ARE YOU READY for a couple of big words? They are monergistic and synergistic. You are probably familiar with synergistic. It describes the action of two agents working together to produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual effects.
How about monergistic? What does that mean? Actually, my usually reliable Collegiate Dictionary doesn’t even list the word, so I’ll give you a lay person’s definition. As you’ve probably guessed, it describes the action of a single agent working alone.
I’m not trying to play word games with you. These two words are important in understanding the role of the Holy Spirit in our spiritual growth. Monergistic describes the work the Holy Spirit does in us apart from any conscious effort on our part. Synergistic describes the work He does in us in which we participate. In monergism the Spirit works alone. In synergism He enables us to work. But whether it’s the Holy Spirit working alone or enabling us to work, all spiritual growth is the result of His work. We cannot make one inch of progress apart from Him. This is the important point of this chapter.
I consider 2 Corinthians 3:18 to be one of the clearest descriptions of Christian growth we find in Scripture. The verse says, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit” (ESV).
In this passage the phrase “are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” is a description of spiritual growth. The key word is transformed, which in the context describes a significant and fundamental change in our inner being. This concept of growth or transformation is historically known as sanctification. Although I prefer the word transformation or the phrase spiritual growth, in this chapter I will bow to history and use sanctification.
Sanctification then is the work of the Holy Spirit in us whereby our inner being is progressively changed, freeing us more and more from sinful traits and developing within us over time the virtues of Christlike character. However, though sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in us, it does involve our wholehearted response in obedience and the regular use of the spiritual disciplines that are instruments of sanctification.
Sanctification actually begins at the time of our conversion, when by an act called regeneration, or the new birth, the principle of spiritual life is planted within us. This work of regeneration is promised in such Old Testament prophecies as Jeremiah 31:33 where God says, “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts.” And in Ezekiel 36:26–27 He says, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.”
In the New Testament, Paul also described regeneration in 2 Corinthians 5:17: “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” And again in Titus 3:5: “He saved us through the washing of rebirth [or regeneration, as it is translated in many versions of the Bible] and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
Notice the radical change that is described in each of these Scripture passages. God will put His law in our minds and write it on our hearts. He will give us a new disposition that, instead of being hostile to God’s law, actually delights in it. The law that was merely external is now written in our hearts by the Spirit of God, so that we are moved to obedience.
The heart of stone is transformed into a heart of flesh. “Heart of stone” is a figurative expression for a hard heart, one that is insensible to the things of God and unable to receive any impressions of divine truth. The heart of flesh represents a soft and tender heart, one that is able and willing to receive and act upon the truths of God’s Word.
Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that when a person is united to Christ, there is a new creation. A Christian is a radically changed person the moment he or she trusts Christ. This doesn’t mean we become “saints” in practice overnight. But, it does mean a new creation—a new principle of life—has been planted within us by the Holy Spirit, and we can never be the same again.
The expression “born again” from John 3:3–8 is usually taken to mean no more than being saved from the penalty of sin. According to Jesus, it means to be born of the Spirit (John 3:6, 8), that is, to be given new life. Paul said the same thing in Titus 3:5 when he spoke of renewal by the Holy Spirit. This act of regeneration or new birth by which a person enters the kingdom of God (John 3:5) is a monergistic work of the Holy Spirit. Thus it is entirely a work of grace, just as justification is.
Regeneration, then, is the beginning of sanctification. Sanctification is the carrying out of regeneration to its intended end. William S. Plumer, a nineteenth-century Presbyterian minister, wrote,
Regeneration is an act of God’s Spirit. Sanctification is a work of God’s Spirit, consequent upon that act.… In regeneration we become “newborn babes;” in sanctification we attain the stature of full-grown men in Christ Jesus.
The question is sometimes asked, “What is the relationship of sanctification to justification? Can a person be justified but not sanctified?” The answer is, justification and sanctification are inseparable. God never gives justification without sanctification (see 1 Corinthians 1:30 and 6:11). Both have their source in the infinite love and free grace of God. Both are accomplished by faith. In justification we rely on what Christ did for us on the cross. In sanctification we rely on Christ to work in us by His Holy Spirit. In justification, as well as regeneration, God acts alone. In sanctification He works in us but elicits our response to cooperate with Him. Quoting William Plumer again,
Justification is an act of God complete at once and forever. Sanctification is a work of God begun in regeneration, conducted through life and completed at death. The former is equal and perfect in all; the latter is not equal in all, nor perfect in any till they lay aside the flesh. In justification God imputes [that is, credits] to us the righteousness of Christ; in sanctification he [imparts] grace, and enables us to exercise it.
Our part or our response to the Holy Spirit’s work and our cooperation with Him in His work is the pursuit of spiritual growth. We will be considering our part in sanctification beginning in chapter 5. But for now, I want to remind us that sanctification, though requiring diligent effort on our part, is dependent upon the enabling power of the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul expressed this principle of dependent discipline quite succinctly in Philippians 4:13: “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Paul did the work, in that case, learning to be content. But he did it through the enabling strength of the Holy Spirit. It is difficult to grasp this principle of synergism, of being responsible yet dependent. But it is absolutely vital that we grasp it and live by it.
Bridges, Jerry. 2004. Growing Your Faith: How to Mature in Christ. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress.