The Synergistic Fallacy

This is part 4 of 6 in the series 2017 Reformation Newsletter Articles

This is part four of a series of twelve newsletter articles written by Rev. Neil L. Carlson for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Rev. Carlson is pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church and Zion Lutheran Church in Sidney and Chappell, Nebraska.

Shortly after The Reformation began, and especially after Luther’s death, the Lutheran Church endured much turmoil. Many budding theologians wanted to share their own ideas and beliefs with the Church. This resulted in many controversies over doctrine taking place in the Lutheran Church. We all like to think that once Luther restored the Gospel everyone lived happily ever after, but this was far from the case.  Once such controversy that rose up toward the end of The Reformation was the synergistic doctrine, which directly challenged the doctrine of “grace alone.” It was not prominently rebuked when it first sprung up because the reformers were busy with the majoristic and adiaphoristic controversies, but around 1556 it became such a great blemish on The Reformation that something had to be done.[1]

Synergism is the idea that “man too must do his bit and cooperate with the Holy Spirit if he desires to be saved.”[2] This cooperation is seen today in “The Sinner’s Prayer” and altar calls. These are moments when man stops fighting the Holy Spirit and “gives his heart to Jesus,” thus cooperating in his own conversion.  It is, in essence, a work, though a small work, done by man to begin his salvation process.

This idea comes from an attempt to answer the question, “Why some and not others?”. John Calvin and the Reformed answer this question by saying, “God elected some to be saved and some to be damned,” which is contrary to several passages of Scripture that proclaim God desires all to be saved (Jn 3:16, 1 Tim 2:4, 2 Peter 3:9,  Matt 23:37, etc). They answer the question of, “Why some and not others?” by saying God preordained some for salvation and preordained others for hell. This answer, however, is inconsistent with Scripture. It reduces Jesus’ death on the cross to a mere tool God used to carry out His plan of salvation for some, and Jesus death is rendered useless for others—rather than Jesus’ death being the atoning sacrifice for the sins of all people. The synergists didn’t like that rational answer, but they also were not content to leave it a mystery. So, they used their own human reason above Scripture and came up with the rationale, “Since all who are not converted or finally saved must blame, not God, but themselves for rejecting grace (a right teaching confessed in the Formula of Concord Article XI), those, too, who are converted must be credited with at least a small share in the work of their salvation, that is to say, with a better conduct toward grace than the conduct of those who are lost.”[3]

Though this does answer the question, “Why some and not others?” it does so at the expense of the Gospel itself. Man doing something to be damned and man doing something to be saved gives us a reasonable explanation for “why some and not others,” but it does not come to this understanding based on Scripture, but based instead on the reason of man. Synergism denies very clear passages such as Ephesians 2:8-9, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith. And this is not out of you, but a gift of God. It is not out of works in order that no man may boast.”  St. Paul makes it very clear man has no role in his salvation. If man were to contribute to his salvation in any way, shape, or form (even if it be very little), it would give him reason to boast in his salvation instead of trusting that Christ alone has done it. Synergism claims that God and man working together is what saves, even though man’s role in salvation is very small. Nevertheless, it gives some credit for salvation to man and thus robs Christ of His full atonement and salvific merits.

Though this controversy arose in the Lutheran Church after Luther died, Luther himself wrote quite extensively against free will (human cooperation in the matter of salvation) in The Bondage of the Will, a work that Luther himself called one of his greatest writings. Luther wrote back and forth with the humanist Erasmus on man’s will in matters of salvation and should have put the issue to rest, at least in the Lutheran Church, but somehow this failed to solidify the teaching that man is dead in his trespasses (Eph. 2:1). That means man is not able to cooperate in his salvation. He is dead to salvation and the things of God (1 Cor. 2:14) and is only able to cooperate in resisting God and His grace. When you think about it, if man’s only option is to resist God because of man’s sinful nature, man truly has no choice and is not able to cooperate in his salvation. It must be done to him, without his cooperation, in spite of his will. The Bondage of the Will was so instrumental in the argument of whether or not man cooperates in his own salvation that it received endorsement in the Lutheran Church’s final public confession, the Formula of Concord, 1577.[4] In addition to writing against synergism in The Bondage of the Will, Luther also taught divine monergism in the Seven Penitential Psalms and in his theses for the Heidelberg Disputation.[5]

One finds it most baffling that the doctrine of “grace alone,” which Luther heralded from the very beginning of The Reformation, could so quickly be rejected for another teaching. The only explanation this author can find for such a grave rejection of God’s salvific work is sin. The devil is truly out to destroy the Gospel. After it was restored by Luther but then so quickly rejected goes to show how dangerous an adversary Satan truly is.

As we prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of The Reformation, it is important to learn the history of The Reformation, because if we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it. Let us not simply wave our banners which read, “Faith Alone,” “Grace Alone,” and “Scripture Alone,” but let us learn what these solas mean, that we may truly confess them as we proudly wave our Reformation banners and celebrate our Reformation heritage.

