Receding From Reformation:
A New Calvinist Threat to “Faith Alone”
I wonder if others have noticed a subtle shift in the terminology used by some of our Calvinist brothers. I was always under the impression that, when discussing the matter of eternal salvation, Calvinists, Lutherans, Arminians, Traditionalist Baptists, as well as we in the Free Grace movement, were all really on the same side. I understood it to be Protestants of every stripe standing together proclaiming “justification by faith” in fraternal opposition to the Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) theology of “justification by works.” It was only secondary arguments, ones like “determinism versus free-will” and how to properly understand the biblical concept of “election,” that divided up those of us who unitedly hold to the “justification by faith” point of view.
It has only been recently, or perhaps I have only recently noticed, that many of our Calvinist brethren have begun to enlist a different terminology. This different terminology is reframing the debate. It seems some Calvinists are intentionally pitting themselves (perhaps along with the Lutherans) against everyone else, with “everyone else” including the other Protestant views as well as Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox soteriologies. I am referring to the way Calvinists will now routinely refer to themselves as “monergists,” with all other Christians, whatever our views regarding justification by faith or justification by works, being called “synergists.”
Especially for Free Grace advocates, it is uncomfortable to be lumped together with Roman Catholic theology. It is true that we, along with Arminians and Traditionalist Baptists, believe that men can respond positively (which is to say they can respond with belief) to the gospel message prior to regeneration. But in our view “belief” is not a “work,” and “having the ability to believe” does not mean “able to earn salvation.” There is nothing meritorious about belief. A person who believes in Jesus for eternal life does not deserve eternal life any more than any other sinner does. Thus, we view our belief in the absolute freeness of God’s gift of eternal salvation to be fundamentally different from the view held by Roman Catholics that eternal salvation is obtained by a combination of faith plus good works.
However, with the new terminology being used, some of our Calvinist friends seem to be implying that the important issue coming out of the Reformation, what most separates Protestants from Catholics, rather than “faith” versus “works,” is actually “monergism” versus “synergism.” Beyond being a bit uncordial, the creation of this new division is actually a threat to historic Reformed theology itself.
The late Calvinist theologian RC Sproul defined and explained the terms “monergism” and “synergism” well:
Monergism is derived from a combination of a prefix and a root. The prefix mono is used frequently in English to indicate that which is single or alone. The root comes from the verb “to work.” The erg of monergy comes into our language to indicate a unit of work or energy. When we put the prefix and root together, we get monergy or monergism. Monergism is something that operates by itself or works alone as the sole active party. Monergism is the opposite of synergism. Synergism shares a common root with monergism, but it has a different prefix. The prefix syn comes from a Greek word meaning “with.” Synergism is a cooperative venture, a working together of two or more parties.
Webster defines the term monergism a bit more simply, but conveying the same basic idea, saying monergism is “the theological doctrine that regeneration is exclusively the work of the Holy Spirit.” Based on these definitions, I agree with Arminian theologian Matthew Pinson when he says the label of “synergist” for all non-Calvinists is really a misnomer, if not an all-out false accusation. In both Arminian and Free Grace theology, faith is the mechanism which triggers regeneration, while in Calvinism regeneration is the mechanism which triggers faith. In each system, though, regeneration itself is viewed as wholly the work of God. In his article Pinson referred to the preferable term “conditional monergism” used by Leroy Folines in his book Classical Arminianism as the more accurate description of the non-Calvinist view.
Though I think Pinson’s and Folines’ terminology to be more technically correct, I am actually not terribly concerned with which term is used. We non-Calvinist Protestants believe that, though regeneration itself, as well as the inward call to belief, are works of God the Holy Spirit, the volitional choice not to resist the Spirit’s call, as well as the cognitive ability to believe the message, are within the purview of unregenerate human beings. If our Calvinist brethren wish to include this view within the category of “synergism,” then so be it. Whether it be called “synergism” or “conditional monergism,” I do not see this view as in any way either robbing God of the praise for the work of salvation, nor as giving the redeemed sinner any ground for boasting about it. If a gift is given, even if the receiver is given the option to either accept or refuse it, all credit for the gift always belongs fully to the giver.
