Is sanctification synergistic or monergistic?

Monergist and Synergist soteriologies

Calvinism is monergistic in its soteriology, as evidenced particularly in two points in the well known acronym, TULIP – unconditional election and irresistible (or efficacious) grace. These points identify salvation as God’s sovereign work, in which God chose to glorify himself by saving particular people, in Christ, without any conditions on their part except those which God himself efficaciously enables them to fulfill, so that salvation is God’s work from beginning to end, even though it does not come about without human response.

By contrast, though Arminians also insist that salvation is a work of God’s grace, God does not determine who will be saved by it. His prevenient grace enables people to meet the conditions (repentance, faith, and obedience) which they could never have met on their own, but whether or not that grace eventuates in their salvation is determined by the individuals, not by God. So Arminianism has been dubbed “synergistic.”

In both of these understandings of salvation, God’s grace is essential, and in both of them people are not saved apart from their response to God’s grace. But because God determines the outcome in the Calvinist construct, it has been called “monergistic,” though it is clear that God is not the only actor. The key point is that God is the decisive actor, the one whose action determines the outcome.

An interesting phenomenon

I have noticed something very interesting as I have participated in and observed the centuries old discussion between these two understandings of salvation. The synergism of Arminian soteriology is regularly confronted by the complaint from Calvinists that significant credit for responding in faith to God’s gracious overture should, logically, be given to the individuals who believe. The Arminian understanding of justification therefore looks to Calvinists to be in blatant contradiction of Ephesians 2:8-9. Surely, Calvinists often charge, if Arminianism is correct, those who are justified by faith have something about which they could boast. Although God’s grace was essential to salvation, it was evenly distributed, and so it is the human action that is decisive in whether or not a person is saved. To this, however, evangelical Arminians heartily protest. They see their contribution as infinitesimal by comparison with God’s work of providing salvation in Christ and freeing the depraved will by grace. So, they refuse to take any credit (i.e., to “boast”) for having believed, but give all glory and thanks to God for their salvation. To my Calvinist ears, that seems incongruent, since it was their act that was decisive, but I rejoice at their desire to glorify God and not themselves.

Seeing this in evangelical Arminians, I have suggested that their desire to diminish the human contribution to justification, pushes them in the direction of monergism with regard to justification. But Calvinists are not immune from this sort of pressure, in the opposite direction, only they feel it in their doctrine of sanctification. When unconditional election and efficacious grace are the framework within which we consider justifying faith, the latter is unquestionably God’s work because that faith itself is God’s gift. When Calvinists move on to speak about sanctification, however, something peculiar happens, which parallels the Arminian move in regard to justification.

Calvinists want to protect God from any liability for the failure of believers to live holy lives, and they fear antinomianism, so they impress upon believers in Christ that perseverance in faith and obedience are necessary right to the end, for salvation to be theirs in the final judgment. Believers are urged to be active in pursuing righteousness, and there is certainly plenty of New Testament exhortation to that end. But in describing this process, very notable Calvinist theologians have spoken in terms that are synergistic, and I confess that I was misled by their language. For about 20 years, I taught that justification is monergistic but sanctification is synergistic.

Calvinist descriptions of sanctification in synergistic terms

Some time ago, I was listening to an audio file of Jerry Bridges’ Pursuit of Holiness. It is clear to me that Bridges wants to approach his subject from a solidly monergistic framework. But there is a decided ambiguity in his treatment, so that he often wanders into synergistic ways of speaking. One morning, I heard him say something like: “As we do our part in pursuit of holiness, we find that the Holy Spirit does his part.”

Anthony Hoekema states that “though sanctification is primarily God’s work in us, it is not a process in which we remain passive but one in which we must be continually active” (Saved By Grace, 201, emphasis mine). To speak of sanctification as primarily God’s work leaves the impression that it is secondarily ours. Hoekema goes on, however,  to urge us not to say “that sanctification is a work of God in which believers cooperate,” as “some have done.”  As an example of this language of “cooperation,” Hoekema cites Louis Berkhof, whose influence on my theological formation was very significant after I became a Calvinist.

