Why not say that the Spirit of God can move him along even in his unregenerate state to an understanding and can grant to him the gift of saving faith in concert with his will under the prompting of the Spirit and when all of that happens in a spontaneous divine moment, salvation occurs? Okay?
That was Calvinist Pastor John MacArthur, back in 1987 (link). The question and the full answer he provides are below. Notice, in the second paragraph of his answer (and again in paragraph 6), he also argues, rightly, that (1) those who place regeneration before faith do so purely as a matter of logic (I would add, logic required only because of the rest of the deterministic system they have constructed), (2) it has no scriptural basis, and (3) God does not save people “completely independent of anything they do” (ie: monergism) but instead “the Bible says ... that salvation is a matter of believing”.
Here is the transcript (Bold mine):
QUESTIONER: Hi, John, my name is Wayne and I have a question for you on the sovereignty of God. And this is from your series from 1 Timothy 2. It says, many times you speak of man's part in salvation as a mystery and that God never goes against man's free will. Are you referring to man's path in sin or man's responsibility in salvation? Also, do you believe that regeneration proceeds the act of faith and repentance since man is totally depraved? In other words, is there an order to salvation?
JOHN: Yeah, I think I can just answer your last question and cover it all, Wayne. Let me say this, if there is an order to salvation I don't know what it is...in one sense. I tend to think that that order as far as us understanding salvation is peculiarly a human problem. We...we function best on a 1-2-3-4 basis, okay? I can't see any consistently revealed sequence of things, that's the mystery of new life. There...I believe there is the conflux of absolutely necessary elements in salvation which when coming together result in the redemption of a soul, okay? I don't think...particularly I don't think that regeneration precedes anything except the fruit of regeneration which is a righteous life. I do not think that regeneration precedes saving faith.
Now I know that that's becoming a...that's a strongly Calvinistic...I shouldn't even say Calvinistic, it's a bit of a hard line Calvinistic viewpoint, I'm hearing it quite a bit nowadays. I had a two and a half hour discussion last week with a man who tried to convince me that regeneration occurs first and after you're regenerate, then you can believe. So I said to him, "Show me the verse....just show it to me." Well, he wanted to argue logic but he couldn't find a verse. I do not find anywhere in the Scripture that the Bible says you will be saved and somewhere along the line you'll come to realize it. When you separate saving faith from the regenerating act of God, you have put yourself in a non-biblical frame of reference and you have also created a new kind of dynamic in salvation where God is saving people completely independent of anything they do and then they're just waking up to realize it and putting faith which they're given by Him in regeneration into action.
Now I understand why people want to do that. They want to resolve the tension. And the tension exists between the sovereignty of God and the volition of man, right? I mean, if I were to say to you, do you believe in predestination? You'd all say yes because it says in the Bible we're predestined. You believe that we were chosen before the foundation of the world?
Yes, it says we were chosen before the foundation of the world.
Do you believe that our names are written in the lamb book of life before we were ever conceived in this world? Of course. Do you believe that the Lord has established by sovereign choice who will be redeemed and He has determined that in eternity past?
Yes, the Bible says all of that but on the other hand it also says that salvation is a matter of believing. If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth, you'll be saved. Now if you create a salvation where regeneration occurs first, you've gone outside the Bible. It may fit logically into your system and this is why it does, people say, "Well, how can a totally depraved, totally unregenerate, totally lost, totally unable and incapable person put saving faith in Christ? Right? How can he do that? So they say he must be regenerated first.
Why do you have to say that? Why not say that the Spirit of God can move him along even in his unregenerate state to an understanding and can grant to him the gift of saving faith in concert with his will under the prompting of the Spirit and when all of that happens in a spontaneous divine moment, salvation occurs? Okay? I just think any other viewpoint really gets you into deep problems because then you've got people who are regenerated and they haven't had faith yet. My question to the guy is what happens if you've been regenerated but you haven't exercised your faith? Oh, you'll be saved. Well then what good is your faith? So what you make...why not just have a lot of unregenerate...a lot of regenerate unbelievers?
