[K:JNWTS 28/2 (September 2013): 33-47]

The Logic of Monergism and Synergism in Francis Turretin’s Soteriology

Philip Tachin


The debate about divine monergism and human synergism in soteriology needs careful logical analysis of the nature and power of sin over human nature; the power, function and relevance of divine grace in regeneration and the human response to God’s purposes. In this light, the need to hear Turretin on this subject is critical in our time. For Turretin, sin destroyed the power of the human will to do any good. As such, the human will can do good (whether civil or spiritual) exclusively by God’s enabling grace, apart from which it would be impossible. Therefore, it is divine monergism that causes human synergy enabling a person to perform certain functions and also to freely respond to God’s offer of salvation. Monergism encompasses the entire Christian life. Apart from relying on Scriptural testimony, Turretin also considers the logical consistency of each case both in abstract and practical terms.

A. The Background to the problem of Monergism and Synergism

One of the most divisive theological issues in the Christian church today is in the area of soteriology and is concerned with whether it is more biblical and logical to subscribe to monergism or to synergism.[1] Monergism is the view that God sovereignly acts to save the sinner by his grace alone, independent of the willful cooperation of the sinner. On the other hand, synergism recognizes some native residual ability in the sinner by which one is, without the aid of God, able to cooperate with God’s saving grace in the act of conversion or regeneration. These two, divine monergism and human synergism, far from being mutually exclusive are actually in harmony in the sense that the former causes the latter. The basic question upon which this paper intends to expand is whether the unregenerate person is able to apprehend the spiritual things of God and meritoriously please God so as to warrant the combination of his own efforts and God’s for his salvation; or whether one depends entirely on God to effect salvation. I find Turretin’s view very cogent and helpful in addressing this question for contemporary readers.

In the later part of the early church era, Pelagius was the first to believe that despite the power of sin one still retains the ability to choose whether to sin or not to sin. When one sins, it is not because of being in bondage to sin but because one has freely chosen to follow Adam’s behavior when one could have done otherwise. Sin and its consequences affect Adam’s posterity not because they have inherited depravity from Adam, but basically because they follow his example.[2] Pelagianism and divine monergism are antithetical.

Augustine refuted this Pelagian view by arguing for the bondage of the will after the fall. Humanity has lost its will to do any other than sin; sin has won total victory over the will. “For it was by the evil use of his free-will that man destroyed both it and himself. For, as a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live, and cannot restore himself to life; so, when man by his own free-will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost.”[3] The church found Augustine’s view to be more consistent with Scripture.

The Reformation, following Augustine, grounded its view of salvation in sola gratia by sola fide. Both Luther and Calvin condemned all teaching that the human will is able to please God.[4] The human will is free only to sin and not to respond in godliness to the gospel on its own merit. The question turns on whether divine sovereignty and human responsibility work separately or independently; whether they overlap and inform one another on equal terms of operation or whether one depends on the other. To this, Turretin’s argument, which asserts the primacy of monergism over synergism, was concerned not only about being consistent with Scripture, but also about being logically consistent. For Turretin, sin in all its force presents a logical problem and its solution must similarly be logically coherent. These combined aspects of consistency with Scripture and inherent logic provide a very cogent manner of reconciling monergism and synergism, rather than setting them in tension. Turretin regards the debate as hinging on the nature of grace and spiritual death.

B. Turretin on Monergism and Synergism

I. The problem of spiritual death

Francis Turretin (1623-1687) was a Reformed scholastic concerned with the nature of the human free will in the context of sin. Before asking whether or not human beings are able to earn their own salvation, Turretin first asks whether the unregenerate human will is “only evil or also good.”[5] The distinction here is between the spiritual good, which pertains to meeting God’s standards for salvation, and the non-spiritual good, which has to do simply with meeting human approval. Turretin affirms with qualifications the ability of the natural will to do things that people consider “civil” and “external moral good”; he acknowledges the “natural power or faculty of the will” that constitutes the “first power and the material principle of moral actions,” which unbelievers also exhibit in works of mercy, charity, and abstinence from unethical things.[6] Yet the matter really turns on whether the human will, having been found in sin, is still capable of meritorious “spiritual and supernatural good, pleasing and acceptable to God” which is the “second power or formal principle of those actions.”[7]

Though Turretin acknowledges the virtues of the unregenerate, he does not think that their works prove their free wills have any strength; for that reason, they cannot be truly good or do “properly and univocally good works as to the truth of the thing and mode of operation.”[8] Such works of unbelievers may be considered relatively good from the human point of view, but they remain “splendid sins.”[9] What good there is in the works of unbelievers exists only because God has first moved them to act thus and also that God attributes goodness to them; such works are not inherently good, but they are good because they begin with God and are accomplished through God’s enabling.[10]

