A Simple Map of Conversion Terminology

On a recurring basis, online Lutheran discussions will confront you with terms like pelagianism, synergism, and monergism. You will see one participant claim that what another person said is wrong because it is pelagian. Maybe you ventured to speak up, and someone said your comment was synergistic. Makes for a fun time, right?

As uncomfortable or technical as those experiences might feel, actually the issue involved is vital. The issue is: whose power causes a sinner to be converted to Christ? We are not talking about whose merit is the basis for justification. We are talking about whose power brings us from unbelief to contrition and faith?

Luther answers this question in the Small Catechism when he explains the Third Article of the Creed:

I believe that I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, my Lord, or come to Him; but the Holy Spirit has called me by the Gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctified and kept me in the true faith.

The Holy Spirit uses the Word and Sacraments in the Church to deliver the gift of faith that receives the forgiveness of sins. Since faith is a gift and faith passively receives the forgiveness of sins, we could also say it this way: The Holy Spirit uses the means of grace to deliver the forgiveness of sins. The power is not ours, but God’s.

The history of Christendom is littered, however, with contrary claims. Some claim that the power in conversion is completely man’s, from beginning to end. Some claim they begin their conversion, but admit they cannot bring it to completion without the help of God. Others admit that they could not begin their conversion, that God begins it, but claim they add a finishing touch, even if only something feeble and little.

No matter how many names have been given to various views through history, all of them can be mapped into a simple two-by-two arrangement. This is so because there are:

  • two powers, God’s and man’s, and
  • two stages, the beginning and completion of conversion.

 

From this we can see a simple way to map four possible positions:

1.  God begins, and God completes conversion.

2.  God begins, but man completes conversion.

3.  Man begins, but God completes conversion.

conversion-semi-pelagianism

4.  Man begins, and man completes conversion.

Two of the positions say there is only one power causing conversion. One of these says God begins and God completes conversion. The other says man begins and man completes conversion.

Two of the positions say there is a combination of powers causing conversion. One of these says God begins but man completes conversion. The other says man begins but God completes conversion.

A Greek word in the New Testament has become the root word for terms that name the four positions. The word is ergon. It speaks of power or work. For example, Philippians 1:6 says, “He who has begun a good work [ergon] in you will complete it until the day of Jesus Christ.” By adding the prefix mon from mono – one, alone, or singular – the term monergism speaks of the “work of one,” or the work done by a person alone. By adding the prefix syn – with, together, or combined – synergism speaks of more than one power working together and combing to produce an effect.

This gives us three simple words that are almost enough to map the terrain of ideas about whose power works to convert sinners to Christ:

  • divine monergism – There is one power alone that works to convert a sinner, and that power is God’s
  • human monergism – There is one power alone that works to convert a sinner, and that power is man’s
  • synergism – There are two powers that combine and work together to convert a sinner, the power of God and the power of man.

 

If it were not for some extra messiness that the process of history added into talk and terminology about conversion, these three terms would be enough. In a three-term map, little distinction would be made between these two synergistic positions:

  • God begins but man completes conversion.
  • Man begins but God completes conversion.

 

Both of those are wrong. Both are lethal, if they really are believed, since neither of them is faith in God alone. Each of them puts at least some trust in man for conversion. Consequently many people don’t bother much with distinguishing those two positions. Some consider distinguishing them as being just splitting hairs.

There are some advantages, however, to a four-term map that does distinguish the two kinds of synergism.

  • The Lutheran confessions do distinguish the two kinds of synergism, so the confessions are more helpful to us if we handle a four-term map.
  • It helps track the history of the church’s talk about conversion.
  • It helps understand large sections of the Roman Catholic Church which are one but not the other kind of synergist.
  • It helps map denominations according to their views of conversion.

 

So I am going to use a four-term map, and with that in hand, take a look at some history.

The Epitome of the Formula of Concord says:

We reject also the error of the gross Pelagians, who taught that man by his own powers, without the grace of the Holy Ghost, can turn himself to God, believe the Gospel, be obedient from the heart to God’s Law, and thus merit the forgiveness of sins and eternal life.

The Pelgians get their name from a British monk named Pelagius. He became a fashionable teacher at Rome toward the end of the fourth and beginning of the fifth centuries. He was a moralist who denied the extent of man’s fallen condition taught in Scripture and by the church. With that denial, he portrayed sinners as still having the power on their own without the help of God, despite the fall, to repent and believe the Gospel.

