Is Sanctification Synergistic?

[This Q&A concerns the issue of monergism versus synergism. Those words are used to describe God’s action in the salvation of a person. If God acts solely and independently, that’s monergism. If He designed the process in such a manner that our cooperation is necessary, that’s synergism.]

I recently received an email from a listener in Canada. In his email he included a Q&A from another website. Here’s the original email:

“I wondered what you thought of the belief that salvation is based on monergism but sanctification is synergistic. Just so you know that this is a generally accepted concept of reformed individuals, I enclose the following (article). I have a problem with the idea of God being in charge up to when He saves us and then it being a partnership – but some well respected (Sproul) theologians seem to be in this camp!”

The author of the article in question is John Hendryx. Let me say at the outset that I like John and I admire the work he has done at He has even listed one of my books (By Grace Alone) on his resource page. But, I think this article deserves a response. I just want to make plain that my comments are directed at the topic of the debate; not toward the man.

The article can be found here:

From this point forward, text following “Q” will be directly from the article. My responses will be interspersed. The article begins with a question from a fellow named Nate. John’s response forms the balance of the article.

Q – John,

I looked over a couple of articles on your website and discovered before long that our hearts beat together in the area of Reformed soteriology. I am a graduating senior from a small bible college. Though the college I have attended is not largely Calvinistic in theology, there is a decent-sized contingent among the student body that would be so inclined. It is through the fellowship and friendship of these guys as well as the writing ministry of John Piper that has exposed me to the Doctrines of Grace. I still have much to learn, as I have only just begun “the hunt,” so I had a question that I wanted to ask you. Obviously, by your web address, I came to the conclusion that you would hold to a monergistic view of regeneration.

My question is due to the vital connection of regeneration, justification, sanctification, and glorification and the dependence of all of these doctrines on sovereign grace. Would it be fair to say that sanctification is also monergistic? I look forward to hearing your insight on this issue as I have not found much on this topic. Thanks for your time. Nate.

Answer: Nate, your question about monergistic sanctification is a good one. I recall R.C. Sproul saying that the sanctification process is synergistic and it seems the Scriptures would also testify to this. Only regeneration is monergistic (solely the work of God). The Scripture itself testifies to a synergistic sanctification…

Jim –Okay, this is a good place to break in and define a couple of terms. I like Greg Bahnsen’s explanation of the difference between the terms justification and sanctification.

Justification = God treating us as if we were righteous, on the merit of the finished work of His Son.

Sanctification = God making us righteous by the indwelling Holy Spirit, conforming us to His will.

John H. began his response to this young Bible student with the following supposition: “The Scripture itself testifies to a synergistic sanctification.” Now, there are several key texts of Scripture that address sanctification directly. However, none of those texts actually appear in John’s response. He is, however, going to quote Phil. 2:12, which we’ll get to shortly.

For the moment, let’s look at some of the key texts which must be taken into consideration when formulating any thought or doctrine concerning sanctification:

“But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: that, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30-31)

The construction of that pericope is very important. Not only did Paul argue that Christ was made “unto us” wisdom, righteousness and redemption (which I’m certain any thorough-going Reformed thinker would agree are strictly monergistic in character), but Christ is equally our sanctification, on par with the other benefits of the atonement mentioned in the list. Paul made no distinction between “wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption.” Christ accomplished all four of these blessings on our behalf. And notice the construction; Paul listed sanctification third, sandwiched in between righteousness and redemption. Had he separated sanctification from the list, perhaps we could argue that he saw it in some different light than the other three. But, Paul saw them all as fulfilled in Christ.

And, Paul’s conclusion is most striking: “He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” If any of the four accomplished works of Christ Paul listed were actually synergistic, the glory is shared between the Creator and the creature. But, that is completely contrary to the whole thrust of Paul’s argument.

Along the same lines, Paul wrote to the saints at Thessalonica:

“But we are bound to give thanks alway to God for you, brethren beloved of the Lord, because God hath from the beginning chosen you to salvation through sanctification of the Spirit and belief of the truth: whereunto he called you by our gospel, to the obtaining of the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Thess. 2:13-14)

In this passage, Paul said that God chose the “brethren beloved” to salvation and belief of the truth (an obviously monergistic activity, since that choosing occurred before the foundation of the world and no one was present to cooperate in the choosing process). All Reformed thinkers would agree that our faith is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us from Christ, “the author and finisher of (our) faith.” (Heb. 12:2) But, sandwiched in between election to salvation and the gift of faith, Paul included sanctification. And the active catalyst that produces that sanctification is the Spirit. I simply do not see Paul writing that we add something to that work in order to complete or secure it.

