Sanctification: Monergistic or Synergistic?

The issue of the believer’s sanctification has recently become quite a contentious one. The controversy seems principally to center around two questions. The first concerns whether sanctification is through faith [sometimes the phrase “faith alone” is thrown in to confuse matters further], or through “learning and doing.” The second concerns whether sanctification is monergistic [the work of God alone] or synergistic [a cooperative effort between God and the believer]. I believe the first question can and should be answered only in light of the answer we give to the second question.
As in most controversies, the answers to these questions depends, at least to some degree, on the way we define the terms we use. If by “monergistic” we mean believers need not obey God’s clearly revealed commandments in his Word, but need only “let go and let God,” then we must biblically argue that sanctification is synergistic. Certainly, believers cannot be passive in this process any more than we can be passive in our response to the gospel. The gospel calls on sinners to respond actively in faith and repentance, yet we believe the work of regeneration itself is monergistic. We do not cooperate with God in giving ourselves life. My question is whether or not the same can be said of sanctification. It seems the New Testament Scriptures clearly characterize the work of sanctification as God’s work. To argue as a proof of synergism, that Paul writes to the Thessalonians, “this is God’s will, even your sanctification, that you should abstain from fornication” really proves nothing. Could it be that keeping God’s commandments is not sanctification itself but the result of it? If we took the term “conversion” in its broadest sense, it would include God’s work of regeneration and the sinner’s response to it in faith and repentance. In fact, it could even include the lifelong work of sanctification. Generally, however, the terms regeneration and conversion are differentiated; regeneration referring to God’s work and conversion referring to the sinner’s response to that work. If we understand “sanctification” to include both God’s work and our obedience that results from that work, it is obviously a synergistic work. On the other hand, if we view our obedience to God’s commands and our consistent working out of Jesus’ redemptive accomplishments, as our proper response to God’s sanctifying work in us, it is clearly a monergistic work.

Paul, in Philippians 2:12-13, sets forth both our responsibility and our absolute dependence on God in the matter of fulfilling this responsibility. He wrote, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” To some extent, then, this discussion comes down to a definition of terms and a delineation of roles in the matter of sanctification. There are several facts, however, on which all should agree:

