Examining Inconsistencies in Calvinistic Monergism Part 2: Sanctification

“Salvation is of the Lord.” Calvinists proudly proclaim this and will often charge that Arminians deny it. Either salvation is all of God (Calvinistic Monergism), we are told, or it is all of man. Some Calvinists give Arminians a little credit and say that they believe salvation is partly of man. Calvinists contend that if man contributes anything to salvation it ceases to be all of God. Arminians find it strange to hear Calvinists speak of faith as a contribution to salvation. Rather, Arminians see faith as a complete trust and reliance on God to save them. The object and focus of faith is Christ. If we are trusting in Christ for salvation (which is what “faith” means) then we cannot be trusting in ourselves. The moment we trust in ourselves we cease to trust in God. Truly, Arminians wonder why this is such a difficult concept for Calvinists to grasp. They do not believe that their faith saves them; rather, they believe that God saves those who trust in Him. To meet a condition is not necessarily the same as making a contribution to any aspect of the conditional promise. It only means that the promise will not be fulfilled until the condition is met. Arminians, therefore, firmly believe that salvation is of the Lord and rely on Him alone to save.

Calvinists view faith as a symptom of salvation rather than the God ordained condition for salvation. Faith is just part of the salvation package. God gives faith to those He irresistibly regenerates. If God did not cause faith irresistibly then man would supposedly have room to boast in his “contribution” (faith) to salvation. Unless God does absolutely everything then it cannot be truly said that salvation is of the Lord. This may sound reasonable enough until one understands the simple distinction between meeting a condition and making a contribution. The logical fallacy is further exposed when one considers the fact that Calvinistic Monergism is incompatible with the important Biblical doctrine of sanctification.

What is sanctification? Narrowly defined, it is the work of God to make believers holy by empowering them to overcome sin, and by conforming them to the image of His Son. Sanctification is a very important part of the salvation process. Calvinists will generally agree with Arminians that there are three aspects to salvation. We have been saved (initial conversion), are being saved (sanctification), and will be saved (final glorification in the physical kingdom of God).

Ben Witherington III recently posted on apostasy in Hebrews. In this post he references Calvinist F.F. Bruce while describing the proper soteriological view regarding sanctification:

Here perhaps it is well to mention just how important sanctification, both the inward work of God and the human response thereto, is to final salvation in our author’s view. Heb. 12.14 puts it succinctly—without internal sanctification, no one shall see the Lord. F.F. Bruce was right in saying a long time ago that sanctification which involves both divine and human action is no optional extra in the Christian life but something which involves its very essence, and without which, final salvation will not be obtained. [F.F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews, rev. ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), p. 364.]

Sanctification is therefore an essential part of the believer’s faith journey. As the believer continues to trust and rely on God he or she is being sanctified. God makes him or her holy. As the believer cooperates with the Spirit’s sanctifying work, his or her character and attitude begins to more and more reflect the character and attitude of Christ. Sanctification is not optional for the believer. Consider the following passages:

For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall be also in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, that our body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin…even so consider yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body that you should obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God…Therefore what benefit were you then deriving from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the outcome of those things is death. But now, having been freed from sin and enslaved to God, you derive your benefit, resulting in sanctification, and the outcome, eternal life. [Rom. 6:5-6, 11-13, 21-22]

The entire chapter is instructive. Through sanctification we live for God and die to sin. The result of this process is “eternal life” (verse 22). Look at Romans 8:

For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace…So then, brethren, we are under obligation, not to the flesh to live according to the flesh- for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the sons of God. [8:5-6, 12-14]

Sanctification is accomplished by yielding to the Spirit’s work. The believer is responsible to put to death the deeds of the flesh through the Spirit’s power working in him or her. This is not optional for “we are under obligation” (vs. 12). If we fail to yield to the Spirit’s work and neglect to put to death the deeds of the flesh, then we will surely die. Only by yielding to the Sprit’s work in us can we live and only those who are presently following the Spirit’s leading in the sanctification process can lay claim to being God’s children (vs. 14). Let us not forget Galatians:

Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, an things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law…Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life. [5:19-23; 6:7-8]

Passages like these could be easily multiplied. Just as we are converted and justified by faith, so are we also sanctified by faith:

And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach- if indeed you continue in the faith firmly established and steadfast, and not moved away from the hope of the gospel… [Col. 1:21-23]

That sanctification is necessary for final salvation and that sanctification is conditional creates big trouble for the claims of Calvinistic Monergism.

