For some, the debate between Arminianism and Calvinism boils down to whether salvation is monergistic or synergistic. I believe the term “synergism” is not always accurately applied to the Arminian position. The word comes from the Greek synergos, which essentially means “working together”. While monergism (to work alone) may be an acceptable label for what Calvinists believe (God does all the work in salvation), synergism does not always rightly portray what Arminians have historically believed.
The word itself, when taken in a grammatically strict sense, is not a very good description of what Arminians believe regarding salvation. Arminians do not believe that both God and man “work” together in salvation. We believe that we are saved “by faith from first to last” (Rom. 1:17). Since faith is antithetical to works (Rom. 3:20-28; 4:2-5; 9:32; 10:5, 6; Gal. 2:16; 3:2, 5; Eph. 2:8, 9; Phil. 3:9), it is a misnomer to label Arminian soteriology as synergistic in the strictest sense of the word.
Arminian theology, when rightly understood, teaches that salvation is monergistic. God alone does the saving. God alone regenerates the soul that is dead in sin. God alone forgives and justifies on the merits of Christ’s blood. God alone makes us holy and righteous. In all of these ways salvation is entirely monergistic. The difference between Calvinism and Arminianism is whether or not God’s saving work is conditional or unconditional. Arminians believe that God will not save until we meet the God ordained condition of faith. Faith may be understood as synergistic only in the sense that God graciously enables us to believe, but we are the ones who must decide whether or not we will believe.
F. Leroy Forlines put it well when he said,
I believe that saving faith is a gift of God in the sense that the Holy Spirit gives divine enablement without which faith would be impossible (John 6:44). The difference between the Calvinistic concept of faith and my concept of faith cannot be that theirs is monergistic and mine is synergistic. In both cases it is synergistic. Active participation in faith by the believer means it must be synergistic. Human response cannot be ruled out of faith. Justification and regeneration are monergistic. Each is an act of God, not man. Faith is a human act by divine enablement and therefore cannot be monergistic. (The Quest For Truth, pg 160, emphasis his)
If faith were monergistic then it would not be the person believing, but God believing for the person. Faith is the genuine human response to God’s call, and the means by which we access His saving grace (Rom. 5:1, 2). It is still God’s grace that saves, but that grace must be received by faith, and the nature of faith is such that it can never be properly called a “work”.
Does this mean that man is the determiner of salvation and not God? Absolutely not. God has determined that those who believe in His Son shall be saved, and that determination is absolute and unchangeable (Jn. 3:16-18, 36). We simply determine whether or not we will meet the God ordained condition of faith.
Calvinists tend to object that faith, when understood in the context of Arminian theology, is really just a “work”. My next post will answer this charge and define the nature of saving faith in Arminian theology.