Evangelical identity is often thought to be best defined by the four aspects defined by David Bebbington in his Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s (London: Unwin Hyman, 1989; London: Routledge, 2003):
There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.
But Bebbington never intended this to be a definition, rather an observation; it is not a very theological description; and it fails to connect the importance of the Bible as the centre of evangelical thinking with the other practices.
We need a fuller, more biblically rooted, and theological understanding of what Scripture calls us to in the spiritual life, and I have identified seven markers in my new Grove booklet, The Practice of Evangelical Spirituality in the Grove Spirituality series. This is how I introduce them.
Is there such a thing as ‘evangelical spirituality’? I was recently in conversation with an evangelical clergy colleague, and mentioned that I was writing something on evangelical spirituality. ‘That’s a bit of an oxymoron!’ came the immediate response, followed by laughter. Some years ago the late Michael Green, former Principal of St John’s College and Rector of St Aldate’s in Oxford, had a similar conversation with a colleague also writing in this area. His response was simply ‘That will be short!’
This is in part because evangelicals have been perceived to be very activist—one of the four things that David Bebbington identified as characterising evangelicalism. Derek Tidball expresses this perception well in his book Who Are the Evangelicals?:
Many would…question whether evangelicals have much to offer by way of spirituality. Evangelicalism appears to be such an activist faith that the essential characteristics of spirituality can too easily appear to be squeezed out (page 196).
By contrast, spirituality has been understood to focus on the inner life of contemplation and prayer, and other traditions have stolen a march on this.
Roman Catholic usage has come to associate ‘spirituality’ with the ‘inner life,’ or the ‘interior life,’ thus making the connection with the mystical tradition…It is not difficult to see how this sits ill at ease with the evangelical emphasis upon practical devotion having a direct influence on character and ‘good works.’ (Evangelical Anglicans ed R T France and Alister McGrath (London: SPCK, 1993) p 59.)
This distinction actually rests on a false separation between the ‘inner’ and the ‘outer’ life; scripture consistently portrays humanity as a ‘body-soul’ (‘psychosomatic’) unity, and the teaching of Jesus’ constantly calls us to have an integrity of life, where our heart convictions are expressed in practical action. John Wesley expresses the desire for an integrated spirituality in startling terms:
It has been the endeavour of Satan, from the beginning of the world, to put asunder what God has joined together; to separate inward from outward religion; to set one of these at variance with the other. And herein he has met with no small success among those who were “ignorant of his devices.”
Many, in all ages, having a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge, have been strictly attached to the “righteousness of the law,” the performance of outward duties, but in the meantime wholly regardless of inward righteousness, “the righteousness which is of God by faith.” And many have run into the opposite extreme, disregarding all outward duties, perhaps even “speaking evil of the law, and judging the law,” so far as it enjoins the performance of them.
It is by this very device of Satan, that faith and works have been so often set at variance with each other.
Even though different theological traditions are sometimes parodied by their opponents as falling into one error or another, all are liable to this mistake. It is not a little ironic that many Protestant churches, supposedly emphasising salvation by grace, appear to make ‘works’ of the utmost importance!
But because we are body-soul unities, it is actually possible to shape our inner life by inhabiting healthy outer practices. I have recently been enjoying Michael Mosley’s recent series on Radio 4 (and the BBC Sounds app) called ‘Just One Thing’.
If you were going to do just one thing to improve your mental and physical well-being, what should it be?…Each episode will explore one thing you can start doing today to improve your life in ways you might not expect.
Mosley does explain why each habit brings change and health, from a medical point of view—but he also each week asks someone to simply take up the habit, with no explanation, so they can simply see the benefits. The same is true for the spiritual life; we might want to understand why certain spiritual habits work—but we can just also do them, and they will improve our spiritual life.
So I in this booklet I will focus on seven practices (grouped into the following five chapters) which seem to me to be core to evangelical practice of spirituality both in the past and in the present, and common to people across the range of the ‘evangelical’ label—Changing, Gathering, Reading, Praying, Fasting, Sharing, and Serving. It is very helpful to understand where these come from, why they are important, and how they might shape us. But that is not as important as practising them, and encouraging others to do so as well. ‘Do this, and you will live’ (Luke 10.28).