Berkhof states that sanctification, as a supernatural work of God, “consists fundamentally and primarily in a divine operation in the soul, whereby the holy disposition born in regeneration is strengthened and its holy exercises are increased (Systematic Theology, 532). Once again, we meet the language of “primary” operation, which leaves one wondering how the primary work (God’s) and the secondary work (ours) relate to one another. I am reminded of the way Arminians speak of justification, for instance. They stress the relative insignificance of the human operation, in a healthy desire to magnify God’s grace in our salvation, but in their case that purportedly insignificant act of believing is decisive, and it cannot be accounted for by the operation of God’s grace (prevening and accompanying) because that would entail the monergistic understanding against which they protest loudly. Yet, for Calvinists to speak of primary and secondary working in regard to sanctification, particularly when the two are described as a form of “cooperation,” easily leads hearers to understand sanctification in the same synergistic way that Arminians understand it. The passage which Hoekema cites from Berkhof is from page 534, where Berkhof wrote:

 When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit. (534)

Hoekema also cited J. C. Ryle, who wrote:

Sanctification . . . is a thing for which every believer is responsible. . . . Whose fault is it if they [believers] are not holy, but their own? On whom can they throw the blame if they are not sanctified, but themselves? God, who has given them grace and a new heart, and a new nature, has deprived them of all excuse if they do not live for his praise.” (Holiness, 19-20; cited by Hoekema, 201).

Ryle speaks as though we, not God, set the limits to our growth in holiness. God’s grace has been sufficient for all of us to be perfect, but we do not appropriate it, which is exactly what Arminians say about justification!

Bruce Demarest writes: “Sanctification is a cooperative venture; the Spirit blesses believers with sanctifying grace, but the latter must faithfully cooperate therewith. Faith alone justifies but faith joined with our concerted efforts sanctifies” (The Cross and Salvation, 425). Similarly, Donald Bloesch speaks about the divine and human factors in sanctification as follows:

 None of us can earn our salvation or make ourselves worthy of God’s grace. But we can demonstrate and manifest God’s grace in our daily lives, and if we do so we will be rewarded, not because we have been more open to the moving of the Spirit. Even then we can take no credit, since our openness is irrevocably tied to our election. (The Holy Spirit, 206).

An Arminian could say the same thing about justification, except that “prevenient grace” would take the place of “election.”

R. C. Sproul  does not even hesitate to speak of “synergism” in regard to sanctification:

 As part of the process of sanctification, perseverance is a synergistic work. This means it is a cooperative effort between God and us. We persevere and he preserves. (Grace Unknown, 212).

Like all Calvinists, Sproul wants to impress upon readers that in sanctification, unlike regeneration, Christians are not passive; we must pursue holiness vigorously. But, is it wise to use the term “synergism” here, given the sharp distinction between Arminian soteriology and Calvinistic soteriology, which lies precisely in a difference between synergism and monergism?

How then shall we speak?

My writing of this post was prompted by a recent “update” from a Facebook friend, in which he linked to a 2011 blog post by Kevin DeYoung. There DeYoung did a survey of some key Reformed theologians in regard to this issue and offered his own perspective..

In a theologian as careful as Frances Turretin, DeYoung found the language of cooperation (Institutes of Elenctic Theology, 2.15.5). But, given the strength of Turretin’s rejection of synergism in regard to regeneration, DeYoung says that “it’s hard to think Turretin would have been comfortable saying sanctification is monergistic, though he certainly believed holiness is wrought in the believer by God.”

In the conclusion of his post, DeYoung suggested that,

 given the right qualifications, either term could be used with merit. “Monergism” can work because sanctification is God’s gift, his supernatural work in us. “Synergism” can also work because we cooperate with God in sanctification and actively make an effort to grow in godliness.

Having been misled for many years into thinking and teaching of sanctification as synergistic, I think DeYoung was more helpful when he proposed, at the beginning of his post, that we

 . . . 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 cooperate 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 suggest, however,  that even this proposal from DeYoung that we use neither “synergism” nor “monergism” in reference to sanctification is too cautious. I sense that his suggestion follows from his focusing on the comparison of regeneration and sanctification. In regeneration (in its narrower sense, as per John 3), we are passive; but we are active in sanctification. The problem with making the passivity of regeneration the essential ingredient in monergism, however, is that Calvinists consistently insist that justification is monergistic. But in that aspect of salvation we are not passive. God justifies those who repent of their sin and believe in him, so that Calvinists who speak of “cooperation” or “synergism” in regard to sanctification have no grounds for rejecting that language in regard to justification. Yet they do, because repentance and faith are God’s gifts to the elect, evidence of God’s effectual calling of his people. Given that, in Calvinist soteriology, justification is monergistic even though it does not occur without human action, the lack of which is blameworthy in sinners, there is no reason to deny that sanctification is likewise monergistic, by a very similar operation. We work hard, but only because God is efficaciously at work within us.