The works of the unregenerate fail the qualification of proper goodness on three grounds. First, they do not come from a pure heart of faith, and what is not of faith and without God’s approval is sin, no matter its glory (Acts 15:9; Rom. 14:23; Heb. 11:6). Second, the “form or mode” of their works does not meet the requirements of God’s law as per the internal obedience of the heart, which God requires of all, including unbelievers (Rom. 7:14). Third, the goal of the good works of unbelievers is not God’s glory but their own glory.[11] But even as they do such works, it is only insofar as God gives them special help to do them; without such help it is impossible for them to do these works.[12] So essentially, the civil good of unbelievers is as a result of God’s grace at the times that he grants such to them, as they too are under his control so as to achieve his purposes in the world. Turretin has consistently argued against the ability of the human will to cooperate with God without the “special help” of God: “. . . man by his own fault has contracted an inability to obey God, not in vain nor unjustly does God demand from him the obedience which he owes.”[13]  Such commands are “not the measure of strength, but a rule of duty. They do not teach what we are now able, but what we are bound to do; what we could formerly do and from how great a height of righteousness we have been precipitated by Adam’s fall.”[14] Therefore, the good deeds of unbelievers are energized by the “special help” of God rather than their natural ability. The nature of the synergism that is involved between humanity and God is not in the context of the natural ability of humanity, but of renewal and empowerment by the Holy Spirit. It is in the context of this transformed life that Paul refers to believers as “co-workers” (sunergoi,) with God (1 Cor. 3:9). But when unbelievers are able to restrain themselves from certain excess evils, it is because God’s grace or the “operation of common providence by which God does not indeed cleanse and renew the nature, but restrains and represses its wickedness and corruption in some more and others less.”[15]

The context of Turretin’s polemics were the positions of Catholicism, Socinianism and Remonstrant Arminianism, which never distinguished between the external morality and the spiritual discernment of the things of God. They believed that if one could do the external, it is also possible to do the spiritual without the special help of God. In their postulations, they accused Calvinism of diminishing synergism. The simple question is: “Whether the unregenerate man still has such strength of free will as to be indifferent to good and evil and is able not to sin without the grace of regeneration.”[16] The real accusation of Turretin against his opponents in this debate is their equal placement of “man and God in the business of salvation as partial causes.”[17] Of particular note, Socinus avers: “For if in the first man, before the fall there was free will, there is no reason why he should be deprived of it on account of the fall, since neither the nature of the thing itself demands, nor the justice of God suffers it.”[18] From the Socinian point of view, human free will is an essential aspect of human nature that was not meant to disappear from a person on account of the fall. More so, God being just could not have removed it from humanity because that would amount to injustice on the part of God. Though Socinus acknowledges the power of sin in humanity, he nevertheless holds that humanity still retains the ability to obey the divine law.[19] This view completely ignores or takes for granted the reason for God’s repeated promises to replace his people’s stony hearts with a heart of flesh at the appointed time (Ezek. 11:19; 36:26). The captivity of the human will and its freedom through regeneration by the Spirit of God is clearly underscored in this metaphor. Calvin argues that when a person “has turned aside from the right way, unless God extends his hand, he will plunge himself even into the deep abyss. Hence after a man has once left God, he cannot return to him by himself.”[20] While the faculty of making a choice between alternatives remains strong in a person, the will-power is extremely deficient. The Augustinian and indeed the Reformation point is not that the free will was lost or removed, as the Socinians wrongly put it, but that it was taken captive by sin inasmuch as sin controls the whole human nature. Turretin holds that the whole person is held in bondage rather than just one aspect. The Socinian view misses this unity of the person as affected by sin.

It is difficult for a view that affirms both monergism and absolute synergism at the same time to escape inconsistency. Such a view betrays the sincerity, integrity and power of God for our salvation, if indeed it takes seriously the position of Scripture on the devastating power of sin over human nature. The Council of Trent (6th Session, chapter 3) on the question of those who are justified through Christ states: “But though He died for all, yet all do not receive the benefit of His death, but those only to whom the merit of His passion is communicated.”[21] On the one hand, this affirms the discrimination that is involved in the soteric work of Christ, since only those to whom the grace is “communicated” receive it; this also underscores the deliberate intention of the one communicating such grace. On the other hand, Trent also affirms a predisposing grace of God in order to help in quickening one to cooperate, but the same person can also reject the offer of grace. The inevitable question here is: who really begins the discrimination?

Subsequent Catholicism also manifests clear signs of inconsistency. While Bellarmine maintains on the one hand that “man in things pertaining to piety can do or will nothing without the special grace of God,” he also avers at the same time that “man can without special help do some moral good, if no temptation presses.”[22] Yet not all Catholic theologians of the time consented to this latter position of Bellarmine; many Thomists, Dominicans and Jansenists acknowledged a contrary opinion that held “the total inability of man and earnestly contending against the idol of free will.”[23] Bellarmine argues that where there is no temptation, human will is able to do good. However, it makes no sense to isolate temptation in order to make room for the human will to perform any goodness, since any true goodness would be proved when confronted by temptation. Therefore, where there is temptation, there human inability is exposed, just as where there is the law, human sinfulness is exposed.

