Pelagius was born around 354, and Pelagianism is a form of Free Will theology. The early Church supported Free Will theology in its confrontations with the Deterministic Gnostics. However, Pelagius fell into disfavor as an outlaw of the Church, primarily for rejecting the Roman Catholic teaching of Infant Baptism and Original Sin, which his opponent, Augustine, affirmed.
Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, writes: “Pelagius argued that man can become righteous without the assistance of divine grace.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.62, emphasis mine)
Pelagius rejected the famous prayer of Augustine, “Grant what Thou commandest, and command what Thou dost desire,” which to Pelagius, suggested that we were not already endowed with sufficient grace to perform what God has commanded and called us to do. To Pelagius, Augustine’s prayer carried the tacit suggestion that man’s disobedience was somehow God’s fault for withholding the necessary ability. To Pelagius, it’s not a matter of us waiting on God, but God waiting on us. So it’s erroneous to think that the controversy is over a belief in thinking that God’s grace was unnecessary.
Calvinist, R.C. Sproul, writes: “Semi-Pelagianism salutes the necessity of grace, but under close scrutiny one wonders if the difference between Pelagianism and semi-Pelagianism is a distinction without a difference.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.187, emphasis mine)
The basis for this charge is because although God takes the initiative of seeking, convicting, knocking and opening hearts to receive Him, “this step is not decisive, and can be thwarted by the sinner. If the sinner refuses to cooperate with or assent to this proffered grace, then grace is to no avail.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.187, emphasis mine)
“Not decisive” (i.e. without Irresistible Grace). So in other words, according to Calvinism, any theology without Irresistible Grace at its core, is Pelagian. According to Calvinists, restoring Irresistible Grace is tantamount to restoring Christianity.
Sproul continues: “The problem is this: If grace is necessary but not effectual, what makes it work? ... Why does one sinner respond to the offer of grace positively and the other negatively?” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.187, emphasis mine)
If not effectual, and if not accompanied by Irresistible Grace, then to R.C. Sproul, you cannot account for why a fallen person would ever choose Christ. (To the Calvinist, God is the decisive difference, regenerating the one but not the other. To the Arminian, God still is the decisive difference, insomuch that our reception of God’s grace is by non-resistance through submission to the will of God.)
Sproul writes: “Does grace assist the sinner in cooperating with grace, or does the sinner cooperate by the power of the flesh alone? If the latter, it is unvarnished Pelagianism. If the former, it is still Pelagianism in that grace merely facilitates regeneration and salvation.” (What is Reformed Theology?, pp.187-188, emphasis mine)
“Still Pelagianism.” In other words, according to Sproul, any decision left to the liberated sinner, via Prevenient Grace, whether to accept or reject God’s gift, is still, nonetheless, fundamentally Pelagian, whether grace facilitates the decision, or is absent altogether.
Sproul states: “If God merely offers to change my heart, what will that accomplish for me as long as my heart remains opposed to him? If he offers me grace while I am a slave to sin and still in the flesh, what good is the offer? Saving grace does not merely offer regeneration, it regenerates. This is what makes grace so gracious: God unilaterally and monergistically does for us what we cannot do for ourselves.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.188, emphasis mine)
Irresistible Grace or bust. Why would Sproul think that Prevenient Grace is just an “offer” rather than some actual working at the heart level? Acts 16:14, concerning Lydia, states that God opened her heart to respond to the Gospel. Note that it does not say that her old stony heart was swapped out for a new heart of flesh. (Calvinists often read that into the passage.) Why shouldn’t we simply understand the passage to mean what it says, in that God enabled her to believe? Why shouldn’t we conclude the same thing about others who hear the Gospel, that is, that God gets down to the heart level, convicts them of their sin, and enables them to believe, though not being decisive, that is, determinant, but instead forces the person into a one-way-or-the-other choice? Is God sovereignly entitled to do so?
