Judas Was a Christian?

This is an exploration of chapter 1 of “Reformed” Is Not Enough.

I am glad to see that lines 6-7 on pg. 13 constitute a typo. Wilson has made it plain that there should have been quotation marks around the word “Reformed” there as well as in the title of the book.

Wilson restates his thesis on p. 13:

One of the great reformational needs in the Church today is the need for us to understand the objectivity of the covenant, and so that is the thrust of this book.

It always bears reminding ourselves that we ought always to ask the question, “What is the thesis, the main point?” Otherwise, we will always be subject to misinterpretation by taking something out of context. Wilson notes in this regard that “it is important for us to grasp all the issues that will be raised, and this means waiting patiently for some assembly of them later” (p. 13, emphasis original). I will assume that this “assembly” of the issues constitutes something in the way of building the blocks of the argument together to support his main thesis.

The first question he asks is this: “What is a ‘Christian’ when we use the word in the New Testament sense?” He starts answering this question by examining the three uses of the word in the NT: Acts 11:26, 26:24-29, and 1 Peter 4:14-17. Wilson notes several things about these usages. First, the term is used “to distinguish one thing from another…to distinguish the Christians from the Jews” (p. 14). This has primary reference to Acts 11:26. With regard to the second passage, Wilson notes that “Paul is inviting them to genuine faith, saving belief, and not simply to membership in a new religious club” (p. 15). I agree completely with this. But then, Wilson goes on to say, “But even here there is no distinction made between a false profession of Christ and a true profession of Christ. A true profession is assumed, but the contrast is between pagan unbelief and Christian belief. Spurious Christianity as opposed to the real thing is not under discussion” (pp. 15-16). I have a small question about this. If Paul is inviting them to genuine belief, then is not the contrast between pagan unbelief (which is false by definition) and true Christian belief? I’m not quite sure what insight Wilson is intending to glean from this statement of affairs. I’m sure that he will clarify. I would have appreciated here some discussion about the translation differences (which are rather large!) between the AV and the ESV (and other modern translations). Regarding the third application of the use (tied to the Peter passage), Wilson notes the parallel between “for the name of Christ” (vs. 14) and “as a Christian” (vs. 16): “To be a Christian is to bear the name of Christ” (p. 16). He says that “In all three places, the word is used by pagans” (pg. 16). The conclusion he draws from this last fact is as follows: “And this means we have no distinctively Christian handling of the word Christian” (p. 17, italics original).

The point he is making in the above discussion is that the phrase “becoming a Christian,” while not objectionable necessarily (after all, “the question of individual regeneration” is a crucial one (p. 17)), does not reflect the explicit Biblical use of the term. There are three categories of people (p. 18): the pagan, the covenant-breaking covenant member, and the true covenant member. Noting one of the classic proof-texts for the visible/invisible church distinction (Romans 2:28-29), he draws this conclusion: “the mere possession of the external sign was not sufficient to guarantee a genuine spiritual reality” (p. 18). In other words, Wilson here rejects ex opere operato. The outward sign is by no means useless. But the mere possession of the outward sign without the thing signified means that the person “(is) guilty of a very great sin” (p. 19). And this is one of Wilson’s themes: the non-elect covenant member is a covenant member, but is a covenant breaker. Wilson often uses the analogy of the cheating husband: if a husband is cheating, he is still a husband (barring divorce), though an oath-breaking one.

In the final analysis, then, Wilson affirms two senses of the word “Christian.” The first is “anyone who has been baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by an authorized representative of the Christian church” (p. 19). He makes a very important point here: “Does this mean that anyone so baptized is a Christian in the other sense-one who is born of the Spirit of God? Not at all” (p. 19). He clarifies later, “they are not all the Christian church who are of the Christian church. There are those who are covenantally of the Church, but who are not individually regenerate” (p. 20, emphasis original). Just in case we weren’t clear on this, he says, “In other words, Christians in the first sense alone are condemned to hell” (p. 20). And then, he also says, “This means that if someone has been a Christian his whole life (in the first sense obviously, LK), but then comes into the new life that Christ presented to Nicodemus, we can say that he has become a Christian inwardly” (p. 20).

He concludes the chapter by saying that there are two errors to avoid. The first is individualistic pietism (which ignores the first definition of “Christian”). In this regard, he says that “Membership in the Christian faith is objective- it can be photographed and fingerprinted” (p. 21). The second error ignores the second definition of “Christian” (the more inward definition). He calls this error “straight hypocrisy” (p. 21). I might only add one thing here. If I were the one writing the chapter, I probably would have put something in here about membership viewed from the point of view of this second error. Mere profession does not mean that the person has union and communion with God. That is a special privilege that only the elect enjoy (LC 65).