In our map, Pelagianism fits here:

4.  Man begins, and man completes conversion.

In other words, Pelagianism is a type of human monergism. His place in history is so prominent, and his continuing influence is so great, however, that nearly all forms of human monergism are called Pelagianism. You nearly never see the term human monergism. Instead of that logical term being used, we nearly always see the messier historical term, Pelagianism. But, once you know that Pelgianism is human monergism, it becomes easier to follow.

Augustine opposed Pelagius. The Augustinian versus Pelagian dispute was huge. It persists to this day. Augustine taught the full effects of the fall and sinful man’s helpless condition before the Holy Spirit regenerates him. He failed, however, to bring the church all the way over to the orthodox position of divine monergism.

The council of Carthage in 418 rejected Pelagianism. While many of the statements of the council are right and strong, the council still constitutes something of a settlement. As a result, many in the church were divine monergists, but many really were synergists of a sort that the confessions call Semi-Pelagians. Further, the settlement really only governed in the West. It had little impact in the East.

As a result, the Lutheran Reformation had to reject and condemn Semi-Pelagianism persisting in the church. The Epitome of the Formula of Concord says:

We reject also the error of the Semi-Pelagians, who teach that man by his own powers can make a beginning of his conversion, but without the grace of the Holy Ghost cannot complete it.

In our map, Semi-Pelagianism fits here:

3.  Man begins, but God completes conversion.

conversion-semi-pelagianism

Semi-Pelagianism is at the root of the errors Luther exposed such as in penance, indulgences, spurious sacraments, purgatory, and so on. It is at the root of the particular horror of corrupting the mass from a sacrament Christ gives to the church into a sacrifice that a sacerdotal priesthood offers to God, with withdrawal-by-whispering of the Words of Institution from the laity, and the withdrawal of one of the elements from the laity.

To this day, many of the prominent differences between Romanism and Lutheranism stem from the Roman church’s Semi-Pelagianism. This is where works righteousness infects Roman teaching, and the disease spreads through the body of teaching.

The Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification between Rome and the heretical Lutheran synods does not signal any change in the Semi-Pelagianism of the Roman church. It only signals a defection by Lutherans from divine monergism. The Joint Declaration means that since 418 AD, the outward church as a whole has not progressed from the Council of Carthage.

Luther’s dispute with Erasmus typified by his Bondage of the Will essentially picked up the dispute between Augustine and Pelagius. Luther did an immensely better job than Augustine because Luther not only purified Pelagian ideas, but he also purified Neoplatonic ideas from Augustine’s defense of divine monergism. The Bondage of the Will is not a confessional writing of the Lutheran church, and it contains errors. But the essential arguments Luther makes are incorporated into various parts of the Book of Concord where statements about this issue are without error because they are correct expositions of Scripture.

Luther’s defense of divine monergism was influential. With the rise of Luther, Calvin, Knox, and other divine monergists in the Reformation, large sections of the church were brought all the way over from Semi-Pelagianism to orthodoxy on this doctrine.

Factions of what historians call the Reformation remained synergistic, however. We see this in the Anabaptists, Arminius, Wesley, and others. With various inventions such as prevenient grace, their formulation of synergism is different, however from the Semi-Pelagianism of the Roman church. Prevenient grace means that, before the work of man to convert himself can begin, first God must begin the work.

In our map, these synergists fit here:

2.  God begins, but man completes conversion.

These synergists fiercely deny that man can begin his conversion without the prevenient grace of God, but they just as fiercely maintain the power of free will once prevenient grace is given. Wesley might be credited with trying to give God the glory for conversion, but that gets lost by lay people.

It gets lost because prevenient grace is an artificial fine tuning of synergism. It is too subtle for the ordinary Christian. It gets lost because prevenient grace is an invention, not a teaching of Scripture. The ordinary Christian cannot get a grip on it by the handle of Bible verses he or she knows.

It gets lost because, let’s be honest, the division of conversion into a beginning and completion might be artificial in itself. That artifice was created by the Semi-Pelagians, and the Reformation synergists might be simply seizing upon that opportunistically. It gives them something to reverse – from man begins but God completes, to God begins but man completes – to seem like a reformation, while being essentially no different from the Roman position. This is the juncture at which there is a good criticism of my four-term map, and a good case for the three-term map.

