Skull on sandy ocean bottom (Photo by JohanSwanepoel)
How is an individual saved unto eternal life? Is there a ritualistic prayer that one must recite and a set of commandments to keep? Or, is it the result of God's grace and sovereign election? To be clear, this question does not involve the actions of a sinner after they believe. Rather, the question has to do with the first step that must take place before a sinner is willing and able to confess that Jesus is Lord (Romans 10:9, 1 Corinthians 12:3).
If you believe that you had something to do with your salvation, then how much is a sinner's salvation dependent on God? Is it 70%, 80%, or 90% ? Most Christians will admit that they owe their life to Jesus Christ. This usually means that they cooperated with God by believing in his Son. But how can anyone cooperate with a holy God (Isaiah 5:16) if Scripture declares that we are "slaves of sin" (Romans 6:20, John 8:34) and "dead in the trespasses and sins" (Ephesians 2:1-5)?
This question was at the center of the Pelagian Controversy in ancient church history, where Saint Augustine of Hippo (354-430) taught the utter dependence on God's sovereign grace for one to believe, while Pelagius (354-418) emphasized human effort over and against the will of God. Several church councils were called to debate the two opposing views. In each of them, the verdict condemned the teachings of Pelagius. Unfortunately, there are some, perhaps unaware of the aforementioned historical decisions, who are attempting to teach a watered-down version of Pelagianism, known as semi-Pelagianism. Nonetheless, whether one agrees with the verdict of the church counsels or not, let us see what the Lord Jesus had to say about the matter:
And they [Jesus' disciples] were exceedingly astonished, and said to him, "Then who can be saved?" Jesus looked at them and said, "With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God."
Jesus Christ to his disciples in Mark 10:27 (circa 50s or 60s AD)
According to Jesus' own words, it is nothing short of impossible for anyone to be saved, unless God intervenes and makes the impossible, possible (Cf. Matthew 19:26 and Luke 18:27). The Greek word used for "impossible" in the text is "adynatos." This is the same Greek word that is used in Hebrews 6:18, "it is impossible for God to lie"; Hebrews 10:4, "it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins"; and Hebrews 11:6, "without faith it is impossible to please him [God]." These examples of the same use of the Greek word "adynatos" for "impossible" show that the passage must be understood in the strictest sense (i.e., no-way-no-how, rather than, difficult-but-maybe).
The context of the passage above involves a rich man who asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life. After the rich man declared that he had kept all of the commandments from his youth, Jesus lovingly instructs him to sell all of his possessions and follow him. But the rich man "went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions" (Mark 10:22). Jesus takes this opportunity to teach his disciples an important truth by saying, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Mark 10:25). This dramatic statement flabbergasted his disciples, because although they were poor, desired to be rich. It was for this reason that the bewildered disciples asked Jesus how anyone at all can be saved.
So how can anyone inherit eternal life? According to the Lord's answer to his disciples' question, humanistic self-will and determination does not enable a sinner entrance into the kingdom of God. Jesus himself stated that it [salvation] is impossible with man. We must conclude then that the reason why anyone is saved is because God makes it possible.
The impossibility of the sinner to believe apart from God's involvement is also emphasized in Jesus' statement below:
It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life... This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father.
Jesus to his twelve disciples in John 6:63-65 (circa pre-70 AD)
Again, we have a clear statement from the Lord emphasizing the exclusive nature of salvation. Jesus' statement above, by itself, is sufficient to support monergism. But the context of the passage reveals just how depraved the unregenerate sinner is, and how they could not believe in Christ even if they tried. You see, Jesus had just fed about five thousand men from "five barley loaves and two fish" (John 6:9-10). They followed him because "they saw the signs that he was doing on the sick" (John 6:2). After the crowd ate and were filled (John 6:26), they said, "This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world!" (John 6:14. Cf. John 1:21, Acts 3:22, 7:37, Deuteronomy 18:15-18). In fact, they were so impressed, that they even wanted to "take him [Jesus] by force to make him king" (John 6:15). Unfortunately, after Jesus told them that true life is given by Spirit, "many of his disciples turned back and no longer walked with him" (John 6:66).
