Faith, Free Will and Salvation: The Heresy of Monergism

According to this definition of Monergism:

Monergism (monergistic regeneration) is a redemptive blessing purchased by Christ for those the Father has given Him (1 Pet 1:3, John 6:37, 39). This grace works independently of any human cooperation and conveys that power into the fallen soul whereby the person who is to be saved is effectually enabled to respond to the gospel call (Acts 2:39, 1 Cor 1:2, 9, 24, Rom 8:30 John 1:13, Acts 13:48). It is that supernatural power of God alone whereby we are granted the spiritual ability and desire to comply with the conditions of the covenant of grace; that is, to apprehend the Redeemer by a living faith, to come up to the terms of salvation, to repent of idols and to love God and the Mediator supremely. The Holy Spirit, in quickening the soul, mercifully capacitates and inclines God’s elect to the spiritual exercise of faith in Jesus Christ (John 6:44, 1 John 5:1). This instantaneous and intensely personal work of God is the means by which the Spirit brings us into living union with Him. . . .

To summarize, those dead in sin (Eph 2:1,5,8), play no part in their own new birth (Rom 3:11, 12; 8:7) and are just as passive as a new born physical baby in the regenerative act. However, once restored with a new sense and given spiritual understanding through Word and Spirit, the soul’s new disposition immediately plays an active roll in conversion (repentance and faith). Thus, man does not cooperate in his regeneration but rather, infallibly responds in faith to the gospel as the Holy Spirit changes our hearts’ disposition (John 3:6-8; 19-21). Faith is, therefore, not something produced by our unregenerated human nature. The fallen sinner has no moral ability or inclination to believe prior to the new birth. Instead, the Holy Spirit must open one’s ears to the preaching of the gospel if one would desire to hear and believe.

The author is misleading when he claims, “this [i. e., monergism] been the historic teaching of the Church among its greatest theologians,” for the names he gives are:

Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther (who considered this doctrine the heart of the Reformation), John Calvin, John Owen, the Puritans of the 17th century, Augustine, George Whitefield, and some contemporary pastors and theologians such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul, D.A. Carson, Michael Horton, J.I. Packer, James Montgomery Boice, and signatories to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.

In other words, by “historic church” he means only the church of the last five hundred years. (He also mischaracterizes St. John Cassian as a semi-Pelagian, which is just false.)

But in fact, the historic, biblical and orthodox belief of the Church about soteriology is one of synergism, which is exemplified in the following passages (though others could be mentioned), which the author himself avoids:

For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is working in you, both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)

What does it profit, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Is that kind of faith able to save him? if a brother or sister is naked and destitute of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” but you do not give them the necessary things of the body, what is the benefit? Thus also that faith, if it does not have works, is dead, being by itself. But someone will say, “You have faith, and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by means of my works. You believe God is one. You do well. Even the demons believe–and they shudder! But do you want to know, O foolish man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered Isaac his son on the altar? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by means of his works faith was made perfect? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” And he was called a friend of God. You see then that a man is justified by works, and not by faith only. Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by means of works, when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (James 2:14-26)

For it is impossible for those who were once enlightened, and have tasted of the heavenly gift, and became partakers of the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the good word of God and the powerful deeds of the age to come, and having fallen away, to renew them again to repentance, since they crucify again for themselves the Son of God, and hold Him up to contempt. For the earth which drinks the rain often coming upon it, and bears suitable vegetation for those on account of whom it is cultivated, receives a blessing from God; but if it bears thorns and thistles, it is worthless and near to being cursed, of which the end is for burning. But we are persuaded concerning you, beloved, of better things and those pertaining to salvation, even though we speak in this manner. For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister. But we desire that each one of you show the same diligence to the full assurance of hope until the end, lest you become dull, but become imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. (Hebrews 6:4-12)

Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider one another for the stirring up of love and of good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves, just as is the custom for some, but exhorting one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. For if we sin willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery zeal being about to devour the adversaries. Anyone disregarding the law of Moses dies without compassions on the testimony of two or three witnesses. By how much worse punishment, do you think, will he be deemed worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, and has regarded as common the blood of the covenant, by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay,” says the Lord. And again, “The LORD will judge His people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God! But remember the former days, in which after you were enlightened, you endured a great struggle of sufferings, in part being exposed publicly, both to reproaches and to afflictions, and in part having become partners of those treated in this way. For you sympathized with me in my chains, and you received the plunder of your possessions with joy, knowing that you have for yourselves a better and enduring possession in heaven. Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has a great recompense. For you have need of endurance, so that having done the will of God, you may receive the promise: “For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not delay. But the just shall live by faith, and if he withdraws, My soul has no pleasure in him.” But we are not of those shrinking back to destruction, but of faith, to the saving of the soul. (Hebrews 10:23-39)

Unfortunately, the afore-cited monergist defines synergism as a strawman which he then knocks down:

Before defining monergism, we should start on more familiar ground to 21st century man by explaining the more familiar “synergism”, which the majority of our churches teach today. Synergism is the doctrine that the act of being born again is achieved through a combination of human will and divine grace. (From Greek sunergos, working together : sun-, syn- + ergon, work). The Century Dictionary defines synergism as

“…the doctrine that there are two efficient agents in regeneration, namely the human will and the divine Spirit, which, in the strict sense of the term, cooperate. This theory accordingly holds that the soul has not lost in the fall all inclination toward holiness, nor all power to seek for it under the influence of ordinary motives.”

In other words, synergists believe that faith itself, a principle standing independent and autonomous of God’s action of grace, is something the natural man must add or contribute toward the price of his salvation. Unregenerate man, in this scheme, is left to his freewill and natural ability to believe or reject God. Synergists teach that God’s grace takes us part of the way to salvation but that the [fallen, rebellious] human will must determine the final outcome. It does this by reaching down into an autonomous principle within in its fallen unrenewed nature in order to either produce a right thought or create a right volition toward God.

He then goes on to create this chart which similarly mischaracterizes synergism.

In point of fact, as the above Scriptural texts show, it is not a 50-50 proposition, that “God takes us halfway” but then we “add” the rest. In point of fact it is a 100-100 proposition, in which the human agent and God are united in total to one another. Monergism posits an either/or: either man is not fallen and can act to receive grace, or man is fallen and cannot act to receive grace. But according to the teaching of the historic Church, man is fallen and can act to receive grace. In other words, orthodoxy rejects the necessary presupposition of monergism that man is totally depraved not merely forensically but volitionally, and that such depravity excludes free will. But if one takes away that presupposition, monergism cannot go forward in its argument.

Furthermore, the principle of orthodox soteriology is based on the doctrine of the Incarnation and the condemnation of the belief of only one will (the divine will) in Christ at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, a heresy known as monothelitism.

As the Councils taught, Christ has two natures and two wills in one Person. For if Christ did not have both a human will and nature and a divine will and nature, the human will and nature could not be saved. But if Christ has assumed human nature and will, then the teaching that human will is not free is to assume that Christ’s human will was not free, and that Christ, himself, in his human will could not act in concert with the will of God, except that only the divine will in himself is operative. But this is to teach heresy. For as Scripture clearly indicates, Jesus’ two wills cooperated in the work of our redemption:

Therefore He was obligated to become like His brothers in all respects, in order that He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, in order that He might make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but having been tempted in all respects in quite the same way as we are, yet without sin. (Hebrews 4:15)

Just as He also says in another place: “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek”; who [Jesus], in the days of His flesh, when He had offered up both prayers and supplications, with strong crying and tears to the One who was able to save Him from death, and was heard because of His fear of God, though He was a Son, He learned obedience by the things which He suffered. And having been perfected, He became the author of eternal salvation to all who obey Him . . . (Hebrews 5:6-9)