To be fair, perhaps John’s H.’s viewpoint is driven by his definition of what sanctification actually is. He may be limiting it to the concept of personal Christian growth. Speaking Biblically, the word “sanctification” in 2 Thess. 1:13 is the Greek “hagiasmos,” from the root word that is also rendered “holy” and “saint.” Our holiness – our set-aside-ness, our saint-ness – is the direct result of God’s choosing. How that can be considered synergistic, I do not know.

To the Romans, Paul wrote:

“That I should be the minister of Jesus Christ to the Gentiles, ministering the gospel of God, that the offering up of the Gentiles might be acceptable, being sanctified by the Holy Ghost.” (Rom. 15:16)

Paul’s definition and usage of the words “sanctification” and “sanctified” are consistent. He stated that certain of the Gentiles were “set apart” for God’s exclusive use. That is Paul’s meaning when he employs various forms of the word “hagios.” The method God employed to set His people apart was the gift of the Holy Ghost. Paul did not say that God’s people were sanctified “by the Holy Ghost and their cooperative good works.”

Or, consider Paul’s statement to the Corinthians:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor. 6:9-11)

Paul’s concept of sanctification was parallel to the washing done by Christ through the Spirit of God. He put it on par with “ye are justified.” Again, he made no distinction that would cause one to exegetically conclude that one (justification) was God’s unilateral work while the other (sanctification) was necessarily cooperative. It’s simply not in the text.

Read this next passage carefully:

“For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons unto glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified [Ho te gar hagiazoon kai hoi hagiazomenoi] are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren …” (Heb. 2:10-11)

“They who are sanctified” (the verb form of hagiazo; to make holy, to consecrate) are made that way by “he that sanctifieth” (also “hagiazo”). There’s simply no synergistic action here. Those who are set aside for God’s own purpose reach that condition through the work and effort of Christ, the one actually sets such people apart. They “are all of one.”

And perhaps the most convincing passage concerning the monergistic work of sanctification is:

“Then said he, Lo, I come to do thy will, O God. He taketh away the first, that he may establish the second. By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all … For by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified.” (Heb. 10:9,10, 14)

What the writer of Hebrews clearly stated is that we are sanctified in accordance with the will of God, who sent His Son to offer the once-for-all sacrifice. We then are sanctified through that offering (without any works whatsoever; the first covenant of works being taken away), and those who are thus sanctified are “perfected forever.”

Now, that absolutely begs the question: If the saints (hagios) of God are chosen by His grace and perfected by the finished atoning work of Christ, exactly what work do we perform in order to complete the process? There is not a shred of synergism in the Hebrews’ theology.

The Apostle Peter began his first epistle with these words:

“Elect according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, through sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you, and peace, be multiplied.” (1 Peter 1:2)

Once again we see sanctification inextricably tied to election, foreknowledge and the work of the Spirit.

And Jude began his short epistle:

“Jude, the servant of Jesus Christ, and brother of James, to them that are sanctified by God the Father, and preserved in Jesus Christ, and called: mercy unto you, and peace, and love, be multiplied.” (Jude 1-2)

According to Jude, we are sanctified by God the Father. To the Hebrews’ author, we are sanctified by the Son. According to Paul we are sanctified by the Holy Spirit. And not one of them – not one! – states that we are sanctified by our works, our will, our commitment, or our synergistic cooperation.

Given the preponderance of evidence above, how can a statement like “the Scripture itself testifies to a synergistic sanctification” stand? The great weight of Scripture seems to say quite the opposite.

Q – Only regeneration is monergistic (solely the work of God). The Scripture itself testifies to a synergistic sanctification…”work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” (Phil 2:12b,13)

This is a clear indication that there is a synergism taking place in our sanctification.

