Thursday, July 18, 2013
The Free-Will World: Answering John MacArthur on Total Depravity: Part 2
In my last post, I surveyed about 20 minutes of a 40 minute lecture given by Reformed preacher and seminary president John MacArthur Jr, in which he attempted to prove the doctrine of total depravity and refute the idea of man's free will and ability to cooperate with God in His salvation.
I'm won't go over here the introductory comments I made in my last post, so if you want to know more of where I'm coming from, I'd direct you to part one.
In this second part, especially near the end, Dr. MacArthur gets into some issues that are beyond the scope of this blog post and thus will not be addressed.
My concern in this two-part series is MacArthur's use of Scripture and other means to support total depravity and will leave it to others to parse out any peripheral issues if they so wish.
Around 21:55, Dr MacArthur made a certain claim which ties back to how he started his lecture.
There he said:
"[Arminians] think that the idea of man's free will and ability to contribute to his salvation is orthodox. But the fact is, this is the most historical doctrine, this doctrine of total depravity. The Bible's clear teaching of original sin has been defended as essential to Christian orthodoxy for a long time". (emphasis mine)
As I explained multiple times in my last post, non-Calvinists do not believe that man "contributes" to his salvation, but cooperates with God in salvation by obeying the gospel.
However, I want to focus in on MacArthur's insistence that the idea of man's free will and ability to come unto God for salvation is Pelagian.
Dr MacArthur says, "the contemporary idea today is that there is some residual good left in the sinner. As this progression came from Pelgianism to semi-Pelagiansm and then came down to sort of contemporary Arminianism and maybe got defined a little more carefully by Wesley who was a sort of messed up Calvinist".
It was at this point in the video I wondered why I had wasted 22 minutes of my life listening to a man who was obviously not interested in knowing and articulating accurately what non-Calvinists actually believe.
To think that all those pastors at that conference went away thinking that John Wesley was some "sort of a messed up Calvinist" because he "wanted to give all the glory to God" (Arminians don't?) and yet still "find in man some place where man could initiate salvation on his own will".
This is, of course, a blatant falsehood and misrepresentation of John Wesley who did indeed want to give God glory in all things, but was not semi-pelagian and so did not believe that man could "initiate salvation on his own will":
Is man by nature filled with all manner of evil? Is he void of all good? Is he wholly fallen? Is his soul totally corrupted? Or, to come back to the text, is “every imagination of the thoughts of his heart only evil continually?” Allow this, and you are so far a Christian. Deny it, and you are but an Heathen still. (Sermon 44: On Original Sin)
If we need more proof, this is what Wesley said about the idea that man is basically good:
But, in the mean time, what must we do with our Bibles? — for they will never agree with this. These accounts, however pleasing to flesh and blood, are utterly irreconcilable with the scriptural. (Sermon 44: On Original Sin; paragraph 4)
And further still:
The Scripture avers, that “by one man’s disobedience all men were constituted sinners;” that “in Adam all died,” spiritually died, lost the life and the image of God; that fallen, sinful Adam then “begat a son in his own likeness;” — nor was it possible he should beget him in any other; for “who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean?” — that consequently we, as well as other men, were by nature “dead in trespasses and sins,” “without hope, without God in the world,” and therefore “children of wrath;” that every man may say, “I was shapen in wickedness, and in sin did my mother conceive me;” that “there is no difference,” in that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God,” of that glorious image of God wherein man was originally created.
I would love to know what MacArthur has read of Wesley's that would lead him to his erroneous conclusions, though I think I already know the answer: absolutely nothing.
But let's go back before Wesley to the early Church.
In the first three centuries of the Church there was nothing like a doctrine of total depravity, but a universal belief in man's natural God-given free-will and ability to respond positively or negative to God with respect to his offer of salvation:
“There are, indeed, innumerable passages in the Scriptures which establish with exceeding clearness the existence of freedom of will.” -- Origen (De Principiis, Book 3, ch.1)
Such examples could be repeated numerously:
"God, wishing men and angels to follow His will, resolved to create them free to do righteousness...But if the word of God foretells that some angels and men shall be certainly punished, it did so because it foreknew that they would be unchangeably [wicked], but not because God had created them so. So that if they repent, all who wish for it can obtain mercy from God" -- Justin Martyr, 100-165 (Dialogue, CXLI)
"God made man a free [agent] from the beginning, possessing his own power, even as he does his own soul, to obey the behests of God voluntarily, and not by compulsion of God. For there is no coercion with God, but a good will [towards us] is present with Him continually"
"And in man, as well as in angels, He has placed the power of choice (for angels are rational beings), so that those who had yielded obedience might justly possess what is good, given indeed by God, but preserved by themselves." -- Irenaeus, 130-200 (Against Heresies, XXXVII)
"Just as with men, who have freedom of choice as to both virtue and vice (for you would not either honour the good or punish the bad, unless vice and virtue were in their own power; and some are diligent in the matters entrusted to them by you, and others faithless), so is it among the angels." -- Athenagoras of Athens, 133?-190? (Embassy for Christian)
"For God made man free, and with power over himself.That, then, which man brought upon himself through carelessness and disobedience, this God now vouchsafes to him as a gift through His own philanthropy and pity, when men obey Him. For as man, disobeying, drew death upon himself; so, obeying the will of God, he who desires is able to procure for himself life everlasting." -- Theophilus of Antioch, second century (To Autolycus, xxvii)
"We were not created to die, but we die by our own fault. Our free-will has destroyed us; we who were free have become slaves; we have been sold through sin. Nothing evil has been created by God; we ourselves have manifested wickedness; but we, who have manifested it, are able again to reject it." -- Tatian of Syria, late second century (Address, xi)
"But with regard to what Avida has said: 'How is it that God did not so make us that we should not sin and incur condemnation?'...And how, in that case, would a man differ from a harp, on which another plays; or from a ship, which another guides...But God in His benignity chose not so to make man; but by freedom He exalted him above many of His creatures, and even made him equal with the angels" -- Bardaisan of Syria, c. 154-22 (Fragments)
To equate a denial of total depravity or belief in freedom of the will or affirmation of man's ability to come unto God for salvation with Pelgianism or even semi-pelagianism is to show a woeful ignorance of Church history (which doesn't start with Augustine and Pelagius), by the way.
