Monday, July 15, 2013
The Free-Will World: Answering John MacArthur on Total Depravity: Part 1
Dr. John Fullerton MacArthur Jr. of the syndicated radio show "Grace to You" is a well known Reformed Evangelical preacher and author, as well as current president of The Master's Seminary.
There is much I like about Dr. MacArthur, not the least of which is his biblical conservatism and emphasis on expository preaching and the sufficiency of Scripture.
Dr. MacArthur has represented the evangelical Christian faith against liberal neo-orthodoxy and a plethora of non-Christian worldviews on national and international platforms, for which I am most appreciative.
However, (you knew this was coming) when it comes to Dr. MacArthur's Calvinism, he and I part company.
I freely admit that I do not enjoy listening to John MacArthur speak on Arminianism/non-Calvinism.
This is not because I find MacArthur challenging, but because he has a bad habit of playing fast and loose with the facts, which is rather frustrating for anyone interested in a fair and balanced teaching on this subject.
One can see this predisposition in his repeated attribution to non-Calvinists his flawed understanding of their theology, with little thought as to what they say and mean about what they believe.
Dr. MacArthur gave a conference lecture some years ago in which he attempted to refute Arminianism using the doctrine of total depravity--a lecture I am going to critically examine in this post.
There is a lot to unpack here, but I want start with a few introductory comments to let the reader know where I am coming from:
(1.) I am not a classical/historical Arminian, but like most of those associated with Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement, I am Arminian (in a broader sense of the term) by "happy accident".
Practically speaking, this means I do not affirm the doctrines of original sin and total depravity (as classical Arminians do), have a different understanding of prevenient grace, and in keeping with traditional Restoration teaching, believe that baptism is directly connected to salvation.
(2.) Given this, my approach will necessarily take a different form than that of traditionalism, though I have tried to note where MacArthur has misrepresented the Classical position, as well.
(3.) Furthermore, my views are not meant to be taken as typical for anyone in the Restoration Movement or the Arminian "family".
(4.) And, finally, this post is not intended to settle the Arminian/Calvinist debate (if that's even possible with definitude), but to show that Arminianism (classical or the SCRM position I defend) is not what John thinks it is and to explain how the texts he marshals in support of Calvinism have been misused or misunderstood.
The doctrine of total depravity is that man's inherited sinful nature infects every part of his being and though he is not as corrupted as he could be (ie: "utter" depravity) his sinfulness prevents him from even coming to or seeking God without the unilateral, unconditional, and irresistible saving grace of God acting on his person.
This is in contrast the the SCRM belief that despite man's depravity, which is neither total or inherited, he is given by God the ability to come to him for salvation by the drawing power of God's Spirit.
Why does this matter?
If man cannot come to God unless God saves him unilaterally/monergistically ( ie: apart from man's cooperation), then it follows that God does not prima facie (at first blush) want all people to be saved (Ezek. 18:32; 1 Timothy 2:4), but damns most of humanity for not doing what He has not given them the ability to do, namely, repent and be saved.
The issue here is God's Word and His character.
Dr. MacArthur first uses Ephesians 2:1-3 in support of total depravity:
As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.
MacArthur asserts the phrase "by nature" is equivalent to "by birth" (the classical Arminian may have no qualms here), but is this the case?
The word "nature", phusis in the Greek, in verse three can refer to physical birth (Gal 2:15) or it can refer to a person's distinctive qualities or long-held/cultural habits (Gal. 4:8; 1 Cor 11:14), depending on the context of the passage.
Since Dr. MacArthur doesn't tell us why we should see the prepositional phrase "by nature" as "by birth", as opposed to one of the other options, we can only speculate.
However, the "by birth" rendering seems to be circumvented by various phrases in verses 1-3 suggesting an acquired nature by way of sin, not birth:
"As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath"
If spiritual deadness is so intimately connected with sins and transgressions as verse one indicates, then surely Paul has in view those who are at least old enough to sin and thus become by nature deserving of wrath.
He then goes on to state that "in Adam all died", quoting 1 Cor. 15:22, but as Dr. Jack Cottrell has noted, this is a referral to physical death, not original sin or inherited depravity, evidenced by the ensuing conversation on the resurrection of the body (Faith Once for All, 206).
Throughout the lecture, Dr MacArthur notes that the sinner cannot be saved himself unaided by God's grace and that new birth is a miracle of God.
Whenever you hear this, picture me saying amen and amen!