Then Jesus said to them, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death. Stay here and watch with Me.” He went a little farther and fell on His face, and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will.” Then He came to the disciples and found them sleeping, and said to Peter, “What? Were you not strong enough to watch with Me one hour? Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. Indeed the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Again, a second time, He went away and prayed, saying, “O My Father, if this cup cannot pass away from Me unless I drink it, let Your will be done.” (Matthew 26:38-42)

In other words, Jesus’ human will was brought into conformity with the divine will, meaning human will was and is free to respond to God. Otherwise, any discussion of human volition, pre- or post-regeneration, is moot. Even if we posit that human will was in bondage up until the ministry of Christ (which creates all kinds of problems with regard to Old Testament saints), post-Resurrection the human will is free in the hypostasis of the Son (Cf. Romans 5:12-19)

(For an important theologian and his teaching on free will, divine Providence and salvation, cf. St. John of Damascus, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Books II.24-III.1 [link starts at Bk II.24].)

In other words, monergists do two things: they separate out soteriology from Christology and effectively deny human free will of Christ, which is no different than teaching monothelitism, and thus espousing a heresy.

14 thoughts on “Faith, Free Will and Salvation: The Heresy of Monergism

  1. Clifton,

    Thanks for this post. This is a topic of special interest in my family, since the relatives on my wife’s side are all either Calvinists or at least still heavily influenced by Calvinism. Discussions on this issue are frequent but agreement is rare or short-lived and I don’t always feel capable of articulate debate on the topic. I tend to end by throwing up my hands and saying something like this:

    “Yes, it is God who saves us. We could never save ourselves. But God does not save us against our wills. We must cooperate with his desire for our salvation. This is so because God desires us to live in a union of love with us and love must be freely given or else it isn’t love. The fact that we are called to be agents in our own salvation is not a circumscription of God’s total power, but an illumination of His character, a reflection of His humility and love.”

    I have never needed another answer (I wasn’t raised a Calvinist anyway, so I don’t have the baggage), but my relatives are not always satisfied. I wonder if this doesn’t have something to do with the different ways in which we understand salvation. I understand it as a process, life long, which is largely indistinguishable from “sanctification.” They tend to envision it more as a momentary and singular act of God, after which human agency comes into play in “sanctification.” Once the scales have been removed (that is, once God has saved us against our will through His predestinational act) then we are capable of agency but this can have no bearing on our salvation but only on the degree of our sanctification. –This is the line taken in response to my position most often.

    Two of the passages that you mentioned as ignored by the author in question are often used by my relatives to support their position:

    “For by grace you are saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast. For we are His handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)”

    -To this, my relatives might say that the key for understanding the passage is the phrase “it is a gift of God.” It is a gift of God that saves us and we have nothing to do with it. After that, however, we can pursue “good works” for sanctification.

    “So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is working in you, both to will and to do for His good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12-13)”

    – Again, my relatives might say that this passage deals with issues of sanctification and not salvation. We work out, then, the consequences of our salvation, but not our actual salvation.

    So when you say that “…human will was and is free to respond to God,” my Calvinist relatives would agree. They would say that we are free to respond to God only after He has united us to Himself, as Christ’s humanity and divinity were already united in His person. They would say that Christ’s humanity is not an example of the capacities of our humanity until we are also ourselves united to God (salvation) by God’s act.

    The writer that you’re critiquing seems to be going down this same pathway when he writes that:

    “However, once restored with a new sense and given spiritual understanding through Word and Spirit, the soul’s new disposition immediately plays an active roll in conversion (repentance and faith).”

    My critique is that there are certain strong passages even in scripture, which you quoted, esp. Hebrews, which have to be ignored in this Calvinist scheme. Second, I think that the salvation-as-a-single-moment concept is just plain wrong and that salvation and “sanctification” are inextricably linked. Third, I think that this whole scheme ignores Love, and divine Love’s primacy in our very creation as well as in the economy of our salvation, and in God’s intention behind our very existence. They have responses to these also, of course, but I won’t get into that.

