Is Sanctification Monergistic or Synergistic? A Reformed Survey

Recently, in a leadership training class at our church, a spirited discussion broke out on whether sanctification is monergistic or synergisitic. No, this is not what every class is like at University Reformed Church. But this one was. I wasn’t there, but I was told the discussion was energetic, intelligent, and respectful. I’m glad to serve at a church where people know and care about this level of theological precision.

The terms monergism and synergism refer to the working of God in regeneration. Monergism teaches that we are born again by only one working (mono is Greek for “one,”  erg is from the Greek word for “work”). Synergism teaches that we are born again by human cooperation with the grace of God (the syn prefix means “with” in Greek). The Protestant Reformers strongly opposed all synergistic understandings of the new birth. They believed that given the spiritual deadness and moral inability of man, our regeneration is owing entirely to the sovereign work of God. We do not cooperate and we do not contribute to our being born again. Three cheers for monergism.

But 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?

I think it’s best to stay away from both terms. The distinction is very helpful (and very important) when talking about regeneration, but these particular theological terms muddy the waters when talking about sanctification. Synergism sounds like a swear word to Reformed folks, so no one wants to say it. And yet, monergism is not the right word either. To make it the right word we have to provide a different definition than we give it when discussing the new birth. What does it mean to say regeneration and sanctification are both monergistic if we are entirely passive in one and active in the other?

Those who say sanctification is monergistic want to protect the gracious, supernatural character of sanctification. Those who say sanctification is synergistic want to emphasize that we must actively cooperated with the grace in sanctification. These emphases are both correct. And yet, I believe it is better to defend both of these points with careful explanation rather than with terms that have normally been employed in a different theological controversy. Sanctification is both a gracious gift of God and it requires our active cooperation. I’ve tried to show in previous posts that these two truths are biblical. In this post I want to show these two truths are also eminently Reformed.

Let me give a few brief examples.

John Calvin (1509-64)

Commenting on 2 Peter 1:5 (“make every effort to add to your faith…”), Calvin says:

As it is an arduous work and of immense labour, to put off the corruption which is in us, he bids us to strive and make every effort for this purpose. He intimates that no place is to be given in this case to sloth, and that we ought to obey God calling us, not slowly or carelessly, but that there is need of alacrity; as though he had said, “Put forth every effort, and make your exertions manifest to all.”

For Calvin, growing in godliness is hard work. There is no place for sloth. We must exert ourselves to obedience with speed and diligence. The believer is anything but passive in sanctification. But later, while commenting on the same verse, Calvin also warns against “the delirious notion” that we make the movements of God in us efficacious, as if God’s work could not be done unless we allowed him to do it. On the contrary, “right feelings are formed in us by God, and are rendered by him effectual.” In fact, “all our progress and perseverance are from God.” Wisdom, love, patience—these are all “gifts of God and the Spirit.” So when Peter tells us to make every effort, “he by no means asserts that [these virtues] are in our power, but only shows what we ought to have, and what ought to be done.”

Francis Turretin (1623-87)

Turretin employs sanctification as a theological term “used strictly for a real and internal renovation of man.” In this renovation, we are both recipients of God’s grace and active performers of it. “[Sanctification] follows justification and is begun here in this life by regeneration and promoted by the exercise of holiness and of good works, until it shall be consummated in the other by glory. In this sense, it is now taken passively, inasmuch as it is wrought by God in us; then actively, inasmuch as it ought to be done by us, God performing this work in us and by us” (Institutes of Elenctic Theology 2.17.1).

When it comes to the grace of God in regeneration, Turretin is opposed to “all Synergists.” He has in mind Socinians, Remonstrants, Pelagians, Semipelagians, and especially Roman Catholics, who anathematized “anyone [who] says that the free will of man moved and excited by God cooperates not at all” in effectual calling (Council of Trent). Turretin is happy to be just the sort of monergist Trent denounces. But then he adds this clarification about synergism:

The question does not concern the second stage of conversion in which it is certain that man is not merely passive, but cooperates with God (or rather operates under him). Indeed he actually believes and converts himself to God; moves himself to the exercise of new life. Rather the question concerns the first moment when he is converted and receives new life in regeneration. We contend that he is merely passive in this, as a receiving subject and not as an active principle. (2.15.5).

Given this caveat, it’s hard to think Turretin would have been comfortable saying sanctification is monergistic, though he certainly believed holiness is wrought in the believer by God.

Wilhelmus A Brakel (1635-1711)

Like Turretin and Calvin, A Brakel makes clear that sanctification is a work of God. “God alone is its cause,” he writes. “As little as man can contribute to his regeneration, faith, and justification, so little can he contribute to his sanctification” (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, 3.4). This may sound like we are completely passive in holiness, but that’s not what A Brakel means.

Believers hate sin, love God, and are obedient, and do good works. However, they do this neither on their own nor independently from God; rather, the Holy Spirit, having infused life in them at regeneration, maintains that life by His continual influence, stirs it up, activates it, and causes it to function in harmony with its spiritual nature. (3.4)

We contribute nothing to sanctification in that growth in godliness is a gift from God. And yet, we must be active in the exercise of this gift. A Brakel even goes so far as to say, “Man, being thus moved by the influence of God’s Spirit, moves, sanctifies himself, engages in that activity which his new nature desires and is inclined toward, and does that which he knows to be his duty” (3.4, emphasis added). That’s why A Brakel later exhorts his readers to “make an earnest effort to purify yourself from all the pollutions of the flesh and of the mind, perfecting yours sanctification in the fear of God. Permit me to stir you up to this holy work; incline your ear and permit these exhortations addressed to you to enter your heart” (3.24). So in one sense (on the level of ultimate causation and origin) we contribute nothing to sanctification and in another sense (on the level of activity and effort) we sanctify ourselves.

