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What I Mean When I Call Myself a “Reformed Evangelical”

Calling yourself an evangelical today means about as much as calling yourself a protestant or a theist – the category is simply too broad to have any functional utility. As such many younger Christians; if they continue to use the word at all – use it alongside of a modifying adjective. They refer to themselves as “post-evangelical”,  “progressive evangelical”,  “conservative evangelical” or “reformed evangelical”.

While there is a part of me that misses the old evangelical consensus, the realist in me appreciates the clarity that these terms can bring to the on-going conversation. I like to know where people stand – and I think that ambiguity and equivocation hinder the growth of authentic friendship and community. Therefore, in pursuit of useful dialogue within and without the wider clan, allow me to introduce myself. I am a reformed evangelical and by that term I mean to communicate the following:

I believe in a really big God

I believe that God always goes first and is in some sense the first cause of everything that happens in this universe. I believe that because God says that about himself:

“See now that I, even I, am he, and there is no god beside me; I kill and I make alive; I wound and I heal; and there is none that can deliver out of my hand.” (Deuteronomy 32:39 ESV)

God is comprehensively Sovereign – and yet, in some way beyond my complete understanding, I, along with every other human being, make real choices for which I and we are ultimately responsible.

I believe that.

Not because I come from a long line of capital R reformed people who believed that (I do not) but because I see it in the Bible. In his Pentecost sermon, for example, Peter said to the crowd in Jerusalem:

“this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men.” (Acts 2:23 ESV)

Peter saw no inconsistency in arguing for God’s Sovereignty and human responsibility in the same passage and therefore, neither do I. The people in Jerusalem made real decisions, for which they will be held responsible, but at the end of the day, everything went down that day exactly as God had planned and foreknown.

Likewise, I believe that I am saved today because God of the definite plan and foreknowledge of God. He went first in my life. Before I ever believed in him he was working graciously in me. Not because he saw something in me that made me a worthy recipient of his grace but simply because he is God and he does whatever he pleases. He kills and he makes alive. Because that is who he is and that is who he says he is.

“I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.” (Exodus 33:19 ESV)

When I call myself a “reformed evangelical” I am saying that I believe in that.

I believe in a fallen and sinful humanity

I am also saying that I believe in a fallen and sinful humanity. I don’t believe that all people are maximally bad but I do believe that all people are born fallen, twisted and in need of redemption.

I believe that because the Bible says that.

“Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.” (Psalm 51:5 ESV)

“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9 ESV)

I was born with a broken compass. If I listen to my own desires and treat my own instincts as authoritative I will surely end up on the road that leads to death. I am not a sinner because I sinned; I sin because I am a sinner. I do what I am and what I always have been. I believe that about myself and I believe that about human beings in general.

“For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:22–23 ESV)

We all want wrong and we all do wrong. We are all living lesser lives than we were created and designed to live.

When I call myself a “reformed evangelical” I am saying that I believe in that.

I believe in an atoning Christ 

I am also saying that I believe in an atoning Christ. I believe that Jesus died on the cross not just to set an example and not just because he was a threat to the corrupt leaders in Jerusalem; I believe that he died on the cross in order to deal once and forever with the problem of human sin and to secure our peace with God.

I believe this because the Bible clearly teaches it. Hebrews 9:26 says of Jesus:

“he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Hebrews 9:26 ESV)

While I recognize that there is legitimate debate between born again, Spirit-filled believers as to the precise way in which the death of Jesus Christ put away human sin I believe that the concept of penal substitutionary atonement is clearly taught in the Bible. That the death of Jesus made a just payment (“penal”) for human sin seems clearly taught in Romans 3:24-26. Paul said that we are justified:

“through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:24–26 ESV)

The death of Jesus was a sacrifice or payment that in God’s estimation was righteous and appropriate and that allowed him to forgive sins without compromising on his Word or his character as a just judge. This was done:

“so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:26 ESV)

That it was “substitutionary” in nature seems hard to argue given the clear testimony of 2 Corinthians 5:21:

“For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV)

The death of Jesus on the cross was “for our sake” and salvation is thus a matter of a “great exchange”; our sins being attributed to Christ on the cross and his righteousness being attributed to us by grace through faith – thanks be to God!