Jim – Just so I’m clear — I like John Hendryx. But, I don’t find this a very compelling argument. In context, Paul is not saying that the saints at Philippi should work out their salvation in the absence of the God, Christ, or the Holy Spirit. Paul said that he was personally absent. The saints at Philippi were to continue in their work without Paul’s immediate input. Being absent, Paul placed them in God’s hand, who would cause them “both to will and to work for His good pleasure.” Paul was not arguing for synergism. And, if it could somehow be proven that he was, then he was a very confused theologian, given all the statements above.

Also, notice how the verse is cited: “Phil. 2:12b,13.” Why “12b”? Well, because 12a would reveal the true context, so it was conveniently discarded (as if partial thoughts can actually convey the original author’s intentions). Here is what was actually written:

“Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your own 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)

Just as they had obeyed Paul’s teaching, they were to continue in the gospel in his absence, knowing that it was God Himself working in them both to will and to work according to His good pleasure. Given the clarity and weight of the verses listed above (which do not exhaust the New Testament passages on the subject), this one verse, out-of-context and truncated, does not make the case for synergism with any real force. Philippians 2:12-13 can just as easily be used by the proponent of monergistic sanctification, since it is ultimately God who causes the willing and the working. To form dogmatic statements on the basis of one verse that does not even directly address sanctification as a topic seems a bit tenuous to me.

Q – Prior to regeneration, due to our affection for the world, we would never desire to come to Christ of our own will (Rom. 8:7, 1 Cor. 2:14, Rom. 3:11, John 3:19), yet the Scriptures make clear that sanctification is synergistic.

Jim – I agree wholeheartedly with the first half of this sentence. No man ever came to Christ of his own unregenerate will. Granted. But so far, we are provided with only one text to prove his assertion and that text is subject to interpretation. Yet, we keep reading, “the Scriptures make clear that sanctification is synergistic” as if the point has been unassailably proven. Repetition does not make an assertion truer.

Q – This is not to say we could maintain our justification (judicial standing before God) by what we do since Christ’s work is sufficient. But in our regeneration we were given a new nature (from God) which desires to please Him. In this way sanctification, unlike regeneration, isn’t entirely a divine action while we just remain passive. Those who think we just remain passive and wait for God to change us cannot give Scriptural evidence to support this position.

Jim – We are not passive prior to God doing His justifying, sanctifying, saving work in us by His Spirit. Not passive at all. We are DEAD! Passivity implies purposeful ignorance or defiance. But, if we could muster up a passive attitude, we could equally muster up the desire for activity. Dead men can do neither. John is trying semantically to separate sanctification from God’s work of justification and regeneration. But, you cannot extricate any one of them from the others. They are all, according to the repeated testimony of Scripture, the work of God, His Son, and His Spirit. Never once is sanctification mentioned as something additional that we do.

Q – I have heard some brothers say, “If God wants to deliver me from this sin, He will do so in His own good time.” But historically this is a theological error in the church known as quietism. Instead, with the gospel of Christ as our constant abiding theme we are called to be ACTIVELY “putting sin to death” … “For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you PUT TO DEATH the misdeeds of the body, you will live.” (Rom. 8:13)

Jim – I would, of course, argue that the key phrase here is “by the Spirit.” That’s the phrase that should be capitalized; not “PUT TO DEATH.” He is putting the emphasis in the wrong place, which results in a reduction of the very glory that God refuses to share with His creatures. I agree that Christians will live and act differently than they did before their conversion. But, it will not be by their will or effort. It will be “by the Spirit.” All the glory must return to the One responsible for every aspect of our salvation.

As for “some brothers” who have said, “If God wants to deliver me from this sin, He will do so in His own good time,” their misapprehension of the doctrine of holiness in no way proves synergistic sanctification. A separate error does not prove the initial assertion.

Q – By God’s unfailing grace we are enabled by the new principle within. Just as we must despair of any hope in ourselves as the first prerequisite of a sound conversion, in the same way we must lose all confidence in self if we are to grow in grace. We must look to Christ and, by His gospel power, we are to put to death all remaining sin (Rom. 6). Because sin is no longer our master and God works in and through us to do this, we have great hope that sin can and will be overcome in our lives. Before regeneration, however, we were dead in sin and had nothing to draw upon, but now we are alive to God in Christ so the new nature empowered by the Holy Spirit is constantly working through us.

