The Light Doctrine
By J.R. Ensey
In a nutshell, the “light doctrine” is the designation given to the theory that the full gospel of John 3:5 and Acts 2:38 was completely lost or perhaps “hidden” during the Dark Ages, and those who lived during that period of time and obeyed all the gospel they were taught or knew—i.e., “walked in all the light they had”—will be saved. Some versions stipulate that they will be in the body but not the bride, and that they will rise in the second resurrection to inherit the new earth but won’t have access to the new heaven.
Many proponents probably have their relatives and special friends in mind when favoring this doctrine. It is a compassionate heart that hopes there will be some way that God will not require John 3:5 or Acts 2:38 or Hebrews 12:14 to get to heaven. It is painful to know that your mother, your grandfather, or the kindly preacher one knew in his youth will not enjoy eternal life. They reach for scriptures like Romans 11:22—“Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off”—hoping that the “goodness” of God will mercifully erase the individual’s life history and save them regardless of whether they have believed, obeyed or even heard the gospel. Another passage often called upon is Luke 12:48—“But he that knew not, and did commit things worthy of stripes, shall be beaten with few stripes. For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.” Both are removed from their context and stretched in order to make them apply to the matter at hand. To make either of those scriptures the basis for one’s eternal salvation is an exercise in eisegesis and subjective judgmentalism. Ignorance of truth is to be desired if this interpretation is pressed upon these verses.
Some common phrases one hears when this topic arises include, “I hope we are right enough to be saved and wrong enough that others will be saved.” Right out of the liberal theologian’s playbook, that expression is nothing less than a confession of doubt that Jesus meant what He said to Nicodemus. It is a backdoor attempt to discredit the apostolic gospel so unbelievers can be saved. The kingdom belongs to God Himself and He is the one who has the final word on who gets in: “Ye must be born again.” (Emphasis mine.) Those who have a problem with the narrowness of that concept need to take it up with the Lord Himself.
Another common phrase associated with the light doctrine is “progressive revelation.” This term is generally used to describe the doctrine that the unfolding drama of redemption as it relates to this dispensation has been progressively revealed in time, the bud gradually opening into a full-grown flower. That definition has been corrupted by some to support their concept of fundamental Christian truth regarding salvation being “revealed” little by little throughout the present dispensation, as though on a sliding scale. This approach has been utilized by groups such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses to accommodate failed apocalyptic predictions. As each prediction failed, they would claim “new light” and understanding was being revealed about Bible doctrine and prophecies. It has also been used to release from personal accountability those who lived between the first century and the time of the supposed “revelation” of the Oneness, Jesus name message in the early twentieth century. Still others take it a step further to hold that if no revelation came to a person about God’s salvation plan, and the person died, let’s say, in 1935 without ever obeying Acts 2:38, then that person will be saved. That flies in the face of the clear teaching of the Word.
There is progress in revelation from the earlier to the later books of the Bible, but that is not the same as assuming that the plan of salvation for Jews and Gentiles in this age has been progressively revealed. For instance, the concept of redemption by Christ is in the prophecy of Genesis 3:15, but it took centuries for men to comprehend how it would come to fruition. Additionally, God always planned for the Gentiles to participate in the redemptive process, but it was a mystery until it was revealed in Christ (Ephesians 1:9; 3:3-9). This unfolding of God’s eternal plan is not the same as individuals or groups of people in this dispensation either not knowing or refusing to obey the plain teaching of the Bible, perhaps ignorantly following false prophets and erroneous Christian cults.
“Revelation” is a poor term to speak of the understanding of the gospel. It puts responsibility for hearing and obeying truth squarely on the shoulders of the Lord. It is incumbent on each individual to know the gospel and obey it (Acts 17:29-31). The Great Commission passages (Matthew 28:19,20; Luke 24:47; Mark 16:15,16) are sufficiently plain that “all nations [people]” from that time forward would be accountable to the message He left with the apostles. God clearly revealed His plan of salvation for our dispensation at Pentecost two thousand years ago. He also left prophecies concerning the future of His people. New revelations to replace those in the Scriptures have not been given. Men’s personal understanding of doctrines and prophecies may gradually develop, but new revelations from God, as though essential truth has been kept hidden, are not being given. Some wonder about Isaiah 28:13, which includes the phrase “precept upon precept; line upon line; here a little, and there a little” (Isaiah 28:13). Some try to make the application that God may reveal the plan of salvation to individuals a little at a time. We certainly may grasp the entirety of the gospel incrementally as we are considering the scriptural plan, but that has nothing to do with whether we were obligated to obey it.