So much more could be said about this, but I will stop here and simply encourage the reader to read the Church Fathers for themselves and see which system of belief more accurately reflects what they taught.
Dr. MacArthur continued to assert that Arminians believe that man, unaided by God, can make the first move in salvation (23:00).
I addressed this charge in part one, so all I ask is now is what historical Arminians is John MacArthur reading that has led him to his conclusion about what Arminians believe?
Few have been more up front than Roger Olson and many of the folks at the Society of Evangelical Arminians in criticizing the American "folk religious" belief that God responds to man's seeking and not the other way around
All of this is lost on John MacArthur.
When I shared my first post on my Facebook page, a Calvinist friend of mine (yes, I have Calvinist friends!) pointed out that all good Calvinists believe that man can come unto God for salvation, but not before being regenerated.
Once the sinner has been regenerated, his will is renewed and can exercise/is given the "gifts" of faith and repentance.
But with all due deference to this friend of mine and all who hold to this view, Colossians 2:11-12 says that we are raised through our faith when we were circumcised by Christ (ie: baptism):
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.
We are raised and put off our flesh through our faith at baptism; faith precedes regeneration!
Skipping ahead to around the 26 minute mark, Dr. MacArthur uses 2 Timothy 2:25 to show that repentance is a gift of God:
Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.
It isn't totally clear whether this is repentance unto to salvation or simply a change of mind about false doctrine, but let's assume that Paul is talking about repentance unto salvation.
As C. Michael Moss says, "This does not deny human decision is repentance, but rather points to the fact that even our repentance is rooted in God's act and and the opportunities granted by God." (1, 2 Timothy and Titus, 221)
We cannot force or compel God to do anything in salvation, but we must also remember that it is God who "commands all men everywhere to repent" and will not turn away anyone who comes to him (Acts 17:30; John 6:37).
MacArthur then goes to Titus 3:3-7:
At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit , whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.
I, like Dr. MacArthur, love this text of Scripture.
I memorized Titus when I was in Bible Bowl and am currently in the process of re-memorizing it for personal study, so it seems fitting to being the conclusion of my review here.
I have been tough on John MacArthur for his misrepresentations of historical Arminianism, John Wesley, and early Church (all which I've documented), not even touching his complete ignorance of what Jacobus Arminius taught.
But I as listen to him talk on this verse, I think about how right he is to focus on the acts of God in salvation.
"He saved us"
Yes, we believed, repented, confessed, and were baptized (ironically for MacArthur, verse 3 of this chapter is another baptism verse in the same vein as John 3), but he saved us.
Again, the only problem is in thinking that Arminians don't believe this great truth.
Arminians are often put in a position where we appear to defend man's free will against God's sovereignty in salvation, but nothing could be further from the truth.
We defend man's free will and ability, not only because we recognize and reject what Calvinstic determinism does to the character of God and because this doctrine is firmly rooted in apostolic Christianity, but because we too are committed to the Scriptures and see that this doctrine is plainly taught therein.
To sum up:
(1.) We have seen that the slew of passages Dr. MacArthur uses in support of total depravity are not as cut and dry as he might like them to be, but, in fact, can be better interpreted in ways that do not at all imply total depravity.
(2.) We have seen that MacArthur has a flawed understanding of traditional Arminian beliefs and therefore is ill-equipped to give an accurate or fair critique of them.
(3.) We have seen that regeneration comes after faith at baptism, thus rendering the Calvinist understanding of total depravity false. Man can and should respond to God in faith and repentance before being regenerated.
It is my hope that as we navigate the waters of Scripture, we will keep our eyes on Jesus, our guiding light, and not lose sight of all that matters, while try to rightly divide God's word.