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The Leaven of Synergism
the centuries since God covenanted to save man through the sacrifice
of his Son, Jesus Christ, whereby He provided a full, perfect,
and sufficient satisfaction for our sins, one aberration of the
Gospel has recurrently threatened the truth. It is the view that
man must make some contribution himself in securing his salvation.
It is not the size of this contribution that is the important
factor, but the necessity of it.
It is as though healing is promised
to a terminally ill patient if only he will prepare himself in
some way, or yield himself, or present himself at his own expense
before the physician. The Roman Catholic Church holds strongly
to the view that some self-preparation is essential, usually
in the form of a willingness to make amends for wrongs done,
or to effect some self-correction in order to merit the grace
of God. The Lutherans place the emphasis on the necessity of
man's willingness to accept God's salvation. Modern evangelism
calls upon men to "make an active decision" as though
to pick up the phone and arrange an appointment. Or the patient
is invited at least to unlock the door before the physician can
make this call and heal him. This door is locked on the inside
and can be unlocked only by the patient.
But there is no question of the
patient's healing himself. On this there is a wide measure of
unanimity. He does need the Saviour; but he is not considered
to be without any ability to assist in some way, or at least
to co-operate in the healing process, though the measure of his
co-operation may amount to no more than that he allow the physician
to visit his soul.
Whatever form the human contribution
takes, it always means that salvation is a co-operative activity.
Salvation is not a God-only process, but a God-and process. This
working together is termed Synergism. Such Synergism was a religious
philosophy with humanistic overtones even in Old Testament times,
and it has been in evidence in every generation. It is man's
demand not to be considered impotent, Man admits his sickness,
but he is unwilling to admit his death.
Synergism is fatal to any sound Christian soteriology, for it
is a denial of man's total bondage in sin and a claim to some
will to absolute good.
By and large, the Greek Fathers were always content to place
the grace of God and the free will of man side by side, and as
a consequence, the Greek Catholic Church early assumed a synergistic
position. The Roman Catholic Church followed suit ‹ though
somewhat more slowly. Since the Council of Trent it has held
dogmatically that man prepares himself and disposes his own heart
to receive the grace of justification. (1)
The Reformation was a total break
with this almost universal teaching, a recovery of a truly monergistic
doctrine of salvation, a Solus Deus position. But like
all other revivals of the truth of the Gospel, it soon began
to be plagued by those who demanded that allowance be made for
man's autonomy if he was not to be a mere puppet, some tiny admission
of spiritual competence, some small part which man might be called
upon to play, as a sound basis for exhortation in preaching the
Gospel and as an incentive to those striving after holiness.
Luther himself was wholly committed
to a God-only position. Unregenerate man is spiritually dead,
not perfectly well as Pelagius held, nor merely sick as Arminius
held, but completely dead as Calvin held. We have already traced
briefly the gradual leavening of Luther's position by the synergistic
tendencies of those who followed him [Chapter 4]. This fatal
return to the heresy of all ages was, in Germany, largely the
result of one man, Melancthon (1497‹1560).
It was this godly and gentle man
whose humanistic influence introduced once again the corrupting
stream into Lutheran theology, where it took the seemingly harmless
form of attributing to man nothing of a positive nature but only
a non-resistance to the overtures of God without which the Holy
Spirit is unable to make the grace of God effectual unto salvation.
Luther was aware of this tendency from its first re-appearance
among his disciples and spoke out strongly against it. He said
(in Table Talk, under the heading "Of Free Will"):
Some allege that the Holy Spirit
works not in those that resist Him but only in such as are willing
and give consent thereto, whence it follows that free will is
a cause and helper of faith; and consequently the Holy Ghost
does not work alone through the word, but that our will does
But I say it is not so; the will of
man works not at all in his conversion and justification.
. . It is a matter on which the Holy Spirit works (as a
potter makes a pot out of clay), equally in those that are averse
and remiss as in St. Paul. But after the Holy Spirit has wrought
in the wills of such resistants, then He also manages that the
will be consenting thereto.
1. Louis Berkof, History of Christian Thought,
London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, p.146.
2. Luther: quoted by W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology,
Grand Rapids, Zondervan, vol.II, p.474.
Luther agreed that Melancthon seemed to be asking
very little when he proposed that we grant only man's non-resistance
as his contribution. But Luther warned that this "very little"
was more dangerous than the "very much" that the Pelagians
demanded when they argued that man was wholly capable of meriting
the grace of God, for it had the appearance of a relatively harmless
concession whereas in fact it was a fatal one. For those who
support it are teaching that "we are able to obtain righteousness
and grace by that 'very little'." The Pelagians struck Luther
as being more forthright. He saw Melancthon's apparently mild
concession as the more dangerous because it was less patent.