Anecdotal testimonies about one’s “revelations” may sound exciting and spiritual—“I see it! I see it!”—but such experiences do not trump the infallible, unchanging Word of God. If the only way one can come to faith in Christ and understand the requirements of the gospel is by direct revelation from God, then there is no sense in making a sustained and sacrificial effort to fulfill the Great Commission. By that standard, if one receives the revelation of what he must do and obeys—he is saved. If he does not get a revelation, he is still saved by ignorance. That amounts to universalism for all who have never heard the gospel and discrimination against those who have heard it but failed to grasp its demands. I can find no scripture that suggests that ignorance is the plan of salvation. Paul’s plain teaching is found in I Thessalonians 1:7-9: “And to you who are troubled rest with us, when the Lord Jesus shall be revealed from heaven with his mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on them that know not God, and that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ: who shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of his power.”
Some great men in Christian history just did not “see” the plan of God as plainly revealed in the Scriptures. It does not take a rocket scientist to read and understand Acts 2:38. Over the years ignorance, prejudice, fear, and false teaching interfered with the forthright acceptance of Bible truth. The problem has not been the absence of light, but rather the poor sight men have to see the light—“The god of this world hath blinded the minds of them which believe not, lest the light of the glorious gospel of Christ, who is the image of God, should shine unto them” (II Corinthians 4:4). A careful reading of Christian history will reveal that many of the prominent leaders faced the full apostolic message and chose not to accept it. Others came close to embracing it, even heralding elements of it, but were discouraged by threats, scoffers or those with agendas other than discovering and obeying the truth. “Close” only counts in hand grenades and horseshoes, someone said.
A word about terms is necessary. If we should use the popular term “restoration” in regards to the endtime latter rain, that does not mean that the apostolic gospel had been completely lost or totally hidden. The meaning is that a “revival” of apostolic teaching and methods has taken place. When something is revived is when it has been “near death,” or badly mauled, and is brought back from the precipice of expiration. One does not get “revived” if he has died, only if the life forces have merely been dormant or virtually immeasurable for a period. When I say that the New Testament church has been “restored,” I mean that its expansion, its influence and its previous power has been renewed. As a rain suddenly renews the flowers in a desert place where they have formerly been out of sight, so the church has flowered in this last day by the latter rain.
Another word is “dispensations.” When I use that term it means periods of time, in distinction to other eras, in which God deals with men in a specific way, obligating them to certain requirements to attain acceptance by Him. The current dispensation is often referred to as the grace dispensation, or the dispensation of the church. It began at Pentecost and will be in place until the rapture of the church. The idea that there have been dispensations within the current time frame when God required something different from Acts 2:38 is unsupportable by Scripture. From Pentecost until today God’s standard for salvation—or as some refer to it, initiation/entrance into the kingdom—has been faith in God, repentance, baptism in the name of Jesus, and the infilling of the Holy Spirit.
The plan of salvation has been available in a clear form since the time of the apostles. One does not have to be a linguist or a scholar to understand Acts 2:38. After the institutional version of Christianity was established they rejected anyone who attempted to return to the gospel that was presented at Pentecost. It seems clear from bits and pieces of history that there was always someone, some group somewhere, who baptized in the name of Jesus and received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. That underground river of truth surfaced occasionally throughout the last two millennia, even during times of severe persecution.
Most who were members of churches in the early twentieth century when the expansion (not “revelation”) of apostolic truth was occurring, found it difficult to cut loose from their traditional doctrinal moorings and emotional ties. The break with family and friends was very painful. Some mitigated this pain by tinkering with theories that later became known as the “light doctrine.” They were influenced by the notions of their times and those with whom had had fellowship. It was difficult for some people that I personally knew to break away from the classical Pentecostal organizations that were taking shape in the 1900s and 1920s. Some had held ministerial licenses in those denominations. They had worshiped and prayed and fellowshipped with those people and to now say they were not saved was difficult indeed. They were “good” people, praying people, and clean in their living—and some say just as good and prayerful and clean as those who believed and accepted the apostolic message when it was preached. But “good’ by our judgment, or prayerful and generous (Acts 10), or clean living does not constitute the plan of salvation. Human logic and emotion should not be viewed as substitutes for truth.
