T4G Session 3 – John MacArthur
(Photo by Tim Challies)
John MacArthur led the third session of the 2008 Together for the Gospel conference. His message, The Sinner Neither Able Nor Willing: The Doctrine of Absolute Inability, was exactly what its title suggested — a defense of the doctrine of human depravity.
MacArthur began by stating flatly that people hate the doctrine of total depravity. In fact, he said, it may be the most despised and attacked doctrine of all, and as a result it is the most distinctively Christian doctrine. All other systems of belief hold that man has some good in them and can work their way towards salvation. In other words, we think we are basically good and can contribute in our own salvation if not outright save ourselves. We can earn salvation by doing good works, attempting to live good lives, etc. We can “bribe” God into letting us into heaven by our actions.
The problem with this is that we are self-deceived. Sinners like you and me are unwilling to see ourselves as we really are. We do not see the evil in our “good” and the evil in our “religion.” We don’t really believe what Romans 3 says: none of us are righteous, none of us seek God, all of us have gone astray and are deserving of nothing but hell. Instead, we have blinded ourselves to the truth by telling ourselves we are “basically good” and that we can do something to merit salvation.
Many evangelicals (maybe even your pastor and you yourself) hate this truth and as such seem to hate the God of Scripture. Instead of telling the biblical truth, they deceive their people by preaching and teaching a God that has been tamed, a God that says you are good and must only act like it. This is a false God that has been made up and must be rejected. In contrast, the doctrine of total depravity is the most God-honoring doctrine because it teaches all of the good, all of the work that is done to merit salvation, belongs to God alone. This is not some newfangled invention of current times or even the Reformation, it was believed and taught from the earliest days of the church.
MacArthur then took us on a short historical survey of the errors that have sought to combat this doctrine. There is Pelagius (whom St. Augustine opposed), who taught the heresy that we are created without original sin. This means we are created good and must simply stop sinning in order to get to heaven. No need for Christ when we can do it ourselves. There is also its child, semi-Pelagianism, which came into force after Augustine and has prevailed up to this day. Semi-Pelagianism affirms that human depravity is real but not total; that is, we are definitely born with original sin, but there is a “core of goodness” within us that has not been touched which can respond to God. Those who hold to forms of this heresy teach that God gives something called “prevenient grace” which allows that core to respond freely without the corruption of sin preventing a response.
As such, most evangelicals preach as if our job is simply to “introduce God and people,” and then get out of the way. One of the most common ways this is done (of which I am guilty) is the “Try Jesus” exhortation. This is a false view! The Bible is clear that people don’t want God. They will reject him every time. Exhortations that invite people to “meet God and give him a chance” are quite simply unbiblical and unfaithful to the true Gospel proclamation.
Instead, we must understand that God not only commands people to believe in him, but he also gives life that people might believe. The command to believe, by itself, does not save; God must give life to those he commands if they are to obey! This is in contrast to semi-Pelagianism which teaches that God merely opens the door and it is up to us to walk through it. God actively brings us through the door. He briefly outlined several Scriptures to underscore this point. I will here address three of them.
John 3:8 tells us clearly that salvation depends on the will of God, not man. Remember, the Holy Spirit is like the wind — he goes wherever he wants, whenever he wants, and is not constrained by human action. Salvation works in this way; that is, God saves whomever he wants, whenever he wants, regardless of human merit. I could not help but think of countless sermons I’ve heard throughout my life that stressed that even the most “Christian” person one could ever meet could end up in hell, while great and evil sinners like Hitler, Jeff Dahmer, and others could be sitting at the right hand of Christ at the heavenly feast. Unwittingly, those speakers clearly preached an aspect of the doctrine of total depravity — there is nothing in us that guarantees salvation nor anything that makes salvation more likely.
John 6:44 also clearly shows that salvation belongs to God alone and nothing man could do can affect his decision to save. “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” To be saved, you must be pulled by God; you cannot come to God on your own. This is the only way great sinners could ever be saved.
Romans 8:7-8 gives us the reason why salvation must be from God; and also the foundational concept of the doctrine of total depravity. “The mind set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Lost people have minds that are set on the flesh and as such are enemies with God. Because they are his enemies, they cannot please him, nor do they want to. Do you want to make your enemy happy? No, you want to make your enemy miserable! There is no reason, especially in light of Scripture, to believe a person could ever come to God on his own. All people are at enmity with God and want nothing to do with him. Instead, all people want to find their own way. As such, it is impossible for a lost person, a mind set on the flesh, to please God.
Lastly, MacArthur asked what this doctrine should do for us as believers. His answer is one I have grown to use quite often when talking about salvation: the doctrine of total depravity means that those who preach the Gospel should be the most humble! We should be, first of all, staggered that God reached down and overcame our enmity with him to save us. He could have rightly consigned us to hell and been done with us. Knowing this, we should humble ourselves before him in thanksgiving and praise. Next, this doctrine should remind us that we can’t change people’s hearts, nor can we solve their problems. Only God is powerful enough to do that! I was reminded of a conversation I had with a good friend about secular counseling models — it seems that all psychology is able to do is offer behavior modification; it does not get at the heart change necessary to solve the problem. When we have a God who can save a person in their sins and from their sins, we should humble ourselves and look to him for the necessary change. We can take no credit for successes in our teaching and preaching; we can only take credit for the failures. God alone brings success.
In the final analysis, the doctrine of total depravity requires us to understand that the condition of a lost sinner is so desperate that no amount of manipulation on our part can fix the situation. Each heart is the same as the next one, and as such each heart needs the same message. Therefore, we cannot change the message of the Gospel, because the Gospel is what God uses to change sinners.
In the panel session that followed, MacArthur elaborated on these last two points a bit further. He said that this doctrine gives him great relief in his preaching, counseling, and evangelism; simply because it helps him remember that a person’s salvation is not up to him. His preaching and teaching is powerless to save. If it were his responsibility to save people, he would be so burdened, overwhelmed, and depressed by this that he would leave the ministry! But if it is God who saves and not John MacArthur, he is free to simply proclaim the message that God has commanded him to give. God will take care of the results. This makes evangelism easier, because one does not have to worry about the result of evangelism as much of evangelicalism today worries. Instead, one can get the Gospel to as many people as one can, and if some believe, God is more glorified!
I found this message to be just as freeing to me as MacArthur claimed. I have in the past year had to deal with certain people who have tried to cause trouble for me as a minister, as well as people who have tried to cause discord in the community between my church and other Deaf ministries in town; in fact we are still in the process of unraveling the web that was created. I probably sinned quite a few times during this season as I fought to protect my character and integrity, including a brief time when I was ready to simply pull up the stakes and shake the dust off my feet. Also, we are dealing with a church that is stagnating in many ways (quite like the majority of Southern Baptist churches); my senior pastor and I have become frustrated and disgusted about many things, and we have spent a lot of time in serious prayer over the church that we love. But as MacArthur talked about feeling freed from being responsible for another person’s salvation, I felt a similar burden lift from my own shoulders.
Neither I nor my senior pastor are responsible for the salvation and sanctification of our people. We are responsible instead to faithfully proclaim and live out the message and shepherd the people in that message. The Holy Spirit will do the rest. I am not responsible to defeat those who have borne false witness against me nor those who have acted against my church. Instead I am responsible to live out the Gospel by correcting their errors in love and forgiving them as Christ has forgiven me. God will take care of their hearts, not I. I cannot change a person’s heart; only the God who would take on human flesh and die on a cross for that person’s sins can do that. And knowing that, I can freely proclaim God’s forgiveness and forgive others in turn. It is truly all about God, not all about me!