Evangelical (“good news”) Christianity celebrates a God of speech and action who is involved in the world. Evangelicalism puts God at centre-stage in the drama of human history, which it depicts as a story of unrequited love.
This God spoke to humanity through history in a crescendo of revelation that climaxed in the life, words, death and resurrection of Jesus.
Evangelicals believe God’s authorship of the universe is already communicated to us in the order, complexity and beauty of the material world. Moreover, he has made himself known through a people he chose, through prophets he appointed and, finally, through Jesus of Nazareth, “the word made flesh”. (The biblical God is Trinitarian, father, son and spirit – from the first book of the Old Testament God often uses the first person plural and Genesis 1 verse 2 refers to the spirit of God “hovering over the waters” – but the perfect unity of the three persons means he can only be counted as one God).
God’s authorship of all is the essence of evangelical faith. Hebrews 12:2 described Jesus as “the founder and perfecter of our faith”. We believe that life, salvation and hope come from him.
Humanity plays its part in this divine drama too, but as Goneril, the ungrateful daughter who takes all her father gives him before turning her back to him. No prayers, pilgrimages, religious observance, social action or costly acts of generosity can mitigate humanity’s guilt before this perfectly just God. This is the low point in the history of God’s world, and the hallmarks of it are plain – discord, decay and death.
God is far from finished with mankind, however, and chooses Abraham as the first player in a new plan for the fallen creation – Abraham has righteousness “credited to him” by God because of his faith (and, crucially, before he is circumcised). The books of the Old Testament tell the stories of many such men and women of faith, and Hebrews 11 lists a number of them for us – Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and others. The writer of Hebrews says they were approved thanks to their faith in God, not to their works or ethnicity – yet even faith is from God, as Paul’s letter to the Ephesians explains: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast”
But all these sinners are only a shadow of the climax of God’s earthly play, which comes to life with an unprecedented deus ex machina that flies in the face of human religiosity. God the son becomes man, is born in a disreputable town, lives as a refugee among an occupied people in a far corner of the Roman Empire and is unjustly killed as a common criminal, rejected by his followers and his friends. He is the antithesis of a manmade God – earthly political ambition (such as Zionism) is not a feature of truly evangelical Christianity.
This shameful death is Jesus’ crowning glory, as he himself pays the blood price for the sins of those who rejected his rule and his plan. He does it for no good reason, except that his justice and his love demand it as the only solution. The result is that Christ takes on human sinfulness so that humanity can take on Christ’s purity, and be restored to God. The biblical accounts describe how, at the moment Jesus breathed his last, the temple curtain that had divided sinful man from a perfect God is torn in two. The curtain, it says, is torn from above – humanity has done nothing to earn its salvation. The resurrection is the display of God’s final victory over sin and over its Siamese twin, death.
The play has reached its penultimate act. Christ has risen and returned to the father and these are “the last times” before he returns again. It is in these last times that Christians are called to take to heart Jesus’ final words to his closest followers. “Go and make disciples of all nations”, before God calls human history to an end so that justice can finally be done and followers of his “from every nation, tribe, people and language” be brought into his presence forever.