There is something healthy about returning to one’s roots. When it comes to evangelical Christianity, its roots are found in the soil of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

Synergism: The Fatal Leaven

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  • Synergism: The Fatal Leaven

    The Leaven of Synergism

    Throughout the centuries since God covenanted to save man through the sacrifice of his Son, Jesus Christ, whereby He provided a full, perfect, and sufficient satisfaction for our sins, one aberration of the Gospel has recurrently threatened the truth. It is the view that man must make some contribution himself in securing his salvation. It is not the size of this contribution that is the important factor, but the necessity of it.

    It is as though healing is promised to a terminally ill patient if only he will prepare himself in some way, or yield himself, or present himself at his own expense before the physician. The Roman Catholic Church holds strongly to the view that some self-preparation is essential, usually in the form of a willingness to make amends for wrongs done, or to effect some self-correction in order to merit the grace of God. The Lutherans place the emphasis on the necessity of man's willingness to accept God's salvation. Modern evangelism calls upon men to "make an active decision" as though to pick up the phone and arrange an appointment. Or the patient is invited at least to unlock the door before the physician can make this call and heal him. This door is locked on the inside and can be unlocked only by the patient.

    But there is no question of the patient's healing himself. On this there is a wide measure of unanimity. He does need the Saviour; but he is not considered to be without any ability to assist in some way, or at least to co-operate in the healing process, though the measure of his co-operation may amount to no more than that he allow the physician to visit his soul.

    Whatever form the human contribution takes, it always means that salvation is a co-operative activity. Salvation is not a God-only process, but a God-and process. This working together is termed Synergism. Such Synergism was a religious philosophy with humanistic overtones even in Old Testament times, and it has been in evidence in every generation. It is man's demand not to be considered impotent, Man admits his sickness, but he is unwilling to admit his death.

    Theologically, Synergism is fatal to any sound Christian soteriology, for it is a denial of man's total bondage in sin and a claim to some remaining will to absolute good. By and large, the Greek Fathers were always content to place the grace of God and the free will of man side by side, and as a consequence, the Greek Catholic Church early assumed a synergistic position. The Roman Catholic Church followed suit ‹ though somewhat more slowly. Since the Council of Trent it has held dogmatically that man prepares himself and disposes his own heart to receive the grace of justification. (1)

    The Reformation was a total break with this almost universal teaching, a recovery of a truly monergistic doctrine of salvation, a Solus Deus position. But like all other revivals of the truth of the Gospel, it soon began to be plagued by those who demanded that allowance be made for man's autonomy if he was not to be a mere puppet, some tiny admission of spiritual competence, some small part which man might be called upon to play, as a sound basis for exhortation in preaching the Gospel and as an incentive to those striving after holiness.

    Luther himself was wholly committed to a God-only position. Unregenerate man is spiritually dead, not perfectly well as Pelagius held, nor merely sick as Arminius held, but completely dead as Calvin held. We have already traced briefly the gradual leavening of Luther's position by the synergistic tendencies of those who followed him [Chapter 4]. This fatal return to the heresy of all ages was, in Germany, largely the result of one man, Melancthon (1497‹1560).

    It was this godly and gentle man whose humanistic influence introduced once again the corrupting stream into Lutheran theology, where it took the seemingly harmless form of attributing to man nothing of a positive nature but only a non-resistance to the overtures of God without which the Holy Spirit is unable to make the grace of God effectual unto salvation. Luther was aware of this tendency from its first re-appearance among his disciples and spoke out strongly against it. He said (in Table Talk, under the heading "Of Free Will"): (2)

    Some allege that the Holy Spirit works not in those that resist Him but only in such as are willing and give consent thereto, whence it follows that free will is a cause and helper of faith; and consequently the Holy Ghost does not work alone through the word, but that our will does something therein.

    But I say it is not so; the will of man works not at all in his conversion and justification. . . It is a matter on which the Holy Spirit works (as a potter makes a pot out of clay), equally in those that are averse and remiss as in St. Paul. But after the Holy Spirit has wrought in the wills of such resistants, then He also manages that the will be consenting thereto.
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