The Remonstrants understood free will to be of indifference or adiaphora, not in bondage as to tilt only in one direction, but that it is able to either receive God’s grace or reject it. Human free will, though affected to some extent by sin, still is able to work out its salvation in conjunction with grace.[24] They affirmed both the grace of God and human responsibility in such a way that their position involved a serious inconsistency. The entry points for monergism and synergism and the nature of their progress in the Christian life are problematic in their view. They emphasized that human beings have a native, residual ability after the fall to believe the gospel and repent unto salvation; human ability is prior to the grace of God. Therefore, it is those who use their free will to cooperate with God’s prevenient grace that can receive salvation. The following articles show their inconsistency:  

2. That the human has not saving grace of himself, nor of the working of his free will, inasmuch as in his state of apostasy and sin he can for himself and by himself think nothing that is good—nothing, that is truly good, such as saving faith is, above all else. But that it is necessary that by God, in Christ, and through his Holy Spirit he be born again and renewed in understanding, affections and will, and in all his faculties, that he may be able to understand, think, will, and perform what is truly good, according to the word of Christ, John 15:5: ‘Apart from me you can do nothing.’
4. That this grace is the beginning, the progress, and the end of all good; so that even the regenerate human can neither think, will, nor effect any good, nor withstand any temptation to evil, without grace precedent (or prevenient), awakening, following, and cooperating. So that all good deeds and all movements towards good that can be conceived in thought must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ. But with respect to the mode of operation, grace is not irresistible; for it is written of many ‘that they resisted the Holy Spirit,’ Acts 7 and elsewhere in many places. [25]

From the above articles the inconsistency is glaring. If on the one hand, all good deeds “must be ascribed to the grace of God in Christ” and on the other “grace is not irresistible,” then grace flatly loses its power. However, the question that probably needs more clarification is the understanding of what grace means—whether it has potency for achieving its intended results or not and how we should understand what happens in Acts 7. The Arminians use this passage to argue that grace can be resisted. Turretin does not deny that the sinner can resist God or his calling, for indeed man “is not able not to resist.” Rather the question turns on whether such resistance on the part of man is able to “conquer and overcome grace”; this he refutes.[26] Henry has helpfully explained the nature of God overcoming the resistance of sinners in respect to the passage in Acts 7:51, which Arminians use to establish their case.

They resisted the Holy Ghost striving with them by their own consciences, and would not comply with the convictions and dictates of them. God’s Spirit strove with them as with the old world, but in vain; they resisted him, took part with their corruptions against their convictions, and rebelled against the light. There is that in our sinful hearts that always resists the Holy Ghost, a flesh that lusts against the Spirit, and wars against his motions; but in the hearts of God’s elect, when the fullness of time comes, this resistance is overcome and overpowered, and after a struggle the throne of Christ is set up in the soul, and every thought that had exalted itself against it is brought into captivity to it, 2 Cor. x. 4, 5. That grace therefore which effects this change might more fitly be called victorious grace than irresistible.[27]

Henry’s position galvanizes Turretin’s view by using “victorious,” a more positive concept than “irresistible.” To be sure, since the resistibility of the Holy Spirit is clearly stated in Scripture, the alternative expression that Henry gives is more appropriate. This leaves room for human responsibility as well as divine monergism.

It is against these positions of the Socinians, Catholics and Remonstrants that Turretin marshals his arguments. Though these are his direct target, his elenchus also hits at Pelagianism, which is the root of Arminianism. He argues the impotency of free will on six bases: humans are slaves of sin; humans are spiritually dead; the human heart is blind and hard; man is unable to do good; everything good in human life comes from God (1 Cor. 4:7); and finally that the work of grace is God’s creation activity.[28] First, he adduces the Scriptural description of humanity as being in servitude to sin: people are “under the dominion of sin” or bondage to Satan (Rom. 6:12, 14; 2 Pet. 2:19) such that no one can be “brought into liberty except by Christ, the deliverer” (Jn. 8:44). For this reason, he considers fallen humanity “by nature children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3). Against the argument that humanity serves sin not by necessity but by choice, Turretin counters that man is “held so bound by conquering and enslaving desires that although he sins most freely, still he sins necessarily and cannot help sinning.”[29] The argument that human free will moves people to cooperate with God’s grace is superfluous because if the human will were not dead in sin, why would there be a need for divine grace to come to its aid? The question that Jesus raised concerning the logical connection between the sick and the physician would apply here too (Matt. 8:12). The fundamental issue here is that which is clearly beyond the power of the sick to solve, yet is within the power of the physician. The presumed argument that anyone who is sick usually takes the first step by coming to the physician is dismissed by Christ, as he uses only the problem in view, rather than the details of the analogy to square up point by point the sick and the physician on the one hand and the sinner and God on the other. He concludes that he was the one who came to seek and save what was lost (Matt. 8:13).