The very violence of his diatribe against Erasmus in his famous
work on The Bondage of the Will stemmed from the subtlety
of this synergistic position. And in this connection Luther wrote:
These [Pelagians] assert that
it is not a certain little something in us by which we obtain
grace, but we obtain it by whole, full, perfect, great and many
efforts and works. Our adversaries [the followers of Melancthon],
however, declare that it is a mere trifle and practically nothing
at all by which we merit grace.
And here, as
Luther saw it, was the danger. It is no longer the Gospel of
the Sovereign Grace of God that we are proclaiming, but the delusion
of the sovereignty of man who in the final analysis holds the
trump card. It is not a Gospel of Revelation but a Gospel of
common sense, for why would God command men to repent or yield
to the overtures of the Holy Spirit if man did not, of his own,
have freedom of will to do so?
In the Western Church the drift
to Synergism was slower than in the East. At the Council of Orange
(A.D. 529) it had been agreed that "God does not wait for
man's decision." (4) But at the Council of Trent (1545‹63) the synergistic
view was officially written into the theology of the Roman Catholic
Church, it there being agreed that man's will is a decisive factor.
Berkhof says: "In the days of the Reformation the monergism
of the Reformers was opposed by the Roman Catholic Church with
greater vehemence than any other doctrine." (5) Indeed it may very well
have been the major reason for the calling of the Council of
Trent in the first place.
was nothing less than the purging out of this synergistic tendency.
And yet so strongly entrenched in human nature is its basic philosophy
that within fifty years it was, as we have seen, once again embraced
by the Lutheran community, and the terms of surrender were couched
virtually in the words of Melancthon. Melancthon held that conversion
is the result of the combined action of three causes: 1) the
3. Luther: quoted by Ewald M. Plass, What
Luther Says: An Anthology, St. Louis, Concordia Press,
4. G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Divine Election,
translated by Hugo Beker, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1958, p.31.
5. Berkhof, Louis History of Christian Thought,
London, Banner of Truth Trust, 1975, p.146.
of God; 2) the Holy
Spirit; and 3) the will of man. He made a facultas
out of a mere capacitas, an active ability for grace
out of a passive aptitude for the reception of it. (6) And so after over five
hundred pages of debate and discussion of the issue, the Formula
of Concord finally confesses: "Towards this work [of
grace] the will of the person who is to be converted does nothing
but only lets God work in him until he is converted."
(7) [my emphasis]
assuming this active ability on the part of the unregenerate
man, argued that the basis of Predestination to Election was
God's foreknowledge of those who would exercise this capacity
responsively. And by this heresy he left a similar community
of misguided followers both in Holland and, even more seriously,
in England and the New World, who, holding the synergistic view,
formed a further major division of the Church of God. Methodism,
and out of Methodism a number of other denominational bodies,
cultivated the error which has largely inspired modern evangelistic
methods. Such human techniques of persuasion are held to be in
line with God's appointed method of reaching the unregenerate.
Thus man usurps the convicting role of the Holy Spirit of God.
The consequences of these "persuasive
techniques" in the free world are yet to become fully apparent.
Already we see a great resurgence of religious enthusiasm, but
if we look at the staying power of these thousands of decisions
for the Lord it has to be admitted that the picture they often
present a few months after "conversion" suggests there
may be something seriously amiss with the method of evangelism,
if not perhaps even more seriously with the theology which has
inspired the method.
Karl Barth in a small volume entitled
God in Action, sometimes referred to as his "Little
Dogmatics," elaborates on this issue. To him Monergism is
the keystone to any stand by the Church against the secular authority
because it places the outcome of events squarely in the hands
of God. As soon as we begin to say "God and,"
man becomes increasingly important as the decision maker and
God decreasingly so. In due time God is reduced almost to the
position of assistant or even bystander. The battle becomes not
the Lord's but man's. When the world comes in like a flood to
overwhelm the Church as Hitler's world did, man finds himself
alone in his weakness and no longer able to meet the challenge.
In 1934 Barth said to an English audience: (8)
I'm sure that everyone of you
is horrified [i.e.. by what was happening to the Christian Church
in Germany, and says in his heart I thank God that I am not a
German Christian]. I assure you that it will be the end of your
road, too. It has its beginning with "Christian life"
and ends in paganism. For, if
6. Melancthon: Augustus Strong, Systematic
Theology, Valley Forge, Pennsylvanis, Judson Press, 1907,
7. Book of Concord, p. 539.
8. Barth, Karl, God in Action, New York, Round Table Press,
you once admit not only God but I also,
and if your heart is with the latter ‹ and friends, that's
where you have it ‹ there's no stopping it. . . .
