At the 2008 Together for the Gospel Conference, John MacArthur delivered a message entitled “The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability” in which he grossly misrepresented Arminian theology by saying:
“So that the sinner unaided by the Holy Spirit must make the first move. That is essentially Arminian theology. The sinner unaided must make the first move, and God will then respond when the sinner makes the first move. What the Bible teaches is that the sinner can’t and won’t. He is unable and unwilling.”
This incredible statement is both misleading and misrepresentative of Arminius’ own thinking and of those who faithfully carry on the biblical understanding of salvation he taught. This can be easily demonstrated by looking to the sources. Arminius said this:
“But in his lapsed and sinful state, man is not capable, of and by himself, either to think, to will, or to do that which is really good; but it is necessary for him to be regenerated and renewed in his intellect, affections or will, and in all his powers, by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, that he may be qualified rightly to understand, esteem, consider, will, and perform whatever is truly good. When he is made a partaker of this regeneration or renovation, I consider that, since he is delivered from sin, he is capable of thinking, willing, and doing that which is good, but yet not without the continued aids of Divine Grace” (“Declaration of Sentiments,” Works, I:659-60).
Like MacArthur, Arminius affirms the incapability of any person to think, will, or do any good. Note also that Arminius affirms the necessity of the regenerating work of the Triune God if the sinner is to be able to do anything good, not least turn toward God. Clearly in Arminius’ thinking, God takes the initiative.
A quote from another well known Arminian thinker further demonstrates the inaccuracy of MacArthur’s statement. In his sermon on “Original Sin,” John Wesley said this:
“No man loves God by nature, any more than he does a stone, or the earth he treads upon. What we love we delight in; But no man has naturally any delight in God. In our natural state we cannot conceive how any one should delight in him. We take no pleasure in him at all; he is utterly tasteless to us. To love God! it is far above, out of our sight. We cannot, naturally, attain unto it” (Works, VI:59).
And in his sermon on “The New Birth” Wesley says this:
“And in Adam all died, all human kind, all the children of men who were then in Adam’s loins. The natural consequence of this is, that every one descended from him comes into the world spiritually dead, dead to God, wholly dead in sin; entirely void of the life of God; void of the image of God, of all that righteousness and holiness wherein Adam was created. Instead of this, every man born into the world now bears the image of the devil in pride and self-will; the image of the beast, in sensual appetites and desires…While a man is in a mere natural state, before he is born of God, he has, in a spiritual sense, eyes and sees not; a thick impenetrable veil lies upon them; he has ears, but hears not; he is utterly deaf to what he is most of all concerned to hear. His other spiritual senses are all locked up. He is in the same condition as if he had them not” (Works, VI:68, 70).
I quote at length here to make the point. Both Arminius and Wesley taught that human beings, in their natural and carnal state, are neither willing nor able to turn to God. Human beings come into this world with a distaste for God and no interest in turning to him. God always makes the first move which enables any response on the part of the sinner. God always takes the initiative in salvation!
Now there may be some that call themselves Arminian while teaching that human beings must make the first move toward God. These, though, should be recognized as the semi-Pelagians that they are. True Arminians believe in the initiating priority of divine grace in contrast to semi-Pelagians who falsely teach that fallen humans have the ability to initiate salvation (see Roger E. Olson, Arminian Theology, 15-16). The Society of Evangelical Arminians exists today to carry faithfully carry on Arminius’ biblical teaching. Their statement of faith reads:
“In and of themselves and apart from the grace of God human beings can neither think, will, nor do anything good, including believe. But the prevenient grace of God prepares and enables sinners to receive the free gift of salvation offered in Christ and his gospel. Only through the grace of God can sinners believe and so be regenerated by the Holy Spirit unto salvation and spiritual life.”
MacArthur has committed the straw man fallacy by setting up a false opponent to tear down. He has misrepresented Arminian theology and set the misrepresentation in contrast to the Bible. His statements show his lack of familiarity with the theology of those he argues against. But the sources ring out against him and demonstrate the falsity of his claim. If he desires to engage Arminian theology in the Spirit of Christ and with honesty, then he ought to seek to understand the system well enough to represent it fairly and accurately. If he is a man of integrity, he will withdraw this incredulous claim.