Turretin’s understanding is that Scripture attributes to human nature spiritual death (Eph. 2:1), which means essentially “the dissolution of union with God and the privation of holiness … and they are dead who live in the pleasures of the world (1 Tim. 5:6).”[30] The nature of this spiritual death is understood thus: “As the dead man is deprived of the life of nature and so of all sense and motion, so the sinner is destitute of the life of grace and loses all spiritual sense and motion; so that he can neither know anything true nor do anything good, any more than a dead man can bring himself to life.”[31] The nature of the spiritual death of the sinner properly understood is a “total extinction of life and privation of strength” to do otherwise.[32] By the laws of nature, there is no common ground between being dead and simultaneously being alive and moving toward a particular goal; rather, a thing can be both dead and alive at the same time only in opposite directions. For instance, dead flowers can be valuable to the soil, but not to one who loves live ones. Similarly, one who is spiritually dead to the things of God (whom to know is eternal life) can only be (sinfully) alive and valuable to Satan (whom to serve is to be spiritually dead to God). Hence, while Paul acknowledges our past as being dead in sin and irresponsive to the will of God, we nevertheless actively “once walked . . . following the prince of the power of the air;” “we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and mind” (Eph. 2:2-3). The free action of the unregenerate tends only in the direction of sin, but not in the direction of righteousness. This is freedom within bondage and it is this bondage that compels the sinner to seek a Savior other than himself.[33] It is thus necessary for God himself to make us alive, raise us up, and seat us with Christ in accordance with his eternal plan (Eph. 2:5-6).   

Again, Turretin argues on the nature of intellectual blindness that the mind is beclouded by sin and deprived of its original strength to properly and rightly access the things of God. Also Scripture describes the human mind using various metaphors such as stony. This means: “As a stone neither is a subject receptive (dektikon) of life nor can feel or be moved or turned or softened, but is inflexible, insensible and impenetrable; so the heart of the unregenerate hardened in sin neither possesses spiritual life nor can dispose itself to it, but is inflexible to the Spirit, insensible to the word and the judgments of God, impenetrable to grace.”[34] The spiritual death involved in the unregenerate is not relative but “absolute and total,” until God who promises a new heart effects the regeneration. It therefore follows that divine monergism precedes the synergy of God and man. The whole redemptive history shows that even God’s people in the Old Testament, who were under the power of sin, lost their will power to turn to God but freely obeyed the stirrings of sin that caused them to be obstinate. God consistently called them to repentance and back to himself, but to no avail. The call surely presupposes their responsibility, though not necessarily their ability, even as the practical reality proved their slavish and willing obedience to their only master—sin. God expressed his frustration with his people a number of times (cf. Isa. 1, 5; Jer. 3-5; Hos. 4, 6; Zech. 7:12). His response to the problem of human heart is to effectually replace their stony heart with a heart of flesh (Jer. 31:33; 32:39; Ezek. 11:19; 36:26-27). This prerogative of heart transformation does not belong to humanity, but to God, who alone is the creator of the whole person and has the solution to its predicament.

In his usual style of argumentation, Turretin appeals to the following passages (Gen. 6:5, Jn. 15:5, 1 Cor. 2:14, 2 Cor. 3:5, Rom. 8:7, Matt. 7:8, Matt. 12:34 and Jn. 6:44) which speak clearly on this subject, concurring that the sinner is unable to do spiritual good. Scripture is absolute and emphatic on this issue, especially as it says the natural man “does not” and “cannot” accept the things of God or please him. The sinner “does not submit to the law of God.” The reason, as stated by the use of the conjunction “for,” is that “he cannot” (Rom. 8:7). The statement: “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Rom. 8:8) does not warrant its relative qualification because it expresses the nature of the state of affairs involved. The state of affairs in the “flesh” is weakness in contrast to the state of affairs in the “Spirit” which is power. Paul enlarges the contrast between the two categories in 1 Cor. 15:42-49 in his resurrection message.

Turretin draws attention to the fact that the whole work of grace or salvation is a work of divine creation, indeed a new creation by God. Just as the original creation of the universe was the sole work of God, so also is the new creation, which includes our conversion, resurrection, regeneration and new heart. God does not simply persuade, as the Arminians grant, but he “powerfully effects in us to will and to do.”[35] But even on this account Scripture testifies that the drag of sin remains powerful, as Paul testifies in Rom. 7:15: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Turretin’s understanding of this passage is that it reflects the life of Paul himself as a believer and any other believer that is in Christ. The struggle is not within an unbeliever, who could not have willed to discriminate between sin and righteousness. The Arminians, however, argue that what Paul says reflects the life of a middle state between old and new nature. However, this state cannot be substantiated in Scripture. The issue of the middle state is logically untenable, since there is no such “middle state between the regenerate and unregenerate” or between “the child of God and the child of the Devil.”[36] Turretin provides further evidence that Paul is talking in terms of the present life in Christ, not his past life: “But I am carnal” (Rom. 7:14). The contrasting word de. (“but”) is an explanation. It indicates the disparity that stands antithetically between the spiritual life that answers effectively to God in accordance with the law and the one that is incapable of doing so. The reason for such inability is Paul’s being “sold into bondage to sin” (NAS). Hence, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Rom. 7:15). All the verbs are in the present tense, active voice. Therefore, the confession of Paul is that as a believer, to will is present in him, but the power to do what he wills is not in him in the absolute sense: “For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Rom. 7:18). If this is the case, then the power to do what God requires comes not from within man but from God. It means that the beginning of the salvation process and its continuation to the end is entirely outside the hands of the sinner, but is thoroughly superintended by God. This is the core thrust of monergism.  