Dr. MacArthur's only mistake is in thinking that non-Calvinists don't believe this or believe the opposite.
Where we disagree is that man cannot choose to enter into that new birth, leaving all the responsibility for his damnation on him and all the glory for his salvation to God.
MacArthur quotes Colossians 2:13, "when you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins".
Amen! But how do we have our hearts circumcised?
Paul tells us in verses 11-12 (which Dr. MacArthur didn't mention in his lecture):
In him you were also circumcised with a circumcision not performed by human hands. Your whole self ruled by the flesh was put off when you were circumcised by Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through your faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead.
It is through faith and baptism that our hearts have been circumcised, God making us alive in Christ Jesus, not any monergistic/unilateral work.
Again from Cottrell, "baptism is the time when we are buried with Christ into his death to bring about the death of our sinful nature, an event called spiritual circumcision, thus preparing the way for our resurrection to new life" (Baptism, 130).
MacArthur then goes on to draw a connection between Lazarus and the unregenerate, namely, dead men cannot respond any command and since man is spiritually dead, he cannot respond to God's gift of grace.
This is an ill-conceived argument, however, because even Calvinists believe that man can respond to God in his "deadness", but the responses is always in the negative:
"Though the Gospel according to Jesus may offend, it's message must not be made more palatable by watering down the content or softening the hard demands. In God's plan, the elect will believe despite the negative response of the multitudes." -- John MacArthur (Gospel According to Jesus, 91)
Since Dr. MacArthur agrees that "there was nothing in dead Lazarus capable of responding" (video, 9:29-9:34) and since the unsaved can respond to God (at the least in the negative), we can all agree that the cadaver is not the best analogy for the unregenerate person.
I would argue that the "Walking Dead" is a more biblical, albeit less pious picture of the unsaved:
(1.) Dead even though they live (Eph 2:5)
(2.) Capable of responding to commands when prompted (Matt 11:28, 23:37)
(3.) Unable to save themselves.
Going on, Dr. MacArthur quotes 1 John 1:12-13, "but as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God."
"This is unmistakable...salvation being the work of God", Dr. MacArthur states.
First, non-Calvinists believe salvation is of God, the question being what is man's role (if any).
Second, Dr. MacArthur uses the KJV--the only time he uses this version in the whole 40 minutes--which makes the verse seem like it may be referring to free-will or undetermined choice, but here's the NIV version:
"Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God--children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God."
Paul is contrasting spiritual birth and physical birth/procreation, not monergism (God working alone) and synergism (man accepting God).
Here is renowned Reformed scholar D.A Carson's appraisal of these verses in his commentary on John:
Being born into the family of God is quite different than being born into the human family. 'Natural descent' (lit.'of bloods', i.e a blood relationship, on the assumption that natural procreative means involves the mixing of bloods) avails nothing -- which means that heritage and race...are irrelevant to spiritual birth...Spiritual birth is not the product of sexual desire, 'the will of the flesh', here rendered 'of human decision'; it is certainly not the result of a husband's will (who is understood to take a lead in sexual matters). New birth is, finally, nothing other than an act of God.
Being born again is the work of God alone, not having anything to do with procreation or physical birth.
These passages are silent about man's freedom to enter into that supernatural birth.
Dr. MacArthur then turns to John 3:3-7:
Jesus replied, “Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again." "How can someone be born when they are old?” Nicodemus asked. “Surely they cannot enter a second time into their mother’s womb to be born!” Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit.You should not be surprised at my saying, ‘You must be born again.’
"But how? How does it happen?", MacArthur says rhetorically, stating that "what Jesus says in verse 8 is just absolutely shocking to the free-will world".
Really? Here's the verse:
The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.
Commenting on that verse, Dr. MacArthur says, "our Lord is saying that it's not up to you; it's up to the Holy Spirit. And you have no control over where and when the Spirit moves".
To this I again say amen, but let's examine this further.
(A.) The "how" to the new birth question is actually given in verse five, not verse eight:
Jesus answered, “Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit.
Cottrell gives 5 reasons why Nicodemus (and us today) would have had good reason to apply these words to baptism, which I will briefly list here.
1. The fame of the John the Baptist's own ministry (John 1:26-31) "cannot be overemphasized", a connection Nicodemus would have readily made.
2. Jesus own baptism in conjunction with the descent of the Spirit (Matt 3:13-16).
3. The connection between John's use of "water" and "spirit" (Matt. 3:11; Mark 1:8; Luke 3:16; John 1:33) and Jesus use in verse five.
