John MacArthur Libels Arminianism as Semi-Pelagianism

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John MacArthur, speaking to hundreds of pastors at the 2008 Together for the Gospel (T4G) conference, in his message entitled, “The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing,” said, “The contemporary idea today is that there’s some residual good left in the sinner. As this progression came from Pelagianism to semi-Pelagianism, and then came down to some contemporary Arminianism, maybe got defined a little more carefully by Wesley, who was a sort of, um . . ., messed-up Calvinist . . . So that the sinner, unaided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move. That’s essentially Arminian theology. The sinner, unaided, must make the first move.” (referenced link here).

MacArthur is not the first one to try to brand Wesley as a “confused Calvinist” (J. I. Packer’s confused statement). The only true confusion here is how these Calvinists can read Wesley’s works and conclude that he was in any way confused about Calvinism. He was not confused whatsoever. Wesley was a true Arminian and even confessed to be so (link here and here).

MacArthur is so off base in his assessment that I am actually embarrassed for him. This is not the first time, however, that he has made such a distorted statement concerning Arminianism, which only leads me to believe that he is willingly (forgive the pun) ignorant of the teachings and beliefs of not only Arminius himself but also of contemporary Reformed Arminians.

His conference message used the typical scriptural proof-texts which insists, at least from his point of view, that regeneration must precede faith (John 1:12-13; 3:3-8; 5:21, 39-40; 6:44; 8:36; Rom. 3:10-18; 8:7-8, 36; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1-10; 4:18; Col. 2:13 ~ there was truly nothing new here), in spite of the fact that one of the verses which he quoted actually proves his theory to be incorrect (Col. 2:13).

It is unfortunate for such a well-respected minister to be caught setting up straw men in an effort to prove his pet dogma. How degrading. But to think that so many pastors at that conference took what he said as truth is not a little disturbing. Even more so now, those same pastors are convinced that contemporary Arminianism is really only masquerading as an orthodox position, when it is really semi-Pelagianism.

It may come as a surprise to some that Arminians have a lot in common with Calvinists on the subject of total depravity. MacArthur himself said that the phrase “total depravity” is somewhat an unfortunate misnomer ~ for no one is truly, “totally” depraved.

However, people are by nature corrupt in their total being. All orthodox Christians believe that this is so, and Arminians none the less. As Calvinists, Arminians believe that the Bible clearly teaches that humanity is “unwilling” to come to Christ Jesus on their own (John 5:39-40), and that they are “unable” to keep God’s laws (Rom. 8:7-8). People, due to their depravity, are dead in sins (Eph. 2:1), separated from God (Eph. 2:13; Isa. 59:2), “darkened in their understanding and separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts” (Eph. 4:18 TNIV), “without hope and without God in the world” (Eph. 2:12).

Since we agree with Calvinists on this issue, then why would a minister such as MacArthur equate Arminianism with semi-Pelagianism? And since Arminianism does in fact agree with Calvinism on this issue, should he not also libel Calvinism as semi-Pelagianism as well? Since the two systems agree on this issue, and since Arminianism (for him) is semi-Pelagianism, then is not Calvinism also semi-Pelagian?

The answer is no, because for the typical Calvinist, regeneration must precede faith, and that separates Arminianism from Calvinism. And any theology which disagrees with Calvinism is charged with semi-Pelagian epithets. Thankfully, there is a growing number of Calvinists who do not believe that regeneration must precede faith (I am sure they arrive at that conclusion on biblical grounds).

However, charging Arminianism as semi-Pelagianism (as do the likes of John MacArthur, John Piper, and J. I. Packer for example) is simply preposterous. And as long as this nonsense continues, posts such as this one will be absolutely necessary.

R. C. Sproul, who was also a key-note speaker at the T4G conference, wrote, “Arminius not only affirms the bondage of the will, but insists that natural man, being dead in sin, exists in a state of moral inability or impotence.” Is that semi-Pelagianism? No! So, why do we not hear Sproul (and other enlightened individuals) correcting ministers such as MacArthur and Piper when they make such outlandish statements?!

He continued, “What more could an Augustinian or Calvinist hope for from a theologian? Arminius then declares that the only remedy for man’s fallen condition is the gracious operation of God’s Spirit. The will of man is not free to do any good unless it is made free or liberated by the Son of God through the Spirit of God [as the Westminster Confession states ~ emphasis mine].

“Arminius describes the Spirit’s operation in the following terms: ‘. . . a new light and knowledge of God and Christ, and of the Divine Will, have been kindled in his mind; and . . . new affections, inclinations and motions agreeing with the law of God, have been excited in his heart, and new powers have been produced [ingeneratae] in him. . . .

“[Then,] being liberated from the kingdom of darkness, and being now made ‘light in the Lord’ (Eph. 5:8) he understands the true and saving Good; that, after the hardness of his stony heart has been changed into the softness of flesh, . . . he loves and embraces that which is good, just, and holy; and that, being made capable [potens] in Christ, co-operating now with God he prosecutes the Good which he knows and loves, and he begins himself to perform it in deed. But this, whatever it may be of knowledge, holiness and power, is all begotten within him by the Holy Spirit. . . .”1

So, John MacArthur, and John Piper, is this what you men call “semi-Pelagianism”? It is not semi-Pelagianism; this is Arminianism. It is not Calvinism, but it is not semi-Pelagianism either. And for men such as yourselves (or any others) to name it thus is slanderous. It will benefit you to know that we are equally as concerned at the spread of semi-Pelagianism and pray fervently for its end. Note the difference, however:

Semi-Pelagianism= People can come to Christ Jesus by their natural ability.
Arminianism= No one can come to Christ Jesus apart from the grace of God.

MacArthur said, “So that the sinner, unaided by the Holy Spirit, must make the first move. That’s essentially Arminian theology.” MacArthur is wrong and should publicly apologize for (yet again!) misrepresenting Reformation Arminian theology.

1 R. C. Sproul, Willing to Believe (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1997), 128.