One, perhaps a synergist, may say, "If I were there and witnessed these things, I would give my life to Christ in a heartbeat." However, the example of the crowd's unbelief in the face of miraculous deeds, show that it is impossible to believe unless first and foremost, the Holy Spirit of God acts on the individual. One must be awakened by the Spirit before they can believe.
Again, Jesus explicitly states that a fallen human cannot recognize their Savior unless God reveals him:
Simon Peter replied, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." And Jesus answered him, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven."
Jesus Christ to Simon Peter in Matthew 16:16-17 (circa 50s or 60s AD)
This is a startling admission from the lips of Jesus. In that Peter, a disciple of Jesus who witnessed first-hand the cures, miracles, and teachings of the Lord, could not recognize the Messiah on his own accord. If this was true in Jesus' time while the disciples enjoyed the physical presence of the Savior, how can anyone, being one day, or a thousand years removed from the time that the incarnate Son of God walked the earth, exercise any faith in the Christ of God? The demons recognized that Jesus was the Son of God (Matthew 8:28-29, Mark 5:7, Luke 4:34, 8:28) because they were once residents of heaven (Luke 10:18, Revelation 12:9) where the pre-incarnate Jesus originally came down from (John 3:13, Isaiah 6:1-3). Fallen humanity, on the other hand, came from the dust of the earth (Genesis 2:7, 3:19).
The question concerning the mechanism involved in the salvation of a sinner is a hotly debated topic among Christians. There are two arguments in the context of soteriology (i.e., the doctrine of salvation) that attempt to answer this question. They are: synergism and monergism.
In the synergistic view, both the sinner and God cooperate with one another in order for the sinner to be saved and inherit eternal life. This view consists of the following formula:
Loading... God + sinner = regeneration of sinner
A common illustration of synergism consists of a swimmer drowning in the middle of the ocean. God looks down from heaven and descends to earth and extends his hand to the drowning swimmer. Immediately before the individual draws their last breath and goes under the water, the swimmer grabs God's extended hand and is saved.
Conversely, the monergistic point of view maintains that the regeneration (Titus 3:5) of the sinner depends entirely on the pro-active involvement of God alone. It is only after God's effectual call that the sinner is able to respond in faith toward God. This view consists of the formula below:
Loading... God - sinner = regeneration of sinner
A common illustration for monergism consists of a swimmer lying dead at the bottom of the ocean. God looks down from heaven and dives into the bottom of the ocean, pulls the life-less swimmer to shore where he breathes into the swimmer his Holy Spirit (Ezekiel 37:5). Once revived, the resuscitated and reborn individual immediately recognizes his Savior and exclaims, "My Lord and my God!" (John 20:28)
As we can see in the formulas above, both involve the presence of a sinner and God. In the synergistic formula, the sinner is promoted to the level of an unequal partner with God, where God does most of the work. Conversely, in the monergistic formula, the sinner is demoted to the level of a bystander, while God works to cause the regeneration that precedes faith. Now if the Scriptures teach that fallen humanity is worthless (Romans 3:12) and lies dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-5, Colossians 2:13), how can they be anything but a bystander in the salvation event? Furthermore, if we compare the Lord's statement to his disciples in Mark 10:27, "With man it [salvation] is impossible, but not with God...", to the formulas of synergism and monergism, we can see that monergism is in agreement with the Jesus' teaching, while synergism is not.
Perhaps the monergistic view can also be illustrated in the story of the creation of Eve, where an unknowing Adam was put under a deep sleep while God assembled Eve from his proverbial rib (Genesis 2:21-22). Adam was present, but a non-participant in the event. Nonetheless, after awaking, he was able to recognize his new female partner (Genesis 2:23).
The mechanism of regeneration as described in the latter view (i.e., monergism) involves the Holy Spirit entering the dead-in-trespasses (Ephesians 2:5) person and reviving the spiritually life-less sinner. After which, the indwelling of the Holy Spirit enables the resuscitated sinner to recognize God and cry, "Abba! Father!" (Romans 8:15, Galatians 4:6).