So, overall, I have very few quibbles with this chapter. The first quibble is really only a question about the Acts 26 passage (and the translations there!). The other is the way of phrasing that last paragraph, adding something about the distinction of benefits.

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  1. Puritan Lad said,

    April 23, 2007 at 8:39 am

    Sounds like Wilson is speaking more about the Visible Church vs. the Universal Church. However, his definition of “christian” needs to be clearer.

  2. Lee said,

    April 23, 2007 at 7:00 pm

    I have to say I am a little shocked that you do not have a problem with this chapter in Wilson. First, I think his exegesis on some of the verses to be a little skewed. He claims it is the pagans calling the Antioch church ‘Christians’, a claim that is not directly found in the Acts 11. I have a hard time agreeing with him that there is no distinctively Christian handling of the word Christian. There is no proof that it is the pagans who come up with the name Christian at Antioch, and how is I Peter a pagan usage of the word Christian?

    My other problem is with his definition of Christian. For Wilson anyone is a Christian who is ‘baptized by an authorized representative of the Christian Church’. Thus, baptism makes you a Christian. I am uncomfortable with this language. It also means the Church makes Christians, not the Holy Spirit. This also makes me uncomfortable. The thief on the cross is not a Christian in Wilson’s definition for he received no sign of entrance into the covenant. I understand his desire to rediscover objectivity in the covenant, but one can go too far.

  3. jared said,

    April 23, 2007 at 9:30 pm

    Puritan Lad,

    How can Wilson’s definition get any more clear? You are a Christian if (1) you have been baptized, and/or (2) if you have accepted the truth of the gospel as one of God’s elect. What’s confusing or unclear about this?


    The Acts 11 reference seems obvious enough, “the disciples were first called Christians”; okay, by whom? By the disciples? No, they would call themselves disciples or apostles, or brothers/sisters in Christ. It doesn’t make any sense to say they came up with the descriptor on their own. The word “Christian” is decidedly Greek, not Jewish, as a derived adjective from “Christ,” not to mention that the context of the passage is Jews teaching Hellenists about Jesus. I suppose it’s possible that the Hellenists who were being taught are the ones who coined the term but given who they were being taught by that’s not as sound of an interpretation.

    A similar line of thought can be used for understanding how 1 Peter 4:16 might be a pagan use. Look at the two preceding verses; Peter is admonishing fellow believers to bear insults and suffering for the sake of carrying Christ’s name. He warns them not to suffer as thieves or murderes or evildoers and then he turns around and essentially says, “but if they call you ‘Christian’, then you bear it, and whatever else they do or say, for His name’s sake.” It is likely that the pagans and heathens in the first century used the term “Christian” as a derrogatory comment, e.g. as an insult to one’s intelligence or one’s capacity for sound reasoning. To be labeled a Christian would’ve evoked words of slander and thoughts of prejudice against those who were to receive it. This would be consistent with Peter’s exposure to the term (via Paul and Barnabus) and consistent with how the term originated in Antioch.

    As to your problem with Wilson’s definition, you’re missing the picture by looking at it with one eye closed. The theif on the cross is a Christian because he meets at least one of the two ways you can become a Christian. Receiving the outward sign of baptism isn’t what saves you. As an outward sign, baptism functions much like circumcision in the Old Testament; it is an indicator of covenant membership. To be baptised is to publically express what should be inwardly true, though the inward truth is not always behind the outward action in these cases. I’d slip something in about paedo-baptism here if this comment weren’t getting long already.

    Wilson is right to say that the Church makes Christians, that’s her mission. Salvation, as they say in Rome, cannot be found outside of the Church; this is to say that salvation cannot be found outside the body/house of Christ. It is also true that the Holy Spirit makes Christians, indeed, the Holy Spirit never fails in this task even though the Church does (i.e. she makes Christians of those who aren’t elect whereas the Holy Spirit does not). The real problem with Wilson’s definition, I think, is that it clashes with the deeply rooted contemporary Evangelical (and even Reformed) use of the word “Christian” to refer exclusively to those who are saved rather than more generally to those who are members of the covenant (hence, Wilson’s attempt to recover some “objectivity of the covenant”). But I digress…

