Is Sanctification Monergistic or Synergistic? Why It Matters

As Calvinists grow in their understanding of the doctrines of grace, the question is often asked whether sanctification is monergistic or synergistic. Some may wonder if it even matters, but this is an important question with significant theological ramifications.

If we misunderstand the nature of sanctification, we face the danger of having a flawed view of the nature of justification. Having a defective view of justification can lead us back to Rome, Arminianism, Two-Stage Justification, or even worse places! That is why this is an important question. It is my position that Reformed theology, as a whole, has held that sanctification is a monergistic work of God.

Historically, these terms are related to regeneration. Monergism teaches that we are regenerated, born again, by God’s act alone. Synergism, on the other hand, is the belief a person cooperates with the prevenient grace of God and makes himself born again. Synergism is also known as “decisional regeneration.”

What is Sanctification?

Whereas justification is the legal verdict of God declaring a believer is “not guilty,” sanctification refers to God’s process of making a believer holy from the inside out. It is a “gracious work of God whereby…the justified believer is renewed by degrees in his whole nature, so that Christ is formed in him and he lives for God in good works.”[1]

The Westminster Larger Catechism defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness” (question 35).

The Belgic Confession teaches that sanctification makes us new people and “causes” us to live a new life (article 24).

Sanctification is a gracious work of God alone. It is His transformative power. It seems that this is clear, but there have been several Reformed theologians of the 20th century that have taught that sanctification is “synergistic.” I believe this is due to equating sanctification as our experience of the “Christian life” rather than as the “transformative power of God.”

Packer, Sproul, and Synergistic Sanctification

Two of the most beloved Reformed theologians of the 20th century have been J.I. Packer and R.C. Sproul. Surprisingly, they both taught that sanctification is “synergistic.”

JI Packer wrote, “Sanctification…is in one sense synergistic—it is an ongoing cooperative process in which regenerate persons…are required to exert themselves in sustained obedience.”[2]

RC Sproul, who was quite influenced by Packer, wrote “Regeneration is monergistic. It is the work of God alone. But sanctification is synergistic. It involves the cooperation between the Holy Spirit and us.”

It is notable that in The Mystery of the Holy Spirit, Sproul cites two Baptist theologians (O.P. Gifford and A.H. Strong) to come to his conclusion.3

In case we may think this is just an aberration, Sproul develops his thought in a later book, writing:

“Many people have the misunderstanding that Reformed theology teaches that salvation is monergistic from start to finish, which is not the case…No, Reformed theology is monergistic at first and then synergistic after effectual calling and regeneration”

Truths We Confess (Vol. 2, p. 87-88)

I was astonished to read this. Wouldn’t this be like saying “Reformed theology is like Calvinism at first and then like Arminianism after effectual calling and regeneration”? Reformed theology DOES in fact teach that salvation is all of God from start to finish! It is a “divine operation in the soul.” Salvation in Reformed theology is best described as “monergistic divine grace.”

I have long wondered where the disconnect was. In Sproul’s view, does the divine operation stop after regeneration? It seems Packer and Sproul’s views on “synergistic” sanctification differ not only from the Reformed Confessions, but and also from the landmark Reformed systematic theologies of Charles Hodge, Herman Bavinck, Geerhardus Vos, and Louis Berkhof. From what I can find, none of the confessions or these theologians ever used the word “synergism” or “synergistic” to describe sanctification. It’s also noteworthy that none of the Reformed Confessions or these theologians are even mentioned in his book. That’s striking!

My personal opinion on this phenomenon goes like this: Both Packer and Sproul became prolific writers during the 1970’s and 80’s during the period of the so-called “Lordship Salvation” debates. They formed strong friendships with pietistic/Baptist/dispensational pastors and shared their concerns about “cheap grace.” As such, human responsibility and our obedience emerged at the forefront of their thinking and discussions.

While Packer and Sproul were stalwarts on Five Point Calvinism, and justification by faith alone, on sanctification they veered from monergism to synergism, conflating sanctification with good works. It seems that Sproul looked at the Holy Spirit as the “teacher” in our sanctification rather than the power behind it, saying “The Spirit seeks to inform our thinking.”[3] This sounds like “decisional sanctification.” But sanctification is so much more than the Spirit persuading us to change our thinking. It’s a total renovation of our nature. This is why Calvin stressed:

If it had been our part to cooperate with God [in sanctification] Paul would have spoken thus “May God aid or promote your sanctification.” But when he says, sanctify you wholly, he makes [God] the sole Author of the entire work.

Calvin’s Commentary on 1 Thessalonians 5:23

As a young, restless, and Reformed Christian, I was highly influenced by RC Sproul and remain indebted to him. Initially, I followed his thought and believed that sanctification was synergistic. I believed our sanctification increased with our obedience. The more external good works I did, the more I could think of myself as sanctified. However, Louis Berkhof helped to correct my thinking:

“Some have the mistaken notion that sanctification consists merely in the drawing out of the new life, implanted in the soul by regeneration, in a persuasive way by presenting motives to the will. But this is not true. It consists fundamentally and primarily in a divine operation in the soul, whereby the holy disposition born in regeneration is strengthened and its holy exercises are increased.”[4]

Although sanctification draws us and makes us conscious of our activity in doing good works, as Berkhof says, sanctification is a “divine operation.” Believers do co-operate in that we live the new life,[5] but the transformative power of sanctification is monergistically all of God.  

