June 30, 2011

Sanctification: Monergistic or Synergistic?

by Mike Riccardi

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.

Answer: Neither

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.

Submit your theology to ScriptureWe 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).

So What?

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 –

UPDATE: For an expansion on this issue of sanctification, see here, here, and here.



God’s Prior Act

God gives us eyes to see (Regeneration)

The Spirit freshly reveals the glory of Christ

Our Spiritual Sight

We evaluate the glory of Christ vs. the pleasure of sin

We evaluate the glory of Christ vs. the pleasure of sin

Our Response

We prefer the pleasure to be had in Christ

Fixing our eyes on Jesus, we prefer the pleasure to be had in Him


We believe and are saved

We obey and are sanctified








Mike Riccardi

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Mike is the Pastor of Local Outreach Ministries at Grace Community Church in Los Angeles. He also teaches Evangelism at The Master's Seminary.
  • Anonymous

    There are some tensions in the Christian life, and this is one of them. But I think an understanding of God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility helps this tension. God is sovereign over our desires, so he is at work in us, to cause us to act and walk in the deeds that he has laid out for us. So when I say that sanctification is both synergistic and monorgystic, I don’t mean in the chessy way of “both are true and opposites.” I mean it in the way that God orchestrates the events of this world to cause us to desire to do his will. Or, as RC Sproul often says, “God is free and man is free, but God is more free than me.” So I guess I agree with your post in that ultimately it is not so much a both/and, as it is a neither.

  • Anonymous

    Hi, I just wanted to let you know that some people are having problems commenting, it’s an on off problem since the blog started.
    ps – feel free to delete this post.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for letting me know. If anyone is having a hard time commenting, please email me the details so I can fix it. Do you get an error message? Or does it just dissapear? Also, what browser are you using? Thanks,


  • Anonymous

    Great Article. Thanks for this today – very encouraging.

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  • Kyle


    This statement of yours should probably be stated a little better: “But if we’re respecting the meanings of words, no Calvinist believes that our justification 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.”

    I don’t think monergism and synergism are the best words for talk on sanctification or justification; they should probably be left to the regeneration. But I would like to ask you one question: if justification is synergistic: are we declaring along with God that we are righteous in his sight? Does not God alone declare sinners righteous? So in what way can justification be synergistic? We do not cooperate with God in any part of justification because it is none of our doing. Even faith is a gift alien to ourselves and while we are justified by faith it does not mean we are taking part in the justifying declaration.

    Of course this is all because the the terms moner/synergism are out of their jurisdiction here. I agree with your latter statement that they should be relegated to the discussion on regeneration but your use of them in this justification discussion seems problematic.

    Thanks for your contribution,


    • Kyle,

      Part of my reason for using the terms (monergism/synergism) in relationship to justification and sanctification was precisely to show their inadequacy. So if they seem problematic, that’s good. They are. Indeed, let’s leave them for regeneration.

      To answer your questions:

      …are we declaring along with God that we are righteous in his sight?


      Does not God alone declare sinners righteous?


      So in what way can justification be synergistic?

      Strictly speaking, because justification is mediated through the means of faith, which I took pains to underscore is itself a gift from God and not worked up by us. Faith is indeed granted entirely by God, but He grants that we actually do the believing.

      Here’s what I mean. You’re right to note that we don’t take part in the declaration of our own righteousness. But that declaration is made by God on the basis of our believing. Again, I’m not trying to give us credit for the believing, but it is…heh…believers that believe.

      Does that help?

      • Ryanwassell

        I don’t want to be nit picky with language, but I think it is inaccurate to say that God made the declaration of justification on the BASIS of our faith. The basis of our justification is Christ’s obedience (life, death, and resurrection). It is more accurate and helpful with what you stated earlier, “through the MEANS of faith.”

        I still don’t see why justification is synergistic when it is God alone justifying the ungodly. The ungodly don’t count themselves righteous, nor do they work along with God to effect justification. Maybe we have different definitions of synergism?

        When I see the phrase, “justification is synergistic” my mind thinks, “God and sinners worked together to effect justification.” Is that what you mean?


        • Penalty. Too many Wassells on the field. 🙂

          I think I might see another source of confusion. In the table that I inserted above, I outlined the “inner workings” of both the believer’s coming to faith (roughly speaking, justification) and his growth in holiness (roughly speaking, sanctification). When you and Kyle are speaking of justification, you’re speaking about the declaration. That’s the final row, the result: “We believe and are saved [declared righteous].” Even the passive language there demonstrates that it’s God who does the declaring, not us.

          When I’m saying justification, I’m referring to the entire column. Does that help at all? I think it gets confusing because I’m trying to break down the components of things that happen simultaneously. But within that “process” there are both God’s acts and our acts.

          When I see the phrase, “justification is synergistic” my mind thinks, “God and sinners worked together to effect justification.” Is that what you mean?

          Gotta be honest, I’m kinda disappointed here. I could understand if you thought this if I just threw the phrase, “Justification is synergistic,” out there and didn’t explain it. But on top of the paragraph in the original post, you’ve got my reply to Kyle. I’m not sure how you could think that’s what I mean. What I mean is: considering justification to be more than just the declaration, but to include the entire “process” of regeneration-faith-declaration, we have a role in that process.