Calvinism must somehow come to grips with the fact that not every Christian responds to the Spirit’s work of sanctification in the same way. Many Calvinists never stop to consider this fact. If sanctification is a necessary part of the salvation process and salvation is monergistic, then according to Calvinist definitions, the believer should have nothing at all to do with God’s sanctifying work. He or she cannot “yield” to the work of the Spirit, for that would mean that by yielding to the Spirit’s work the believer would be making a “contribution” to sanctification, and therefore a “contribution” to salvation itself. If God’s work of salvation is an irresistible and unconditional work of God alone, then how do we explain the fact that not all Christians behave exactly the same with regards to resisting temptation and overcoming sin? Consider 1 Cor. 10:13:

No temptation has overtaken you but such as common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, that you may be able to endure it.

J.C. Thibodaux was the first person to draw my attention the relevance of this passage in his Correspondance with a Monergist Theologian. The implications are both obvious and devastating to Calvinistic Monergism. God gives sufficient grace to all believers to resist temptation. Why then do some believers repeatedly fail in certain areas while other Christians overcome in the same areas? Unless we are comfortable blaming God for these failures then we must admit that there is a human element to God’s sanctifying work. All believers are given sufficient sanctifying grace, but not all believers respond the same to that grace. The implications seem plain: sanctification must be synergistic. There is an important element of human cooperation with the Spirit’s work in the sanctification process.

Calvinistic Monergism has a serious dilemma to overcome to maintain consistency. It must deny the synergistic nature of sanctification. By doing this Monergism must then explain why God sanctifies some believers better than others. The Bible declares that our sin grieves the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:10). This leads the Monergist to embrace the absurd theological position that the Holy Spirit actively and purposely grieves Himself by refusing to irresistibly give the sanctifying grace necessary for some believers to overcome certain sins. It also puts the Monergist in plain contradiction to the inspired declaration that sufficient grace is given to all believers to resist temptation in any given situation (1 Cor. 10:13; James 4:6-8).

The Monergist might rather try to downplay the necessity of sanctification with regards to the process of salvation. By doing this he or she will be at odds with the numerous passages of Scripture which teach the necessity of sanctification in the life of the believer with regards to final salvation (see above).

Perhaps the Monergist would rather agree with Calvinist R.C. Sproul who is happy to affirm the synergistic nature of sanctification while holding only that initial salvation must be monergistic.

This is also a problematic “solution”. By affirming the synergistic nature of sanctification, the Calvinist can no longer claim that “salvation is of the Lord” in the strict Calvinistic sense of Monergism. Since Calvinists insist that any act of yielding to the Spirit’s work constitutes a “contribution” to salvation, the affirmation of synergism in sanctification would force the Calvinist to admit that salvation is partly the “work” of man. If the Calvinist wants to insist that actively yielding to the Spirit’s work of sanctification does not equate to a “work” or “contribution” of man, then they must give up their long cherished arguments regarding the necessity of Monergism with regards to initial salvation as well. The Calvinist cannot give cooperation with the Spirit in sanctification a pass while denying the possibility of a similar cooperation with regard to initial salvation.

The Arminian contends that God gives sufficient grace for the sinner to yield to the Spirit’s work unto initial salvation in the same way that God gives sufficient grace to the believer in sanctification. We believe that in both instances it is still proper to contend that man’s yielding to and cooperation with the Spirit in faithful submission can in no way be properly termed a “work” or “contribution”. Salvation is freely given on the condition of faith and the Spirit’s work of sanctification is continued on the condition of faith. The believer must continually surrender to the Spirit’s work in order to finally reach his or her destination in glory. The unregenerate sinner enabled by prevenient grace yields to the regenerating grace of God in initial salvation and the regenerate believer yields to the sanctifying grace of God in the continuing process of salvation. Sanctification through faithful submission is no more a “work of man” than initial salvation through faithful submission to God’s grace is a “work of man”. The sinner who yields to God’s saving grace in faith can no more claim to save himself than the believer who yields to God’s sanctifying grace can claim that he “sanctified himself.”

Conclusion:

Calvinistic Monergism is incompatible with the Biblical doctrine of sanctification. The Calvinistic insistence that synergism is synonymous with “working” for ones salvation is logically fallacious and Biblically unfounded. Unless Calvinism acknowledges a synergistic view of sanctification it will be forced instead to embrace one or more of the following absurd theological positions: 1) sanctification is not a necessary component of Biblical salvation; 2) God alone is to blame for the believer’s failure to conquer sin and grow in his or her relationship with the Lord; 3) the Holy Spirit is pleased to actively and purposely grieve Himself; 4) contrary to the word of God, sufficient grace is not given to all believers to endure temptation, overcome sin, and draw near to God.

In my next post dealing with Monergism we will carefully explore the Calvinist charge that conditional salvation gives grounds for boasting and pride in the believer.