Luther used the term "evangelical" for all Christians who accepted the doctrine of sola gratia, which he saw as the heart of the gospel (evangelion). By 1700 the term had become in Europe a simple synonym for "Protestant" or, in German-speaking areas, "Lutheran". In Britain, however, the expression "evangelical revival" seems to have been used from around 1750 for the religious awakening led by the Wesleys, and later, advocates of revival called themselves evangelicals. While in the 18th century the characteristics were personal piety, moral earnestness, and philanthropy, the features shifted gradually to the personal experience of redemption in Christ, social concern, and confessional orthodoxy. By the end of the 19th century the personal evangelical experience of conversion became central to all evangelical thought and action. Within the main Protestant churches (Reformed, Methodist, etc.), especially in the Anglophone world, oppositions and divisions began to crystallize around categories such as "liberal", "conservative", "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" in the first decades of the 20th century. The liberals were open to modernity and promoted the social gospel. The evangelicals resisted the liberal secularizing of Christ, defended the inerrancy of the Bible, and increasingly sought shelter in the fortress of fundamentalism.
It took until the middle of the 1940s before a "new evangelicalism" began to emerge, which was able to criticize fundamentalism for its theological paranoia and its separatism. Doctrinally, the new evangelicals confessed the infallibility of the Bible, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, vicarious atonement, the personality and work of the Holy Spirit, and the second coming of Christ. These are the theological characteristics which are shared by the majority of Evangelical churches today in the world. The other distinctive feature is the missional zeal for evangelism and obedience to the great commission (Mtt. 28:18-19). The shift away from fundamentalism offered opportunities to overcome the divisions with traditional Protestantism, but these were soon overshadowed by the ideological climate of the cold war in which "evangelical" became synonymous with "conservative" and "ecumenical" was equated with "left wing" or "progressive" (depending on the personal bias of the observer). More recently, evangelicals have taken conservative positions on moral issues, e.g., sexuality, abortion, euthanasia. While these labels and emphases are still powerful, many evangelicals are seeking to be defined on other important issues, such as poverty, socio-economic and racial justice, gender and human rights.
Evangelical churches have grown exponentially in the second half of the 20th century and continue to show great vitality, especially in the global South. This resurgence may in part be explained by the phenomenal growth of Pentecostalism and the emergence of the charismatic movement (see under Pentecostal Churches), which are closely associated with evangelicalism. However, there can be no doubt that the evangelical tradition "per se" has become one of the major components of world Christianity. Evangelicals also constitute sizeable minorities in the traditional Protestant and Anglican churches. In regions like Africa and Latin America, the boundaries between "evangelical" and "mainline" are rapidly changing and giving way to new ecclesial realities.