I said to this fellow, too, cause there's such a thing as non-saving faith...oh no, I put it this way...let's see, what was the specifics...oh, I said, "Well, is faith one of the works?"
"Yes...yes, you see you're regenerate and then faith is one of the works that you do."
I said to him, "Then let me ask you this. Can you as a believer be disobedient and not do some works?"
I said, "How about not believing, could you not believe just because you were stubborn?"
"Well, no, no, no, you have to believe."
"Well, why do you have to believe? If you don't have to do other things, why do you have to..." See, you get yourself in a hopeless situation. So get it all at the one...one mystical divine moment and don't try to unscramble that thing or you'll find yourself under the bed saying the Greek alphabet, it's just useless. All I know is that I can cry out to a man and say, "Unless you believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and confess Him as Lord, you will die and go into a Christless eternity." That's the message. That's the message. I can't go around to people saying why don't you poke around in your psyche and see if you've been regenerated. Okay?
(Of course, I think in paragraphs 3-5 he has misunderstood Ephesians 1, link, and Revelation 13, link, but I will save that for another post).
This also seems to be the underlying assumption in some of his sermons
While his view of whether regeneration precedes faith may have changed since the above Q&A (link), in December, 2014, when he taught a 2-part series on John 12, he seemed to still assume a framework of prevenient grace (and took a more Arminian interpretation of the text generally  -- if you are familiar with Calvinism, you might recall that verses 37-40 of this text are sometimes cited by Calvinists as a proof for double predestination/divine reprobation; the Calvinist doctrine that “Just as God chooses whom He will save...so also he decides whom He will not save without regard to any distinctives in the individual”, Link -- Dr MacArthur, on the other hand, does not seem to see double predestination in this text).
If you read the transcripts or listen to the sermons, notice that Dr MacArthur’s interpretation does not make sense if we assume a doctrine of irresistible grace given to the elect only. Instead, he says that those listening to the Lord Jesus, “were fully capable of receiving the truth. They had that opportunity”, and Dr MacArthur further states that the same is true of those listening to his sermon (link):
Jesus was warning Israel, and through this God is still warning you, warning anyone who hears not to go beyond the limits of God’s patience. If your heart is still at all sensitive to the gospel, if you are feeling the pull of God to believe in Jesus Christ, confess Him as Lord, turn from your sin, repent of your sin, and follow Him; if you are feeling that, then now is the day of salvation, 2 Corinthians 6:2. Now is the time to believe because I can’t guarantee how long that will last.
While Christ is in your midst, while the gospel is still attractive to you, while you can still hear, believe and become, as He says in verse 36, “Sons of Light,” little lights.
Here’s the danger. When they would not believe, the judgment came, and they could not believe. You don’t want to pass into that category. When they would not believe, the judgment came, and they could not believe.
The truth is, though, God is patient, but He has His end. His Spirit will not always strive with you either, and because you will not believe, the day may come when you cannot believe. That’s a terrifying thought. This is a message from Christ, our Savior. It was a message from Him even in Isaiah 6, as it is in John as well.
Notice he says, “Now is the time to believe because I can’t guarantee how long that will last...while you can still hear, believe and become” and “the day may come when you cannot believe”: this assumes that those listening can believe through the Holy Spirit’s enabling. This is the doctrine of prevenient grace. Notice also that he is pleading with them not to resist this grace and so be hardened in their state of unbelief. Again, this is how Arminians understand prevenient grace.  Calvinistic irresistible grace, on the other hand, would hold (1) only the elect are given the grace to believe, and (2) those given this grace cannot finally resist it.
In Dr MacArthur’s second sermon (Link), he even goes one step further and uses the familiar Calvinist term “common grace” to refer to what seems like a Wesleyan understanding of prevenient grace (the Wesleyan understanding is broader than the Classical Arminian--see my other post, Link).  Bold mine:
In Acts 14, the initial witness is the fact that God dispenses to every nation, common grace. God has given witness of Himself through common grace, through the provision of rain and sun and food, as He puts His creative power for the good of man on display. But God has an end to His patience. Judgment inevitably comes, and it sweeps away all those who don’t follow the testimony back to the truth of God, repent of sin, and believe in Him.