If we import synergism into our doctrine of sanctification to avoid Arminian objections that we make God liable for our sin, we commit theological suicide as synergists. If we insist that salvation is all of grace, it will not do to argue that although our justification is accomplished by monergistic efficacious grace, our sanctification is achieved through a synergistic cooperation between God and ourselves. If the latter were the case, then final salvation would be brought about through a synergism, and all monergist complaints that synergism undermines the absoluteness of God’s grace in salvation would come back to haunt the Calvinists who describe sanctification synergistically.

So why are we responsible for not being more holy, if God’s efficacious work of sanctification is as determinative as is his work of regeneration and justification?

Sometimes, we have to declare biblical truths clearly, even though we are unable to explain how they cohere. Following Paul’s exhortation, we “work out [our] own salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that “it is God who is at work in [us], enabling [us] both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13). We work hard, using the means of grace with which God has provided us (the Word, prayer, fellowship with other believers), but we know that any good we accomplish is completely God’s doing, and we give him all the glory for it.

It is clear that sanctification cannot be the fruit of a synergistic cooperation between God and human beings, yet God cannot be held accountable for the sin that believers commit. How this works is a bit puzzling, but I find some help in the proposal regarding sufficient and efficient grace which I laid out in Who Can Be Saved? (254-56) .I won’t take the time to unpack that proposal here, but if it interests you, an earlier post on “Universally sufficient enabling grace” will give you a better idea what I have in mind. Excerpts from my book which pertain to this proposal can also be seen in the “Documents” section of this site.


By Terrance Tiessen

I am Professor Emeritus of Systematic Theology and Ethics at Providence Theological Seminary, Canada.

5 replies on “Is sanctification synergistic or monergistic?”

[…] Is Sanctification synergistic or monergistic? Terrance Tiessen explores the issue. […]

“The Lord sanctifies and justifies us.”

Yes…He does it all.

He’s a REAL God. Not some wimpy god that requires our help.

What ‘we do’ is what got us into this mess to begin with.

Thank you.

Good article. Can’t figure out how calvinism that is so augustinian can conceive of sanctification as synergistic. The gift of perseverance, just like the gift of faith is solely God’s gift. Sure there is human response, but grace always flows from predestination, so both the gift of faith and the gift of perseverance are equally monergistic. It’s interesting that lutherans do not have that struggle, for lutherans sanctification is monergistic and it is in their confessions which use the analogy of the two horses that Luther used in the bondage of the will. Here’s a good link to lutheran monergism on sanctification that shows the two horse analogy. So it bogles my mind that calvinism has been plagued by this synergism in sanctification, not sure how it got into calvinism, because it is so contrary to Augustinian theology.

God bless the internet! I have been plagued by teachings of synergistic sanctification through my ENTIRE Christian life. (I move in Protestant/reformed Baptist circles) And it is seemingly backed up by some ‘large’ widely-read modern theologians. When I first, recently heard the opposing argument from a Lutheran I felt like I was hearing the gospel all over again, and it also applied to my miserable sin-ridden Christian life! Make no mistake, this doctrine does matter, it certainly frees the individual to grow in love for Christ and do his good works, unburdened by our own ‘man-centric potential’. I discussed this with my Pastor who recommended I read a John Piper commentary on Rewards for believers efforts and his exhortation that these rewards be used to motivate us to greater sanctification and greater effort. (Also his book on ‘Don’t waste your life’ which I may not pick up.) In my case, the work of God (solely) in my sanctification is such a blessed relief I feel set free and energized in my fumbling efforts all over again. Where once I was burdened and given a list of to-dos larger than the Mosaic law, I now feel able to take each step my God allows and to him be the glory! I am active in this world, because God has saved me and declared my works ‘good’. I’d just like to end on that bombshell thanks.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

HTML tags are not allowed.

145,569 Spambots Blocked by Simple Comments