Is Sanctification Synergistic or Monergistic?
September 22, 2011
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It is always good to get involved in meaty theological discussion that challenges you to read more of the bible and flex your spiritual muscles. Imagine the excitement when one pastor went to meet up with his study class and found this question being discussed. Well I will let him tell the story….
Recently, in a leadership training class at our church, a spirited discussion broke out on whether sanctification is monergistic or synergisitic. No, this is not what every class is like at University Reformed Church. But this one was. I wasn’t there, but I was told the discussion was energetic, intelligent, and respectful. I’m glad to serve at a church where people know and care about this level of theological precision.
The terms monergism and synergism refer to the working of God in regeneration. Monergism teaches that we are born again by only one working (mono is Greek for “one,” erg is from the Greek word for “work”). Synergism teaches that we are born again by human cooperation with the grace of God (the syn prefix means “with” in Greek). The Protestant Reformers strongly opposed all synergistic understandings of the new birth. They believed that given the spiritual deadness and moral inability of man, our regeneration is owing entirely to the sovereign work of God. We do not cooperate and we do not contribute to our being born again. Three cheers for monergism.
But what should we say about sanctification? On the one hand, Reformed Christians are loathe to use the word synergistic. We certainly don’t want to suggest that God’s grace is somehow negligible in sanctification. Nor do we want to suggest that the hard work of growing in godliness is not a supernatural gift from God. On the other hand, we are on dangerous ground if we imply that we are passive in sanctification in the same way we are passive in regeneration. We don’t want to suggest God is the only active agent in our progressive sanctification. So which is it: is sanctification monergistic or synergistic?
I think it’s best to stay away from both terms. The distinction is very helpful (and very important) when talking about regeneration, but these particular theological terms muddy the waters when talking about sanctification. Synergism sounds like a swear word to Reformed folks, so no one wants to say it. And yet, monergism is not the right word either. To make it the right word we have to provide a different definition than we give it when discussing the new birth. What does it mean to say regeneration and sanctification are both monergistic if we are entirely passive in one and active in the other?
Those who say sanctification is monergistic want to protect the gracious, supernatural character of sanctification. Those who say sanctification is synergistic want to emphasize that we must actively cooperated with the grace in sanctification. These emphases are both correct. And yet, I believe it is better to defend both of these points with careful explanation rather than with terms that have normally been employed in a different theological controversy. Sanctification is both a gracious gift of God and it requires our active cooperation. I’ve tried to show in previous posts that these two truths are biblical. [Read more here]
Excerpt from Is sanctification monergistic or Synergistic? [HT Kevin Deyoung]