Thursday, September 22, 2011

DeYoung's Reformed survey on sanctification: Monergistic or synergistic?

Over at the Gospel Coalition, Kevin DeYoung has posted some interesting and challenging thoughts on the question of monergism vs. synergism in sanctification. He sets the discussion up this way: "what should we say about sanctification? On the one hand, Reformed Christians are loathe to use the word synergistic. We certainly don’t want to suggest that God’s grace is somehow negligible in sanctification. Nor do we want to suggest that the hard work of growing in godliness is not a supernatural gift from God. On the other hand, we are on dangerous ground if we imply that we are passive in sanctification in the same way we are passive in regeneration. We don’t want to suggest God is the only active agent in our progressive sanctification. So which is it: is sanctification monergistic or synergistic?"

While DeYoung places the backdrop for this blog post within his church body, certainly he has in his purview the ongoing debate with Tullian Tchividjian over the gospel in sanctification. There are many places where the discussion of monergism/syngergism in sanctification intersects with the role of the gospel in sanctification. In both discussions, there are accusations from one side to the other emphasizing one aspect of sanctification (the gospel) over another aspect (the ethics of sanctification).

And DeYoung rightly says that Reformed Christians do not want to say that we are passive in the ongoing transformation of our lives into Christ's image by the Spirit. So how are we to think about monergism vs. syngergism?

I agree with DeYoung, in a sense. We can use the language of both in describing certain aspects of sanctification. While it is both, it's what he doesn't address that sets DeYoung apart from someone like Tchividjian (in the ongoing debate over the gospel in sanctification), who would find little to disagree with in the article. Three come to mind: 1. the relationship between justification and sanctification, 2. the place (if any) of sanctification in the ordo salutis, and 3. the relationship between definitive/positional sanctification and progressive sanctification (that discussion is more than time allows in this particular post).

IOW, per the second point, what is the place of sanctification in "I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved"? It's these kinds of questions that have some of us very loathe to use the word "co-operation" even as we affirm that we are not passive in our ongoing transformation into Christ's image... Because at some point, if the idea of progressive sanctification includes our ongoing salvation (we are being saved), even use of the term "cooperation" muddies the waters that DeYoung wants to clear up.

There's another way to describe the difference between DeYoung and those who emphasize monergism in sanctification. DeYoung (and Sproul... who is the classic "syngergist" in sanctification) would say: We work as He works. The mongergist would say: We work *because* He works (1 John 4:19). Again, I agree the terms can be confusing. But the question in sanctification is this: what or *who* is the causal agent in sanctification. Some syngergists talk as those we are equally *causal*. Even as DeYoung employs Reformed giants of the faith, I hear at least some of them saying that while we do work and are not passive, the causal agent is the Holy Spirit (just as he is in regeneration).

In the end DeYoung is helpful in showing us the drawbacks of using certain terminology to describe what the Bible teaches us about the role of the Spirit and our participation in our transformation into Christ's image. We are participants in salvation history. Language is not always precise in delineating the inner machinations of how that participation comes to be. It's easy to see the downward slopes off the deep end in both directions. And DeYoung, like others who may disagree on certain points, wants to avoid the deep ends.


TNixon said...

These discussions so often polarize because we desire the wisdom that will allow us to put the "doctrine" in a box, tape it shut, wrap it in pretty paper, and put a bow on top. Justification, redemption, sanctification are such glorious gifts of grace that we can never fully understand them. And so, I am happy to concede that God can resolve things that I cannot. As MacArthur once said, "You really don't expect me to unscrew the unscrutable do you?"
If the Holy Spirit is totally in charge of my progressive sanctification, isn't that really blasphemy to blame him for my spiritual life? I must obey and the Spirit must work. What a glorious mystery!

Terry Rayburn said...

Some of the confusion comes from asking the wrong question.

NOTHING is synergistic in the ultimate sense of God's predestinational decree-ing. EVERYTHING is synergistic in the earthly sense of daily practical reality.

So the best question is not "monergistic or synergistic?"

The better question is, "Sanctification: by Law or by Grace?"

The clear biblical answer is "by Grace".

The Law (OC or NC) can neither save nor sanctify.

We are no longer under the power of sin, why? Because we have the Law? No, because we are no longer UNDER Law, but Grace (Rom. 6:14). The Law is the very POWER of sin (1 Cor. 15:56), so certainly can't sanctify.

Of course, a quick Bible word search will show that the concept of "sanctification" is MOSTLY zeroed in on our once-for-all already-done santification. What we loosely call "progressive sanctification" is always by grace through faith, just like initial salvation.

Although the following tract is directly referencing initial salvation, it also can be applied to clarify "God's Part and Man's Part" in progressive sanctification:

God's Part And Man's Part In Salvation by John Reisinger.

One last important principle: truth trumps command. A good example is for us to "work out our salvation" -- how? why? For it is God at work in us, both to will and to do for His good pleasure.
The command is valid, but without the truth, empty and powerless.

Chad Richard Bresson said...