    So Clifton, if you’ll let me play devil’s advocate (or should I say ‘Calvin’s advocate’) for a moment, how might you respond to all of this? Perhaps you have some thoughts that I might be able to use next time the intractable topic comes up again.

  2. Calvinism is not theology, but an ideology. Instead of starting with the Incarnation, it begins with man’s total depravity, builds off this single premise, then bends Scripture around the belief system instead of letting the Bible – and the historic Church – speak for themselves.

  3. Very interesting post. If you don’t mind, I am working up a reply at Nicene Theology. I hope the dialogue is constructive! 8)

    I tried the “Trackback” link, but it’s giving me a “Forbidden” error …

  4. That’s actually a really nice platitude, Clever D, but those Calvinists are slippery fish, and I’m yet to find a silver bullet to cure a Calvinist of Calvinism in a debate.

  5. “He also mischaracterizes St. John Cassian as a semi-Pelagian, which is just false…”

    Claiming Cassian was a “semi-pelagian” is just one of my pet peeves when it comes to Calvinists. And there a quite a few!

    “I’m yet to find a silver bullet to cure a Calvinist of Calvinism in a debate.”

    It doesn’t exist IMO, because Calvinism is a neat and tidy answer to a question that doesn’t need to be asked in the first place. It fundemantally misunderstands the very foundation of the Christian faith: The Incarnation.

    From this they reject out of hand the concept of paradox, which is so neccesary in grasping the Church’s teaching and experience. At least that has been my experience. Discussing Orthodoxy or patristic teaching with the Reformed is one of the more challenging and frustrating experiences of ecumenical dialogue–in part because Calvinists tend to be quite educated and “well versed”, but only within a certain philosophical framework.

    Clifton’s point that “they separate out soteriology from Christology and effectively deny human free will of Christ, which is no different than teaching monothelitism” is as close as one can get to a “silver bullet” in terms of church history and patristic dogma.

    The tricky thing is that Calvinism, popularly understood today, is far more reaching and subtle than classic monthelitism in it soteriology and Christology….

  6. Instead of starting with the Incarnation, it begins with man’s total depravity, builds off this single premise, then bends Scripture around the belief system instead of letting the Bible – and the historic Church – speak for themselves.

    I don’t think this is Calvinism’s starting point. Rather, I think they place primary importance on God’s sovereignty – his total, exhaustive sovereignty. Synergism, by attaching a role (albeit a small one) to man undermines God’s sovereignty by taking the entire salvific process out of his hands. It is an easy move from total sovereignty to total depravity, since anything else creates a freedom in man that impinges on God’s. And I have to agree that Calvinism misunderstands the Incarnation – it seems to make it almost an unnecessary garnish.

  7. I have to agree with your estimation, Nathan. In my experience with my Calvinist relatives, they seem to be primarily concerned with maintaining a vision of God so totally, exhaustively sovreign that He could never – would never – condescend to grant any role or agency to man in the accomplishment of his salvation. They see the idea as somehow diminishing God or limiting His power. They forget (or ignore, or gloss over) the fact that in Christ God’s character is revealed as “meek and humble” and “made perfect in weakness.” I try to explain it to them that it’s not that God’s power is in any way limited, of course. He could easily save us against our will and bring us into a sort of union with Him, but it would not be love, and it would be at odds with His original plan. Rather He diminishes Himself for our sake, He makes room for our will, so to speak, so that we might truly and freely enter into the union of love with Him for which we were created in the first place.

  8. Nathan,

    “almost an unnecessary garnish”

    I don’t think there’s any “almost” about it. In the Calvinist scheme, the entire economy of salvation is essentially arbitrary: what matters is God’s eternal decree, and the Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the mission of the Church are simply the way God arbitrarily chose to bring that eternal decree to fruition.

