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Volume 14, Issue 1: Doctrine 101

Synergistic Salvation

Patch Blakey

Unbelieving man clings to his human autonomy. This is not strange, considering that he is at enmity with God, loves the darkness rather than the light, and seeks his own way which ultimately leads to physical death. Unregenerate man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1). As a result of being a son of Adam (Rom. 5:12), and because of his own sin (Isa. 59:2), unbelieving man is separated from God. The root cause of this human autonomy is pride.

Now what should strike us as odd is that many Christians cling to their human autonomy. Despite the fact that they verbally acknowledge that God was the One who saved them, when pressed on the point, they generally tend to say that it was by the exercise of their own free will that they were saved. In other words, as the teaching goes, God made salvation possible, but man had to exercise his sinful free will to believe the gospel, resulting in his salvation. This is most assuredly a synergistic approach to salvation.
Synergism is a process where two or more organisms achieve an effect of which each is individually incapable. Many Christians teach and believe that God is incapable of saving anyone apart from their choosing to be saved, and that man is incapable of saving himself apart from the atoning work of Christ. But together, as a sort of cosmic team, man can be saved. This is theological synergism, which only serves to preserve man's sinful human autonomy, and at the very point when God makes a sinful man into a new creature. We've imported into our theology of salvation the very poison that resulted in mankind needing a savior in the first place.
The Apostle Paul wrote, "Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new" (2 Cor. 5:17). And again, he stated, "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision, but a new creature" (Gal. 6:15). What God desires is a new creature, not the same old sinful one. Otherwise, from what were we then saved?
Now the Bible makes it clear that God is the Creator, the source of all life. Only God creates new life. Let's look at some examples. Moses recorded the creation of Adam like this, "And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul" (Gen. 2:7). It should be noted in this first formation of new life, that Adam did not exercise his free will to help God create him. In fact, Adam used his free will after creation to seek death, not only for himself, but for the whole world.
Another example is found in the prophecies of Ezekiel when the Lord carried Ezekiel and set him down in the valley of bones. God commanded Ezekiel to prophecy to the bones, "Thus saith the Lord God unto these bones; Behold, I will cause breath to enter into you, and ye shall live: And I will lay sinews upon you, and will bring up flesh upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and ye shall live; and ye shall know that I am the Lord" (Ezekiel 37:56). A couple of points to note: first, the bones were dead until God gave them life. Second, the bones did not have any say in whether they would be given life or not. God didn't even woo the bones to try and get them to come to Him for life. He decreed life, and they lived.
In the New Testament, Jesus had a friend, Lazarus who became sick and died. Jesus went to Bethany to raise Lazarus back to life. When Jesus commanded that the stone covering the tomb should be removed, Martha, one of Lazarus' sisters, complained that Lazarus would stink, having been dead and buried for four days. But Jesus persisted, and when the stone was rolled away He prayed to His Father, "And when he thus had spoken, he cried with a loud voice, Lazarus, come forth" (John 11:43). Lazarus came forth from the grave alive. Again, it is instructive to note the pattern. Lazarus was dead, Christ spoke, and Lazarus came to life. No wooing, no choosing, no synergism; just God-given life.
Even in Jesus' discourse with Nicodemus, Jesus rebuked this master teacher of Israel for not knowing that he must be born again to enter the kingdom of God (John 3:3-10). Now, what newborn ever contributed to his own conception by an exercise of his free will? In fact, Jesus made it clear to Nicodemus that it was God alone who gave life, "The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit" (John 3:8). If we had a part in our own salvation, then we would certainly know it, but then this would make nonsense of Jesus' analogy.
Let's be clear. We do have a will, but it is a human sinful will, full of pride and self. This is unredeemed man at his worst. As God's new creation, we need to leave the old man behind, including our human autonomy, and deny as a heresy the idea that God has done His part, and that man must do his. Synergism has its place, but not in the biblical doctrine of Christian salvation.

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