Let us continue our investigation of monergism by examining the evidence found in the historical narrative of Scripture.
Monergism in the historical narrative:
If Jesus was correct in his declaration that it is impossible for man to be saved except if God makes it possible, then we should find evidence of this in the historical record. And as we shall see, even in the beginning, when Adam and Eve disobeyed their Creator and fell from their goodly state, the monergistic mechanism of salvation was evident.
Prior to the fall, Adam and Eve existed in a harmonious state with their Creator. However, after Eve was deceived (1 Timothy 2:14) and Adam transgressed the covenant (Hosea 6:7), both realized they were naked and hid from the LORD God among the trees (Genesis 3:7-8).
We see then, that after experiencing the consequence of their disobedience, they did not seek forgiveness nor reconciliation with the LORD God. Instead, they feared and attempted to evade his presence when they heard him walking in the garden. Why were they afraid? The apostle John informs us that "fear has to do with punishment" (1 John 4:8).
Adam and Eve's contentment with guilt rather than seeking God reminds us of Judas Iscariot, who, after realizing his grave sin in betraying Jesus, did not seek God's forgiveness, but rather, thought to relieve his guilt by returning the blood money to the Pharisees (Matthew 27:3-5). Or, the rich man in the fire of Hades who called out to father Abraham instead of God for relief (Luke 16:22-24). In both instances, the unregenerate sinner had no desire to seek God.
If the first and original man and woman, Adam and Eve (1 Corinthians 15:45-47), both hid themselves from God after sinning (Genesis 3:8), how can anyone thereafter, being mere copies of the corrupted original, seek after God on their own volition? The Bible records God doing the seeking and atoning work (Genesis 3:21). It was God who called out to and found Adam, not vice versa.
We could suppose that Adam may have eventually sought after God had God not taken the initiative and called out to Adam first. However, this would be extremely unlikely since Adam and Eve lived in a garden paradise where all of their physical needs were met (Job 1:9-10, 2:4-5). Furthermore, the corruption that crept upon them at the time of their transgression (Genesis 2:17, 3:3) thwarted any desire to reconnect with the Creator. Both the Old and New Testaments testify to the inability and unwillingness of humanity to seek after God (Psalm 14:2-3, 53:2-3, Romans 3:9-18). This was evident when they actively hid from his presence.
Also evident in the chronology of the Fall, is that Adam and Eve expressed faith in God only after being called by God. For example, Adam "called his wife's name Eve, because she was the mother of all living" (Genesis 3:20). Why would Adam give his wife such an optimistic name unless he believed in God's mercy and forgiveness? After all, he expected to die after eating the forbidden fruit just as God warned (Genesis 2:17). He could have been pessimistic and called her "Nasha" which is the Hebrew word used for "deceived" (Genesis 3:13). But he did not. Adam experienced the grace and mercy of God and afterward expressed his faith by giving his wife a noble name.
Eve also expressed her faith in God when she called her first son's name Cain, saying, "I have gotten a man with the help of the LORD" (Genesis 4:1). Before this, she also expected to die just as she was warned by God (Genesis 3:3)
Also in the Genesis account, we are given an allusion to the sacrificial work of Christ, when, even though Adam and Eve had "sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths" and were no longer naked (Genesis 3:7), the LORD killed an animal and "made for Adam and for his wife garments of skins and clothed them" (Genesis 3:21). What would be the purpose in making another physical covering for Adam and Eve if they already made one for themselves with fig leaves? Unless, God wanted to give them a temporary covering for their sin (Isaiah 61:10, Matthew 22:11-14, Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, 1 John 2:2, 4:10). Perhaps this is the reason why he did not immediately kill them in the first place for disobeying his only commandment in the garden. In addition, we see that God provided this made-of-skin covering, even though they did not ask. This act reveals the nature of God's salvation. That is, it is a gift from God (Romans 3:24, 5:15-17, Ephesians 2:8, 3:7, 4:7, 1 Peter 4:10).