Let me warn you now. If you start
with God and. . . you are opening the doors to every demon. And
the charge which I raise against you, I lay before you in the
words of Anselm: Tu non eonsiderasti, quandi ponderis
sit peccatum! You have failed to consider the weight of sin.
And that is the sin that man takes himself so very seriously.
small concession to which Luther refers always has had the effect
of opening the way to a flood of error that effectively neutralizes
Paul's Gospel of salvation by faith without works. As W. G. T.
Shedd observed: (9)
The position of partial ability
or synergism comes to the same result with that of full ability
[i.e., Pelagianism] so far as divine independence and sovereignty
are concerned. For it is this decision of the sinner to contribute
his quota, to do his part in the transaction, which conditions
the result. It is indeed true, upon this theory, that if God
does not assent, the act of faith is impossible. But it is equally
true that if the sinner does not assist, the act of faith is
impossible. Neither party alone and by himself can originate
faith in Christ's atonement. God is as dependent in this respect
G. C. Berkouwer
wrote in a similar vein: "This theme of synthesis [between
God's grace and man's power of decision] runs like a red thread
through the history of the Doctrine of Election. It is the theme
of harmony, of co-operation." (10) And it is a poison, fatal to the Gospel. It is a
heresy that slowly undermines all the implications of the truth
of the Sovereign Grace of God. Warfield refers to it as, (11)
. . . the evil leaven of synergism, by which God is robbed
of his glory and man is encouraged to attribute to some power,
some act, some initiative of his own, his participation in that
salvation which has come to him from pure
grace. . . Any intrusion of any human merit, or act, or disposition,
or power, as ground or cause or occasion, into the process of
divine salvation ‹ whether in the way of power to resist
or ability to improve grace, or the employment of grace already
received ‹ is a breach with Calvin.
And a breach
with Calvin in this respect is a breach with Augustine and, more
importantly, a breach with Paul. In short, the difference between
a monergistic and a synergistic faith, between a God only
and a God and
9. Shedd, W. G. T., Dogmatic Theology,
Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1969 reprint, vol.II, p.472.
10. Berkouwer, G. C., Studies in Dogmatics: Divine Election,
translated by Hugo Beker, Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1960, p.29.
11. Benjamin B. Warfield, Calvin as a Theologian and Calvinism
Today, London, Evangelical Press, reprint of 1909 edition,
Gospel, is nothing less
than the difference between the Gospel of our Lord and Saviour
Jesus Christ on the one hand, and all other religious systems
of belief, whether pagan or so-called Christian, on the other.
There are basically only two alternatives. If man contributes
any essential part towards his salvation, he effectively becomes
his own saviour, even if that contribution takes no more concrete
form than that of merely allowing God to act by non-resistance.
There is here
a clear point of demarcation. It is all of God or it is no good
news at all. If man is free to resist, God is not free to act,
for He is bound by man's freedom. If God is to be free to act,
man must be bound by the will of God. There can be nothing harmful
in such a bondage, since perfect freedom by definition is perfect
obedience to perfect law, and "the law of the Lord is perfect"
(Psalm 19:7). In the perfect order which is yet to come there
can never be any conflict of wills since God's will and man's
will are to be one, and both are therefore to be entirely free.
But in a fallen world, God's grace must be irresistible or man's
will can remain forever opposed to God, and the will of the creature
overrides the will of the Creator.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights
In truth there is no "Gospel"
that is not entirely rooted in the Sovereignty of God's Grace
in salvation, which is the sum and substance of Calvinism. And
I venture to say that it must be not merely a three-point or
a four-point Calvinism, but a five-point Calvinism. To depart
from this is to surrender the whole by giving it a logical incoherence
which makes it indefensible whether from Scripture or by reason.
The crucial issue is the Sovereignty of God's Grace in the most
absolute sense, a pure unabashed Monergism.
The only defense against
Synergism is an unqualified Calvinism ascribing all the glory
to God by insisting upon the total spiritual impotence of man,
an Election based solely upon the good pleasure of God, an Atonement
intended only for the elect though sufficient for all men, a
grace that can neither be resisted nor earned, and a security
for the believer that is as permanent as God Himself.
If such a system creates some problems
because of the limitations of our comprehension, the problems
it creates are not nearly as serious as the problems of another
kind created by the alternatives which in fact destroy the Gospel
altogether by dishonouring the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ
both as to its sufficiency and its efficacy.