Evangelicalism in the west, in the modern era, has been connected to the spiritual awakenings (revivals) of the 18th and 19th centuries in England and America. From many church backgrounds people were converted and brought to faith in Jesus Christ. Transcending different denominations, they held a conviction in common as to the truthfulness of the gospel and its essential truths.
Writing in 1877, the Bishop of Liverpool, J. C. Ryle, wrote about the general divisions, or movements, of people that made up the Church of England at that time. He said there were three main groups:
1) The high church, such as the Anglo-Catholics, who most valued the form, ceremony, liturgy, and tradition of the church, especially as it related to kinship with the Roman Catholic church.
2) The broad church, comprised of those who were latitudinarian, having embraced a more liberal approach to religion (and today would be denoted by liberalism); and
3) the evangelicals, or those who gave first place to the truths and experience of the gospel of Jesus Christ, or what might be called historic Christianity.
Bishop Ryle, himself an evangelical, listed the five following features of "evangelical religion":
(A) The first leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the absolute supremacy it assigns to Holy Scripture, as the only rule of faith and practice, the only test of truth, the only judge of controversy. He says, "The supreme authority of the Bible, in one word, is one of the cornerstones of our system. Show us anything plainly written in that Book, and, however trying to flesh and blood, we will receive it, believe it, and submit to it."
(B) The second leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the depth and prominence it assigns to the doctrine of human sinfulness and corruption. Ryle writes, "Man is radically diseased, and man needs a radical cure. I believe that ignorance of the extent of the fall, and of the whole doctrine of original sin, is one grand reason why many can neither understand, appreciate, nor receive Evangelical Religion."
(C) The third leading feature of Evangelical Religion is the paramount importance it attaches to the work and office of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the nature of the salvation which He has wrought out for man. Ryle again: "We say that life eternal is to know Christ, believe in Christ, abide in Christ, have daily heart communion with Christ, by simple personal faith..."
(D) The fourth leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the high place which it assigns to the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of man. He says, "Vital Christianity is a work of grace in the heart, and that until there is real experiential business within a man, his religion is a mere husk, and shell..."
(E) The fifth and last leading feature in Evangelical Religion is the importance which it attaches to the outward and visible work of the Holy Ghost in the life of man. Ryle: "We affirm confidently that 'fruit' is the only certain evidence of a man’s spiritual condition; that if we would know whose he is and whom he serves, we must look first at his life. Where there is the grace of the Spirit there will be always more or less fruit of the Spirit."
We might summarize these five characteristics in this way, that evangelicals (at least at that time) gave highest priority to the Bible as God's revelation, knew the seriousness of human sin and guilt, believed the centrality of the person and work of Christ for salvation, held to the necessity of conversion (and new birth), and felt the importance of a supernaturally empowered, changed life.
Ryle goes on to explain what traits did not in fact characterize evangelicalism, such as, the disparagement of education, unconcern for the church as an institution, etc.
In the last section of his paper, he shows how the gospel can be adulterated by additions, substitution, and confusion. He says,
"...a religion to be really 'Evangelical' and really good, must be the Gospel, the whole Gospel, and nothing but the Gospel, as Christ prescribed it and expounded it to the Apostles;—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth;—the terms, the whole terms, and nothing but the terms,—in all their fullness, all their freeness, all their simplicity, all their presentness... A vast quantity of so-called religion in the present day appears to me to break down. It does not come up to the standard I have just given. Things are added to it, or things are taken away, or things are put in their wrong places, or things are set forth in their wrong proportions... In a word, they do not give full weight, full measure, and the prescription of the Gospel accurately made up. The parts are there, but not the proportions."You can read the entire paper, “Knots Untied” here. Ryle's work is still very relevant for understanding evangelicalism today!