Now I know if we wanted to make his statement fit a Calvinistic framework, we could assume he is talking about human responsibility only and that he knows no one except the elect will respond to this witness, but given the broader context in his sermon I don’t think that is what Dr MacArthur had in mind. He invites his audience time and again to “turn while you can” and warns them, “Keep on in unbelief and God will judge you with further unbelief. Harden your heart and God will harden your heart. The judgment will be, you will not be able to repent. You would not, you could not”.
We could also try to make it fit a Calvinistic framework by saying something like, “he is speaking to the elect in the crowd”, but again, this does not fit since the elect would never finally be hardened in unbelief.
Third, we might say that he means nations only. But Dr MacArthur clears that up for us explicitly, saying “God is not only patient with nations, but of course He’s patient with individuals”. Why is he patient? “That’s God giving more time for repentance”. (We could further add that it does not make sense for God to grant more time for repentance under a determinist/monergistic framework, since that would mean that God is patiently waiting for Himself; I do not think this is what Dr MacArthur intended).
More from Dr MacArthur’s sermon series on John 12:
Here are a few more statements from Dr MacArthur’s sermon, Part 1 (I originally included the full context, but it made this post 14 pages long. So instead I have skimmed it down; for the full context I invite you to read the transcript or listen to the sermon at this link):
- “Come to Christ, you become a child of light, a son of light. Magnificent pictures, but you don’t have much time. Receive Him while you are able. He is the Light.” (para 19);
- “He has come to be the Light of the world. But the opportunity is coming to its end. The Light is here. Now is the time to believe. How does that translate to us? I don’t know when the darkness falls for you as an individual. I don’t know when the darkness falls for us as a culture, as a nation. I don’t know when the final darkness falls in judgment, divine judgment on the world, but I know that God’s mercy doesn’t last forever. That’s the warning. Receive Him while you are able. “ (Para 19-20);
- “Jesus was warning Israel, and through this God is still warning you, warning anyone who hears not to go beyond the limits of God’s patience. If your heart is still at all sensitive to the gospel, if you are feeling the pull of God to believe in Jesus Christ, confess Him as Lord, turn from your sin, repent of your sin, and follow Him; if you are feeling that, then now is the day of salvation, 2 Corinthians 6:2. Now is the time to believe because I can’t guarantee how long that will last. While Christ is in your midst, while the gospel is still attractive to you, while you can still hear, believe and become, as He says in verse 36, “Sons of Light,” little lights. “ (Para 20-21);
- “Our salvation brings us that same divine life, and we also shine as lights in the world. So the invitation is a final call to walk while you still have the Light and you can see the truth, to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ while you may. It’s only a little while.” (Para 22);
- “They wouldn’t have the level of sin they have if they had not seen what they saw and heard what they heard. ‘They have hated Me without cause.’ They refused to believe. Here’s the danger. When they would not believe, the judgment came, and they could not believe. You don’t want to pass into that category. When they would not believe, the judgment came, and they could not believe.” (para 29);
- “No, this doesn’t catch God by surprise. Isaiah said this would be the way it was. They wouldn’t believe. They wouldn’t see the arm of the Lord being revealed through Christ. They would not believe, and then because they would not believe, verse 39, ‘For this reason, they could not believe.’ ” (para 34);
- “That is a terrifying reality. Because they would not believe for so long, for centuries and centuries the time came when they could not believe. [...] God’s patience had gone on for hundreds of years, and He was patient through the three years of Christ’s ministry. Time’s up. Time’s up. They would not believe; therefore, they could not believe because God has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart.” (para 35);
- “Parallel to this is in Exodus 7, isn’t it? The story of Pharaoh. [...] Pharaoh hardened his heart. God hardened his heart.” (para 36);