In addition to the story of Adam and Eve, we also have several other examples of monergism in the historical narrative. For example, Noah was called by God to build an ark (Genesis 6:13-14). Those who espouse synergism argue that Noah's righteousness saved him. For the Scripture declares, "Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD... Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his generation. Noah walked with God" (Genesis 6:8-9). However, this does not negate the fact that Noah, being physically descended from Adam before him, could not seek after God on his own accord. The reason why Noah walked with God must have to do with something other than him choosing to do so apart from God's power (Ephesians 3:7). You see, Noah was descended from Adam, and we already saw how God had to seek after Adam to save him after the Fall. But in his compassion, God promises to show mercy on those who fear him from generation to generation (Luke 1:50), and to keep steadfast love for thousands (Exodus 34:6-7). Noah was in the lineage of believing Adam (Genesis 5:1-32). In fact, Noah's father, Lamech, also believed in God and declared, "Out of the ground that the LORD has cursed, this one [Noah] shall bring us relief from our work and from the painful toil of our hands" (Genesis 5:29). Consequently, we should realize that God blessed Noah in the same way he blessed Adam in the garden after the Fall, by sovereignly electing him to faith. It is true that Noah found favor in God's eyes, was righteous and walked with God. But he too became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith. Faith that only God can give as a gift via his grace (Ephesians 2:8). In other words, Noah did not possess a kind of righteousness that came by good works, but by faith (Hebrews 11:7). God's election depends on his sovereign mercy, not human will or exertion (Romans 9:15-16).
The Lord called Abram out from his father's country to follow the Lord into a land he did not know (Genesis 12:1). Prior to being called, Abraham "served other gods" (Joshua 24:2).
Even Moses, after Pharaoh sought to kill him (Exodus 2:15), did not seek refuge in God. Rather, God called out to Moses (Exodus 3:4).
We all know that Jesus called out his own twelve disciples among the many that followed him (Luke 6:12-16). In fact, Jesus explicitly reinforces this by telling them, "You did not choose me, but I chose you... I chose you out of the world..." (John 15:16-19).
And Saul, while "still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord", was stopped dead in his tracks and called out by the Lord (Acts 9:1-6). It would seem illogical to believe, as proponents of synergism do, that while Saul (a.k.a. Paul) was on his way to persecute Christians, that he used his free will to become one. Paul himself admits that he is "an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God" (Ephesians 1:1). Not by his own will, but by God's will.
To be fair, the synergist also has some evidence for their view. However, their view can only be maintained while suppressing the evidence for monergism. You see, if we believe all of Scripture is the inspired word of God, then all of Scripture must be true. If the Bible teaches that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and that Adam hid from and then was found by God, then synergism can only be valid if we delete the latter points from the historical narrative and didactic literature. In other words, a sinner cannot repent and believe the gospel when the truth of their deadness according to Scripture is still true. One would have to ignore the parts of Scripture that explicitly declare a sinner's inability to respond in faith toward God, even after they are presented with the gospel. Sinners are saved because they were first known by God (Galatians 4:9).
The most negative description of fallen humanity is that we are dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1-5, Colossians 2:13), none seeks after God (Psalm 14:2-3, 53:2-3, Romans 3:9-18). But there is also a more optimistic view as declared by Christ:. For example, Jesus' admitted to the scribe that he was "not far from the kingdom of God" after Jesus said he "answered wisely" concerning the greatest commandments (Mark 12:34). Does this mean that some can believe and be saved without first being regenerated? In other words, is synergism true for some but not others? If some can believe and be saved before being regenerated, that would mean that the most pessimistic statements regarding fallen humanity are not true and all of Scripture is not the inspired word of God. This puts the synergist into another serious dilemma (Proverbs 30:5-6, Deuteronomy 4:2, Revelation 22:18-19, 2 Timothy 3:16-17). The scribe's nearness to the kingdom of God is the result of the Holy Spirit's preparatory work in the individual. However, even this apparent preparation does not always result in the Holy Spirit causing the person to be born again from above.
Sabz, S. (2017, July 14). Finding man: the evidence for monergism. Retrieved from https://scienceandbibleresearch.com/finding-man-monergism.html