I don't think this discussion is driven by attempts to put doctrine in a box, by any of the parties involved. This is why I brought up the larger discussion between DeYoung and Tchividjian. The questions of the role of the law in sanctification, the relationship between the indicative and the imperatives, whether or not someone is teaching or preaching antinomianism, licentiousness, or legalism all intersect the question of monergism/synergism. It's the "deep end", especially as it occurs in the New Perspective on Paul, Norm Shepherd, and the Federal Vision that makes at least some attempt to articulate what is causal and what isn't in progressive sanctification. If articulating "progressive sanctification" in such a way to show why Norm Shepherd's teaching is false places me in a category of trying to unscrew the unscrutable, guilty as charged. :-D

I also shy away from MacArthur's statement because I'm guessing his statement was not made in the context of postmodern Christianity. We have some in our evangelicalism these days claiming that to get dogmatic about imputation, forensic justification, vicarious atonement, and God's wrath is "unscrewing the unscrutable". Yes, there is some mystery. But there isn't so much mystery so as to leave us affirming the apophaticism of eastern orthodoxy. :-) I'm sure you weren't going there, but just in case, I'll bring you an icon for your collection on Sunday. :-D

pduggie said...

Mr Rayburn,

I wonder what you mean by 'law (OC OR NC) not sanctifying?

By excluding NC law, you'd seem to exclude "if you love me, keep my commandments" and 1 John 5:3, and all the references to the law of Christ.

The WCF says we are sanctified BY [christ's] WORD and Spirit. His would would include his law too, would it not? Are his commandments death to us? or 'not burdensome'?

Chad Richard Bresson said...

Ummm... Paul, you might want to check this out before we digress into a discussion over one of the presuppositions of this blog. :-)

What is New Covenant Theology?

Chad Richard Bresson said...


Apologies for my densosity. Please have patience with my ability to make things less clear. What I really meant to say is that the implications of the monergism/synergism discussion, IMHO, force us to consider some of those things that are not as mysterious. At stake in the monergism/synergism discussion is the question of our role in our present and future salvation (given there are past, present and future elements to our salvation). Synergism in sanctification is articulated in ways that our post-regeneration good works have something to do with God's favor when we stand before him on that Final Day. Those kinds of teachings force us to make sure we know who or what is *causing* our obedience in sanctification. Too often, the fatal flaws of semi-pelagianism present in views of justification and regeneration show up in the reformed camp in the way sanctification is articulated. IOW, in order to not be Catholic, the wedge between justification and sanctification is driven too deeply... which ironically, has the ultimate effect of eliminating the lines between the two going the other way. Works plays such a synergistic role in sanctification that forensic justification is compromised.

I know... it's a tangled mess... but one I think we should wade into. That's all. Hope that makes sense.

pduggie said...

ah, so you're being explictly non-confessional. I didn't think a fan of Vos would be so.

Is the WCF legalistic then? In a another-gospel sense?

Chad Richard Bresson said...

Paul, would Meredith Kline or Lee Irons be fans of Vos? :-)

As for whether the WCF is legalistic (in "another gospel" sense), now that is a dicey question. I suppose the answer to that question is where one decides to employ the barometer. Is theonomy logically consistent with the WCF? :-)

I know of brothers and sisters that affirm the WCF that do not bear the characteristics of legalism either in their life or their teaching. I know of other brothers and sisters who affirm the WCF whose life and teaching bear all the marks of legalism.

As glorious a document as it is, if I were invited to join a Presbyterian church my three exceptions to the WCF would be paedobaptism, third use of the law, and Sabbatarianism.

Randall said...

Perhaps I have overlooked something in the NT Scriptures, but I can't recall a single verse that indicates we are to look to the law for sanctification. It seems to me one could argue that though believers are clearly expected to obey the law of Christ, it is not that law that sanctifies, but the Spirit, by the gospel, who sanctifies. Thus, Christ's law, whether through his personal teaching or that of his apostles is more descriptive than prescriptive. What the Spirit works in the believer is love for the lawgiver. After all, this is the goal of the commandment. The purpose of specific directives is to enable us to test our love for God. If we love him, we will keep his commandments. We become involved in the process of sanctification as we express that love for Christ that God has worked in our hearts (we love, because he first loved us).

Randall said...

I still think John Murray's statement is hard to beat. He wrote in Redemption: Accomplished and Applied, While we are constantly dependent upon the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit , we must also take into account of the fact that sanctification is a process that draws within its scope the conscious life of the believer. The sanctified are not passive or quiescent in this process. Nothing shows this more clearly than the exhortation of the apostle: “Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure” (Phil. 2: 12, 13). . .God’s working in us is not suspended because we work, nor our working suspended because God works. Neither is the relation strictly one of co-operation as if God did his part and we did ours so that the conjugation or coordination of both produced the required result. God works in us and we also work. But the relation is that because God works we work. All working out of salvation on our part is the effect of God’s working in us, not the willing to the exclusion of the doing and not the doing to the exclusion of the willing, but both the willing and the doing. And this working of God is directed to the end of enabling us to will and to do that which is well pleasing to him. . . .The more persistently active we are in working, the more persuaded we may be that all the energizing grace and power is of God. pp. 148-9

Randall said...

Chad, I can't get my MS outlook to work, but I would like to email you about a matter I don't wish to post here. Would you please email me at so that I will have your address? Thanks

Keith said...

P1: Synergism is antithetical to grace.
P2: Gal 2 says we are sanctified by grace.
C: Sanctification is not synergistic.

To arrive at the opposite conclusion would require us to define synergism differently that I have ever heard it defined.

Isn't that the Arminian dilemma? They think that their regeneration is gracious and yet the believe, in their free will, some spark of goodness apart from God inclined them to believe?