1. The believer’s obedience is not optional. We are responsible to obey all God has revealed. If we do not obey we are guilty of sinning against God.
2. Though we are unable either to desire to obey or to act in obedience to God and thus please him apart from his work in us, we are, nonetheless, responsible to obey. This statement confirms our belief that regeneration in and of itself does not provide sufficient enablement for our obedience. Apart from a continual, internal sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit, believers will never produce an obedience that pleases God. I am not suggesting that regeneration is unimportant or unnecessary to the believer’s life of righteousness. It is because we have been born of God that we cannot go on sinning as a habit of life as we did before regeneration. The principal benefit of being born of God is that he unites us to Christ. It is in our union with Christ that God deals a death blow to sin’s dominion. What I am suggesting is that though regeneration is essential to our life of holiness, it is not sufficient in and of itself to produce righteousness.
3. It is not merely that God does his part, and we do our part, but that we do our part because he does his part. His working does not depend on our working. At times his work goes on not only while we are idle, but while we are acting contrary to his revealed will. He does not wait on us to act obediently before he begins his work. At times, he even uses our disobedience to teach us the emptiness of all those ways that are contrary to God’s way.
4. A true believer does not exist in whom God is not working in this way and who does not desire to please God by obedience to his Word.
5. The ultimate success of the process of sanctification does not depend on the believer’s obedience, but on God’s internal work.
6. The believer must not wait until he senses that the Spirit is working within him before he begins to obey the clear commandments of God’s Word.
7. Whether we consider the believer’s obedience as part of the sanctification process or as a response to God’s work of sanctification, it should be clear in the matter of the believer’s growth in grace, both he and the Spirit are active.
Let’s return now to the first question–Is sanctification by faith or by “learning and doing?” To state the matter differently, is the outworking of the believer’s sanctification the result of his diligence in learning what to do and doing it, or does it result from his God-given faith? Please note that my question is not whether the Christian life demands diligence. The Word of God never sets a life of faith and a life of diligence over against one another. The question is whether a person can be successful in pursuing a life of diligent obedience to God apart from faith.
In light of what we have said, I think the only answer we can give is that any progress we can make in the life of obedience must be made through faith. Such obedience manifests itself as we live out what God has accomplished in Christ’s redeeming work and what he is doing in us by his Spirit.
One gets the impression from some that they believe Jesus accomplished our justification, but we must attain our sanctification by our own efforts. To seek sanctification by passively resting in the work of Christ living his life all over again in us is quietism. To seek sanctification by our own efforts, severed from faith, is legalism and moralism. That we are not sanctified by faith alone, as in justification, does not mean we are not sanctified by faith at all.
There is no question there are times when obedience is difficult. It is not an easy matter to pluck out one’s right eye or cut off one’s right hand [please understand this metaphorically as Jesus intended it]. Walking by faith has never been easy. The reality is, such acts of mortification would not merely be difficult, they would be impossible apart from the Spirit’s enabling. If he did not grant us the desire and the ability to please God, we would fail miserably. Apart from faith in the promises of God, we would be overwhelmed by an earthbound sense of the here and now.
In reality, sanctification must be by faith since its goal is to please God. Hebrews 11: 6 informs us that, “without faith, it is impossible to please Him [God]. . . .” In fact, the entire chapter that has come to be known as “the faith chapter” deals with the obedience of Old Testament believers who, subsequent to believing God for justification, acted in obedience to God through faith.
How is it that believers are to account themselves truly dead to sin and alive to God if not by faith (Rom. 6:11)? How is it that believers are to feast on Christ, the true bread that came down from heaven, if not by faith (John 6:53-58)? Here, Jesus uses the present tense that indicates continuing action. The believer in Christ doesn’t eat once and then move on to his own efforts. He continues to feast on Christ as long as he lives. How are we to behold the Lord’s glory as in a mirror if not by faith (2 Cor. 3:18)? How are we to rest on God’s promises and, as a result, perfect holiness in the fear of God, if not by faith (2 Cor. 7:1)? How are we to walk by the Spirit, if not by faith (Gal. 5:16)? Paul wrote, “For we walk [live our lives habitually] by faith not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). How are we to take up and put on the whole armor of God if not by faith (Eph. 6:11)? How can a person “joyfully accept the plundering of his goods, knowing that he has a better and enduring possession for himself in heaven,” if not by faith (Heb. 10:34)?
To couch this issue in the words of the Apostle Paul, “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh (Gal. 3:3)? Of course, someone will object that the Apostle was talking in these words about justification, not about sanctification. Our answer is that these two are inextricably joined. By that, I do not mean that these two works of God are fused so that somehow we are justified through sanctification. What I mean is that both these works of God result from the same work of Christ, so that a person who is united to Christ will invariably experience both justification and sanctification. If a person seeks to be sanctified by the flesh, the overwhelming evidence is that he has never been justified. Faith is not a one-time decision, but an ongoing experience. If a person stops believing and reverts to works, his faith was not genuine in the first place. Paul wrote to the Colossians, “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him” (Col. 2:6). Whatever else this verse may teach, it should be clear that if we began by trusting God’s Anointed one, we must continue to live habitually in the same manner.
In Galatians 2:20, Paul wrote, “I have been crucified with Christ; [that is, because of my union with him, I died when he died ] it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”
He tells us he lives the life he now lives by faith in the Son of God [or if we take the genitive as a subjective genitive–by the faithfulness of Christ]. Either way, he indicates his life in the sanctification process is dependent on Christ, who loved him and gave himself for him. It seems not to matter to the apostle how long he has walked in grace, he never ventures far from the cross.
The view that Galatians 2:20 is only speaking of justification and not about sanctification is based on several faulty assumptions. . First, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could think “the life I now live in the flesh” could be a reference to a past declaration. It is true, the genuine believer does not lose his believing attachment to Christ and his confidence that he is right in God’s sight through the one who has given up his life for him. True believers never get over their justification. Still, what is now occurring in the believer’s life is not justification but sanctification. Second, though the immediate context concerns the doctrine of justification, that is not its exclusive concern. In the immediately preceding verse, Paul wrote, “For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God.” Though others have taken a different view of this verse, I believe Paul is saying that since the penalty of the law was visited on his substitute in whose death he died to the law, he is now free to live to God. Whatever view we may take of the verse, it is clear that the result regards Paul’s post conversion life, namely, his sanctification.

John Brown wrote,

By the law having had its full course so as to be glorified in the obedience to death of Him in whom I am, I am completely delivered from the law. The law has no more to do with me, and I have no more to do with it in the matter of justification. And this freedom from the law is at once necessary and effectual to my living a truly holy life—a life devoted to God,’ (Italics mine). What follows is explanatory of this thought, which was ever present to the mind of the apostle—`I consider myself as identified with the Lord Jesus Christ.’ “I am crucified with Christ.” I view myself as so connected with Christ, as that when he was crucified I was, as it were, crucified; and I am as much interested in the effects of that crucifixion as if I had undergone it myself. He, in being crucified, endured the curse, and I in Him endured it; so that I am redeemed from the law and its curse, He having become a curse for me.