The logic follows: as man contributes nothing to his creation, resurrection, or regeneration, so also he contributes nothing to his conversion.[37] Creation and resurrection are activities that arise out of the attributes of deity—namely divine omnipotence and infinity. Therefore, to view the human being as able to self-create by new birth or resurrection from spiritual death is to insult the Creator-creature distinction. Monergism and synergism do not relate in redemptive work as co-equals in terms of modus operandi, for synergism is possible only because God’s monergism causes and sustains it. For Turretin, the unregenerate mind cannot attain salvation primarily because being under the state of absolute corruption, it cannot rise to the realm of faith, since the mysteries of faith are beyond the realm of human reason alone. In addition, there is an absolute contradiction between the things of faith or God and the sinful mind.[38] This follows the contrast that Paul establishes between the “natural man” and the “spiritual man” (1 Cor. 2:14, 15).

Turretin does not believe that an unregenerate sinner is able to do anything to effect personal salvation. But he does believe that having been regenerated by the Spirit of God, the believer receives sufficient grace for progressive sanctification in all stages of spiritual glory. The nature of the power of God’s grace is the ever-abiding presence of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life, so that his will is exerted in the will of the believer as one matures in faith. On this note, good works become necessary for possessing salvation. He argues: “For since the will of God is the supreme and indispensable rule of our duty, the practice of good works cannot but be considered as highly necessary (which the Lord so often and so expressly recommends and enjoins in his word).”[39] The whole plan of salvation and its actualization is the monergism of divine grace and this “grace is glory begun, as glory is grace consummated.”[40] This means outside of grace nothing works, just as outside of Christ there are no salvation benefits. It is only in the context of regeneration and continuing grace that believers are charged to work out their salvation with fear and trembling, even as the apostle affirms that such work is ultimately of God (Phil. 2:12-13). The harmony of monergism and synergism is that God is the “sole cause of habitual conversion,” while man is the “proximate and immediate” cause of his conversion.[41] This means that:

man holds himself here, both passively to receive the motion of prevenient and exciting grace (for the will does not act unless acted upon) and actively and efficiently because he actually believes and works under God. Still thus he is said to be the cause of his own conversion that he is not such from himself, but from grace, both because the power of believing is only from God and because the very act of believing depends upon God himself exciting the faculty to its operation. Hence nothing can be concluded from this for the power of free will.[42]

There is a concurrence of the New Testament with the Old Testament on this—a concurrence in which the former fulfills the latter. This is the diachronic exegetical consequence of Phil. 2:13; 2 Thess. 1:11; Heb. 13:21; Jer. 31:33 and Ezek. 36:26, 27. The preeminence of divine monergism over human synergism is a recurring argument in Turretin’s Institutes.[43]

The problem with the overall Arminian position is that God’s original purpose to save for which he gives the grace could be thwarted by the human will. It means the grace of God only neutralizes the human will to act in any direction it so wishes, so that even if God wishes to save one his purpose may be defeated. One question then is why would God give grace to awaken a sinner to the defeating of his purpose? Another question is whether it is grace that regulates a person or is it a person that regulates the potency of grace in order to actualize his spiritual potentials? Another way of stating the implication of the Arminian view may be in a set of the following propositions.

  1. The sinner is dead in sin and is unable to save himself.
  2. God wants to save the sinner.
  3. The purpose of divine grace is to save the sinner.
  4. God gives the sinner grace to respond to his call.
  5. 5.The sinner rejects God’s call to salvation.
  6. 6.God’s purpose is defeated.

The problem with the above proposition is that it is inherently weak and inconsistent. On the other hand, it may be the case that such a position has a very weak view of sin. Probably the statement that the sinner is dead is not strictly the case; and the sinner is able to will its own way, which leads to the defeat of God’s purpose. The conclusion, drawn from the foregoing premises, sharply contradicts the confession in Job 42:2: “no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (see also Ps. 138:8; 57:2; Prov. 19:21; Isa. 46:10; 55:11). But if the sinner is truly dead, then, it depends upon the integrity and power of God, who may either not have truly wanted to save or his sincerity to save is betrayed by an ultimately impotent grace. And to think of God’s grace merely as functioning to neutralize the sinner’s will to act in any way one pleases (especially in resisting his will to save), rather than a definite goal of saving his people is to “reduce to nothing God’s almighty action.”[44] To resist God’s will is to sin, and if the sinner’s will is regenerated but still ably resists God, it means the sinner is still under the controlling power of sin. Thus, even God’s saving power cannot effectively check the power of sin. The nature of the almighty power of God would then be called into question. 