Jim – Admittedly, God saved us with no cooperation on our part. But, having been saved, John would have us believe that God expects us to engage our will and actively make ourselves better than we once were. He keeps giving a passing nod to phrases like “empowered by the Holy Spirit,” but he refuses to put that power in its rightful place.

This theology is reminiscent of Rome’s assertion that we are infused with grace from God, which grace empowers us to live righteously in order to be accepted on the basis of our personal holiness. They give “props” to God’s grace, but they insist that it is not sufficient to finish the task of salvation. We have to kick in our percentage to get the job done.

Rather, I would argue that it is all of God and that Christ is indeed “all and in all.” Yes, Christians will improve their lives and resist sin. But, it will not be the direct result of our work or will. It will be the result of God’s Spirit causing us to change.

Notice I said “causing” and not “enabling” us to change. We will irresistibly succumb to the dunamis power of the One who indwells us.

Now, should we sin all the more that grace may abound? Paul answered that question: God forbid. Those who would argue that they may remain in their sin until God forces them to change are tempting Him. But, no man after his own nature will change in the least. And if the power of God has not overwhelmed the will, nature and character of any person, true conversion has yet to happen. And, it’s not sufficient to say that the power of the Holy Spirit now enables us to choose to act more righteously. Rather, it is that very power of the Holy Spirit that causes us to act. The glory remains with God.

“For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.” (Eph. 2:10)

Q – A. A. Hodge said,

“It must be remembered that while the subject is passive with respect to that divine act of grace whereby he is regenerated, after he is regenerated he cooperates with the Holy Ghost in the work of sanctification. The Holy Ghost gives the grace, and prompts and directs in its exercise, and the soul exercises it. Thus while sanctification is a grace, it is also a duty; and the soul is both bound and encouraged to use with diligence, in dependence upon the Holy Spirit, all the means for its spiritual renovation, and to form those habits resisting evil and of right action in which sanctification so largely consists.”

Jim – While I agree that Christians will resist sin and that the bent of their lives will be toward God in repentance, to say that we do this is some way that credits our flesh or our will misses the point. And again, I’m not seeing any verses here to substantiate these claims. To say that God’s grace saved us but that we cooperate with His Spirit in order to perform righteous acts is like saying that God gives us faith as a gift, but we do the actual believing. If we follow the logic of Hodge’s assertion, it could just as easily be applied to justification and lead to the conclusion that salvation is synergistic. It’s a slippery slope.

I do think that these fellows are viewing sanctification primarily as the process of becoming “more Christian” or resisting sin with greater efficiency. But, sanctification is the act of making something holy, or “set apart for God’s exclusive use.” And, in choosing a people to Himself, God formed both the end and the means. The end is salvation; the means is justification and sanctification. Perhaps it is the down-playing of the more theological aspects of the term “sanctification” that is driving this argument.

Q – Yet this is a synergism in which God receives the glory because the Holy Spirit indwells and enables our new desires yet it is we who make choices based on that new nature. In other words, biblical Theology teaches neither quietism nor pietism. Quietism would say “let go and let God” while remaining entirely passive, letting God do all the work. Pietism, however, would say that we need to do all (or most of) the work of holy living and obeying God’s law. Practice with perfectionistic tendencies is often emphasized at the expense of theology.

Jim – Okay, there’s what I was driving at. Read that first sentence carefully. He asserts that God receives the glory when we cooperate with His Spirit, ostensibly because He supplied us with that Spirit in the first place. But, we did the work, so we certainly ought to share in the glory. This article would have us believe that the Spirit indwells us and enables us, yet it is we who make the choices. Equally then, I could argue that it is God that gives us faith, but it is we who do the believing. Same logic, based on the same assumptions.

Meanwhile, Pietism and Quietism are just red herrings. Saying, “It’s not this” does not prove your argument. Just because the other two views are wrong, it does not make the synergistic view automatically right. There is another view not even being discussed: the Biblical declaration that sanctification is a gift of God. The verses listed above have not even been addressed, exegeted or effectively fit into their scheme.

Q – The best understanding of this from a biblical perspective, then, is that we need to, in light of the gospel, exert ourselves in prayer, evangelism, good works, relying wholly on God for the reality of our new life in Christ.

