Is our sanctification monergistic or synergistic?

Monday Musings for December 23, 2019

Good morning, Musers,

Instead of talking about salvation today — and about how much we “elect” people do or do not contribute to the process of getting to heaven, we’ll be talking about sanctification — and about how much we, who are the “elect” people of God, do or do not contribute to the process of becoming holy.

You see, virtually every Christian agrees that we should be growing into more God-like people while we’re still here on earth. Today’s question is, by what agency do we do that? It is ours? God’s? The Holy Spirit’s? Jesus’? The Bible’s?

Fortunately (or unfortunately) theologians have special words to describe the issues in this debate. People who say that God alone saves and/or sanctifies us with no meaningful contribution on our part are said to take a monergistic view, and people who insist that we humans must cooperate with God in order to be saved and/or to grow in Christ take a synergistic view. I subscribe to a synergistic view of both salvation and sanctification.

The word (and/or the concept of) sanctification shows up a lot in the Bible. In fact, one could say that, after salvation, sanctification is what the Bible is all about. But the process of us becoming holy has many facets — some of which look like they must be monergistic and some of which seem synergistic... so, what gives?

I (famously) subscribe to free will — libertarian free will, to be exact — and although I count Calvinists as among the brethren, I am about as far away from Calvinism as one can be in this area. But the Calvinists have an advantage when we talk about election: they “own” the word. So, whenever I talk about it, I pull away from the monergism that’s been in their commentaries for centuries. I see it as deterministic... and I do not subscribe to election on those terms.

That being said, some aspects of sanctification simply are monergistic... and I almost hate to admit that because of the confusion that it could cause. But monergistic sanctification is in the Bible... so God must have thought we could understand how its different aspects require different God/human mixes.

The word sanctification comes from the Latin; it means “to make holy” ... and here, we have our first hint as to how Evangelicals usually unpack this. We understand that God declares us holy. But being declared holy is a whole different thing from acting holy in our day-to-day lives. So, the first thing we have to know is that, when God’s declared us holy, that was a forensic event.

By way of contrast, doing our part to become behaviorally holy is an integrated event. It requires our cooperation — and it’s a process... and processes that require our cooperation are synergistic... this, by definition.

Now, “Be ye holy because I am holy” is quite a challenge! But God would not have said this unless we could pull it off somehow. So, come and see what we can do about this challenge, and as always, enjoy the musing.

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