II. The meaning and logical function of grace

The preceding argument also hinges on the concept that grace is essential for salvation because humans are totally unable to save themselves. Even Wesley, a modest Arminian who nonetheless opposed Calvinism, explains that “Grace is both the beginning and end.”[45] And Luther says, “If grace depends on our cooperation then it is no longer grace.”[46] This means grace is the definitive and final principle of redemption. The concept of grace must be seen in terms of both God’s mercy and God’s special power for the redemption of sinners. The grace of God towards the sinner, on the one hand, is his undeserving free mercy; on the other, it is his energizing and sustaining power through the Holy Spirit for the believer to continue to the end.

The instrument of this saving grace is the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the one who “creates both an awareness of sin and our need for a savior. He opens blind eyes so that unbelievers may see the truth and respond positively to it. When a person hears the gospel, the Spirit works in her heart, convincing her of the reality of Christ, and draws her to him.”[47] Scripture represents the unbeliever as dead in sin so that one cannot apprehend the saving benefits of the work of Christ. Thus, it is the prerogative of the Holy Spirit to apply this redemption in an effectual manner so that the believer is empowered to live as God’s adopted child. Turretin outlines the various descriptions of operative grace in the believer as established in Scripture, namely, “creation,” “resurrection,” “new birth,” “taking away of the heart of stone,” “giving of a heart of flesh,” “drawing,” and “giving of the Spirit;” all of which point to the “invincible and supreme power of God.”[48] This view is in line with Calvin.

Our mind has such an inclination to vanity that it can never cleave fast to the truth of God; and it has such a dullness that it is always blind to the light of God’s truth. Accordingly, without the illumination of the Holy Spirit, the Word can do nothing. From this, also, it is clear that faith is much higher than human understanding. And it will not be enough for the mind to be illumined by the Spirit of God unless the heart is also strengthened and supported by his power.... In both ways, therefore, faith is a singular gift of God, both in that the mind of man is purged so as to be able to taste the truth of God and in that his heart is established therein. For the Spirit is not only the initiator of faith, but increases it by degrees, until by it he leads us to the Kingdom of Heaven.[49]

Calvin’s view of the dullness of the human mind is with respect to its inability to rise up to the things of God as properly required. In this respect, the Spirit becomes the only fountain of life for the believer, so that as long as he indwells a person, he empowers that person to grow unto sanctification. Sanctification cannot be progressive without the on-going work of the Holy Spirit. This is the essence of Paul’s statement that believers have been “sealed” and the Holy Spirit’s abiding presence is to “guarantee our inheritance” (Eph. 1:13, 14; 4:30). Again he says, “he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being” (Eph. 3:16). Here the believer is passively acted upon, as shown by the aorist infinitive passive verb “to be strengthened,” which suggests the continuing and ever-abiding controlling influence of the Holy Spirit upon the believer so that the believer will continue in faith and be sanctified unto glory. The initiative is that of God. It runs the course of the believer’s life in the context of the eternal plan that Paul describes in chapter 1 of Ephesians and it returns again and again throughout the book. What Paul presents here is beyond the prevenient grace that was postulated in Arminianism. In his understanding of grace, Turretin appeals to Augustine, who stood against Pelagius’ view of grace, and to Calvin, who stood against Pighius.[50]

Therefore, the proper understanding of saving grace is that it is the effect of the spiritual regeneration of the sinner who was dead in sin and so incapable of responding in the direction of life; because he has been given grace, however, he is able to respond in faith to God and so be saved. Grace is properly defined within the context of sin so that in the same way that sin has “corrupted the organism of the creation, the very nature of creation,” so also “grace, accordingly, is the power of God that also frees humankind inwardly, in the core of its being, from sin and presents it before God without spot or wrinkle.”[51] If this definition of grace is correct, then God’s purpose in saving the sinner cannot be defeated unless God is not sincere in the application of his grace to the sinner. Grace delivers the fallen nature and opposes sin.

In response to the Arminian perspective of the resistibility of the Holy Spirit, Turretin distinguishes between the call of the gospel by the word alone (which may be resisted) and the call of the gospel through the word and Spirit (which may not be resisted as the Spirit superintends both by suasion and persuasion).[52] The phrase “the word alone, which may be resisted” draws a distinction between the word alone, which is actually resisted, and the application of the word to the heart by the Holy Spirit, which is efficacious in the sinner’s life. The Spirit uses the means of the word to effect the Trinity’s purpose in redemption.