That this transaction secures my peace with God (atonement) seems gloriously self-evident from Romans 5:1:

“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1 ESV)

When I refer to myself as a “reformed evangelical” I am affirming my whole-hearted and glad belief in the doctrine we have come to refer to as “penal substitutionary atonement” – while at the same time rejoicing in other supporting and ancillary metaphors and descriptive terms.

I believe in a sustaining and guiding Spirit 

I am also saying that I believe in a sustaining and guiding Spirit. I believe that the only reason I am still following Jesus Christ nearly 40 years after my initial profession of faith is because I am filled, led and sustained by the Holy Spirit of Christ – thanks be to God!

I believe what Charles Hodge said about the Holy Spirit; that:

“He is our teacher, sanctifier, comforter, and guide.” [1]

Without the Holy Spirit I would twist the Scriptures to suit my own desires and to match the mood of the crowd.

Without the Holy Spirit I would never want to change into the image and likeness of Christ.

Without the Holy Spirit I would never be strong enough to overcome temptation and to say no to wickedness and sin.

And without the Holy Spirit I would never be able to make decisions that align with the will of God and the good of my fellow man.

But with him I can do all those things and more – thanks be to God!

I recognize that not all “reformed evangelicals” hold the same views on the ministry of the Holy Spirit. We are still reacting to and retreating from the excesses of the charismatic movement in the latter decades of the 20th century. Some pulled back further than others but before excesses and over-reactions, many reformed types had a robust belief in the tangible guidance of the Holy Spirit in the life of the true believer. In his autobiography “Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners” Bunyan spoke often about the ministry of guidance that the Holy Spirit exercised in his life. He speaks for example of hearing a loud voice, like an alarm speaking to him and warning him about impending temptations from the devil:

“Now about a week or fortnight after this, I was much followed by this Scripture, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you (Luke 22:31), and so sometimes it would sound so loud within me, yea, and as it were call so strongly after me, that once above all the rest, I turned my head over my shoulder, thinking verily that some man had behind me called to me, being at a great distance, methought he called so loud…”[2]

The Apostle James spoke in a similar way, writing to the churches in response to the Jerusalem Council:

“it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28 ESV)

They read Scripture and they sensed the guidance of the Holy Spirit coming to them from within it – that is exactly the kind of charismatic I aspire to be!

I believe that the Spirit of God sustains people, empowers people, sanctifies people and guides people in the Word and through the Word. I believe in those things and delight in those things and that is a significant part of what I mean to communicate by referring to myself as a “reformed evangelical”.

I believe in an urgent mission 

To be any kind of “reformed” is to believe that God’s will cannot be resisted. It will certainly come to pass. The Bible says:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” (Isaiah 55:10–11 ESV)

God’s Word effects that which it predicts and God’s Word clearly predicts a massive gathering of people around the throne of God from every tribe, tongue and nation on planet earth. We read about that in Revelation 7:

“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”” (Revelation 7:9–10 ESV)

A great multitude – more massive than anyone could number!

From every nation, tribe, people and language group on planet earth!

Standing before the throne and before the Lamb!

Clothed in white robes and crying out with loud voices “Salvation belongs to our God and to the Lamb!”

That glorious prediction is in the Bible and therefore I believe that it will certainly come to pass. God’s Word will make it happen. But that isn’t to say that we should all sit back while the Word of God does all the work. Once again, the Bible sees no tension in speaking about the Sovereignty of God and the responsibility of people. God uses ordinary means, as the Apostle Paul makes very clear in Romans 10:14-17:

How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:14–17 ESV)

The Word of Christ will do it – but how will they hear unless we go and tell them?

That is precisely the balance and conviction I mean to communicate by calling myself a reformed evangelical. The “reformed” in me believes that the Word of God does the work of God. The “evangelical” in me is eager to present myself to God as an ordinary means.

I believe in a final judgment

When I call myself a “reformed evangelical” I am saying that I still believe in a final judgment. I believe that every human being will be resurrected and will stand before God in the flesh to give an account for how they lived in the body.

I believe this because the Bible says it.