    In orthodox soteriology, on the other hand, Christology and soteriology always have a necessary, close, and interdependent relationship. Indeed, throughout the patristic Christological controversies, the key question about any Christological doctrine was “what does this doctrine say about our salvation?” Nothing that God does in the economy of salvation is without its implications as to who and what we are, how we are saved, and what the content of our salvation is.

    Thus God becoming man was not simply something that might or might not have happened, to realize an eternal decree of salvation, but rather is something that had to happen because it enables and brings about the union between God and man which is the very meaning of salvation. And part of what is united – both in the Incarnation and in us, in our salvation – is a fully real, fully free human will.

    At the center of the Calvinist vision is an infinite gulf between a holy and sovereign God and a fallen, guilty, depraved, and powerless humanity. And that vision can exist, it seems to me, only when we take our eyes off of Christ, in Whom that gulf has been bridged – indeed in Whom the gulf has disappeared. In Christ, we see not only who God is and what He is like, but we also see who and what we are.

  9. “Yes, it is God who saves us. We could never save ourselves. But God does not save us against our wills. We must cooperate with his desire for our salvation. This is so because God desires us to live in a union of love with us and love must be freely given or else it isn’t love. The fact that we are called to be agents in our own salvation is not a circumscription of God’s total power, but an illumination of His character, a reflection of His humility and love.”

    Amen and amen! Now, one thing to take into consideration with brother Calvin, is that he too realized that he painted himself into a rhetorical corner with his thinking on free will. He was a reactive man who had great difficulties with the Roman theologies at the time.

    Cliff, I may have just found my desire to finish that thesis. My friend John Calvin is being misrepresented once again.

  10. Tripp:

    Cliff, I may have just found my desire to finish that thesis. My friend John Calvin is being misrepresented once again.

    That’ll do it, won’t it?!

    And as your motivational speaker, I say: Now, get to work on that thesis, or you’ll be living . . . in a van . . . down by the river!

  11. Tripp, I understand that I may use the term “Calvinist” rather loosely. I’ve never read, and have no special interest in reading, much of Calvin’s work. My only experience with his “ism” here is how it shows up in those I know who claim it for themselves. So let it be said that I’m not trying to represent or misrepresent Calvin, I’m just trying to represent (and critique) what is offered to me as Calvin’s ‘ism’ by relatives.

  12. I do think that Calvinism has a huge blind spot when it comes to Christology and the Incarnation. The theological system seems to make it inherently difficult to keep Christ as the center of salvation history if we are saved “because” God chose us to be (and thus others not to be) before time began.

    If our salvation is the direct result of God’s eternal, sovereign decree rather than the result of Christ’s atonement, then God could have chosen any means that fit his fancy to save us. He could have incarnated as a rooster or, as Ockham jested, he could have required that we hate him in order to be saved.

    This blindspot does not, however, cause all of Reformed theology to come crashing down upon itself. Synergism, or some measure of human cooperation, is by far the only remaining option.

  13. Doug:

    Re: your first comment. To the degree that I have any comments on the matter, you can read them in my post today (17 March), “The Clarification of the Incarnation.”

    That being said, however, I do not think committed Calvinists can be argued out of their own positions. My brief and limited experience is that they refuse to accept the antinomies of their system as necessarily fatal to their system, and they utterly reject any interpretations of Scripture that do not first accept the presuppositions of their system (i.e., the interpretation of Philippians 2:12-13 in a synergistic way).

    I suppose if one can get them first to accept the Incarnation as paradigmatic for all anthropology and soteriology, one is well on the way toward prying their fingers from their hold on Calvinism.

    Another route would be to point out that starting with God’s attributes (i. e., sovereignty, omnipotence, etc.) inescapably result in antinomies since human reason is not capable of grapsing God’s essence.

    But anyway, if Calvinism is true, they won’t be convinced if God doesn’t will it.

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