Sanctification: Monergism or Synergism?

for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for ● his good pleasure.

Philippians 2:13

During the Q & A on our table talk on John Calvin’s Institutes, the question about sanctification as monergistic or synergistic was brought in. While some would say that it is monergistic since God alone gets the glory or synergistic since God is working with man during sanctification, we can say that such categories do not apply in sanctification.

This is how the Baptist Catechism (1693) defines it:

Question: What is sanctification?

Answer: Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Our lecturer referred us to Kevin De Young’s article Is Sanctification Monergistic or Synergistic? A Reformed Survey. It is a short survey on what Reformed Theologians have to say regarding this question. I’ll post sections of it here. It’s really helpful.

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?

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).

To God be the glory!

*Cover photo from

Published by Jeff Chavez

Sinner saved by grace

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