Updated: Oct 23, 2020
My Humbling Journey From Synergism to Monergism by Rick Caldwell
"You must be born again." These are the very words of Christ during his nocturnal exchange with a teacher of the Jews, the Pharisee Nicodemus, in John 3:7. These were the words etched in my mind as a member of the Christian community. Like so many, I learned various ideas about those poignant words often divorced from any meaningful consideration of the context or exegesis. Not denying that God ultimately saves sinners and convinced that the grace of God was ineffectual unless one availed it through repentance and faith, I deduced the following:
God is willing to save, and He wants to save (Matthew 23:37).
He has given free will to humanity (Psalm 115:16) to accept or reject His gracious appeals.
Because God is love (1 John 4:8) and a loving God would not force anyone to choose Him, the hallmark of true love is choice.
I had a synergistic understanding of those verses. I will define monergism and synergism later.
Numerous verses command us to repent and believe; therefore, I surmised that if God gave a command, we (all of humankind) could exercise that command; a divine enablement must accompany a divine command. When it came to "how I got saved," I recounted a familiar narrative: "I heard the gospel preached. I responded positively to the gospel. I repented and believed." See God did His part by sending His Son and making the gospel appeal, and I did my part by responding in obedience. Any notion that God had a decree to graciously secure the salvation of individual hell-deserving sinners before the foundation of the world had no place in my theological framework. It had no place within my church community. And it had no place in my thinking because I had already explained, "I know how I got saved."
But was I wrong? The height of arrogance and pride is the conviction of something without giving it full consideration. Was my church community wrong? In my quest to satiate this nagging question, in hindsight, I now realize that the relentless desire for the truth was but one of the many graces of God that illuminated not only my restless mind but gave much-needed consolation to my soul. For consider what the apostle Peter declares about a believer's noble pursuit of knowledge:
Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. (2 Pet. 1:2–3 NAS95)
Now for this very reason also, applying all diligence, in your faith supply moral excellence, and in your moral excellence, knowledge, (2 Pet. 1:5 NAS95)
Was I wrong about "how I got saved"? This question could not be resolved by merely doubling down on my presuppositions about the nature of God and the nature of human freedom. I did not fight the battle for the truth within the echo chamber of church tradition, which only promulgated my presuppositions but never challenged them. I had to take the fight to the inerrant Word of God - Rather, let God be found true, though every man be found a liar (Romans 3:4).
Some dismissed my endeavor as a mere exercise of intellectual gymnastics, relegating such pursuits to the bygone era of deep theological inquisition. In their view, such an enterprise had no practical application in Christian living and evangelism, and it would only sew the seeds of arrogance, pride, and division. They would say rather unconvincingly, "See the Bible is clear. If you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. Stop trying to complicate matters." Others would say, "You simply need to be open to the mystery of God." Ironically, the opposition lit a fire under me to pursue answers from Scripture with unfettered determination.
Before diving into some of my biblical findings, I must define the terms monergism and synergism. So much unnecessary confusion and misunderstanding is the result of not clearly defining terms. Let's start with synergism since this is the view taught in most churches. 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) (Hendryx, 2012). With synergism, man in the fall has not lost his ability to respond positively to the divine grace of God. Since the human will must be added to divine grace, it is not God but man who determines the outcome of salvation. With synergism, there is no application of effectual grace to enable the unrepentant rebel to believe since belief and unbelief are the innate feature set of fallen yet autonomous man. Monergism teaches that salvation is entirely a work of God; that man can contribute nothing toward the price of his salvation, and that one is saved wholly and unconditionally by grace through faith. That faith itself is a gift of God. The word "monergism" consists of two main parts. The Greek prefix "mono" signifies "one", "single", or "alone" while the suffix "ergon" means "to work". Taken together, it means "the work of one." (Hendryx, 2012) Monergism takes a radically different view (radical from the viewpoint taught in most churches) of man's sinful condition. With monergism, fallen, unregenerate man lacks the inclination to seek God; he is dead in his sins and unable to exercise any spiritual good. It is critical to understand with monergism God does not "do the believing" for man but graciously empowers him and restores him through the Holy Spirit so that he will respond positively in repentance and faith.
The Bible's radical view of man's depravity was the straw that broke the camel's back for me. I was the recipient of man-centered preaching for most of my life. Words like "sovereignty," "glory," and even "sin" and "wrath" were typically discussed without much depth and overshadowed by God's general love for the world. There was an unwritten and unspoken rule that seemed to suggest that addressing sin biblically in all its dimensions would be too melancholy. In contrast, messages of promise, hope, and moralism should be the focus. "See Christ is the great physician who heals ailing patients for by his stripes we are healed." I heard this statement expressed in different ways without clarity as to the severity of the ailment. Beyond questions around the design of Christ's atoning work, the question that leaped to the vanguard of my mind was what was the extent man's ailment. Even in the synergistic preaching I heard for most of my life, the preacher would attest we were dead in our trespasses and sins, but my probing question was: How dead is dead?
Ephesians 2 was a very critical text in my apprehension of the "deadness" of man in sin. This chapter is not foreign territory for the Christian church. The ubiquitous Ephesians 2:8-9 has it made its way into the statements of faith on most church websites, but what is typically lacking is God's grace juxtaposed to man's depravity. The apostle Paul begins the chapter with poignant but significant words.