Charles Hodge (1797-1878)

We find these same themes–sanctification as gift and sanctification as active cooperation–in the great systematician from Princeton. Hodge stresses that sanctification is “supernatural” in that holy virtues in the life of a believer cannot “be produced by the power of the will, or by all the resources of man, however protracted or skillful in their application. They are the gifts of God, the fruits of the Spirit” (Systematic Theology, 3.215).

And yet, Hodge is quick to add that this supernatural work of sanctification does not exclude “the cooperation of second causes.” He explains:

When Christ opened the eyes of the blind no second cause interposed between his volition and the effect. But men work out their own salvation, while it is God who worketh in them to will and to do, according to his own good pleasure. In the work of regeneration, the soul is passive. It cannot cooperate in the communication of spiritual life. But in conversion, repentance, faith, and growth in grace, all its powers are called into exercise. As, however, the effects produced transcend the efficiency of our fallen nature, and are due to the agency of the Spirit, sanctification does not cease to be supernatural, or a work of grace, because the soul is active and cooperating in the process. (3.215).

There are several important ideas in Hodge’s summary. First, he affirms that sanctification is a work of supernatural grace. It is not something that comes from us or could be accomplished by us. Second, he suggests that the soul is passive (monergism) in regeneration, but not in the rest of our spiritual life (note: by “conversion” he means our turning to Christ not the new birth). Third, he does not hesitate to use the language of cooperation. We are active in the sanctifying process with Christ as he works in us.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921)

More than Hodge, and more like Calvin, Bavinck emphasizes the “in Christ” nature of sanctification. He wants us to see that we are not “sanctified by a holiness we bring out ourselves.” Rather, evangelical sanctification “consists in the reality that in Christ God grants us, along with righteousness, also complete holiness, and does not just impute it but also inwardly imparts it by the regenerating and renewing work of the Holy Spirit until we have been fully conformed to the image of his Son” (Reformed Dogmatics, 4.248). Bavinck goes on to say that Rome’s doctrine of “‘infused righteousness’ is not incorrect as such.” Believers “do indeed obtain the righteousness of Christ by infusion.” The problem is that Rome makes this infused righteousness that ground for forgiveness. We are given the gift of righteousness (by which Christ “comes to dwell in us by his Spirit and renews us after his image”), but only as we are also declared righteous by the gift of an imputed righteousness (4.249).

Sanctification, for Bavinck, is first of all what God does in and for us. But that’s not all we must say about sanctification.

Granted, in the first place [sanctification] is a work and gift of God (Phil. 1:5; 1 Thess. 5:23), a process in which humans are passive just as they are in regeneration, of which it is the continuation. But based on this work of God in humans, it acquires, in the second place, an active meaning, and people themselves are called and equipped to sanctify themselves and devote their whole life to God (Rom. 12:1; 2 Cor. 7:1; 1 Thess. 4:3; Heb. 12:14; and so forth). (4.253)

While Bavinck may be more willing to stress the passive nature of sanctification rather than use the language of cooperation, in the end he hits the same themes we have seen in Calvin, Turretin, a Brakel, and Hodge. Bavinck sees no conflict “between this all-encompassing activity of God in grace and the self-agency of people maintained alongside of it” (4.254). He warns that Christians go off the rails when they sacrifice “one group of pronouncements to the other.” Sanctification is a gift from God, and we are active in it.

Louis Berkhof (1873-1857)

We see in Berkhof the same tendency to guard against any notions of self-helpism on the one hand and human inactivity on the other.

[Sanctification] is a supernatural work of God. 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. (Systematic Theology, 532).

In other words, sanctification is essentially a work of God. But it is also “a work of God in which believers co-operate.”

When it is said that man takes part in the work of sanctification, this does not mean that man is an independent agent in the work, so as to make it partly the work of God and partly the work of man; but merely, that God effects the work in part through the instrumentality of man as a rational being, by requiring of him prayerful and intelligent co-operation with the Spirit. (534)


So what do we see in this short survey of Reformed theologians. For starters, we do not see the exact language of monergism or synergism applied to sanctification.

Second, we see that, given the right qualifications, either term could be used with merit. “Monergism” can work because sanctification is God’s gift, his supernatural work in us. “Synergism” can also work because because we cooperate with God in sanctification and actively make an effort to grow in godliness.

Third, we see in this Reformed survey the need to be careful with our words. For example, “passive” can describe our role in sanctification, but only if we also say there is a sense in which we are active. Likewise, we can use the language of cooperation as long as we understand that sanctification does not depend ultimately on us.

And if all this is confusing, you can simply say: we work out our sanctification as God works in us (Phil. 2:12-12). Those are the two truths we must protect: the gift of God in sanctification and the activity of man. We pursue the gift, is how John Webster puts it. I act the miracle, is Piper’s phrase. Both are saying the same thing: God sanctifies us and we also sanctify ourselves. With the right qualifications and definitions, I believe Calvin, Turretin, A Brakel, Hodge, Bavinck, and Berkhof would heartily agree.

Article by Kevin DeYoung