Sanctification: Synergism or Monergism?
In my ongoing conversation with a friend about sanctification, we’ve come to another issue that is important in this discussion. My friend, again, in a well intentioned desire to speak faithfully about sanctification, has unfortunately set up another straw man. She has opined that "some Lutherans" regard sanctification as "synergistic" while other Lutherans view sanctification in terms of monergism because it is worked in us by God’s grace alone by means of Word and Sacrament. Well, of course, no faithful Lutheran that I know of is running about suggesting, much less actually saying, that sanctification is "synergistic." I think where the confusion comes here is, again, a fundamental lack of knowledge of what our Confessions actually teach based on the Scriptures. Our conversation goes back to our discussion of how, or if, Lutherans in their preaching and teaching should spend time talking about the works we are set free in Christ to be doing. Her position is that time spent on talking about good works we can and should be doing is just less time talking about Christ. That’s a false alternative though. Her view helps me understand why some Lutheran preaching these days is lacking in any conversation directed to the regenerate about their lives in Christ beyond saying to the regenerate, "You are sinful and fail to keep God’s law and here is how you fail to keep it" instead of encouraging them to be what they have become in Christ by drawing them to the cruciform life as an expression of thanks and praise, calling them to continue on in the greatest epic journeys any human being is ever called to take, to take joy in the calling and station of life and to see the privilege of living under Christ in His kingdom and serving Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence and blessedness. Our Confessions wisely note that we need always to keep in mind that there is a difference between the unregenerate and the regenerate. Here is how I responded to her inquiry on this issues, and maybe you might find it interesting, perhaps helpful.
We must never give anyone the impression that
conversion is God’s work and sanctification is our work. Clearly, that
is not true. But the Scriptures do speak of our life of good works as
our cooperation with the Holy Spirit, made by possible through grace alone. The way to avoid false
understandings is not to avoid talking about works, or saying that we
should urge Christians to them, for fear of taking their eyes off
Christ. The best way is simply to teach and keep these things clear and
distinct. Here is what I told her.
"Susan, when you
asked me previously to tell you if sanctification is "synergism" or "monergism"
I answered by saying that if you insist on using the term "synergism" in
the discussion, not helpful in my view, then one could say that Sanctification
is "syneristically monergistic" or "monergistically synergistic."
Our Confessions teach very clearly that in fact Sanctification does
involve our doing and willing, precisely because of God’s doing and willing in us, because of Christ. In Sanctification
we can and should speak this way, but in justification such talk is entirely
Here is what the Solid Declaration says:
As soon as the Holy Spirit has begun His work of regeneration and renewal
in us through the Word and holy Sacraments, we can and should cooperate through
His power, although still in great weakness. This cooperation does not come
from our fleshly natural powers, but from the new powers and gifts that the
Holy Spirit has begun in us in conversion. St. Paul clearly and eagerly encourage
that ‘working together with Him, then, we appeal to not to receive the
grace of God in vain.’ (FC SD VI.65-66; Concordia, p. 532).
That’s why I told you previously that it is not correct for you to say
that when you read your Bible you should never say, "I’m going to try
do this in my life, by God’s grace and blessing" but only to say, "I
do this. I’m glad Jesus did." You are regenerated in Christ. In Christ,
according to the new man, your will is now freed from sin and death and
the power of Satan. You can say, "I will do this, in Christ." St. Paul
was very bold to say, "I can do all things through Christ who
strengthens me." He said, "I can do…" There is nothing wrong in
saying that, but it is always "in Christ." That’s the point.Another
problem in your comments which do not properly distinguish things
is that you do not seem to recognize that conversion does change us.
not the change in us that justifies us, but we are changed as a result
So our Confessions say:
There is a great difference between baptized and unbaptized people.
According to the teaching of St. Paul in Gal. 3:27, ‘For as many of you as
were baptized into Christ have put on Christ,’ and are made truly regenerate.
They now have a freed will. As Christ says, they have been made free again
[John 8:36]. Therefore, they are able not only to hear the Word, but also
to agree with it and accept it, though in great weakness." (FC SD VI.67;
Concordia, p. 532).
You are absolutely correct to say that everything about our Christian
life, both before and after our regeneration is a gift from God, in
Christ. Pure monergism. All that we have is a gift. But it is not
corect to imply that sanctification does not involve our human will or
cooperation. In regard to regeneration, our justification, the human
will is entirely excluded, but, as our Confessions say:
It is correctly said that in conversion God–through the drawing
of the Holy Spirit–makes willing people out of stubborn and willing
ones. And after such conversion, in the daily exercise of repentance,
the regenerate will of a person is not idle, but cooperates in all the
works of the Holy Spirit, which he performs through us." (FC Ep. 17;
Concordia, p. 479).
A person’s will in his conversion is purely passive, that
is, that it does nothing at all. This is to be understood with respect
to divine grace in the kindling of the new movements, that is, when
God’s Spirit, through the heard Word or the use of the holy Sacramtns,
lays hold of a persons’ will and works in him the new birth and
conversion. When after the Holy Spirit has worked and accomplished
this, and a person’s will has been changed and renewed by His divine
power and workign alone, then the new will fo that person is an
instrument and organ of God the Holy Spirit. So that person not only
accepts grace, but he also cooperates with the Holy Spirit in the works
that follow. (FC Ep. 18; Concordia, p. 479).
Susan, I think you would really appreciate reading through carefully
the Formula as it talks about Free Will, Good Works, etc. It’s great
stuff! God bless as you do.