“CONSCIENTIOUS RESPONSE TO AVAILABLE LIGHT”
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, November 25, 2011 at 12:03pm
QUESTION: You make a big deal of the principle of “conscientious response to available light,” especially in explaining how you think God will judge those who are not Biblically baptized. I don’t see this phrase used anywhere in the Bible, and I don’t see how it can be derived from Romans 4:15. Doesn’t the Bible say that we will be judged by the standard of the words of Jesus (John 12:48)? Wouldn’t this principle excuse every believer whose thinking is wrong on any issue of the Bible, including the deity of Jesus? If this principle is true, shouldn’t we just stop telling the unimmersed believers that they need more?
ANSWER: I want to thank this inquirer for asking for further clarification of what I believe about this principle of judgment. First of all, I believe that anyone who tries to draw the above conclusions from this principle has failed to read my discussion of it very carefully, and has ignored my own disclaimers and qualifications about it. I consider the inquiry to be very sincere, however, and I am glad to respond to it.
Everything I have said about the spiritual status of the unbiblically baptized begins with the principle of conscientious response to available light (CRAL). This is not a concept I created; I learned it very early in my educational journey, though I cannot pinpoint the exact source. I think it came from Cincinnati Bible Seminary’s revered Professor George Mark Elliott.
The main point is that this is a principle or rule of judgment that ONLY GOD can and will apply, and ONLY on the day of the final judgment. We as finite human beings CANNOT apply this principle as such, nor is it meant to be applied to any human beings in this lifetime. The following qualifications thus apply, as I have recently written:
1. The CRAL rule “does not permit us to give anyone false assurance about his present state of salvation.”
2. The CRAL rule does not “give us the right to change the clear teaching of Scripture on believers’ immersion for salvation.”
3. The CRAL principle “applies only to future judgment, and it can be applied only by the omniscient God.”
4. “For us today . . . , our standard is the written Word of God alone.”
The CRAL principle begins with the concept of “light.” Light is a Biblical symbol for truth; and that truth (light) is the content of the revealed, inspired Word of God. You cannot limit that light to “the words of Jesus” (John 12:48); these are included, but so is all the rest of Scripture. See Psalm 119:105.
The real issue, though, lies in the word “available.” Here is where the statement of Paul in Romans 4:15 enters the picture: “Where there is no law, there is no transgression.” In my Commentary on Romans I say that this statement “is a general principle that may be applied either universally or particularly. Its universal application is theoretical only, i.e., if there were no law at all, then there would be no such thing as transgression or sin. But law does exist; therefore transgression also exists. The only practical application of this principle is in reference to particular cases, individuals, and laws. In cases where God has given us no commandments regarding a particular activity or behavior, either specifically or in terms of general principles, then that behavior cannot be called sinful. This is the category we call ‘matters of opinion.’
“Also, though law does exist, some individuals are unable (by reason of immaturity or mental handicap) to understand its true origin and nature as commandments of God bearing the penalty of eternal wrath. In this case ‘where there is no law’ means ‘where there is no ability to know the law.’ This applies to those who have not reached what we call ‘the age of accountability.’ Furthermore, this principle may apply in the case of mature individuals who are involuntarily ignorant of a particular law of God. For example, those who are exposed to general revelation only will not be held responsible for obeying commandments that can be known only through special revelation. Thus this principle warrants the conclusion that God will finally judge all people in terms of their conscientious response to available light” (1996 ed., I:297-298).
Folk wisdom says that “ignorance of the law is no excuse.” That is partly right and partly wrong. It depends on whether the ignorance is WILLFUL or not. God does not excuse willful ignorance, where truth is deliberately suppressed in the interests of unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18), or where the ignorance is the result of “the hardness of their heart” (Eph. 4:18). But where the ignorance is involuntary, or where there is no deliberate effort to avoid a particular truth or law, God does not hold the lack of conformity to that law against a person. Why not? Because in this case “there is no law” (in the sense of no knowledge of the law, and no ability to know the law); therefore there is no transgression.
This is the basic line of reasoning we use in formulating the concept of “the age of accountability.” Children from a very early age are exposed to God’s laws and commandments, but we rightly say that they are not accountable for violations of them. This is not because the commands are absent; it is solely because we conclude that little children are not able to understand the significance of them. In a similar (not identical) way we should be able to see that those who through no fault of their own are not exposed to certain commands are also not accountable for violations of them.