According to the testimony of Scripture, the grace of God transforms the sinner’s life from sin to righteousness and transforms one from an object of wrath to an object of grace and love (Eph. 2:3-8). Grace necessarily turns the sinner from a previous way of life that is contrary to the things of God to the very life of God. The grace of God, which is mediated through his word, accomplishes God’s purposes. “The outcome of an encounter with the word of God, then, whether it is in mercy or in judgment and hardening, rests in God alone.”[53] On a practical note, grace accounts for Paul’s breach with his past life of antagonism to the gospel and his obedience to the gospel. He says that when grace appeared to him, he was “not disobedient to the heavenly vision” (Acts 26:19). Indeed, he could not have been otherwise because of the compelling power of the grace that appeared to him. It is also for this fact that he says “by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain” (1 Cor. 15:10). God’s grace necessarily changes one to be what God wants him to be—indeed to be “illustrious and distinguished.”[54]

Whatever Paul excels in doing, it does not go to his potential or actual credit, but to the grace of God that is in him (1 Cor. 15:10). So while the will is restored to do good works, “Nothing prevents us from saying that we ourselves are fitly doing what God’s Spirit is doing in us, even if our will contributes nothing of itself distinct from his grace.”[55] Therefore, a logically consistent soteriology would be as follows.

  1. The sinner is dead in sin and is incapable of saving himself.
  2. The invincible purpose of divine grace is to save the sinner.
  3. God wants to save the sinner.
  4. God gives the sinner grace to respond to his call.
  5. The sinner accepts God’s call to salvation.
  6. God’s purpose is realized.

The total sum of the soteriology given by Paul in Phil. 2:13 is that monergism and synergism are in harmony; the former forms the basis for the latter to be effectual. God works in us to will and to do. This means the grace of God, rather than merely neutralizing our will, produces in us only one result—namely, “to will and to work,” which is the force of all the infinitives here. This working of God does not leave us in a neutral state of affairs, nor does it place us in a situation of “not to will” or “not to do,” which Paul would have clearly stated as an alternative within our freedom. Rather God’s grace frees us in such a way that we voluntarily and necessarily love God and choose him after he has actually chosen us (Jn. 15:16; 1 Jn. 4:10). Also, Paul is speaking to believers and not unbelievers; he tells them why they have always done so well and why they should even seek to excel—God is the fountain of their spiritual excellence.


Turretin says that humanity was incapacitated at the fall in such a way that the human will cannot do anything good on its own power, whether civil or spiritual, except as God works his sovereign grace in us to act according to his will. This grace operates both in restraining and empowering unbelievers at given occasions to fulfill God’s purpose and also in effectually regenerating the sinner’s heart to be able to accept the gospel. And when grace is in action, it cannot be overcome by the sinner’s resistance. This is not a case of arbitrary compulsion, but of good and necessary consequence to enable us to respond to his gracious offer of salvation. This being the case, our salvation is entirely God’s plan, in execution and consummation. This is monergism at its core. Our response to God’s salvation is all God’s excellent influence, apart from which our will remains mute. This is what synergism entails. In this sense, human synergism is the result of divine monergism.

[1] This debate, predating even the Reformation, has been spreading recently in an explosive manner. Lots of views are being thrown out on the internet and in the print media. Interestingly, the lines of division are not strictly the old historical ones between Arminianism and Calvinism, but they are new ones that have emerged within Calvinism itself, drawn by some who tilt in the Arminian direction. See Dennis Bratcher, “Divine-Human Synergism in Ministry.” A paper presented to the Breckenridge Conference on Clergy Preparation at http://www.crivoice.org/divhumsy.html, cited on March 23, 2012; Eric Landstrom, “The False Antithesis Between Monergism and Synergism: A Lesson from Historical Theology.” http://evangelicalarminians.org, cited on March 23, 2012. Landstrom argues that labeling Arminians and Wesleyans semi-Pelagians is an insult because while Pelagianism is heresy, their own positions are not heretical (see “Semi-Pelagian or Semi-Augustinian?” Society of Evangelical Christians, posted on June 18, 2008 at http://evangelicalarminians.org/semi-pelagian-or-semi-augustinian/ and cited on July 9, 2013).  

[2] Pelagius, Expositions of Thirteen Epistles of St. Paul: Text and Studies, 2, ed. J. Armitage Robinson (Cambridge University Press, 1926) 45. Perhaps Aristotelian influence may have formed the background for the Pelagian view. See Aristotle, Basic Works of Aristotle, trans. R. McKeon, 972.

[3] Augustine, The Enchiridion, trans. J. H. Shaw Londonderry (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1997) 30, 476; Letters cxlv, 2 (MPL 33:593).

[4] See Luther, The Book of Concord, ed. Robert Kolb and Timothy J. Wengert, trans. Charles Arand and others (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000), Smalcald Articles 4.3.1; and Calvin on Rom. 7:14, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998) 202; Institutes (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998) 2:68-69.

[5] Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, trans. George Musgrave Giger, ed. James T. Dennison, Jr. (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1992) 1:669.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 683.

[9]Turretin is borrowing Augustine’s terminology here. He appeals to Augustine to strengthen his argument, Against Julian 4.3 [17], Fathers of the Church (=FC) 35:181; PL 44:745; On the Proceedings of Pelagius 34 (NPNF1 5:198-99; PL 44:341).