  4. Lee said,

    April 24, 2007 at 12:08 am

    It seems more exegetically sound to assume the disciples called themselves Christians in Acts 11. There is no hint of persecution in that passage. It is all about the mission to the Greeks in Antioch carried out by Barnabas and Paul. Yes, the term is Greek in nature, but that does not mean it was used by pagans. As you pointed out the passage is about the salvation of Greeks. That added to one of the major points of Acts, that Gentiles are believers too, makes it hard to see the Greek nature of the word as any sort of pagan strike against it. Declaring that pagans called the disciples Christians is to introduce the pagans into the passage where they do not appear.
    I Peter seems more likely to be using Christian as a positive term. Peter says do not suffer as a theif or a murder, but if (you suffer supplied) as a Christian, then do not be ashamed. It seems more natural to read this text as saying, ‘If you suffer because you are a Christian’ then do not be ashamed rather than taking the term Christian to be applied by outsiders who are not mentioned anywhere in the context.
    More to the point is whether or not recovering the objectivity of the covenant means adding power to the Church that she may not have. Is Wilson making the Church a repository and mediator of grace? Is he denying the immediate nature of the work of the Spirit on believers? Is the definition he is setting up for Christian part of a larger scheme about sacramentalism and sacerdotalism? Wilson believes he is attacking the individual nature of modern evangelicalism, but has he gone too far? That is the question Lane should be addressing as he goes through this book. I look forward to reading more of his answers.

  5. greenbaggins said,

    April 24, 2007 at 8:18 am

    And Lee, those questions are on my mind as I go through this book. At the moment, though, I do not have a problem with his two definitions of “Christian.” For one thing, the second definition has to do with the immediate grace of the Holy Spirit working in the life of the person. He says that explicitly in several passages (I know you cannot look it up now, as I have your copy of the book!). Especially this statement: “the mere possession of the external sign was not sufficient to guarantee a genuine spiritual reality” (p. 18). And then, on the next page, he says, “Does this mean that anyone so baptized is a Christian in the other sense- one who is born of the Spirit of God? Not at all” (p. 19). On the following page, he talks of regeneration happening, and he doesn’t mention baptism in connection with it. In fact, Wilson is contrasting the sign and the thing signified in that part of the chapter.

    As to Wilson’s exegesis, you may be right about that. However, it did not seem to be his main point. And I am trying to focus on the big stuff.

    Jared, I think your formulation is problematic. Here’s the problem. BOQ Wilson is right to say that the Church makes Christians, that’s her mission. EOQ If you are talking about baptized members, then you are right. that is the scope of Matthew 28. However, the power for making Christians in the second sense of the term “Christian” belongs to the Holy Spirit alone, not to the church. The church is the instrument, but not the cause. You were certainly not clear about which way you were using the term “Christian” in this quotation. And salvation can be found outside the church. To say otherwise is to put God’s grace in a box. God can save any way He chooses. I have no problem with saying that there is no *ordinary* possibility of salvation outside the church, since that is the Confessional language, after all. However, the WS leave room for the Holy Spirit to work as He wills.

  6. jared said,

    April 24, 2007 at 3:20 pm


    Each to his own, really. No matter how we wish to interpret these three passages, the fact remains that the term “Christian” is not Christian. I see no way for the term to have originated with the disciples/Apostles, who were Jews (and, if anything, would have called themselves Nazarenes). It isn’t until they begin preaching and teaching in this particular Greek culture that the term is coined. I’m certainly not saying there’s anything wrong with this and I even agree that Peter uses the term positively (I was simply pointing out that a case can be made otherwise). As for pagans not appearing in Acts 11, in verse 20 are the “Greeks” not pagans? I’m also pretty sure that the “Gentiles” were considered pagans as well, though obviously that does not exlude them (Greeks or other Gentiles) from receiving grace and gospel. Also, I think the goal of “recovering the objectivity of the covenant” is to restore power to the Church that she should have rather than being an attempt to consign more power to her.


    I purposely didn’t clarify my use of “Christian” and I agree with you; the Church makes Christians via the water rite of baptism and the Holy Spirit makes Christians (whether before, after or during the water rite) via regeneration of the heart. The reason I didn’t make a distinction is because it’s not my place to judge one’s soul concerning salvation. I am obligated to treat a Christian in the first sense in the exact same manner as a Christian in the second sense because there’s no way for me to tell if one is a Christian in the second sense (though I can have a pretty good idea). I also agree that salvation can be had outside of the Church, but I would submit that these instances are exceptions which prove the rule: “How can they believe in whom they have not heard?”

  7. Keith LaMothe said,

    April 25, 2007 at 12:27 pm

    Green Baggins,

    Thank you for your thoughtful and reasonable review of Wilson’s work, it is very encouraging to see genuine discussion.


  8. June 25, 2013 at 10:05 pm

    […] his treatmen of my chapter on whether or not Judas was a Christian, Greenbaggins does a good job catching the distinctions I was seeking to make. He hears my qualifications, and is willing to […]

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