4. The relation between John's ministry of baptism and the coming Kingdom (Matt. 3:2)
5. And, exclusively for us today, the connection between baptism and resurrection from death to life made in the NT (Rom. 6:4-5; Col 2:12) (Baptism, 32-33)
Taken together, the reasonable man can not be impugned for seeing baptism as inseparable from new birth, thus rendering monergism false.
But what of verse eight?
This verse is somewhat cryptic, but, basically, it tells us that where and when the Spirit will move in a person is unknown and uncontrolled by us.
Carson concurs with this analysis (John, 196) as do Krause and Bryant:
"One can know that the wind is present and blowing by what it does, but one cannot know its place of origin or site of its destiny; so one born of water and the Spirit may be certain of the even (i.e, the rebirth) by its results, though one may not be able to know the place of origin and final location of the Spirit. " (College Press: John, 92)
Thus, it pleases the Spirit to give life to those who have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ in (faith and) baptism
This is synergism: man cooperating with God's call to salvation.
He then quotes John 5:21:
For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it.
We aren't told how this verse proves any particular point that Dr. M is trying to make about total depravity and since we've already addressed to whom God is pleased to give life, and affirmed that new birth is the work of God, I won't say any more about this verse.
Furthermore, he quotes John 6:44, "no one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws them, and I will raise them up at the last day" and "so if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed".
These verses pose no apparent problem to the non-Calvinist position which, agrees that God makes the first move in salvation, but, contrary to Calvinists, God's drawing is universal (Romans 10:17; 2 Thess. 2:14; John 12:32, John 20:31) and resistible (Matt 23:27: Hebrews 3:15)
Dr. MacArthur states "in none of these texts, by the way, did Jesus defend the sinner's ability. In none of these texts did Jesus defend free-will."
Well of course he didn't!
There is a reason that you will find not one Church Father or commentator before Augustine (in his later years, at that) who didn't believe in man's ability to exercise a will toward God by God's power (more on this in part 2).
Man's free-will is foundational to and assumed in all of these teachings, especially those on baptism.
Why "defend" something everyone agrees with?
I agree with MacArthur that just as the leopard cannot change his spots or the Ethiopian his skin (Jer 13:23), so the unregenerate whose "heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked" (Jer 17:9) cannot effect change from within himself.
But God in His grace and mercy has given man the ability to come to Him (Matt. 11:28) , so that He can remove his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:32).
Moving on, Romans 8:7 is said to show man's inability:
The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those who are in the realm of the flesh cannot please God.
Does this show man's inability? You bet it does!
But man's inability is with respect to his submission to God's law not his gospel, despite what Dr. MacArthur says.
What about 1 Corinthians 2:14, another passage MacArthur cites:
“But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised"
"...we go back to the natural", Dr. MacArthur says, "It is his nature that is fallen, that is corrupt, unwilling and unable. He cannot understand these things...he is spiritually dead.
The classical Arminian would probably agree with the Calvinist about the nature of the "natural man" (Picirilli; 1, 2 Corinthians, 33-35), but would invoke God's prevenient grace (or drawing) as a possible solution, whereas a person from the SCRM would be more inclined to see the "natural man" as a Christian (given the context of the letter), one who is operating according to human wisdom and can thus not know the spiritual things of God. (see here and here)
So, there is nothing here that necessitates total depravity.
We move on to 2 Corinthians 4:4:
The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.
Ironically, Dr. MacArthur makes my argument for me when he says that the remedy for this blindness or "veiling" is the preaching of the gospel (17:09-17:11) .
When the gospel is preached, the veil is removed and men can be saved (John 6:45).
We end this first part of our review with Romans 3:11:
“There is no one righteous, not even one;
there is no one who understands;
there is no one who seeks God.
Romans 3:10-11 (taken from Psalm 14) is a damning review of the human condition (no pun intended) and should be sobering to all who read it.
My problem is that the poetic literature in Scripture, which is to be understood in light of the didactic (teaching) portions, is being interpreted contrary to its genre in order to support the doctrine of total depravity.
These passages give us the general condition of man, but both Calvinists and non-Calvinists agree that man is not utterly depraved, which is an inescapable conclusion if we are to interpret the wooden way in which MacArthur has.
By and through the intervention of God, man may overcome, to a certain extent, these wicked tendencies enough to come unto Christ for salvation.
If man be damned, man be blamed, but if man be saved, God be praised!