Archive Nota Bene Reformed Irenicism Steven Wedgeworth

Ursinus on “True Christians”

A few years ago, Dr. Kenneth Stewart published a paper which sought to rebut the charge that the doctrine of “regeneration,” due to the effects of Revivalism, had been dramatically transformed into something different from its meaning at the time of the Reformation. His paper is well worth your reading, but in it he makes that claim that along with John Calvin, Zacharias Ursinus is “ambiguous” about the doctrine of regeneration. Dr. Stewart then goes on to show that other Reformers developed a sharper point. This is no doubt true if we are only accounting for the use of terms–the word “regeneration” considered as a naming device– but the point loses most if not all of its significance when the larger theological logic is taken together.

Here I will only point to the case of Ursinus. As Dr. Stewart notes, Ursinus defines regeneration broadly, to include that “which is begun in this life, and… perfected in the life to come.”1 But this observation only shows us that “regeneration” included all of the process of sanctification. It does not show that Ursinus lacked a doctrine (what is now commonly called “regeneration”) of definitive conversion, and it is, of course, this latter point which is the real interest of critics like Lewis B. Schenck and others. For Ursinus, we can demonstrate that he did have such a doctrine of definitive conversion, and we can show that he even used it to distinguish “true Christians” from “those who are Christians merely in appearance.”

In his exposition of Lord’s Day 12, Question 32, Ursinus writes:

There are two kinds of Christians; some that are only apparently such, and others that are really and truly such. Those who are Christians merely in appearance, are those who have been baptized, and who are in the company of those who are called, and profess the Christian faith; but are without conversion, being nothing more than hypocrites and dissemblers, of whom it is said: “Many are called, but few are chosen.” “Not every one that saith, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven,” &c. (Matt. 20:I6; 7:22.) Those are true Christians who are not only baptized and profess the doctrine of Christ, but who are also possessed of a true faith, and declare this by the fruits of repentance; or, they are those who are members of Christ by a true faith, and are made partakers of his anointing. All true Christians are such also in appearance, because it is said, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good work, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.” “Show me thy faith by thy works.” (Matt. 5: 16. James 2:18.) But it is not true, on the other hand, that all who are apparently Christians are also such in reality; because it will be said of many, “I never knew you.” (Matt. 7:23.)

This would seem to be a rather conventional understanding of what is now often called “regeneration.” Notice that the “apparent” Christians have baptism, external church affiliation, and even a Christian profession. The thing that they are missing is called by Ursinus “conversion.” Those who have been converted “are also possessed of a true faith.” These are those who are “made partakers of his anointing.”

This observation does not mean that there is no value to “apparent Christianity.” There are many temporal, we might even call them political, privileges and duties which come with being a Christian in the external and apparent sense. But, at least for Ursinus, these are not spiritual blessings unto salvation (what is also called “effectual calling”). This observation does not mean that there is no variety in the definitions of specific terms, but it would seem to strengthen Dr. Stewart’s larger argument that there is no dramatic discontinuity on the logic of this point. It also shows that the definition of the term “regeneration” has no necessary bearing on the role of conversion in one’s theology. This does not mean that Revivalism did not change many things, including doctrine, but it does show that the particular argument concerning the definition of “regeneration” is unable to account for those changes.

  1. Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 7, Q. 21. pg. 113 of the reprinted 2nd American edition, 1852.

By Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the associate pastor of Faith Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, British Columbia. He writes about theology, history, and political theory, and he has taught Jr. High and High School. He is the founder and general editor of The Calvinist International, an online journal of Christian Humanism and political theology, and a Director for the Davenant Institute.