So, while the distinction between Calvinistic monergism and the various other Protestant views is important, it is not that important. It is at least not nearly as important as the fundamental issue coming out of the Reformation, an issue our Calvinistic brothers are risking running roughshod over by over-emphasizing this one.
The Real Issue
If you were to ask any young student of theology, regardless of his religious background, “What is the difference between the Protestant and Catholic view of salvation?” his answer would likely be something like, “Protestants believe in faith alone, while Catholics believe in faith plus works of grace.” I may be naive, but as I said previously, I think this hypothetical young student is basically right. At least I think he should be right.
For the moment, let’s just accept the definition being used by many Calvinists, that many of their fellow Protestants are synergists and they Calvinists alone are monergists. So what? By this definition, a person’s being a synergist or a monergist says nothing at all as to whether he believes in justification by faith alone, or if he believes in justification by faith plus works. By this definition of synergism, there can certainly be “synergists” who believe in faith plus works (Catholics, for instance), or there can be synergists who believe in faith alone (like Arminians, Traditionalist Baptists, and Free Grace proponents). Even more importantly, and this is what I think many Calvinists are not seeing, while there can be “monergists” who believe in salvation by faith alone, there can just as easily be monergists who believe in works salvation.
When the debate between monergism and synergism is presented as most important, the faith alone vs faith plus works distinction, which ought to take first place, gets minimized or even ignored.
Not Merely Hypothetical
Those who have followed theological discussions within the evangelical world over the last decade or so know that I am not speaking merely hypothetically. In the early 2000’s, the “Federal Vision” (FV) movement brought a great deal of controversy into multiple Reformed denominations. Whether fairly or not, the General Assembly Report to the 73rd GA of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church accused (at least some) advocates of the FV with “including works (by use of ‘faithfulness,’ ‘obedience,’ etc.) in the very definition of faith.” Now, those familiar with FV theology know very well no one could accuse the FV people of being insufficiently Calvinistic. They were and are as dogmatically monergistic as Reformed people come. They were monergists to the core, but this did not prevent them from, at least in the opinion of the OPC, beginning to include works into the means of salvation.
More recently (and more prominently), the same issue has come up with one who is perhaps the most beloved pastoral figure in all Reformed evangelicalism, perhaps even the most beloved in all evangelicalism period: John Piper.
On September 25, 2017 Piper posted an article on desiringGod.org titled “Does God Really Save Us by Faith Alone?” Piper’s answer to the title question was quite surprising. He explained that while “justification” was indeed by faith alone, what he termed “final salvation” actually requires works. He said:
“In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith.”
Of course, for many people, this was a bit confusing, and for some, it seemed to contradict the doctrine of faith alone which is so important to the entirety of Protestantism.”
Piper addressed the confusion caused by this article in an episode of his “Ask Pastor John” series. I found the interview to be most telling, especially the last section, where Piper attempts to defend his view.
First though, Piper doubled down on his teaching that “final salvation” is by works. Piper was careful to explain that “justification,” the initial point where “we pass from being under condemnation into God’s being one hundred percent for us,” is indeed by faith alone. “Salvation,” though, for Piper is a broader term. It includes justification, as well as “sanctification” and “final salvation.” Sanctification, in Piper’s Reformed tradition, is the practical outworking of righteousness in the believer’s life. Final salvation (a term not found in the Scriptures, nor in any of the Reformed confessions so far as I am aware) for Piper is when God makes “a public pronouncement with a view to these works (of sanctification) confirming the faith, which alone unites us to Christ, who is alone the foundation of our acceptance as perfect in God’s sight.”