- “God works through all the expressions of human sinfulness to accomplish His perfect plan perfectly. There’s no plan B with God. God knew they would reject. They were fully capable of receiving the truth. They had that opportunity. They were so hard hearted, that they didn’t. They would not believe, therefore, they could not believe. Their rejection, however, accomplished the plan of God because it led to the cross by which we are saved, and it led to the salvation of gentiles, which is the church made up of people from every tongue and tribe and nation on the planet.” (para 38);
- “So in Isaiah 6, it was Christ saying, “They would not, they would not, and now they cannot.” It was Christ actually pronouncing the judgment of the impossibility of believing on the generation of Jews who were taken into Babylon or killed. It was Jesus pronouncing judgment then. It was Jesus giving a final invitation to a few who would believe then, and it is Jesus now back in John 12.” (para 42);
- “So it’s all foretold in Scripture. The truth is, though, God is patient, but He has His end. His Spirit will not always strive with you either, and because you will not believe, the day may come when you cannot believe. That’s a terrifying thought. This is a message from Christ, our Savior. It was a message from Him even in Isaiah 6, as it is in John as well.” (para 43);
- “Father, we come to this understanding with so much soberness because we understand the urgency of responding to the gospel. It’s so easy to postpone that for the sake of personal indulgence and because we love the darkness rather than the light. But Lord, your Holy Spirit can use the Word to terrify sinners, and that’s an important thing. They need to be terrified, terrified of the fact that they could go beyond the call of grace. They could go beyond mercy. They could go beyond compassion. They could go beyond forgiveness, and be locked in unbelief forever. Father, I pray that you would open the eyes of many. Make hearts sensitive to respond while it is day and while they may. May they walk in the Light while they have the Light before the darkness falls. Father, I pray that you’ll do that work in hearts even now. To your eternal glory we pray, Amen.” (para 44-45).
And here are a few more statements from Part 2 (Link):
- “After His resurrection, He appeared only to believers. So this really was, ‘The Day the Light Went Out.’ This, as we saw last time, is a judgment. It is a judgment of God. God draws the curtain down. The sun of righteousness sets for the nation Israel. Now, it needs to be said that throughout Scripture God declares Himself and proves Himself to be compassionate, to be gracious, merciful, longsuffering, slow to anger, and extremely patient with sinners. “He is patient, not willing that any should perish,” Scripture says. ‘His patience – ‘ says the Bible, ‘ - is salvation.’ ” (para 4);
- “Judgment comes. It comes inevitably. It always comes. It’ll come on our nation. It’ll come on every nation. It’ll come on our world. It always comes, but it doesn’t come without a warning, and it doesn’t come without a witness. In Acts 14, the initial witness is the fact that God dispenses to every nation, common grace. God has given witness of Himself through common grace, through the provision of rain and sun and food, as He puts His creative power for the good of man on display. But God has an end to His patience. Judgment inevitably comes, and it sweeps away all those who don’t follow the testimony back to the truth of God, repent of sin, and believe in Him.” (para 9);
- “This is kind of like the parable in Luke 13 where the vineyard hasn’t produced anything, and the owner says, “I’m going to destroy it,” and he’s pled with, “Please, give it another year. Give it another year. Give it another year,” and he relents and says, “Okay.” That’s God giving more time for repentance. God is not only patient with nations, but of course He’s patient with individuals.” (para 15);
- Paras 24-27:
Starting in verse 37, John writes some final concerns about faith and unbelief. Verses 35 and 36, the final call to unbelief, to turn while you can. Secondly, the fatal components, the fatal components of unbelief. There are two components that are terminal to unbelief, that lock a sinner into judgment. Number one, verse 37, “But though He had performed so many signs before them, yet they were not believing in Him.” A continuous action verb. “They were not believing in Him.” That is the first component of unbelief. That’s the first fatal component: the stubborn will of man, the stubborn will of man, stubborn ongoing rejection.
Jesus had said to the city of Jerusalem, “How often I would have gathered you. How often I would have gathered you, but you would not. You who kill the prophets, stone the preachers that are sent to you. I wanted to gather you as a hen gathers her brood. You would not. Behold, your house is left to you desolate, desolate.” Desolation will come. But the first thing is they were not believing in Him. That is the first fatal component, continued unbelief that by human will, but human will. I’ll say more on that in just a moment.
