Monergism and Synergism: what does the Bible say?

Is salvation a personal decision by man to accept the pleadings of God, or is salvation the complete work of God to change man’s will?

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Introduction

Now, you may be wondering what “monergism” and “synergism” mean and what I mean when I say that I am a “monergist.” The first term is a compound word from the Greek mono for “one” and ergos for “work,” meaning that salvation is “the work of one” (God). It is the opposite of “synergism,” the prefix syn- meaning “together” and is the belief that salvation is a cooperative work between God and man. The clearest example of synergistic soteriology is that of the Roman Catholic Church with all her sacraments, prayers for the dead, and indulgences.

A Biblical Standard

Typically, the term monergism is regarded in our cultural vernacular to be synonymous with Calvinism, which is very unfortunate. Although this colloquialism is understandable, John Calvin being a very notable monergist, it is misleading and creates an impression of sectarianism, following a particular teacher rather than Scripture. The label “Augustinian” is not any better and in some cases worse than the label Calvinism. Yet, please do not misunderstand me; both Augustine and Calvin were great expositors of Scripture which the Lord raised up. I agree with much of their exegesis, especially regarding soteriology, but I do not agree with everything that either of them taught, particularly in regard to ecclesiology, that is, how the church is organized and the nature of the ordinances. My standard is the Bible and my master is Jesus Christ; there are no preachers or teachers with whom I totally agree. B.B. Warfield described my feelings toward Augustine and Calvin very well when he said:

The Reformation was the triumph of Augustine’s soteriology over Augustine’s ecclesiology.

This is only partly true, however. While it is true that the purest form of Augustinian ecclesiology is the Roman Catholic Church, and while it was Augustinian soteriology that ultimately launched the Reformation against Rome, the reformers like Luther and Calvin did not go far enough in addressing Rome’s ecclesiological errors. Although no protestant church is structured like Rome, they all baptize unregenerate infants and have some form of hierarchy, two things which in my view of history led to the downfall of the mainline denominations in the present day. It is for these reasons that I am a firm Baptist, believing strongly that the local church’s only head is Jesus Christ, led by a Bible-reading and praying congregation of regenerate believers.

However, I am also a monergist, or in colloquial terms I suppose one could call me a kind of Calvinist as I do believe 4 out of the 5 points of TULIP; I reject the concept of “Irresistible Grace.” The colloquial term also has a lot of other baggage that I reject. Furthermore, some of the other letters in that particular acronym can be misleading without defining the terms; limited atonement is more accurately defined as “Definite Atonement,” but that is the subject of a later article. Indeed, for years I argued against all of the five points of TULIP because I had a misunderstanding of definitions. The majority of debates regarding Calvinism stem from a misunderstanding of terminology and semantics by both sides.

The Doctrine of Monergism

First, I am a Monergist because Scripture is clear that salvation is fully and completely a work of God and is not based in any sense on an act of the human will (John 1:12-13). Yet, make no mistake, humans do have a “free will,” but this term is very often defined in a way that is absolutely against Scripture. Augustine said it well:

Man is absolutely free to do whatever he wants to do. [The problem is] a man’s free will avails for nothing except to sin.1

In Scripture we read the apostle Paul quoting the Psalmist and the Preacher, “There is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:11b-12; cf. Ps. 14:1-3; 53:1-3; Eccles. 7:20). Further, we read the prophet Jeremiah say, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9). Although Pelagius, the heretic of old, taught that the will was totally free, inclined to neither good nor evil, Scripture clearly teaches that all humans since the fall of Adam are born with an inherent sin nature. There is not one piece of our lives that has not been affected by sin. The Roman Catholic Church is the purest form of Pelagian soteriology and the history of that church reveals the belief that the only way to achieve the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness is to go away and live in a box, or a monastery, a convent, or a cave, because of all the outside influences and temptations in this world. Yet, man’s primary problem is not his environment but himself; you can put me in a monastery but it is still me in the monastery – me with my own perverse heart, me with my own inordinate desires, and me wrestling with what it means to be a new person in Christ and ratifying that on a daily basis. I sin because I am a sinner; that is the condition in which I was born. David, as he repents of his particular sin with Bathsheba, looks back throughout his life and realizes that the problem was not the sin itself but the nature that caused the sin. He says, “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me” (Psalm 51:5). Our wills are based on what we desire – sin and having things our way rather than God’s way. The human will is free only in the sense that we choose without any compulsion. The only people in history with a totally free will inclined to neither good nor evil were Adam and Eve in their unfallen state.