I am sticking with the four-term map to track the confessions. In the Epitome of the Formula of Concord, in the next paragraph after the rejection of Semi-Pelagianism, the Lutheran church rejects this distinct kind of synergism, saying:

Also, when it is taught that, although man by his free will before regeneration is too weak to make a beginning, and by his own powers to turn himself to God, and from the heart to be obedient to God, yet, if the Holy Ghost by the preaching of the Word has made a beginning, and therein offered His grace, then the will of man from its own natural powers can add something, though little and feebly, to this end, can help and cooperate, qualify and prepare itself for grace, and embrace and accept it, and believe the Gospel.

All four positions can be represented in a single map, as follows:

Now that we have these four positions mapped, in a future article we can use it to map the denominational landscape of the society around us.

________________________

See also:

Conversion: To See Decisions Dead People Make, Visit the Cemetery

The Will in Conversion: Protestant Rationalism versus Lutheran Adherence to Scripture

Conversion: Trusting God’s Word for Your Regeneration and Resurrection

 

About T. R. Halvorson

T. R. Halvorson was born in Sidney, Montana on July 14, 1953, baptized at Pella Evangelical Lutheran Church in Sidney, Montana on November 8, 1953, and confirmed at First Lutheran Church in Williston, North Dakota in 1968. He and his wife, Marilyn, are members of Trinity Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Sidney, Montana. They have three sons and six grandchildren. T. R. farms at Wildrose, North Dakota, and is Deputy County Attorney in Sidney, Montana. He has been a computer programmer; and an author, conference speaker, instructor, and consultant to industry in online legal information. He is among the authors of the religion column in the Sidney Herald at Sidney, Montana. He is the Editor of LutheranCatechism.com.

Comments

A Simple Map of Conversion Terminology — 15 Comments

  1. Great presentation. As a former Methodist, the words “I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Christ” struck me like a ton of bricks the first time I picked up a dust old copy of the Small Catechism in my former ELCA church. “Sheer heresy!” was my response. And my first Lutheran baptism – “That’s salvation by a ceremony, a work! I thought Luther taught salvation by grace through faith, What’s up with this?” Needless to say, I had some learning to do, and leaving the ELCA brought me to a place where I could be properly catechized, namely the LCMS.

    Thankfully, now as an LCMS Lutheran I’ve come to embrace the concept of divine monergism, God choosing me to be in Christ with no action on my part. Salvation is totally passive. Jesus gets all the credit. Thanks be to God!

    But my mom’s still an Arminian, and I fear greatly for her salvation. I’ve agonized over this for years. The only solace I have is that perhaps the Blood of Christ can cover the sins of the Arminian error in those who trust in Christ’s work alone, who would die on the hill of “grace alone, through faith alone”, yet still believe that they were the ones who did the choosing, not God.

    I’m sorry for posting this here. Maybe it would be better to talk it over with my pastor, who could show me some Bible verses to use to help convince my mother that her view of election as conditional is wrong…

  2. @Chuck Braun #1

    My Dad would quote the verse about being dead in trespasses and sins prior to regeneration, and then say, “If you want to see all the decisions dead people make, just visit cemetery.”

    Here are some verses for you on the condition of a sinful person before regeneration or conversion. Maybe some of them will be useful.

    Slave to Sin

    John 8:34 Jesus answered them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, whoever commits sin is a slave of sin. 35 “And a slave does not abide in the house forever, but a son abides forever. 36 “Therefore if the Son makes you free, you shall be free indeed.

    2 Peter 2:18 For when they speak great swelling words of emptiness, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through lewdness, the ones who have actually escaped from those who live in error. 19 While they promise them liberty, they themselves are slaves of corruption; for by whom a person is overcome, by him also he is brought into bondage.

    Romans 7:14 For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am carnal, sold under sin.

    Captivity

    2 Timothy 2:26 and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will.

    Acts 26:18 ‘to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’

    Ephesians 4:8 Therefore He says: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts to men.”

    Dead

    Ephesians 2:1 And you He made alive, who were dead in trespasses and sins,

    Ephesians 2:4 But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved),

    Colossians 2:13 And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses,

    Dark, Ignorant, Blind

    1 Corinthians 2: 14 But the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.

    Genesis 6:5 Then the LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

    Genesis 8:21 The imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.