          Also, please keep in mind the original point of the post. It wasn’t primarily a discussion on justification, but on how neither monergism and synergism are apt descriptions for sanctification. Do you think my comments on justification undermine that point?

          You guys are calling foul on my use of synergism for justification, which I appreciate. That’s my point. But do hear that I’m saying, “I get that this is a bad thing to say about justification. It’s also a bad thing to say about sanctification. Don’t say it. Leave both terms for regeneration.”

          • Kyle

            Instant replay shows your flag is over ruled 🙂

            Justification is the act of God declaring Christ’s righteousness to a believers account. It doesnt occur because God sees a demonstration of faith He does so in His own freedom when he decides to impute the righteousness to a sinner. There is no process of placing faith within the process. The process is a one step process. And to say that it is first our faith, or the basis of that faith, gives us room to boast. The basis is Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection. Oh I don’t think I have ever heard justification ever being process in my short theological life.

            That being said I hear you saying justification is synergistic and that you shouldn’t use synergism for a discussion of justification. On that point I am confused. I don’t know why ou would be defending it if it a wrong view.

            Oh and I only highlighted this portion of your blog because I think it is the only portion with serious error 🙂

            Much love, Kyle

          • Justification is the act of God declaring Christ’s righteousness to a believers account.

            I understand this. But in the context of what I’m speaking about — i.e., the comparison of justification and sanctification — I’m not referring to the simple declaration. I’ve tried to make this clear. If your point is that I shouldn’t use the word “justification” to refer to anything other than the declaration of righteousness, be assured that I understand your point. Nevertheless, given the explanation and qualifications I give above, I still think it’s a helpful way to address the issue of the relationship of justification and sanctification.

            The reason the comparison of justification and sanctification makes a difference is that nobody would ever say that we actually cooperate in making ourselves holy before God. We are sanctified (passive) by God. In that sense you could say the actual sanctifying of believers is monergistic. God alone makes men holy.

            But the question then arises: do I do anything? And that’s my point: Yes, we do do something. We work out what God works in. In that sense, there’s more than one agent working. In that sense, sanctification is synergistic. (But the term is problematic, because introduces ideas that are unhelpful.)

            The same is true with the “process” of justification. (Notice the quotes, as from before; and also notice my explanation that I understand it’s not a temporal process, but I’m breaking the events of conversion down into the components that happen simultaneously. I don’t mean the declaration was a process. Maybe it would be better if I just said “conversion” instead of justification.) We are justified (passive). God alone makes the declaration of righteousness.

            But again, the question arises: what do I do to be justified? How can be made right with God? I think by saying that God justifies only when “he decides to impute the righteousness to a sinner,” you fail to represent Paul’s overwhelming emphasis on justification by faith. I get what you mean when you say that, and I get that justification is free, and based on sovereign election. But to state it the way you do misses the emphasis that one must believe in order to be justified. God never justifies anyone — He never “decides to impute righteousness” to a sinner — who does not believe. Yet at the same time, as I have granted multiple times, that faith itself is a gift of God, and is owing to nothing but sovereign, monergistic, regenerating grace.

            And to say that it is first our faith, or the basis of that faith, gives us room to boast.

            That’s simply not true. The same way it’s not true that my actually performing an act of righteousness (i.e., obedience) gives me ground to boast. The action is mine, yet owing wholly to One outside of me and nothing at all to myself. The dynamic of both justification and sanctification is the same. I actually believe, but that faith is granted to me as a gift. I actually obey, but that obedience is granted to me as a gift. So: how do I get justified/saved/converted? Look to Christ. How do I get sanctified? Look to Christ.

            Also, to make that conclusion (the above italics) — given all I’ve written here — is a less-than-honest handling of my comments. I can’t imagine how I could have been more clear that there’s no grounds for boasting.

            The basis is Christ’s own life, death, and resurrection.

            Again, I think this fails to represent the emphasis Paul gives to faith. Christ lived, died, and was resurrected outside of me. So how do I get that life, death, and resurrection to be imputed to my account? The answer is: I must believe. Hence the Gospel call to repentance and faith. I understand that it’s impossible for a depraved sinner to believe, and for that we’re entirely dependent on sovereign grace. But it doesn’t make anything I’ve said above less true.

            To put it another way: since I believe I’m truly saved, I count myself among the number of those elect from before the foundation of the world. This means that Christ lived, died, and was raised for me 2,000 years ago. But for the first 16 years of my life, I was not justified. When did God declare me righteous? When I believed in the person and work of His Son. When did I believe? When God sovereignly quickened my dead heart, opened my eyes, and granted me faith.

            I’ll ask that this be the final comment addressing the issue of justification for two reasons. (1) My original comments on justification were peripheral to my main point, and to continue discussion would only further distract from the main point of the post. (2) I think all that will be helpful about the topic has been said already. If either of you think otherwise, please feel free to email me.

            That said, I really appreciate both of your comments, and your willingness and patience to interact. Hope to see you in other threads!

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