“For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Corinthians 5:10 ESV)

I believe that not everything works out in this life. Because the world is fallen and because Christ has not yet returned bodily to rule over all things, we don’t always get what we deserve; we don’t always reap what we sow; sometimes we raise up a child in the way he should go and he does depart from it when he is older.

This is not heaven.

We aren’t there yet and so somethings will never be sorted out and some injustices will never be addressed until the final judgment.

But that will happen.

One day Jesus will take his seat and all the nations will be gathered before him and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates sheep from goats.

That will happen and it will determine the nature of our eternal existence. I believe that some people:

“will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:46 ESV)

Jesus said that and therefore I know it must be true. It has to be true.

“He who will not execute his threatenings, cannot be relied upon to fulfil his promises.”[3]

Jesus is faithful and I believe that he will reward his faithful followers and remove from the earth:

“all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” (Matthew 13:41–43 ESV)

When I call myself a “reformed evangelical” I am saying that I believe in that.

I believe in a glorious future

When I refer to myself as a “reformed evangelical” I am probably also attempting to distance myself from the negativity and escapism of evangelicalism as a whole in the 20th century. In the evangelicalism of my youth an awful lot of people seemed to have an expectation of smallness, weakness and mixture. We expected to lose ground and to retreat into the shadows and to generally decline until that marvelous day when we would be rescued by the Rapture whereupon the world would quickly go to hell in a handbasket.

When I call myself a “reformed evangelical” I am saying that I don’t wish to identify with that.

I believe in the parable of the mustard seed.

I believe that the kingdom of God started small – and always starts small – but it did and does grow into something big, beautiful and life giving.

I believe in the parable of the field.

I believe that the Kingdom will grow and the “weeds” will grow, side by side right up until the end.

I think that it is the middle ground that is likely to disappear entirely over the coming years.

I anticipate that the church will ultimately grow and be purified. I interpret our current retrenchment in the west to be merely one of dozens of such seasons of pruning that the Lord has used to cut off dead branches and to extract the cancer of nominalism from the church.

But I anticipate that we will emerge from this season stronger and purer and more prepared and equipped than ever before.

And I imagine that the devil’s army will be much improved over the next decades and centuries as well – should the Lord tarry.

I expect that the wheat and the weeds will grow together right up until the moment of the Lord’s glorious return – that’s what I mean when I say that I believe in a glorious future. I think the best (and hardest) days of the church still lie in the future.

And of course I believe in the beauty, grandeur and wonder of the eternal kingdom. I believe that Jesus Christ will rule over a renewed creation for the glory of his Father and for the good of his people forever. That is my ultimate hope as a believer – that I will see the Lord in my resurrected body and enjoy his goodness forever.

Thanks be to God!

I believe in a reliable Bible  

And of course, it goes without saying, that I believe in a reliable Bible. The Bible is the source and ground of all that we know about God, all that we know of ourselves and all that we know about redemption.

It is the Bible that tells us about a big, gracious, Sovereign God who has the first and last word over everything in creation.

It is the Bible that tells us that we are sinners – and how we came to be so.

It is the Bible that tells us about Jesus. The Bible tells us that he is God and always has been; the Bible tells us that he was born of the Virgin Mary, grew up in Galilee of the Gentiles, obeyed God perfectly, loved others entirely and died sacrificially, rose gloriously and victoriously and ascended bodily into heaven where he ever lives to make intercession for his people.

And the Bible tells us about the Spirit given to the church and the mission of the church and the future vindication of the church – all of that information comes to us – and only comes to us through the Bible.

I believe in that Bible.

I believe that it is inspired and useful and true in all it says and affirms.

I believe that it is clear with respect to the message of salvation and that it is sufficient for all matters of life and godliness.

I believe that it is infallible in all that it does and inerrant in all that it says.

I believe that when the Bible speaks, God speaks.

That’s what I mean, fundamentally, when I call myself a “reformed evangelical”.

It was very nice to meet you.


Pastor Paul Carter

To listen to Pastor Paul’s Into The Word devotional podcast visit the TGC Canada website; you can also find it on iTunes.

[1]Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Accordance electronic ed. (New York: C. Scribner, 1887), 525.

[2] John Bunyan, Grace Abounding To The Chief Of Sinners (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 26.

[3] W.S. Plumer, Psalms (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 2016), 408.