    Ephesians 4:18 having their understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God, because of the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart.

    Ephesians 5: 8 For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light.

    Acts 26:18 ‘to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me.’

    Enmity, Hostility

    Romans 8:6 For to be carnally minded is death, but to be spiritually minded is life and peace. 7 Because the carnal mind is enmity against God; for it is not subject to the law of God, nor indeed can be.

    Galatians 5:16 I say then: Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh. 17 For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.

    Hard Hearted

    Ezekiel 36:26 “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will take the heart of stone out of your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.

    No One Seeks

    Romans 3: 9 What then? Are we better than they? Not at all. For we have previously charged both Jews and Greeks that they are all under sin. 10 As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one; 11 There is none who understands; There is none who seeks after God.

    General Impotence

    John 15:5 “I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.

    Romans 7:18 For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.

  3. James 1:17-18 “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above…. Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth….”

    But describing conversion in terms of being “passive” gives the impression that conversion is a mindless experience. Rather, responsible adults will use their God-given minds to test a message (truth claim) before they accept it. Wouldn’t it be accurate to say that they are “active” in that sense, but that such willful activity is not meritorious with respect to their salvation?

    Example from the Bible: The “more noble” Berean Jews not only received the word from Paul and Silas with eagerness, but also examined the Scriptures “to see if these things were so.” (Acts 17:11, emphasis added.)

  4. @Carl H #3

    Passive is exactly the correct word to use particularly in regards to infant baptism when the baby is converted from a child of Satan to a child of God. In fact, infant baptism is a wonderful example of how God works faith in a person’s heart. No altar call, no decision, no accepting Jesus into the heart, etc., just God’s Word and simple water.

  5. One of the best articles I have ever seen from a Lutheran theologian. Thank you for using graphics and diagrams to bring the point to life, rather than droning on for 20 academic pages to impress other academics!

  6. @Carl H #3

    Hi Carl,

    Thanks for the question. Indeed, the Bereans were noble, and we should be more like them.

    Much could be said on the question, but here are just a few things.

    1. We need to be careful how we use historical or biographical material to form doctrinal conclusions. We should interpret historial and biographical happenings in the light of the didactic (teaching, doctrinal) passages. This case of the Bereans is historical and the text is historical. Lenski comments on the language of the text saying that particlarly with regard to the verb that they receved the Word that the statement is a simple, bare, historical asserion without giving a doctrinal or theological explanation of how it happened. So I do bring to this happening what the other, many scriptural passages say about the inability of fallen man to convert himself to God. This example does not teach us a power in man to convert himself.

    2. In observing the text, two of its words that the question highlights — if — noble — are not verbs and do not signify action. They do not identify the power or work by which the Bereans were converted. Thus we should be careful about saying that nobility is the ergon — the power or work — that converted them. Do we want to hold up to God’s face that we are converted by the power of our nobility? We should be careful about saying that decision, our own testing of the if, is the ergon — the power or work — that converted them. Do we want to hold up to God’s face that we are converted by the power of our forensic decision about Christ?

    3. The verb is received. Can you make a case for faith being active because of that verb?

    4. I see the ergon — the living, active power or work — in the Word. What the Bereans did was diligently expose themselves to the Word. The Word then, being living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword (Heb 4:12), does stuff. The Word is active, it does stuff. There is the ergon, the work, the power. Other parts of Scripture reveal that the Spirit is present with the Word, that the Spirit works by the means of the Word and Sacraments, so that we may also say the Spirit is the worker, the One whose power converts. But He does that by means, and often calls little attention to himself, and instead calls attention to the means, as this passage does. Luther does say that sinners before their conversion do have feet that can carry them to the Church, but once they get there, the Word and Sacraments save them, not their feet or their brains or their nobility.

    5. If we are going to rely on historical or biographical material cut loose from didactic material to interpret it … if we are going to work from example to principle rather than from principle to example, then I offer you the same form and structure of question, but with a different example. The exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt, how do you read it? Was that by their nobility, their forensic decision about Moses or Christ? Or were they rather compelled by God contrary to their slavish lack of nobility and lack of sound decision to that baptism in the sea? (1 Cor 10:2) Is this case not one of Scripture’s most prominent types of baptism and conversion, showing how slaves who cannot deliver themselves are delivered by plagues and death and armies, being brought to the font of Baptism by the overcoming of their wills, not by their wills?