The second aspect we looked at last time. First, the stubborn will of man and then the second fatal component of unbelief, the sovereign will of God. We saw last time from verse 38 down to 41 that they would not believe, and therefore they could not believe. God’s plan is not thwarted. In fact, this was predicted. We saw in verse 38 that Isaiah said this would happen when he said, “Lord, who has believed the report given to us?” speaking for that generation of Jews living at the time of Christ. “And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” We didn’t see the arm of the Lord being revealed in Christ or the power of God. We didn’t believe the report that He brought. We rejected what the prophets said. We rejected what the Messiah said. We rejected it.
That doesn’t surprise God. That does not surprise God. They would not believe. Verse 39, “For this reason they could not believe.” They were then judged and locked in unbelief, and that’s quoted from Isaiah 6. He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, so that they would not see with their eyes and perceive with their heart, and be converted and I heal them.” In other words, they would not believe so they could not believe. They passed the point of opportunity.
- “By the way, that passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 that talks about judicial blindness and judicial hardening by God as a sovereign act of His will on people who won’t believe is repeated in the New Testament. But let’s go back to the first point about the stubborn will of man. Back in verse 37, they were not believing in Him. We didn’t really talk about that last time. They were not believing. They had opportunity. Isaiah 55:6, ‘Seek the Lord while He may be found. Call on Him while He is near.’ Well, they never got any nearer than our Lord Jesus walking through the villages and towns of Israel. They had opportunity, but they were not believing. They were not believing. This sets in motion the sovereign judgmental will of God. The stubborn will of man.” (paras 29-30);
- “In James 4:6, James says God gives a greater grace. God provides grace. We all know that salvation is by grace. All of God’s gifts come to us by grace. So how do we receive that grace? What is the requirement? Listen, ‘Therefore, it says – ‘ this again is quoted from the Psalms, ‘ – God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble.’ All right, so first of all, if you want to receive grace you need to be what? Humble, humble, which means you have no confidence and trust in yourself, and that gets really clearly defined in a series of commands. ‘Submit therefore to God.’ That’s like confessing Jesus as Lord. ‘Resist the devil, turn away from him and he will flee from you. Draw near to God with holy aspirations, holy affections. He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands you sinners.’ Call for the change in your conduct. ‘Purify your hearts.’ Call for a change in your thought life and motives, ‘you double-minded,’ and have a proper attitude towards self. What is that attitude? ‘Be miserable, mourn, weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you.’ He will exalt you is parallel to He will give you grace.” (para 41);
- “So those are the fatal components of unbelief. First, the stubborn will of man. Secondly, the sovereign will of God. Keep on in unbelief and God will judge you with further unbelief. Harden your heart and God will harden your heart. The judgment will be, you will not be able to repent. You would not, you could not.” (para 45).
 Calvinists who use this passage to support double predestination will usually take it to mean that the listeners referred to could not believe because (to use the language from the quote above) without regard to any distinctives in the individuals, God had already decided He would not save them (that is, they never had the opportunity to believe because God had already hardened their hearts prior to and apart from anything they had done).
For example, one Calvinist put it: “John 12:40 says that God hardens some mens hearts, and blinds their eyes so they can’t understand and be converted and healed. John12:39 says that they could not believe because of this.”
To this, a blogger responded bluntly (link):
[...I]nterpreting John 12:40 the way that you do makes it sound like these men would have believed but God intervened so that they wouldn’t. Is that what you are saying? Do you believe that sinners are capable of believing without God’s help? That these people were about to believe but God stopped it?
Essentially, this Calvinistic interpretation of this passage blames God for the impenitence and unbelief of man. Yet God continually blames men for their impenitence and unbelief. Jesus rebuked entire cities for not repenting and even marveled at their unbelief. This implies that men could have repented and could have believed, as God wanted them to, but they chose not to contrary to the will of God.
