Here we are at the official halfway point of the alphabet. Quick review: A is for Atonement; B is for Born Again; C is for Christology; D is for Doctrine; E is for Ecclesiology; F is for Foreknowledge; G is for Glory; H is for Hamartiology; I is for Inspiration; J is for Justification; K is for Kenosis Theory; L is for Lordship Salvation and now “M” is for Monergism. On a brief side note, we (Katie and I) have read and continue to read numerous books on the alphabet to Emma and baby girl. So it is fun to explore the alphabet in the manner of theology with you and I am excited to do so with my daughters too.
To understand our word we must set it up against its counterpart. This as it turns out sets up two camps of Christian thinking namely, Calvinism and Arminianism. Calvinist hold that God’s election, or choosing sinners, is solely a sovereign act of God while Arminians see it more as a joint effort. Both agree about the importance of grace but disagree over how that grace is needed. Here we see the two words up for debate, monergism and synergism. There is not really a third option available unless one wants to affirm Pelagianism (which you don’t). For Pelagianism affirms that all are born with the same purity and moral abilities as Adam. Advocates of this view don’t believe in original sin, or total depravity, or the imputation of Adam’s sin, or substitutionary atonement. Pelagianism was first condemned as heresy at the Council of Carthage in 418AD and again at the Council of Ephesus in 431AD. With that set aside, though much more could be said, let’s take a look at the two other words and there meanings.
Monergism contains the prefix mon- meaning “one” and the word ergon means “work.” Thus the idea behind monergism is “one working.” Synergism on the other hand contains the prefix syn- meaning “with” and again ergon meaning “work.” Thus synergism has at least two working together, a cooperative effort. The difference between monergism (Calvinist view) and synergism (Arminians view) is in regards to how each views their salvation being brought about. Is regeneration the sole work of God or is it cooperative?
A look at a passage of Scripture will clear things up and answer this question for us as we seek to understand the work of God in the salvation of mankind. We will take a look at Ephesians 2. Verses 1-3 says, “And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.” Paul is telling the believers in Ephesus what they once were, specifically what they once were before Christ saved them. Three things stand out: first, they were dead in their trespasses and sin; second, they were sons of disobedience; and third, they were by nature children of wrath. What can a dead person do? Nothing. They certainly do not cooperate for left to themselves they do not choose the things of God and would not without the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration.
Paul continues in vv. 4-7, “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” Did you catch the great distinction Paul pointed out? “…even when we were dead in our trespasses, [God] made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved” (v. 5). In spite of the fact that we were dead, not cooperating in anyway, God made us alive together with Christ AND raised us up with Him AND seated us in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. Why did God go to such an extent for those who were His enemies, haters of the light, and dead in their sins? So the immeasurable riches of God’s grace might be seen in the kindness He showed the believer in Christ Jesus. Once the Holy Spirit regenerates the heart of a sinner we receive Christ by faith. Thus faith does not produce regeneration rather regeneration precedes faith. For the Holy Spirit doesn’t whisper in the ear of a sinner “Would you please cooperate with me and have faith so you can be born again.” We are born again and then have the ability to receive Christ by faith (which is also a gift).
Then the beautiful verses of Eph. 2 reach a climax, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (vv. 8-10). Here we see the marvelous wonder of the grace of God toward sinners in Christ Jesus. After looking at this passage in Ephesians you are hopefully ready to answer the questions, does God alone change the heart of a sinner or does that change of heart rest on the willingness of the sinner to be changed? It is God alone who changes the hearts of sinners.
RC Sproul points out, “Both sides in the dispute agree that grace is a necessary condition. They simply disagree over monergism and synergism, over whether the grace of regeneration is effectual or, to use more popular language, irresistible…We are simply unable to convert ourselves or even to cooperate with God in the matter. Any cooperation presupposes that a change has already taken place, for until that change takes place, no one cooperates. Those who believe that man cooperates in regeneration hold to a form of works righteousness” (Everyone’s a Theologian, 229-230). We have been saved by grace alone, a gift for the rebel sinner, not a result of works.