Perhaps the clearest illustration of this is in the fact that the Lord gave humans 4,000 years to believe his promises of deliverance in a coming Messiah and yet, they still would not believe. Instead, the very people to whom God had revealed himself, consistently stoned the prophets that he sent them (Matthew 23:29-36). Then, when the Messiah finally arrived, he looked out at Jerusalem, the people who had been given more light than anyone, and wept at the how much sin had blinded them and bound their wills against God (Matt. 23:37):

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

If even Jerusalem (the people that God had given his oracles) were not willing, then what chance was there that the Gentiles would choose him by an act of their free wills? If salvation required any personal decision apart from the Lord’s sovereign election then not one person on the planet would make it to heaven. God’s eternal election of some over others is intended to magnify the praise of those he plucked out of this evil world system (Ephesians 1:3-6), knowing that, but for the grace of God, we would have gone our own way into hell like that vast majority of humankind who are on the broad way of destruction. If God had only chosen one person to be saved from his wrath then that would still have been incredible mercy which he did not even give the angels when they sinned.

Monergism in Practice

Yet, aside from being convinced of monergism from Scripture, I also am convinced from a practical standpoint. The second reason I am a monergist is summed up in the question regarding why some believe the gospel and some reject the gospel after having been presented with the same evidence. For example, I am sure many of you are familiar with the probability that the mathematician Peter Stoner (Pasadena College) worked out for one person fulfilling just 8 out of the 300 Old Testament prophecies that Jesus fulfilled. According to Stoner, that probability is 1 in 1017, the equivalent of covering the state of Texas with silver dollars two feet deep, marking one coin and stirring the whole mass thoroughly all over the State, and then to send someone out blindfolded to walk around and pick up the marked coin on the first try.

That is only 8 prophecies; Jesus fulfilled over 300, the probability of such encompassing numbers impossible for the human brain to comprehend. Yet, there remain scores of people blind to this seemingly obvious truth that Jesus is Lord and continue in their rejection of Him. The only obvious reason for such rejection is that the human will has been so corrupted by sin that people are incapable of believing even the most basic truth about God.

The Lord illustrated this inability by the flesh to believe in John 3:1-8 when speaking with Nicodemus on the necessity of the New Birth. Jesus illustrated the New Birth using the concept of the wind, saying:

The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.

Here, Dr. Roy Beaman, the long-time professor at both New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, noted three points of comparison between the wind and the New Birth.2 That we are to compare each of these points about the wind with the New Birth, and such is not mere fanciful speculation by a seminary professor, is clear by Jesus’s words, “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.”

First, both the wind and the New Birth act in a free and sovereign manner: “blows wherever it pleases.” Second, both are mysterious: “you cannot tell.” No one can explain all about the New Birth any more than one can tell the direction and source of the wind. The New Birth is a mystery, even to the admiring heart of the saint; how much more a puzzle and an enigma to those of this world? Third, both the wind and the New Birth may be known: “You hear its sound.” We can see, hear, and feel the effects of the wind, and in the same way, one knows when he or she is born again. Such a great and gracious transaction cannot take place in the soul without one’s knowing it; even the world will see something different by how the genuine Christian lives (cp. John 13:35).

If you were to ask me whether or not I am saved, my answer is an immediate Yes. I have full assurance of that fact. Yet, if you were to ask me why God chose to save me while choosing to pass over in sorrow the non-elect by allowing them to go their own way, then I have no clue. The wind blows wherever it pleases and my finite human mind has little capacity for understanding God’s purposes in election and reprobation. He is God and I am not. As Jesus later says to Nicodemus in the famous verse that every Christian knows by heart, “For God loved the world in this way: he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That is, God loved this entire world in such a manner that before He made the world He looked through time, looked on certain individuals in love (Ephesians 1:4-6; Romans 8:28-30), and designed a way to keep that portion of humans from perishing in His wrath. He did not have to do that and did not even love the angels in that manner, providing no means of reconciliation for any angel that rebelled (Jude 6). Therefore, the angels desire to look into the things pertaining to our salvation (1 Peter 1:12).

Conclusion

Although, monergism can be controversial, it is clearly the teaching of the Bible. This does not negate, however, human responsibility to trust in Jesus, obey his commandments, and witness to the lost. The reason the apostle Paul preached and suffered so greatly was that he may have a part in bringing the gospel to those whom God had elected (2 Timothy 2:10).

Those whom God has chosen to save will ultimately be saved and that is a great comfort for our mission efforts in our neighborhoods, but it will not necessarily be by our witness. We must press on and not disqualify ourselves from our reward (1 Corinthians 9:27). We still have the responsibility to trust and obey our Lord.


  1. Roger Olson, The Story of Christian Theology, InterVarsity Press (Downers Grove, IL., 1984) p. 272.
  2. Roy Beaman. Beaman’s Commentary on the Gospel of John, Ed. Michael Spradlin, Innovo Publishing, 2017, John 3:8.

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