The Arminian understanding, on the other hand, is that they first refused to believe, and as a result of their refusal, they were judicially hardened in their state of unbelief. For example, the early Arminian exegete Adam Clarke explained verse 39 and 40 (Link, bold mine):
“Therefore they could not believe” - Why? Because they did not believe the report of the prophets concerning Christ; therefore they credited not the miracles which he wrought as a proof that he was the person foretold by the prophets, and promised to their fathers. Having thus resisted the report of the prophets, and the evidence of Christ's own miracles, God gave them up to the darkness and hardness of their own hearts, so that they continued to reject every overture of Divine mercy; and God refused to heal their national wound, but, on the contrary, commissioned the Romans against them, so that their political existence was totally destroyed.
The prophecy of Isaiah was neither the cause nor the motive of their unbelief: it was a simple prediction, which imposed no necessity on them to resist the offers of mercy. They might have believed, notwithstanding the prediction, for such kinds of prophecies always include a tacit condition; they may believe, if they properly use the light and power which God has given them. Such prophecies also are of a general application - they will always suit somebody, for in every age persons will be found who resist the grace and Spirit of God like these disobedient Jews. However, it appears that this prediction belonged especially to these rejecters and crucifiers of Christ; and if the prophecy was infallible in its execution, with respect to them, it was not because of the prediction that they continued in unbelief, but because of their own voluntary obstinacy; and God foreseeing this, foretold it by the prophet. Should I say that, they could not believe, means, they would not believe, I should perhaps offend a generation of his children; and yet I am pretty certain the words should be so understood. However, that I may put myself under cover from all suspicion of perverting the meaning of a text which seems to some to be spoken in favor of that awful doctrine of unconditional reprobation, the very father of it shall interpret the text for me. Thus then saith St. Augustin: Quare autem non Poterant, si a me quaeratur, cito respondeo; Quia Nolebant: Malam quippe eorum Voluntatem praevidit Deus, et per prophetam praenunciavit. "If I be asked why they Could not believe? I immediately answer, Because They Would Not. And God, having foreseen their Bad Will, foretold it by the prophet." Aug. Tract. 53, in Joan.
“And I should heal them” - This verse is taken from Isaiah 6:9, and, perhaps, refers more to the judgments that should fall upon them as a nation, which God was determined should not be averted, than it does to their eternal state. To suppose that the text meant that God was unwilling that they should turn unto him, lest he should be obliged to save them, is an insupportable blasphemy.
 Compare this, for example, with the way Dr Robert Coleman describes prevenient grace (Bold mine. A longer quote is included in a previous post, here):
The term prevenient comes from two Latin words that mean “to come before.” Used theologically, it refers to the operation of God’s grace in the heart before one comes to Christ. This preparatory grace is comprehensive, including any movement of man toward God, and involves illuminating divide truth, conviction of sin, call to repentance, and the exercise of saving faith. Yielded to, these gracious impulses increase; when stifled, they tend to diminish. All these promptings of the Spirit imply some awakening of spiritual life, some beginning of deliverance from a heart of stone.
 I did find another sermon (Nov, 2011) where he explicitly rejects “prevenient grace”, but clearly misunderstands what it is. He says (link):
You know, the odd irony is that the people who celebrate all of this crazy stuff that they attribute to the Holy Spirit largely deny this true work of the Holy Spirit. They don’t necessarily believe that regeneration is a divine work; they think that there is in man enough prevenient grace that it all comes down to his willingness to believe, that it’s not the work of the Holy Spirit, it’s the faith of every individual. That’s Armenian [sic] theology.
That he calls it “grace” should alone have been enough to alert him to the fact that it is a work of God. But further, I have never heard anyone ever, of any theological stripe, suggest that “regeneration” could occur outside of a divine work.
Whether Dr MacArthur calls it “prevenient” or “common” or “His Spirit...striv[ing] with you” or the “Holy Spirit us[ing] the Word to terrify sinners”, the statements in his John 12 sermons are consistent with the Arminian doctrine of prevenient grace, and His statement in the Q&A was an especially good and concise description of it.
- Arminian Perspectives, "Does Regeneration Precede Faith?".