Brown, Galatians, pp. 37-8

The third faulty assumption is that the theme of the Epistle is “justification by faith alone.” In reality, the theme of the Epistle is the identity of the heirs of the Abrahamic covenant. The Judaizers had argued the true evidence that one was an heir of that covenant was submission to circumcision and, thus, to the conditional covenant of Moses. Paul’s argument is that since Christ is the promised Seed, all those who are united to him by faith are “Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (3:29). “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (3:7). The New Covenant not only produces an unfailing faith in Christ but also a continual reliance on the Spirit to lead us in the way of righteousness. Paul assures us that if we habitually live by means of the Spirit, we will by no means fulfill the desires of the flesh. He has clearly stated in 2:19, that the purpose of his death to the law was “so that he might live to God.” Just as it is by faith a person is initially united to Christ, so it is by a divinely inspired faith that he continues united to him. A return to the Law covenant as an evidence of being justified (the law being in that case the standard for sanctification) would indicate a failure of faith in Christ alone. It does not seem they were teaching that a person could be justified by being circumcised in place of reliance on Christ. Instead, it seems they were teaching that the true evidence of justifying faith in Christ was adherence to the Old Covenant. In other words, they thought the evidence that a person has faith in Christ is that he has been circumcised. Instead, the evidence that I have faith in Christ is that I walk by means of and in line with the Spirit. Such a walk, of course, involves obedience to the Scriptures inspired by the Spirit.
It seems one of Paul’s greatest problems with such a return to the Law is that “the Law is not of faith.” The question, then, is not by what am I justified, but what is the evidence that I have been justified. Is it that I live by the Law, or that I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me so that I continue to habitually live by means of the Spirit?
The possibility exists that some who have professed faith in Christ alone for justification may again retreat to their legalistic strongholds in which they persist in going about to establish their own righteousness. If there are any left on the planet who remember some of the older hymns, they will remember a line in one of them that reads, :”I dare not trust the sweetest frame, but wholly lean on Jesus’ name.” There have been many who, though professing faith in Christ alone, have lived on their frames of mind, at times feeling accepted because of how they felt toward God and at times feeling rejected. What they needed was to get a firm grasp on how God feels toward them in Christ since that is in the final analysis what truly matters.
Spiritually, we human beings tend to be “do-it-yourself-ers.” It seems to be our nature to gravitate toward self-help programs—“learn and do”. I believe it is for that reason even those who have professed faith in Christ need to be cautioned against the danger of trusting in the evidences of faith rather than the object of faith. This is not to say that the truly justified need to “maintain their justification.” If we have been justified, nothing can alter that divine declaration. Instead, it is that those who have once trusted in Christ alone for justification will go on trusting him alone for justification.
In the process of sanctification, the Scriptures call on us to strive, obey, mortify our sins, etc., but these acts of obedience are never to be thought of as works we can perform apart from faith or as forming any part of the basis of our right standing before God. Nor should we imagine we can perform those acts of obedience apart from the Spirit’s continual application of Christ’s redeeming work to us. If we begin to think of them in that way, we are guilty of becoming legalistic in our thinking and are in danger of condemnation. It was in this vein that Paul, the apostle, wrote to professing Christians, “if you are circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing.” Paul did not intend them to understand there was anything inherently wrong with being circumcised in and of itself. His meaning was that if they should begin to trust in anything other than Christ, they would give evidence that they had never truly begun to believe.
It is for these reasons we must be sanctified by faith. Any so-called obedience that occurs apart faith is not true obedience at all; it is mere legalism. We must daily remind ourselves that God does not continue to smile on us judicially because we are so good; he does so because Christ is so good.


4 Responses to “Sanctification: Monergistic or Synergistic?”

  1. December 29, 2012 at 4:57 am

    Randy, I may have to read your post again to get the whole meaning, but I think I agree with you with vigor. Sanctification isn’t rightly monergistic or synergistic – it is, as you pointed out, work we do which is empowered by the Spirit of God. We are not rag dolls nor are we equal partners. God does at times sanctify us without willing cooperation, but we can not do anything good which sanctifies us apart from the Holy Spirit.

    • December 29, 2012 at 1:45 pm


      I like your statement, “We are not rag dolls, nor are we equal partners.” It is clearly not a work which God does without bringing about our willing obedience, or a work in which he merely aids our self-effort.

      Thanks for the comment.


      Sent from my iPad

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