  7. Mr. Halvorson: Thank you for a clear and unequivocal explanation of conversion. Although both Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have held to a form of synergism, I see a slow movement on the part of Roman Catholics today toward monergism.
    I am looking forward to your possibly expanding your explanation of synergism and monergism into the Christian life after conversion in the process of sanctification.
    Monergism is a fundamental attribute of the pure Gospel, without which nobody could be saved, although I also believe that God in His mercy forgives unbelief in this regard as He forgives us all other sins.
    Thank you again. A truly edifying and inspiring presentation.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  8. The questions I deal with as regards this issue have to do with the “so what?” of synergism. A person confesses with their mouth that Jesus is Lord and believes with their whole heart that God raised Him from the dead. They may even be baptized. They are, therefore saved, even if they understand the workings of grace imperfectly. But here is where I found my answer to this question… At the death of my dearly departed uncle, who had no assurance on his deathbed of his next residence. It was a terrible thing to witness a man on the brink of the great beyond, tormented because he was unsure of the good he had done on this earth. It’s all philosophy and academics until death is in view, and then it becomes the worst kind of torture for those are departing. Thanks be to God, HE will COMPLETE the good work HE BEGAN in us. Philippians 1:6 speaks perfectly into the issue, here.

  9. @Jeff Arnold #8

    Yes, I’ve heard the ‘so what?’ or ‘it doesn’t matter how people come to faith’ remarks too. However, the comfort/assurance that a Christian receives knowing that ‘I cannot by my own reason or strength believe on the Lord Jesus Christ or come to Him, but He has called me by the gospel, enlightened me with His gifts, sanctifies, and keeps me in the one true faith..’ is a wonderful thing to a saint and sinner. This is especially true when one is dying.

  10. Excellent way to present complex theological concepts! I often struggle to get this across to my people, and this kind of “more visual, less auditory” approach is a big help.

  11. @T. R. Halvorson #6

    3. The Bible says:

    1 Thes. 2:13 “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers.”

    I understand that to receive a message is not necessarily to believe it. I see the word “believe” defined in several places as “accept as true.”

  12. I am thinking of some people that I have met who came to faith as adults. One friend, for example, embarked on a long quest for spiritual answers. He was most certainly not passive. He thought very deliberately about what several religions and philosophies claimed, and ultimately he became a Christian. Yet for all his efforts, I’m quite sure he would agree that “every good gift and every perfect gift” — including saving faith — “comes from above.”

    Some Bible passages related to passivity:

    — Matthew 11:28. “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”
    Coming is not passive. And one may come not even yet believing, but still vaguely hoping that the promise might be true, or even just wondering about who this Jesus is that has said these things.

    — John 14:10-11. Jesus’ expectation was not that people who heard him would be passive, but that they would necessarily scrutinize his words and deeds before coming to a conclusion about who he was. A good teacher knows the importance of establishing a sound basis for one’s convictions.

    — Acts 9:1-19. When the Lord Jesus came to Saul in a flash of light on the road to Damascus, Paul fell down not knowing what to believe. But he did not lie there passively. He asked a key question, “Who are you, Lord?” and the Lord answered.

    — Revisiting the Bereans in Acts 17:11-12: The Berean Jews were not passive before they came to faith. After hearing Paul and Silas they compared what they heard with the Scriptures. And only after they had verified Paul’s claims, “Many of them therefore believed….”

    Is someone passive who is deliberately coming, listening, watching, asking, reading, thinking, and verifying?

    This is not to suggest that any of those activities are meritorious in terms of justification or efficacious in terms of engendering faith apart from God’s own work. I understand that whatever good results from willful effort on one’s journey to the cross is entirely because of God’s grace, and that only the Holy Spirit can establish faith in someone.

    But semantic clarity here would be helpful, since the word “passive” can easily to be taken to mean that one unfamiliar with the Christian message should not ask useful questions. With so many different kinds of religious messages out there, it is generally unwise to simply go along with what just anybody says.

  13. Thank you, Mr. Halvorson.

    I had read these terms for several years on this and other sites and even though I would look up their definitions, something always seemed to be lacking. You have done a very necessary work identifying, clarifying, illustrating, and explaining these oft used and crucial terms.

    IMHO, new readers of this site should be directed to this article to have a basis of understanding for the discussions that take place here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.