This is a topic with a long history of discussion in Reformed circles, and I have long sensed that the term synergism is less than helpful in this particular context
At the 2012 PCA General Assembly in Louisville, there was a panel discussion on the doctrine of sanctification that included Drs. Bryan Chapell and Mike Ross. According to a blog post by PCA pastor Timothy Muse, both men agreed that sanctification is “synergistic and involves both divine enabling and human responsibility.” As one who is not a member of the PCA, I of course was not present for the event, but Muse’s summary strikes me as careful, helpful, and reasonable.
But is sanctification best described as synergistic? This is a topic with a long history of discussion in Reformed circles, and I have long sensed that the term synergism is less than helpful in this particular context. Rather than reinvent the wheel, I’m just going to quote a portion of a 2001 article (William B. Evans, “Sanctified by Faith,” ARP Magazine (March 2001): 6-8.) by way of response:
Is sanctification to be viewed as entirely a work of God, or does the Christian work together with God? On the face of it, the answer to this question is not immediately obvious. On the one hand, our sanctification is clearly the work of God’s grace—it is rooted in the triumph of Christ over sin and death and is actualized in our lives by the Holy Spirit. On the other hand, we are commanded in Scripture to press on, to work out, and to obey.
In response to this, some theologians have suggested that sanctification should be viewed as “synergistic,” that is, as a cooperative effort between God and ourselves (the term “synergistic comes from a Greek term meaning “work together with”). While the initial quickening of a person from spiritual death to spiritual life and the act of justification are entirely God’s doing, they maintain, sanctification involves our working together with God. While this approach to the matter attempts to do justice to legitimate biblical imperatives, it raises more problems than it solves. First, by suggesting that we to some extent sanctify ourselves, this synergistic approach runs counter both to the fundamental biblical and Reformational teaching that salvation is by grace alone (Eph. 2:8-10). Consistent with this biblical teaching, the Westminster Shorter Catechism (Q. 35) defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace.” Second, such synergistic teaching often can have profoundly negative pastoral consequences. Those who struggle with issues of sanctification will only be told to “try harder,” and this can lead to a sense of hopelessness that despairs of any real progress in the Christian life. Conversely, those who sense progress within themselves will be tempted to pride. Such arrogance, furthermore, can tend to undermine the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone and lead to a sort of works righteousness. Doubtless there are many evangelical Christians who pay lip service to the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith, while secretly placing trust in their good behavior.
Others, recognizing that sanctification is by God’s grace alone, may fall into other difficulties. One persistent temptation is “quietism,” the belief that God will do it all and we need not expend any effort ourselves. Such thinking can even lead to indifference toward sin in our lives. Others are so suspicious of legalism that they regard any proclamation of biblical expectations, “oughts,” and imperatives as incipient “works righteousness.” Instead, they try to extract a doctrine of sanctification entirely from justification and adoption. The key to sanctification, they say, is to “preach the gospel to yourself” over and over again, to remind oneself of the unconditional Fatherly love of God toward His children. Here too, problems quickly become apparent. Scripture is filled with imperatives, with “oughts” and “go therefores,” and any doctrine of sanctification that obscures these Scriptural admonitions is at best incomplete. Moreover, the New Testament does not present sanctification as simply a matter of our receiving new information or of having a new point of view on things; rather, it is the working out of Christ’s death and resurrection in the life of the Christian.
The question, then, is how to affirm two equally scriptural truths—that sanctification is from first to last a gift of God, and that each believer is called to work. A key passage here is Phil. 2:12-13, where Paul combines the call to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” with the recognition that “it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.” This is a matter of divine empowering of human action, not cooperation and synergism. The paradox of sanctification lies precisely in the fact that it is as we “press on” and “work out” that we come to realize our utter dependence upon divine grace. John Murray writes:
It is imperative that we realize our complete dependence upon the Holy Spirit. We must not forget, of course, that our activity is enlisted to the fullest extent in the process of sanctification. But we must not rely upon our own strength of resolution or purpose. It is when we are weak that we are strong. It is by grace that we are being saved as surely as by grace we have been saved. If we are not keenly sensitive to our own helplessness, then we can make the means of sanctification the minister of self-righteousness and pride and thus defeat the end of sanctification. We must rely not upon the means of sanctification but upon the God of all grace. Self-confident moralism promotes pride, and sanctification promotes humility and contrition (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, 147).
Dr. William B. Evans is the Younts Prof. of Bible and Religion at Erskine College, and is a minister in the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. He holds degrees from Taylor University, Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and Vanderbilt University.