I am not aware of any Reformed theologian, prior to the 20th century, using the term “synergism” or “synergistic” to describe sanctification. In fact, it would assert “Whatever has grown in synergistic soil cannot bear any healthy Reformed fruits.”[6]  

Union With Christ Empowers Sanctification

Jesus is the vine and we are the branches (John 15:5). Our faith and progress in personal holiness comes from the Holy Spirit. Our union with Christ is what empowers our sanctification. This is why we say that sanctification is monergistic. It is a work of His grace.

When looked at from this perspective, it is easier to see that “people [cannot] sanctify themselves, for all holiness and sanctification proceeds from God.”[7] Like justification, sanctification is a gift. It is supernatural.

While justification happens in a moment, sanctification occurs progressively over the course of a lifetime. It happens in degrees, but it is the power of God that is doing it. The leaven (the Spirit) slowly but surely permeates (transforms) the dough (believers).

Believers are active in prayer, reading Scripture, fellowship, partaking of the Lord’s Supper, and worship. We seek to do good works and to mortify our sin, but our striving to do all of these things is actually “the effect of God’s working in us.”[8] It is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

As Vos succinctly said, “God is the author of sanctification and not man.”[9] He is the potter and we are the clay. This does not change after justification. Grace is the “beginning, the middle, and the end of the entire work of salvation.”[10] Sanctification is not our gift to God but rather His gift to us.

“Sanctification must be viewed as a gift. It belongs to those things that God can require of us…which are now, through the merits of Christ, produced in us through the grace of God.”[11]

The key thing that’s worth reiterating is that Christ is the vine and we are the branches. Believers are in union with Christ! Someone plants the gospel, someone waters, but God causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5-9). Branches don’t make the decision to grow. Our external good works, our growth, shows the internal power of sanctification.

Why does Monergistic Sanctification matter?

Everything pertaining to our salvation is God’s gift. Our sanctification is as much a gift as our justification. John Murray wrote, “Union with Christ…embraces the wide span of salvation from its ultimate source in the eternal election of God to its final fruition in the glorification of the elect.”[13] Regeneration is the seed out of which comes our faith, justification, and sanctification

In Reformed circles, we often say that salvation is a package deal: we get both justification and sanctification. You cannot have one without the other. They are two sides of the same coin. If we misunderstand the nature of sanctification, we could be in danger of having a flawed view of the nature of justification.

Decisional sanctification grows from Semi-Pelagian soil. These dirt paths can lead back to Rome, Arminianism, Two-Stage justification, or other works righteous locations. This is why the topic of whether sanctification is monergistic or synergistic is of vital importance.

The Proper Distinction Between Sanctification and Good Works

Properly distinguishing between sanctification and good works can help us to better understand this issue. Blending the two is where we go wrong. Sanctification and good works are not the same.

Geerhardus Vos offers an excellent guide on how we can distinguish between the two:

  1. Sanctification is a work of God in us; good works are acts of ourselves for God.
  2. Sanctification is the source out of which good works come; good works are the waters that flow from this source.
  3. Through sanctification something is brought into us that was not there previously; through good works something is expressed outwardly that was already present in secret.
  4. By confusing these two, one makes sanctification into something pietistic.[14]

Conclusion

Returning to the question of whether sanctification is monergistic or synergistic, remember this: “In the last analysis we do not sanctify ourselves. It is God who sanctifies.”[15]

Sanctification is progressive and it is not completed in this life. Our spiritual progress ebbs and flows. Some days seem better than others. But we can take courage knowing that even the holiest people in this life have only a small beginning of obedience (Heidelberg Catechism, Q. 114).

Our justification is not dependent on our sanctification. We strive for holiness not to earn the right to eternal life, but because our Father is Holy and we desire to reflect this. A believer desires to live a life of gratitude to Him for saving us. It’s who we are as the people of God.

“Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ” - 1 Thessalonians 5:23

[1] Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics (Vol. 4, p. 191)

[2] Packer, J.I. Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs (p. 170)

[3] Sproul, R. C. The Mystery of the Holy Spirit (p. 119)

[4] Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology (p. 532)

[5] Berkhof, Louis Systematic theology (p. 534)

[6] Vos, Geerhardus Redemptive History and Biblical Interpretation: The Shorter Writings of Geerhardus Vos (p. 235)

[7] Bavinck, Herman. Our Reasonable Faith (pp. 451–452)

[8] Murray, John. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (p. 149)

[9] Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics (Vol. 4, p. 192)

[10] Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Vol. 3, p. 579)

[11] Vos, Geerhardus. Reformed Dogmatics (Vol. 4, pp. 193–194)

[12]  Bavinck, Herman. Our Reasonable Faith (pp. 454)

[13] Murray, John. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (p. 165)

[14] Vos, G. (2012–2016). Reformed Dogmatics (Vol. 4, p. 212)

[15] Murray, John. Redemption: Accomplished and Applied (p. 146) 


One thought on “Is Sanctification Monergistic or Synergistic? Why It Matters

Comments are closed.