And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. (Eph. 2:1–2 NAS95)
The first thing to consider is that deadness in sin does not mean that man is inactive. Man is very active. Someone might argue that deadness in sin is merely conveying the idea that man has been separated from God by sin. While I would not deny the details of that argument, it still does not adequately address the force of argumentation that Paul uses in these verses. Beyond being separated from God, he informs us that the unregenerate man "walks" after the pattern of the sinful world in full agreement with Satan. The apostle Paul uses the word "walk" in the epistles to teach about a pattern of conduct and behavior. Here are a few examples:
For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them. (Eph. 2:10 NAS95)
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, (Eph. 4:1 NAS95)
So this I say, and affirm together with the Lord, that you walk no longer just as the Gentiles also walk, in the futility of their mind, (Eph. 4:17 NAS95)
and walk in love, just as Christ also loved you and gave Himself up for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God as a fragrant aroma. (Eph. 5:2 NAS95)
for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light(Eph. 5:8 NAS95)
Therefore be careful how you walk, not as unwise men but as wise, (Eph. 5:15 NAS95)
Man's condition is exacerbated by the direct influence or power of Satan on unregenerate sinners, referred to as "the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience." Not only do unregenerate sinners behave contrary to the will of God, but the spirit of the Evil One works within them; they are under his power. Someone might protest and declare that this is describing the course of the reprobate, not addressing the universal state of fallen man.
Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. (Eph. 2:3 NAS95)
In verse three, the apostle Paul affirms the universal scope of the dilemma. This dilemma is not an exclusive or unique problem, for this problem plagues the history of fallen man of every nation, every tribe, and every tongue. Paul further explains how our disposition, our mind (our thoughts), and our flesh (our desires) solely focus on gratifying our sins. We were lovers of self instead of lovers of God. Our very nature accounted for us wrath. Wrath evokes the idea of God's righteous indignation, condemnation, and particular judgment. And this was a far cry from what I heard preached from most pulpits. Pastorisms like "God loves you just as you are" or "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" find no quarter against the impossible weight of these verses.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), (Eph. 2:4–5 NAS95)
The tipping point, the point of inflection, finds its home in these two words, "but God." How often had I read these words yet still succumb to my traditions and equally blinded by their familiarity without a semblance of their practical meaning? These words, which were distant from my mind, are now a fountain of ever-flowing water to my soul. These words demonstrate God's monotheistic exclusivism amid a matter so dismal and dire. These words focus on one judge, one architect, one actor; the human will is not under any consideration. The emphasis is solely on what God does. And what did He do? He demonstrated his abundant mercy, not justice to hell-deserving sinners. This mercy is not some vague, sentimental idea but is rooted in a "great love" that actually accomplishes the restoration of sinners to God. The phrase "even when we were dead in transgressions" should not be overlooked, for it informs us that the accomplishment of God in redeeming us occurred outside our subjective experience. Specifically, "we did not go along with God to get right" instead, "God did alone to make us right." "By grace you have been saved," the powerful statement now distilled of sovereign power and significance by anemic preaching has turned the grace of God into a mere offer and possibility of salvation. I thank God that he opened my eyes to see His majesty in salvation.
Finally, back to the phrase "you must be born again," the statement that prompted my years of investigation into the Scriptures that ultimately challenged my long-held presuppositions and church traditions.
Jesus answered and said to him, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3 NAS95)
Jesus Christ explains that one must be γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν (literally "born from above") to see the kingdom of God. Jesus was not referring to physically seeing the kingdom. Christ is referring to perceiving spiritual matters. Unlike the "many [who] believed in His name, observing His signs which He was doing" back in chapter 2, Jesus "was not entrusting Himself to them for He knew all men. " What did Jesus know about all men? Without the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit, the faith produced will fizzle at the finish because it is faulty from the first.
"That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. "Do not be amazed that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' "The wind blows where it wishes and you hear the sound of it, but do not know where it comes from and where it is going; so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:6–8 NAS95)
Commonly overlooked in the exchange between Jesus and Nicodemus is Jesus is not presenting imperatives (or commands). Being born again throughout the New Testament is presented as an indicative; "repent" and "believe" are presented as commands. Secondly, Jesus does not declare that one must repent and believe to be born again. Instead, he states that being born again is solely the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit for "the wind blows where it wishes." Lastly, the necessity of regeneration proceeds the command to believe (verse 16), and those who believe (those who come to the Light) is said to be a work accomplished by God (verses 20 and 21)
In my pursuit of the truth, much more than my curiosity was satisfied, it gave me a newfound adoration for the grace of God by placing the "amazing" back into amazing grace.
Hendryx, J. (2012, March 3). Monergism vs. Synergism. Retrieved from Monergism: https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/articles/onsite/whatismonergism2.html
Rick Caldwell is a Bible teacher at Lakewood Church of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia. He is actively involved in various church ministries and initiatives, especially initiatives that focus on the urban context. He has over 20 years experience in the information technology field and currently resides in Woodstock, Georgia with his wife Maricruz. Check our Rick's YouTube channel here.