I am absolutely appalled that anyone could think that this CRAL principle would “excuse every believer whose thinking is wrong on any issue of the Bible,” including the person of Jesus, and that anyone could think it allows “good Christian people . . . to hang their hat on that hope and stop telling the unimmersed believer that they need more.” Whoever draws such conclusions seems to be just looking for a way to excuse the disobedient, and is completely missing the point.
Let me re-emphasize these points: ONLY the omniscient God is able to apply this principle, since only God truly knows how much light is actually available to any one individual, and only God truly knows if a person has responded conscientiously to that light. No finite human beings can apply this to any other human being. For us to judge that Aunt Sally has conscientiously accepted her Methodist sprinkling as valid, and therefore must be right with God – is already a violation of the very nature of the principle. We should not be thinking about this living person or that living person and how the CRAL rule might apply to them. We should not even entertain the possibility that such-and-such an unimmersed person is saved because they are sincere, are conscientious, or are living such a good life. To do so is usurping the role of God. I will say this again: “For us today, as individuals and as the church of Jesus Christ, our standard is the written Word of God alone. We must continue to believe, proclaim, and apply the clear Biblical teaching about baptism without cowardice and without compromise.”
Of what value is the principle, then? It does indeed give us some basis for hope – not for the unimmersed as a class, but for the possibility that some individuals may be accepted by God on the Day of Judgment because HE judges them to have conscientiously responded to the light about baptism that was available to them. However, the principle should never be a factor in determining how we approach the preaching of the gospel in “this present evil age” (Gal. 1:4). Anyone who has not yet obeyed the gospel—including the instruction to be immersed for the forgiveness of sins—must be considered as a target for evangelism. We must firmly reject the false conclusions that the CRAL principle excuses the unimmersed and excuses us from evangelizing the unimmersed.
For further reflection on the CRAL principle, I think it is useful to study Acts 18:24 through 19:7. Here we find two incidents involving serious and faithful followers of Christ who had not yet received Christian baptism: Apollos, and the 12 Ephesian disciples. They represent what must have been a fairly large group in the first few decades of the church, i.e., those who had accepted Jesus but who had been baptized only with the baptism of John. John’s baptism was NOT equivalent to Christian baptism, and any Jews who had received John’s baptism were commanded to be immersed in the name of Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins—Acts 2:38. But some, such as Apollos, had become followers of Jesus and had been baptized with John’s baptism, and had remained thus sometimes for years, without having heard “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26). Specifically, they had not heard about the necessity of receiving Christian baptism. But when exposed to this light, they obeyed (Acts 19:5). To be sure, the text does not specifically say that Apollos was baptized into Christ after hearing the full gospel, but this is strongly implied by the subsequent account of the 12 disciples whose situation was basically identical to that of Apollos. Also, Acts 18:25 specifies that the main problem with Apollos’s inadequate gospel was that he knew only the baptism of John. Only a pedant would aver that Apollos must not have received Christian baptism because the text does not specifically say that he did.
I believe that Apollos’s situation (and that of the 12 Ephesian disciples) gives us food for thought about the CRAL rule. Was Apollos conscientiously responding to the light available to him before he met Aquila and Priscilla? We don’t know; only God can discern that. We do know that even then he was a Jew, baptized by John, mighty in the Scriptures, instructed in the way of Jesus, fervent in spirit, and a bold proclaimer of the truth about Jesus (Acts 18:24-26). We also know that Priscilla and Aquila considered him to be a target for evangelism, or at least someone who needed to know “the way of God more accurately” (v. 26). We can safely say that this included an explanation of the difference between John’s baptism and Christian baptism (see v. 25), and we can safely assume that Apollos responded by obeying the gospel and was baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus, as were the disciples in 19:5.
Was Apollos saved before he obeyed the gospel in Christian baptism? We do not know. We do not know how much light was available to him before he met Aquila and Priscilla, so we must leave that judgment up to God. We do know, though, that he was not yet preaching the full gospel and had not obeyed the gospel fully, and that Priscilla and Aquila knew it was their duty to set him right in his faith and practice. Was he saved, then, when he did obey the gospel in Christian baptism? Yes. Would he have been saved if, after hearing the way of God explained more accurately, he had rejected it and declared he was satisfied with what he already had? NO! We base these last two judgments on the clear teaching of the Word of God. After his encounter with Aquila and Priscilla (following the parallel of Paul’s witness to the 12 in 19:1-7), we do know that the light of Christian baptism was now fully available to him. IF he had rejected it, there is no question that he then would have been without excuse. From that point on he would have been preaching a false gospel and would still have been a legitimate target for evangelism.