Some prominent Pentecostal personalities of the early twentieth century embraced, at least at times, the hope “that there still could be a type of salvation outside the New Testament church, similar to that of Old Testament saints, particularly for people who walked in all the ‘light’ they had received.” These personalities include G. T. Haywood, Frank Ewart, Andrew Urshan and possibly Howard Goss. They struggled with the tension between their experience and what the Bible actually taught. It was as difficult for them to break with their “brethren” as it was for Luther or Calvin to depart from the stand they had taken and go with other groups who were coming closer to accepting the full gospel. They attempted to split theological hairs to make allowance for their friends, such as differentiating between “begotten by the Word” and being “born again.” Other theories developed, such as those who had the Spirit but were not baptized in the name of Jesus would miss the Rapture and be subjected to the great tribulation but would eventually inherit the new earth. Eternal salvation, current “light” believers say, must be left to God, deferring judgment to Him, “for only He knows the heart and only He has the prerogative of evaluating the individual fulfillment of His plan.” (Parts of this paragraph adapted from David Bernard, The Whole Gospel, 2001 SPS Paper)
What about one’s experiences with God? Doesn’t that count? An “experience” with God can come in a thousand difference flavors. We cannot accept everyone’s claim of experiential revelations. Most contradict each other. Paul’s experience on the Damascus Road was moving and real, but it was not a salvation experience; it was prevenient grace, a call, an invitation. He could have chosen to disregard it. God never removes free will from any man. Cornelius had visions and angel visitations but they did not embody salvation. He could have ignored them or counted them as figments of his imagination. While we don’t discount anyone’s experience with God, we are not authorized to classify it as salvific unless it incorporates the elements new birth.
In any discussion of this topic, we must refer to Galatians 1:6-8: “I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” Also II Corinthians 4:3 must be considered—“But if our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost.” Did not Jesus say, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12 NIV)? The light doctrine forces these words of Christ to be spoken in error. The Bible says the saved are supernaturally conveyed from the kingdom of darkness into His marvelous light: “Giving thanks unto the Father, which hath made us meet to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light: who hath delivered us from the power of darkness, and hath translated us into the kingdom of his dear Son” (Colossians 1:12,13).
Some boldly declare, “But I believe my loving and faithful old grandmother was saved, even though she never obeyed Acts 2:38.” Regardless of what we think about our friends and relatives, the Word of God is the only criterion for determining salvation. When we try to put loved ones or friends into heaven without the new birth, we are setting ourselves up as prejudiced judges of men’s souls. Who is qualified to say, “He was a good person, or a faithful person, or a loving individual and therefore I believe he went to heaven regardless of his obedience to the gospel”? Who can justifiably set aside the words of Christ and the apostles and create their own plan of salvation? God is the ultimate and only judge of every soul: “Shall not the judge of all the earth do right” (Genesis 18:25)? Since the Word is forever “settled in heaven” (Psalm 119:89), He will not circumvent it when judging the souls of men. God “remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself…God’s truth stands firm like a foundation stone with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are His, and those who claim they belong to the Lord must turn away from all wickedness” (II Timothy 2:13, 19 NLT).
What about the Aborigine in the Australian outback who never heard the name of Jesus? According to the Scriptures, if he dies in this dispensation of the gospel without the new birth, he is lost. That is not my judgment, it is “what saith the scriptures.” If people who never heard the name of Jesus are saved anyway, then we should recall every missionary. Since more people decide not to obey the gospel than do when they hear it preached, we are causing people to be lost by preaching it to them. Some bring babies and small children in the equation. Are they saved? That should be the least of our worries, especially if the parent(s) are saved (I Corinthians 7:14).
It seems best to leave assignment of men’s souls to heaven or hell up to God who will righteously judge according to the Word. We are given a message to preach and we must be faithful to it or come under the curse of Galatians 1:8. Let’s do what Jesus said: “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15).