After explaining these three aspects of salvation (only one of which, according to Piper, is by faith alone) Piper spent a few paragraphs arguing the traditional Reformed view that “Faith which saves is not alone,” meaning faith, if it is genuine, will inevitably produce good works as fruit (how much good work is necessary before the faith is finally confirmed is, as is normally the case, never explained). But it is in the last paragraph of this section where he really comes out with it:
“We are not justified through sanctification. Let me say it again: we are not justified through sanctification. But we are finally saved through sanctification – that is, through a real change in our hearts and minds and lives without which we will not see the Lord.”
No doubt the implication here is that to “see the Lord” for Piper means “go to heaven” or “be eternally saved.” Could a fair reader take this any other way than as an abandonment of the “Faith Alone” of the Reformation?
But this is the point I really wanted to make. Notice how Piper defends himself against the accusation of teaching works salvation. Though he doesn’t use the word, all he did was simply appeal to monergism. He first says, citing Romans 8:30, there are “no dropouts between justification and glorification.” He of course means that all who are justified will continue in the faith and will inevitably produce sufficient works to attain “final salvation.” He then states that this is true “because God is the decisive worker.” He makes no apology for teaching that the practical righteous actions of men are contributors to their “final salvation.” He doesn’t see this as a problem! He sees no issue, because the whole package is monergistic: “God is the decisive worker.” So long as God is the decisive factor, it seems Piper feels it makes little difference if it is God producing the faith that saves (as all within the Calvinist tradition teach) or if God is producing the works that save (as Piper now teaches that he does in “final salvation”).
Do you see how the issue is suddenly changed? Because the question is not “is a man saved by faith alone or by faith plus works?” but is instead “is God or is God not the decisive worker?” works salvation can be taught with no issue.
Now, I realize that I am not producing any exegesis in this article. The verses Piper used to defend his monergistic works salvation view certainly need to be addressed. We cannot simply say, “Your doctrine is going where we do not wish to go,” we must prove, from the text, that the doctrine is in error. But for this piece, my only goal in writing has been to bring this danger to the attention of all who already agree that eternal salvation is not in any respect based on works. We must be careful not to present the distinction between monergism and synergism as more important than it is, and certainly not as more important than the distinction between faith alone and faith plus works. If our beloved brother John Piper can go astray, how many more within evangelicalism can go with him?
Sure, let’s have our in-house discussions. Let’s discuss all the various factors: human volition, God’s righteous judgment, the Holy Spirit’s convicting work, Jesus’ work on the cross. Let’s hash out, with open Bibles, how they all work in the salvation process.
But please, let’s remember to keep the issues in perspective. Despite our differing views, may we all continue to declare with all boldness and clarity the freeness of God’s gift of eternal salvation.
“Regeneration” means “being born-again,” as in John chapter 3. It is when a person receives the indwelling Holy Spirit, and their human spirit is made alive, so they are “born” spiritually. Calvinists teach that this happens prior to a person’s belief (because it is necessary, in their view, for a person to be capable of belief). Most other Protestant soteriology systems teach that regeneration follows belief. ↑
RC Sproul: What Is Reformed Theology?: Understanding the Basics Baker Publishing Group, 2016 ↑
A simple Google search will find a number of articles critiquing Piper’s article, many of them from his fellow Calvinists. However, the ones I found were not written with much grace or brotherly affection and I did not feel freedom in my spirit to link to them here. ↑
Emphasis in the quote is mine. ↑
“See the Lord” or “see God” does not mean eternal salvation from the lake of fire in the Scriptures, neither in Matthew 5:8 nor Hebrews 12:14, but that is a topic for another day. ↑
I certainly don’t mean to imply there are as yet no Free Grace responses to Piper’s arguments regarding these verses. You can find Free Grace exegesis of every verse in the New Testament in the Grace New Testament Commentary published by Grace Evangelical Society. And for systematic theology issues, the work that addresses these the best in my opinion is Joseph Dillow’s Final Destiny: The Future Reign of the Servant Kings published by Grace Theology Press. ↑