[10] For instance, we see in 2 Kings 5:1 that Naaman was not of Jewish background and without any known personal relationship with the God of Israel, but all his accomplished military expeditions, which required intelligence, strong will-power, skills and determination, were attributed to God’s enablement rather than his own. In the entire Scripture, God’s presence with his people was the enabling power for them to respond, act in situations and be faithful to him. 

[11] Turretin, ibid.

[12] Ibid., 684. The fact that human beings cannot possess extraordinary gifts such as wisdom, powers and actions without the help of the gods is universal in all religions. Turretin appeals to the Greek worldview where great men like Socrates, Plato, Aristides, Scipio and Alexander were all said to have received their strengths from the gods. This fact is also true in African Traditional Religion where it is believed that people of great deeds had divine impact.

[13] Ibid., 677.

[14] Ibid.; cf. 680. Charles Hodge follows the same argument when he says, “Notwithstanding therefore the repeated commands given in the Bible to sinners to love God with all the heart, to repent and believe the gospel, and live without sin, it remains true that the Scriptures nowhere assert or recognize the ability of fallen man to fulfill these requisitions of duty” (Systematic Theology [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975] 2:267).

[15]Ibid., 681. Cornelius Van Til—Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1978) 27; Defense of the Faith (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1978) 194f.; Common Grace (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian & Reformed, 1978) 159, 174—developed this idea of common grace extensively in his works explaining the distinction between special grace that is redemptive in character as it changes and sustains unbelievers in their life-time and common grace which applies to unbelievers by God’s sovereign rule of the affairs in the world. See also Greg L. Bahnsen, Van Til’s Apologetic (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1998) 424-42 and John Frame, Cornelius Van Til: An Analysis of His Thought (Phillipsburg: P&R, 1995) 215-30.

[16] Ibid., 1:669.

[17] Ibid.

[18]Ibid. Turretin cites Socinus in Praelectionis theologicae 5 (1627) 14. See also Laelius Socinus, “Confession of Faith, 1555,” in Jaroslav Pelikan and Valerie Hotchkiss, Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Traditions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003) 2:706-708.

[19] Ibid. Here Turretin mentions the Socinian, Volkelius, De vera Religione, 5.18 (1630) 544-49.

[20] Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Ezekiel (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998) 361.

[21] John H. Leith, ed., Creeds of the Churches (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1973) 409 (emphasis Trent).

[22] Turretin, ibid., 670, citing Bellarmine, “De Gratia et Libero Arbitrio,” 6.4 from Opera (1858) 4:438; ibid., 5.9, p. 391.

[23] Ibid.

[24] See Jacobus Arminius, Opera Theologica (1631) 604.

[25] Pelikan and Hotchkiss, “The Remonstrance, or The Arminian Articles, 1610,” Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Traditions, 2:549.

[26] Turretin, 2:547.

[27] Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1970) 6:89 (emphasis his).

[28] Turretin, 1:671-76.

[29] Ibid., 671.

[30] Ibid., 672.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] This is the point that Luther stressed during his debate with Erasmus which Calvin also followed. See Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, trans. J. I. Packer and O. R. Johnston (Westwood: Fleming H. Revell, 1957) 1-322; John Calvin, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996).

[34] Turretin, ibid., 673.

[35] Ibid., 676.

[36] Ibid., 2:698.

[37] Ibid.

[38] Ibid., 1:25, 31 (see Rom. 8:7).

[39] Ibid., 2:703.

[40] Ibid., 705. Even Wesley who came after Turretin, but followed the Arminian position with some modifications concurs: “Grace is both the beginning and end.” See John Wesley, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1997) 635. The problem with Wesley however, is that God only initiates human response through prevenient grace, but humans on their own always either cooperate or do not cooperate with God. This contradicts Paul’s clear teaching that it is “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Paul knows that left alone, we are inclined to fall back into atheism. Similarly, when Jesus says that his duty is to lose none of those that are given to him (Jn. 6:39), he automatically removes the security of believers from their custody to his own.

[41] Ibid., 2:523.

[42] Ibid. Emphasis mine.

[43] Ibid., 1:420, 503, 514, 548; 2:503, 523, 535, 552, 708, 712; 3:324.

[44] Turretin, 2:532.

[45] Wesley, John Wesley’s Notes on the New Testament (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1997) 635. I must state here that Wesley’s soteriological view is very inconsistent, but it is not the subject of our discussion here.

[46] Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will, 268.

[47] Ivan Satyavrata, The Holy Spirit: Lord and Life-Giver, eds. David Smith and John Stott (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2009) 114.

[48] Turretin, ibid.

[49] Calvin, Institutes (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998) 3.2.33.

[50] Turretin, 2:527-29.

[51] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) 3:578. See also his extensive biblical explanation of it in terms of regeneration in Reformed Dogmatics, 4:46-53.

[52] Turretin, 2:558.

[53] Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007) 644. The comments here are analyses of Romans 9:14, but they have relevance to our discussion.

[54] Calvin, Commentary Upon the Epistle to Corinthians (Albany: Ages Digital Library, 1998) 403 (1 Cor. 15:10).

[55]Ibid., Institutes, 2.5.15.