Sproul summarizes: “What the unregenerate person desperately needs in order to come to faith is regeneration.” (What is Reformed Theology?, p.188, emphasis mine)
Saying that “man is so depraved that God must....” necessarily places a limitation on God. That is the illogical can’t, which is really not true inability, but rather a logic puzzle, such as whether God can make a square circle, or create a rock so big that even He cannot lift. There is also the type of God-can’t where God can’t sin, which is not true inability, in that God lacks capacity to sin, but instead is a God-can’t due to preference, in that God’s preference is not to sin, due to His nature. Finally, there is the God-can’t which is true inability, in that God simply lacks the power to do something, and this is precisely what Calvinists must allege, if it is maintained that God lacks the capacity to deliver a person the power of contrary choice. That’s why that I would rather that Calvinists insist that God uses Irresistible Grace (rather than Prevenient Grace), out of preference rather than a “lack of other options.”
Calvinist, James White, writes: “Why should we give thanks to God upon hearing of the faith of fellow believers, if in fact having faith in Christ is something that every person is capable of having without any gracious enablement by God?” (Debating Calvinism, p.20, emphasis mine)
But Arminianism does affirm the “gracious enablement by God.” Arminians simply disagree that it is irresistible. The Arminian doctrine of preceding grace is known as Prevenient Grace. Furthermore, we give thanks to God when someone becomes a Christian because it is an answer to prayer. It is in thanks to God for reaching out to that person for pursuing them with patience and care, as the Holy Spirit convicts, awakens and goads, while the Son seeks, draws and knocks. God takes the initiative.
Arminian, Roger Olson, explains: “A crucial Arminian doctrine is prevenient grace, which Calvinists also believe, but Arminians interpret it differently. Prevenient grace is simply the convicting, calling, enlightening and enabling grace of God that goes before conversion and makes repentance and faith possible. Calvinists interpret it as irresistible and effectual; the person in whom it works will repent and believe unto salvation. Arminians interpret it as resistible; people are always able to resist the grace of God, as Scripture warns (Acts 7:51). But without prevenient grace, they will inevitably and inexorably resist God’s will because of their slavery to sin.” (Arminian Theology, p.35, emphasis mine)
Olson adds: “Arminians believe that if a person is saved, it is because God initiated the relationship and enabled the person to respond freely with repentance and faith. This prevenient grace includes at least four aspects or elements: calling, convicting, illuminating, and enabling. No person can repent, believe and be saved without the Holy Spirit’s supernatural support from beginning to end. All the person does is cooperate by not resisting.” (Arminian Theology, pp.159-160, emphasis mine)
Essentially, men do not choose to receive grace. Grace is already there, and in operation by the Holy Spirit. The choice is whether it will be resisted, as Israel had resisted God’s grace (Acts 7:51), and grieved the Holy Spirit. (Ephesians 4:30) People also receive various measures of grace, depending upon how they respond to God’s grace. As a result, some are hardened. This is why John 12:39 states that certain people “could not believe,” as it pertains to the warning through the prophet Isaiah: “He has blinded their eyes and He hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.” (John 12:4) The habitual hardening of one’s heart results in the forfeiture of grace.
Daniel Whedon on Prevenient Grace: “Ask then what fully caused the Will in its conditions to cause the volition and the reply is, nothing. However, in the cause of the volitional decision to repent, God’s prevenient grace does exert an enabling influence on the will.” (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, p.74, emphasis mine)
Whedon adds: “…the grace of God frees the Will from being completely bounded by sin since the Fall, but it does not determine or cause which way the Will volitionally decides.” (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, p.74, emphasis mine)
In response to Calvinist, Jonathan Edwards, Whedon writes: “Edwards continues to say, ‘Now it must be answered, according to the Arminian notion of freedom, that the Will influences, orders, and determined itself thus to act. And if it does, I say it must be by some antecedent act.’ (65) But, we reply, as our ‘notion of freedom’ requires no anterior causing or ordering of the Will to act, as we hold the Will in its condition to be a complete cause acting uncausedly, there is no requisite for any ‘antecedent act.’ And so again the necessitarian cobweb is broken.” (Freedom of the Will: A Wesleyan Response to Jonathan Edwards, p.105, emphasis mine)
In other words, while yes, there are always external influences (including God’s influence of Prevenient Grace), man being a self-volitional being, is therefore of himself, one of those influences, and thus acts freely and uncausedly in his choices.