In my post last Friday, I mentioned the intra-Gospel-Coalition discussion on sanctification that has been going on between Kevin DeYoung and Tullian Tchividjian. One of the issues that continually comes up in this conversation is whether one should consider sanctification a “monergistic” or “synergistic” process. [Monergism is just a big word that means one agent (mono-) working (ergon, the Greek word for work). And synergism simply means multiple agents are working in cooperation with (syn-) each other.]
It’s a legitimate question and a legitimate problem. On the one hand, we want to give the credit of our sanctification — the actual progress of becoming increasingly like Christ — where it belongs: to God. And so the term “monergistic” seems attractive especially to us Calvinists who want to take no credit for the good in our spiritual lives and give all glory to Christ. On the other hand, though, we don’t want to discount our role in our sanctification and give the impression that we are completely passive.
I believe the answer is to recognize the unhelpfulness of using either of these adjectives to describe the sanctification process.
Note this: a lot of people who would say sanctification is synergistic — because they want Christians to recognize that we have a part in it and shouldn’t just sit around waiting for God to zap us to holiness — would also hasten to add that justification, on the other hand, is monergistic. They would say something like, “There was absolutely nothing we could do to get saved; our salvation was entirely the work of God. Yet our sanctification is a cooperative effort.”
But really what those people mean is that they believe regeneration is monergistic, not justification. And, in fact, that is how the monergism/synergism terms are historically used: in regards to regeneration — the sovereign act of the Holy Spirit in which He imparts new life to the dead soul, giving the heart eyes to see and ears to hear. That act, which precedes anything that we do in our conversion, is entirely the work of God. We do absolutely nothing to effect, or bring about, our second birth — just like we do absolutely nothing to bring about our first birth (John 1:12-13). Regeneration is monergistic.
But if we’re respecting the meanings of words, no Calvinist believes that our justification (or, conversion) was monergistic. Justification is mediated through the means of faith (Rom 3:28; 4:5), and God most certainly did not believe the Gospel for us. We had a role to play. God sovereignly, monergistically quickened our dead heart and opened our eyes in the miracle of the new birth, in which, again, we had no active role. And then, with our spiritual eyes opened to behold the glory of Christ as it is and the despicable-ness of sin as it is, we preferred Christ and believed in Him with all our hearts. We did have a role in that. We saw. We preferred. And we believed. Our conversion, strictly speaking, is synergistic, even though it is entirely thanks to sovereign, monergistic, regenerating grace.
There is a similar dynamic regarding sanctification. As Christians, God has opened our eyes to behold and to treasure His glory, and now it is our duty to fix our eyes on that glory (Heb 12:2) — to behold the glory of the Lord with unveiled face (2Cor 3:18) — and in that way be transformed progressively into the image of Christ. By His Spirit (2Cor 3:17, 18c), God ‘mongeristically’ opens our eyes and reveals the glory of His Son (cf. John 14:21) and we then respond and fight to saturate ourselves with that vision and to pursue Him with all our might.
We Work Out What He Works In
So, the terms “monergistic sanctification” and “synergistic sanctification” are both misnomers, and are therefore unhelpful. It might not be as neat and tidy to explain, but if we are to be Biblical, we have to maintain the truth of both realities in Philippians 2:12-13, even if it means more words of explanation.
We are commanded to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Yet, the basis or the ground of that command is the objective reality that it is God who works in us what we are working out. You simply cannot over- or under-emphasize either of these two twin pillars. Do that and you’ve lost the Biblical position on sanctification. One the one hand, if we over-emphasize God’s role to work in us and under-emphasize what we are supposed to work out, we flirt with a kind of complacency and apathy that the Apostles knew nothing about (1Cor 9:24-27; 1Tim 4:7-10; 2Pet 1:5). On the other hand, if we emphasize the command for us to work out our salvation such that we under-emphasize or downplay the reality that it is God who works in us, we flirt with the kind of moralistic externalism and willpower religion that Jesus and the Apostles condemned (Mt 23:16-17; 25-28; 1Cor 15:10; 2Cor 3:18; Gal 3:3; Col 2:18-23).
I think the most practical application — or the “So what?” — of this post comes at the end of the paragraph before last. 2 Corinthians 3:18 paired with 1 John 3:2 teaches us that our degree of Christlikeness is directly proportional to our beholding Christ’s glory. The Holy Spirit works in us by revealing the glory of Christ (which is exactly what Christ said He would do, John 16:14), and we work out our salvation by fighting with all our might to see that glory clearly. We don’t simply kick back and relax and wait for the magic zap. The Christian’s pursuit of holiness is a fight, a race, a battle. Yet neither do we fight by clenching our fists and gritting our teeth and doing our best to follow the law. The fight is to be blood-earnest about getting everything out of our way so that we can see Him. The race has Him as its endpoint. We battle sin because we want Him.
Sanctification is the Spirit presenting the glory of Christ to me such that, seeing that glory, I am given all the strength and all the motivation needed to obey my Lord with joy, in the hopes that as I obey Him further, I will get more of Him.
Let us fix our eyes on Him, and run our race with endurance for the joy set before us.
Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us,
let us also lay aside every encumbrance
and the sin which so easily entangles us,
and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us,
fixing our eyes on Jesus,
the author and perfecter of faith,
who for the joy set before Him
endured the cross, despising the shame,
and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
- Hebrews 12:1-2 -