This topic has been hotly debated within the church for centuries. It is not exaggerating to say that this debate concerns the very heart of the gospel itself. First, let us define the two terms. When we talk about monergism vs. synergism, theologically speaking, we’re talking about who brings about our salvation. Monergism, which comes from a compound Greek word that means “to work alone,” is the view that God alone effects our salvation. This view is held primarily by Calvinistic and Reformed traditions and is closely tied to what is known as the “doctrines of grace.” Synergism, which also comes from a compound Greek word meaning “to work together,” is the view that God works together with us in effecting salvation. While monergism is closely associated with John Calvin, synergism is associated with Jacob Arminius, and his views have greatly shaped the modern evangelical landscape. Calvin and Arminius aren’t the creators of these views, but are the best-known proponents of Calvinism and Arminianism.
These two views were heavily debated in the early 17th century when followers of Arminius published The Five Articles of the Remonstrance (FAR), a document stating where their theology differed from that of Calvin and his followers. The pivotal point in this debate is between the Calvinistic doctrine of unconditional election vs. the Arminian doctrine of conditional election. If one believes election is unconditional, then one will tend toward a monergistic view of salvation. Conversely, if one holds to a view that election is based on God’s foreknowledge of who would believe in Him, then one tends toward the synergistic view.
The view of unconditional election is stated in the Westminster Confession of Faith: “Those of mankind that are predestinated unto life, God, before the foundation of the world was laid, according to his eternal and immutable purpose, and the secret counsel and good pleasure of his will, hath chosen in Christ, unto everlasting glory, out of his free grace and love alone, without any foresight of faith or good works, or perseverance in either of them, or any other thing in the creature, as conditions, or causes moving him thereunto; and all to the praise of his glorious grace”(WCF III.5, emphasis added). As we can see, unconditional election teaches that God’s choice of the elect is based on the good pleasure of His will and nothing more. Furthermore, His choice in election is not based on His foreseeing a person’s faith or any good works or that person’s persevering in either faith or good works.
Two classic biblical passages support this doctrine. The first is Ephesians 1:4-5, “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.” According to this passage, we were chosen by God to be in Christ—holy and blameless—before the world was created, and this choice was based on the “purpose of God’s will.” The other passage is Romans 9:16, “It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.” God’s choice is not dependent on anything we do or believe in, but is made solely at the discretion of God’s mercy.
The essence of Calvinism, and the monergistic argument, is that God is in the business of actually saving people and not merely making them savable. Because all people are born in sin and because of their fallen nature (total depravity), they will always reject God; therefore, God must act in saving the elect without any pre-condition on their part such as faith. In order to bestow the blessings of salvation and eternal life to the elect, God must first atone for their sins (limited atonement). This grace and salvation must then be applied to the elect, and thus the Holy Spirit applies the effects of salvation to the elect by regenerating their spirits and drawing them into salvation (irresistible grace). Finally, those whom God has saved He will preserve to the end (perseverance of the saints). From beginning to end, salvation (in all its aspects) is a work of God and God alone—monergism! The point is that actual people are being saved—the elect. Consider Romans 8:28-30. In that passage we see that there is a group of people whom God “calls according to his purpose.” These people are identified as “those who love God.” These people are also those who in vv. 29-30 are foreknown, predestined, called, justified and glorified. God is the one who is moving this group of people (those who love God, the elect) from foreknowledge to glorification, and none are lost along the way.
In support of the synergistic argument, let’s turn our attention to the Five Articles of the Remonstrance: “That God, by an eternal and unchangeable purpose in Jesus Christ his Son, before the foundation of the world, hath determined, out of the fallen, sinful race of men, to save in Christ, for Christ’s sake, and through Christ, those who, through the grace of the Holy Ghost, shall believe on this his son Jesus, and shall persevere in this faith and obedience of faith, through this grace, even to the end; and, on the other hand, to leave the incorrigible and unbelieving in sin and under wrath, and to condemn them as alienate from Christ, according to the word of the Gospel in John 3:36: ‘He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him,’ and according to other passages of Scripture also” (FAR, Article I, emphasis added). Here we see that salvation is conditional upon the faith and perseverance of the individual. What conditional election does is place the determining factor of our salvation squarely upon us, on our ability to choose Jesus and remain in Him. Now Arminians will claim that our ability to choose Jesus is the result of a universal grace that God first gives to all people that offsets the effects of the fall and allows man to choose to accept or reject Christ. In other words, God must do something to even make the choice of salvation possible, but in the end it is our choice which saves us. The Scripture reference that Article I supplies certainly affirms that those who believe have eternal life and that those who reject do not have eternal life, so it would seem there is some scriptural support for this doctrine. Thus, the synergistic argument claims that God makes salvation possible, but it is our choice that makes salvation actual.
So, while monergism claims that God is both a necessary and sufficient condition for our salvation, synergism will agree that God is a necessary condition, but will deny His sufficiency. Our free will plus God’s activity is what makes it sufficient. Logically speaking, we should be able to see the flaw in the synergistic argument—that God doesn’t actually save anyone. This places the responsibility for salvation on us, for it is we who have to make salvation real by placing our faith in Christ. If God doesn’t actually save anyone, then it is possible that no one will be saved. If God doesn’t actually save anyone, how do we explain such strong passages as Romans 8:28-30? All of the Greek verbs in that passage are aorist/indicative, meaning that the action described therein is complete; there is no potentiality implied in that passage. From God’s perspective, salvation has been effected. Further, Article IV of the Remonstrance says the grace of God is resistible, and Article V asserts that those who have chosen the grace of God can also fall from that grace and “return to this present evil world” becoming “devoid of grace.” This view contradicts the clear teaching of Scripture in regard to the eternal security of the believer.
If that is the case, how then do we respond to the biblical support for conditional election (cf. John 3:36)? There is no denying that faith is necessary to make salvation a "done deal" in our lives, but where does faith fall in the order of salvation (Ordo Salutis)? Again, if we consider Romans 8:29-30, we see a logical progression of salvation. Justification, which is typically in view when considering salvation by faith, is fourth on that list preceded by foreknowledge, predestination, and calling. Now calling can be broken down into the following: regeneration, evangelism, faith and repentance. In other words, the "call" (referred to as “effectual calling” by Reformed theologians) first must involve being born again by the power of the Holy Spirit (John 3:3). Next comes the preaching of the gospel (Romans 10:14-17), followed by faith and repentance. However, before any of that can take place, it must be logically preceded by foreknowledge and predestination.
This brings us to the question of foreknowledge. Arminians will claim that foreknowledge refers to God foreknowing the faith of the elect. If that is the case, then God’s electing us is no longer based on the “good purpose of his will,” but rather on our being able to choose Him, despite our fallen condition which, according to Romans 8:7 is hostile to God and incapable of doing so. The Arminian view of foreknowledge also contradicts the clear teaching of the passages mentioned above in support of unconditional election (Ephesians 1:4-5 and Romans 9:16). This view essentially robs God of His sovereignty and places the responsibility for salvation squarely on the shoulders of creatures who are wholly incapable of saving themselves.
In conclusion, the weight of the logical evidence and the weight of the biblical evidence supports the monergistic view of salvation—God is the author and perfector of our salvation (Hebrews 12:2). He who began a good work in us will perfect it on the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6). Monergism not only has a profound impact on how one views salvation, but on evangelism as well. If salvation is solely based on God’s saving grace, then there is no room for us to boast, and all the glory goes to Him (Ephesians 2:8-9). In addition, if God actually saves people, then our evangelistic efforts must bear fruit because God has promised to save the elect. Monergism equals greater glory to God!