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.