Monergism vs. synergism? Which side is correct?

"Grant what thou commandest, and command what thou dost desire."

With those words, Augustine touched off the historical debate of monergism vs. synergism. Augustine was saying, in essence, that humanity, on its own, cannot obey God nor do what God requires. A British monk named Pelagius took issue with Augustine's statement and argued that humankind can respond to God without any involvement on the Creator's part. Since that point in time, the debate has continued and has taken various interesting twists and turns.

In brief, monergism (often associated with Reformed theology or Calvinism) teaches salvation is the work of God alone. When the Holy Spirit regenerates and saves a person, He does so independent of any cooperation from a person's unregenerate human nature. Thus, God receives all the glory and credit for a person's salvation.

By contrast, synergism (most times associated with Arminianism) asserts salvation requires cooperation between God and the individual. There are various views within synergism with respect to how much God must do before a person responds to the gospel, but the overall belief is that an individual can resist God's call to salvation and, in effect, has the final say over his eternal destiny.

Monergism vs. Synergism – Which side is correct?

It first needs to be said that there are learned theologians on both sides who love God and are committed to the cause of the gospel. Second, the amount of literature devoted to defending each position is literally without measure, and so a short article such as this can only scratch the surface of the debate.

That said, the matter can mostly be reduced to two main questions which, when answered, can provide some direction. The first question is, Does a non-believer possess the moral/spiritual ability to respond to the call of the gospel on his own?

In truth, this is the key question that drives everything else in the monergism vs. synergism discussion. How "free" are we regarding our response to God's salvation call? In his written debate with Erasmus, Martin Luther (who championed monergism) said, "I praise and commend you highly for this also, that unlike all the rest you alone have attacked the real issue, the essence of the matter in dispute." Luther commended Erasmus for focusing on this topic above everything else in his arguments – the matter of a person's moral capability in responding to God's call.

On one end of the spectrum is the teaching of Pelagius, who believed that non-Christians can respond to the gospel call without any help from God whatsoever. However, a close examination of the Scriptures tells a different story.

Jesus makes the simple statement, "No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day" (John 6:44). He repeats the same testimonial later in the same chapter: "And he [Jesus] said, 'This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father'" (John 6:65).

The declaration of Jesus, "No one can come" is a universal negative; it applies to everyone. It is explicit and easy to understand: no one can come to Christ "unless" (the necessary condition) God the Father draws the person. Why? Is it a physical inability?

No, the Bible says it is a moral/spiritual inability: "For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Romans 8:6-7). Paul also says, "The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned" (1 Corinthians 2:14).

In short, the Bible declares that all turn away and rebel against God (Romans 3:10-11) and are dead from the standpoint of being able to respond to God's gospel. Paul 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" (Ephesians 2:1–2).

Non-Pelagian synergists and all monergists agree that a non-Christian cannot come to Christ on his own and, left to himself, will spend eternity separated from God. Both the synergist and monergist testify that God must intervene on behalf of the unbeliever so that the person can be saved.

This, then, leads to the second key question to be answered: How does God enable an unbeliever to accept the gospel call and – just as importantly – does He give such ability to everyone?

As to the first part of the question, if no one can come to Christ unless God the Father draws him/her, then what exactly does God do to the unbeliever so he/she will accept the gospel? How does God intervene? An excerpt from the book of Acts provides an example from the ministry of Paul: "And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to the riverside, where we supposed there was a place of prayer, and we sat down and spoke to the women who had come together. One who heard us was a woman named Lydia, from the city of Thyatira, a seller of purple goods, who was a worshiper of God. The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul" (Acts 16:13–14, emphasis added).

This passage explicitly demonstrates what is called in monergistic thinking the "irresistible" or "effectual call of God." God first moved upon Lydia's heart and enabled her to positively respond to Paul's message. Once this was done, she freely came to Christ just as Jesus said: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out" (John 6:37, emphasis added). It seems a reasonable deduction that, without God's moving upon Lydia's heart, she would not have been saved.

As to the second part of the question – does God draw all people and give them the ability to believe – the synergist claims "yes," and the monergist "no." Who is correct?

The synergist asserts that God provides what is called "prevenient grace" to all people, which awakens them from spiritual deadness and enables them to either accept or reject the gospel. However, biblical support for such a notion is lacking. In fact, there is no explicit statement anywhere in Scripture that describes the concept of prevenient grace. Synergists point to John 1:9 and John 12:32; however, when these verses are exegetically examined, neither is found to support the idea of prevenient grace.

By contrast, the monergistic teaching of irresistible or effectual grace is taught in many places. One passage that both refutes the notion of prevenient grace and supports effectual grace is in Paul's first letter to the Corinthians: "For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (1 Corinthians 1:22–24).

In this passage, Paul divides all of humanity into two categories, Jews and non-Jews, and says a global call to salvation goes out to both sets of people. He then references a subset of both Jews and non-Jews who are "the called." These alone are the ones that come to salvation – the ones that receive the effectual call of God. The others (the "non-called") hear the global call of the gospel, but to them it is either a stumbling block or foolishness.

This statement by Paul clearly refutes the notion that prevenient grace is given to everyone; rather, it supports the teaching that only those who God chooses to regenerate come to faith in Christ. The effectual call cannot be universal, according to the apostle's teaching: there are Jews and Gentiles who have not been called, and there are Jews and Gentiles who have been called. The ones who have been called are saved via the gospel message, indicating that God's grace is always effectual, accomplishing what God intends.

In summary, the debate of monergism vs. synergism has run for centuries and cannot be given justice in such a short article as this. However, much of the dispute can be boiled down to the two key questions we've just addressed.

As to whether a non-believer has the moral ability to come to God on his own, the Scriptures are clear that the answer is "no." That being the case, the next question – whether God enables everyone to come to Christ – is also answered negatively. Instead, God calls only those He has chosen. Those who have been called come willingly, but only after God's Holy Spirit gives them the faith to believe (Ephesians 2:8-9).

The final result is that God receives all the praise and glory for salvation in a person's life. As the great Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards puts it, "Those who have received salvation are to attribute it to sovereign grace alone, and to give all the praise to Him, who makes them to differ from others."

In other words, Augustine was right. God must grant His people the ability to obey the things He commands and desires for them to do.

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