Jim – I know I’m being redundant, but on what basis exactly can anyone conclude “the best understanding of this from a biblical perspective, then, is …”? So far, there’s been no interaction whatsoever with the pertinent texts on the subject. On the basis of one truncated verse from Philippians we can now leap to “the best understanding”?

Q – Of course, all that is really holy and gracious in a renewed sinner comes through the indwelling work of the Holy Spirit. The desires of the soul to be conformed into His image are the direct result of the grace of God, not something we generate from the flesh. (John 4:14; 7:38, 39). He has renewed our natures to be in conformity with the image of God. Our new nature inclines us to choose what is pleasing to God. We love God more than we love sin yet sometimes we are deceived by sin and choose it in unbelief. One who has undergone the new birth will be brought to repentance, however, due to the Holy Spirit dwelling within him. The man without the Spirit does not understand the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14) but now that we were freely given the Spirit, our inclinations, desires and disposition has been changed. We willingly cooperate with God to work out our salvation.

Jim – I just mentioned the truncated verse from Philippians, and here John referred back to it as if its meaning were clear and established: “We willingly cooperate with God to work out our salvation.” That’s not what Paul was saying! Paul did not argue that we were to “willingly cooperate with God.” But, since John assumed the meaning of the verse, with absolutely no exegesis whatsoever, he is now building steam based on his faulty assumption.

Q – (Boettner writes) “Many people confuse regeneration and sanctification. Regeneration is exclusively God’s work, and it is an act of His free grace in which He implants a new principle of spiritual life in the soul. It is performed by supernatural power and is complete in an instant. On the other hand, sanctification is a process through which the remains of sin in the outward life are gradually removed … It is a joint work of God and man.” (Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination, 172).

Jim – I like Boettner’s book. But, I continue to insist that it would be nice to have one verse – just one! – that actually says what these fellows are insisting. I’ve provided a list of verses that say quite the opposite. They’re not hard to find. They’re not isolated in some dark corner of the Bible. They’re repeated by several New Testament authors and seem to develop a very cohesive theology on the subject. Yet, not one of the quotes John chose actually interacts with the text. It’s just dogmatic assertions based on assumptions.

Q – God’s law is no longer seen as a burden for us. This is similar to a groom who is to be married. He limits himself for his bride willingly, not just because he is obligated to. He loves his bride so has no problem putting himself in this covenant relationship that has stipulations. Our relationship to God is similar. When he comes to transform us from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, when He makes our heart of stone into a heart of flesh, we willingly believe and obey His commands. It is our delight to do so. We can say now that we love God’s law, whereas before in our unregenerate nature such was impossible. Our choices are always based on our desires and our desires are the direct result of who we are by nature. We work and God works for our sanctification but God gets all the glory since it was He who implanted the new desires when He gave us spiritual birth.

Jim – I would only wrap up by saying that John’s conclusion is theoretically impossible: “We work and God works for our sanctification but God gets all the glory…” You would have to change the meaning of “glory” in order for that statement to be tenable. It is axiomatic that if we both work, we both get credit for the end result. Merely saying “but God gets the glory” begs the question, “Why?” Why would God get the glory? So many Reformed writers have exercised themselves on this very point: if man’s will is involved in any aspect of salvation, then God must share the glory. Even Paul wrote:

“For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9)


“But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence.” (1 Cor. 1:27-29)

If it is so dogmatically stated in Scripture that God is the sole agent in salvation in order that no man should ever boast or glory in God’s presence, why is it any different with sanctification? If we share in the work, we share in the glory. And, for that reason alone it should be impossible to conclude that sanctification is a cooperative effort. But, given the testimony of Scripture, it simply cannot be asserted with any real authority.

I do understand why these men came to the conclusion they did. Experientially, it does seem that we are acting according to God’s leading when we grow in the knowledge and grace of our Lord. But, experientially it also seemed that we sought and chose God. As we grew in doctrinal knowledge, we came to recognize the sovereign hand of God in our salvation, despite our experience. And I think, in the end, we need to recognize God’s sovereign hand in all things, regardless of our experience.

God chose, God justified, God glorified and God sanctified His people. That’s what the Bible says repeatedly. It’s necessary to interact with that information in some meaningful way before we can conclude any differently. And that’s what seems lacking in this article.

I welcome any ongoing communication or debate on this topic and trust that my comments served for edification and not merely argument.

Yours in Him,

Jim Mc.