Question: “Is sanctification generally monergistic or synergistic? Or can we believe it monergistic in a definitive sense and synergistic in its progressive activity? Am I in error if I believe sanctification is monergistic? Or am I getting into Arminianism if I believe sanctification is synergistic? To define terms: if monergism is to mean God alone is the sovereign cause of our salvation and synergism is that we cooperate/participate in this cause, are these terms even appropriate in your opinion to be used in the doctrine of sanctification?”
The text to which the writer refers is Philippians 2:12-13: “... work out your own salvation with fear and trembling. For it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure.”
The answer to the writer’s question is: Sanctification is absolutely monergistic in its definitive sense and in its progressive sense. Let me explain.
There are those to whom the writer evidently refers who teach that, although God graciously and without human aid begins the work of sanctification in the heart of the elect sinner, God, having begun the work, now leaves the sinner to maintain that work of sanctification and increase its influence in his life. God begins the work; the sanctified man carries that work out by his own efforts.
The justification for this position is supposed to be that the text admonishes one who is saved to work out his salvation. And because an admonition implies man’s ability to do what is commanded, therefore, the on-going work of sanctification (working out one’s own salvation) is man’s work. God gets it started; man must complete it. This is indeed Arminianism of the worst kind.
Sanctification is the work of God by means of which, and through the power of the Holy Spirit of Christ, Jehovah cleanses His people from their total depravity and makes them holy as He is holy.
Sanctification is, however, a work which God performs only in principle in our life in the world. That is, our hearts are made holy. Our hearts are the moral centre of our whole nature (Prov. 4:23). Our natures remain depraved, while our hearts are cleansed from sin. Nevertheless, the holiness that now characterizes our hearts has great influence on our natures, for the Spirit works sanctification in our hearts and gives sanctification its power to have dominion over the activities of our natures.
Perhaps a rough and inadequate analogy would be the relation between an owner of a pit bull and the dog itself. The owner can, with a strong leash, hold the pit bull in check, just as the Holy Spirit, through the sanctified heart holds our natures from committing many sins. The owner of a pit bull can even train the animal to obey his commands, just as the Holy Spirit enables our natures, contrary to their depravity, to obey God.
Yet it remains true that, as the Heidelberg Catechism says, we “have only a small beginning of [the new] obedience” (A. 114) and “our best works in this life are all imperfect and defiled with sin” (A. 62). We must wait for our deaths for sanctification to be completed in our souls, and for Christ’s coming at the end of this age for sanctification to be completed in our bodies.
All is the work of God through the Spirit of Christ. Not one thing is left to us.
But why then the admonition: “Work out your own salvation”?
We ought to notice first of all the little word “for” with which verse 13 begins. If the text read “Work out your own salvation ... although it is God which worketh in you,” the text would support antinomianism, that is, the idea that we cannot take the admonition seriously because we are unable to obey it.
If the text read, “Work out your own salvation ... and it is God which worketh in you,” the text would be Arminian because it would teach synergism, that is, the heresy that God and man work together to accomplish salvation. I am reminded of a secondary school which called itself Christian that had as a motto for the graduation of seniors, “Do your best and let God do the rest.”
But the text says, “Work out your own salvation ... For it is God which worketh in you.” The word “for” means “because:” we are to work out our salvation because God works in us. That is, we are to work out our salvation because God gives us all we need to do it and enables us to do it.
About this the text is emphatic. God works in us the willing; we are made willing to work out our salvation. We want to do it. We want, sometimes desperately, to do it. And the will must be there before anything else.
But God does more; He also works in us the doing. That is strong language. God Himself performs the actual doing. He doesn’t leave the doing of working out our own salvation to us, but He does that too. There isn’t anything more to do. God does it all.
And yet we are admonished to do it, and we actually do what He commands. How is this possible? The answer lies in the last part of Philippians 2:13: “of his good pleasure.” That is, God has a purpose in saving us. That purpose is the glory of His own name. He accomplishes that purpose by enabling us to do good works—work out our own salvation. He does the willing and the doing. But He does it through us. He does it through us so that we do it. He does it through us as a mother teaches her child to walk: giving the child the desire to walk, keeping the child upright by holding its little hands and moving one foot at a time forward step by step.
We have the privilege of being used by God to accomplish His purpose in our salvation by working Himself what we must do, but always in and through us.
It is as my pastor of old times used to say, “We do not ride to heaven in the lower bunk of a Pullman sleeper.” Or as Augustine many, many centuries ago put it, “Give what Thou dost command, and command what Thou wilt.”
- Volume: 14
- Issue: 4
Rev. Angust Stewart (Wife: Mary)
Ordained - 2001
Pastorates: Covenant Protestant Reformed Church of Ballymena, Northern Ireland - 2001Website: www.cprf.co.uk/
Address7 Lislunnan Road
State or ProvinceCo.Antrim
Zip CodeBT42 3NR
Telephone(01144) 28 25 891851