental grasp of the Gospel. I do not mean by this that Christianity is purely a mental thing, a kind of intellectual puzzle. But the Gospel is a kind of knowledge. St. Paul put his life’s ambition this way, “that I may know him and the power of his resurrection” (Phil 3:10). The Gospel message, St. John writes, is a word that has been built into the creation by a God who is a speaking God and this Word entered into history as a man. You do not grasp the truth of the Gospel the same way you do in the University: by poring over texts and lecture notes. No, you grasp it by an act of submission, saying: “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner.” But becoming an evangelical Christian is even so a conscious, intelligent act. The truth is, the highest kinds of knowledge do not make one proud but humble. “Wisdom is to know that you do not know,” Socrates said, and the same is true of Evangelical Christians. Their highest knowledge is to know they need God’s grace.

Thirdly, an evangelical Christian follows the moral consequences of the Gospel. We shall soon see in our Bible exposition that St. Paul opposed all forms of legalism. We are justified by faith, not by works of the Law. But it was also St. Paul who said that love fulfills the Law of Christ, and there is no law against loving acts. Many non-Christians accuse Christians of being “holier than thou” or of being hypocrites, not living out their beliefs. And it is true that even the most sincere Christian falls short of God’s moral standards time and time again. But having said that, evangelical Christians find a power in the Gospel that begins to change their lives. Often they do not even see it happening, as the Holy Spirit works through them. St. Paul could describe himself as the worst of sinners, but he can also say, “By the grace of God I am what I am.”

Fourth and finally, an evangelical Christian proclaims a missionary gospel. As his last words to his disciples, the Risen Lord Jesus gave what we call the Great Commission, saying: “Go and preach the Gospel to all nations.” The word “evangelism” comes from the same word evangelion, and believing Christians throughout the ages have sought to share the Gospel at home with their neighbors and with peoples who have never heard. Do you realize that the century just ended is the greatest missionary century in history. Even though the first missionaries came to Africa in the late 1800’s, it was the missionary zeal of Africans themselves that has made Africa the most evangelical of continents. Notice, I do not say the most Christian. A majority of Europeans, for instance, call themselves Christians but very few can explain what they mean by that term nor do they live by its spirit.

I know that many of you here today can be called evangelical Christians, or “born-again” Christians, or balakole Christians. I praise God for your responding to the Gospel, either as you heard it from your parents or from others. There are those here today who may not believe the Gospel or who may be uncertain what you believe. In the weeks to come, we are going listen carefully to what St. Paul has to say about the Gospel in his short but famous Epistle to the Galatians.

My prayer is that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the evangelion, will be released in your lives and then in the midst of this university, to the glory of His great Name.

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.


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