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Sanctification: Synergistic, or Monergistic?

Salvation is monergistic. There is nothing anyone can do to save or contribute to the saving of themselves. On this, biblical theologians all agree.* The natural man is dead in sin, and cannot raise himself. He cannot exercise any kind of faith, because he has none. He cannot acquire saving faith, because he cannot understand the word through which that faith is given (Romans 10:17; 1 Corinthians 2:14). He must, in theological terms, be regenerated, or, in biblical terms, be born again (John 3:3), and that is only accomplished by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:7–8). Salvation is monergistic, because it must be monergistic.

At the same time, there are the gospel commands. We are commanded to believe. We are commanded to repent. We are commanded to follow Jesus, and in doing so, to take up crosses (Matthew 16:14; cf. Mark 8:34, Luke 9:23). Unless we do these things, we will not be saved. We also know that perseverance is required (James 1:12).

Volumes have been written in the desire to reconcile the demands of God and the responsibility of man with the clear witness of Scripture to the total inability of man and the sovereign, saving grace of God. In spite of that difficulty, monergism is maintained. We maintain that regeneration is a miracle, that justification is by grace alone, through faith—the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8)—alone, and that our perseverance is assured (John 6:40–44) by God.

Meanwhile, one portion of our salvation is plucked from the center and declared synergistic. I speak, of course, of sanctification. That opinion is held by no less than R. C. Sproul, who said, “Regeneration is monergistic, God’s work alone. Sanctification, the process by which we are made holy, is synergistic, God’s work with us.” During the recent 2014 Shepherds’ Conference, my most esteemed teacher, John MacArthur, and a panel of distinguished guests all agreed. It should be noted that they were responding to the antinomian views of Tullian Tchividjian and others, who seem to be espousing a Keswick-like “let go and let God” philosophy, but nevertheless, the statement was unambiguous: “sanctification is synergistic.”

imageAnd the substance of everything they said was correct. I couldn’t disagree with a single word, but it was as though they were saying “2+3=7.” Yes, I agree with their definition of 2, and yes, of 3 also, but the conclusion was wrong. Yes, we are commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and if we do not, our sanctification simply will not happen, but how is that different from the fact that if we do not believe and repent, we will not be justified? In spite of those clear commands, we recognize the texts that just as clearly declare regeneration monergistic. Why can’t we acknowledge the command in Philippians 2:12, “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling,” while recognizing that as we do, “it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (verse 13)?

We don’t have to deny monergistic sanctification to avoid antinomianism or quietism any more than we have to deny monergistic regeneration to avoid the errors of hyper-Calvinism.

It seems to me a “can’t see the forest for the trees” problem. Those who call sanctification synergistic need to step back and see who is really doing the work. Several years ago, while still very much an Arminian, I was discussing Calvinism versus Arminianism with a quasi-Arminian Pastor. He explained that the difference was that Arminians were looking at salvation from man’s point of view, while Calvinists looked from God’s point of view. He seemed to think that, as people dealing with people, we should be taking the former view, which has a certain pragmatic appeal, but is flat wrong. It seems to me that those monergists—or, perhaps I should say, semi-monergists, who believe in synergistic sanctification are making the same error.

Or maybe I should trade soli Deo gloria for maxime gloria Deo (most of the glory to God).

* I know, many theologians disagree, but I don’t consider them, however distinguished, to be very biblical. They may be fine Christians, but no one who fails to understand this most fundamental and reasonably perspicuous truth deserves any kind of theologically-related degree.

Posted 2014·04·14 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Monergism · Sanctification · Soli Deo Gloria

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