Questions for Reflection
1. What healthy habits of life have you been taught—spiritual or otherwise?
2. Do you feel the need to understand why these habits work before taking them up or seeing the benefit?
3. Have you noticed the adoption of outward habits shaping your inner life?
4. What new habits and practices might you need to add? What old habits should you drop?
Changing: the need to be converted
I trudged up the hill, and reached the street near the top, and found the house I was looking for. When I knocked on the door, I was greeted by John, a faithful old saint, strong in the faith though frail in the body, especially since his wife had recently died. He made me tea, and then we sat down and he put on a long-playing record for us to listen to.
Except ye be converted, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven!
Thus boomed out the insistent southern tones of Billy Graham, preaching during his mission in the Harringay Crusade in 1954; John loved listening to recordings of all his preaching.
There are some fascinating things for us to note about this phrase, which comes from Jesus’ teaching about greatness and servanthood in Matt 18.3.
The first is that this language has fundamentally shaped evangelical spirituality. Bebbington identifies ‘conversionism’ as the first of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement, and there is no doubt that Billy Graham helped to cement this in the modern era. Yet here is the paradox: this is the only place in the New Testament where ‘conversion’ language arises, and it is found only in the Authorised Version of the New Testament! It is therefore not surprising that, when I have asked evangelical friends and colleagues where the term ‘conversion’ comes from in Scripture, they cannot find it. In fact, it is unique to Matthew; the parallels in Mark 9.37 and Luke 9.48 talk about ‘receiving a child’ not becoming like one, and on another occasion Jesus talks of ‘receiving the kingdom like a child’ (Mark 10.15, Luke 18.17). It is extraordinary that this powerful idea has arisen from the language of a single verse in a single translation in a single gospel!
And yet the word does represent a central idea in both the gospels and the rest of the New Testament. Modern translations render the phrase ‘unless you change’ or ‘turn’ or ‘turn around’, translating the verb strepho; this verb, and its cognate epistrepho, are used in the Greek OT (the Septuagint, LXX) to translate the Hebrew verb shuv. Both verbs are used to describe a literal change of direction but also serve as a metaphor for what Israel needs to do in leaving its life of sin and returning to live in obedience to the holy commands of God.
In the New Testament, epistrepho is a synonym with the more common verb metanoieo, usually translated ‘repent’. At the beginning of his gospel, Mark summarises Jesus’ preaching as he bursts with energetic dynamism onto the scene in Galilee, in this way:
The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent and believe the good news! (Mark 1.15)
In Jewish, biblical terms, that moment pointed to by the prophets, when God himself would visit his people to liberate them and renew them, had come. In the language of apocalyptic (which pervades the whole New Testament), this old age was coming to an end, and the new age of God’s reign was at hand. The only appropriate response to this was to turn from sin and receive the good news of God’s coming to reign amongst his people in the person of Jesus.
Even though the call to repentance was not always the first thing that Jesus announced, it was a consistent and persistent feature of his ministry. He spends time with those on the margins and the fringes, not because he was a social worker, but because (he said) they were sick with sin and they needed the healing of a doctor.
It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance (Luke 5.31–32).
In announcing this longed-for new age of the kingdom, Jesus’ disciples also preach a message of repentance as he sent them out: ‘So they went out and preached that people should repent’ (Mark 6.12). And they continued to do this after Jesus ascended; Peter’s speech at Pentecost tells his hearers that the last days prophesied by Joel have come, that God has poured out his Spirit, and that this shows that he has vindicated Jesus, who will return in judgement—so they need to repent (Acts 2.16–36). When they ask what they should do, Peter does not hesitate: ‘Repent and be baptised!’ (Acts 2.38). In fact, it is striking that, all through Acts, the message is not so much ‘God loves you and has a plan for your life’ but ‘God has come to us in Jesus and is the judge of all the world so you need to turn around!’
The chapter goes on to explore whether conversion is a personal or a social issue, whether it must happen in a moment or continues as a process, and what it implies about our relation to the context we live in.
Further chapters in the booklet then explore: the importance of gathering with others for worship, teaching, and the sacraments; centrality of Scripture in evangelical spirituality; the vitality of prayer and the practice of fasting; and the disciplines of active service and joyful proclamation of the good news.
You can order the booklet post-free in the UK or as a digital booklet in PDF from the Grove Books website here. If you would like a review copy that you will write about in a publication or online, please contact me.