Don’t be naïve and think that we, in the Lutheran Church, are too great to fall for such false doctrines. Never be complacent and let your guard down; it was Luther’s right-hand-man, Philip Melanchthon, who promoted synergism. He did so quietly toward the end of Luther’s life, but grew bolder and bolder after Luther had passed, after which he completely abandoned the doctrine of “grace alone.” If the author of the Augsburg Confession is susceptible to this false doctrine, every Lutheran is susceptible and must grab hold of the teaching of “grace alone”—cherishing it, hearing it, studying it, and learning it so that we never fall prey to synergism and rob Christ of His merit.

This false doctrine of synergism was being taught before Luther died, so we must not assume that it will never plague the Lutheran Church again. We must be on guard against the wolves in sheep’s clothing that walk among us. We must seek out these devils and confess “grace alone” before them until they either repent or run from us because they can no longer stand the hounding.

This Reformation, be Lutheran – not by eating brats and kraut, but by studying and boldly confessing the doctrine which makes us Lutheran. Christ alone has saved us by His grace alone, and this is counted to us as righteousness through faith alone, without any cooperation, worthiness or merits in us.

[1] Bente, F. Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions. Concordia Publishing House, St. Louis; 292.

[2] Bente, 291.

[3] Bente, 292.

[4] Bente, 297. / Formula of Concord, Solid Declaration, Art. II, para. 44.

[5] Bente, 294.


The Synergistic Fallacy — 23 Comments

  1. Rev. Carlson,

    “Though this controversy arose in the Lutheran Church after Luther died, Luther himself wrote quite extensively against free will (human cooperation in the matter of salvation) in The Bondage of the Will, a work that Luther himself called one of his greatest writings.”

    I think its important to note that in the BOTW Luther explicitly says the argument is about justification, and not sanctification.


  2. Thanks, Reverend Carlson!

    (Great info-graphic, by the way.)

    We contribute nothing to our justification, because it has been finished for us, by Christ’s accomplishments. Now the God the Holy Spirit begins to sanctify us. It seems like I have to now cooperate with the Spirit by “daily drowning my old man” (resisting my flesh, the Devil, and the world). I am not very good at it, because my old man can apparently hold his breath for quite a while! I now fear that I am falling into the trap that says that if I don’t make more progress in overcoming, and in doing the good works that have been prepared for me (due to fear, weakness, or apathy, or whatever), then I am in danger of losing my justification; i.e., Jesus spewing me out of His mouth because I didn’t try hard enough in my sanctification. I know Jesus will never lose one of His own, and that He overcame His flesh, the Devil, and the world for me, and that I get to wear His robe of righteousness as my own (“I get my name etched on to the Trophy He won.”) But I wonder, while being comforted by the fact that it us all been done for me (my justification), and it is all being done to me (my sanctification), that maybe I am kidding myself, and that I should try harder, or “get to work?” What am I missing?

    Thanks, from a former “burned-out,” slave-to-the-Law, Evangelical.

  3. This is a fine article and also serves as a reminder that pastors need to study this issue from time to time. Its not that hard to slip up and get it wrong on this very important issue. I would bet that relatively few Lutheran pastors have even read or studied TBOW. I know only read it for a paper. In fact, lay people would probably be surprised at how little of Luther’s writings have been read by the average LCMS pastor.

  4. @Stephen M. Travis #2

    Thank you, dear brother in Christ. You have put your finger on the end run Satan is trying, to get around monergism, or, “by grace alone.”
    The part of Luther’s explanation of Baptism, to which you refer, should be modified or deleted from the Small Catechism entirely. It simply does not say what St. Paul says in Romans 6, as Luther claims.
    The notion that we can be anything other than “simul iustus et peccator” at any moment in our lives here on earth contradicts Scripture and Luther’s own writing. “Drowned” (ersäuft in German) means being under water until one is dead. Nowhere in Scripture will you find that this is required of Christians, or that they are able to do it. What need would there be for the atonement and the forgiveness of sins if they could?
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  5. Thought provoking and insightful though much caution is recommended. It seems popular, especially among “grace alone” theologians, to ignore other more obvious problems in Christendom. Perhaps less obvious among Episcopalians are even larger and more destructive issues in the church today. Namely, the ordination of women and gays into the ministry. If you can set aside solid scripture and “go along to get along” you’re doing great damage to the future of the church. There is really no debate here.

  6. Stephen,

    “I am kidding myself, and that I should try harder, or “get to work?” What am I missing?”

    The fact that you are fighting at all. You’re a Christian.

    Its not a “Get to work, punk!” It’s “we get to work [for Jesus]!”, as you know. Hallelujah! And so, let’s get to work, not to be saved, but because we are.

    Since some have decided that Lutheranism / Christianity is just about the moment of justification / conversion, they then go here: we cannot / need not talk about what happens once a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone — although Luther (and the bible!) talks about it a great deal in a simple way that doesn’t confuse justification and sanctification.

    It isn’t rocket science, as far as the teaching part is concerned (the challenge is living it).

    So, contra George as well, he is just introducing more confusion. You don’t need a message like his (though I’m glad he showed his cards), you need a message like the one above.

    As I wrote recently to one Dr. Kilcrease: “….at some point people will need to deal with this stuff and give solid answers or not. There are a lot of questions and issues that are constantly being ignored, danced around, etc.”

    Must conclude thusly: the people sincerely looking for answers will not remain in the LCMS, if Radical Lutheranism (Fake Lutheranism) continue to steadily infiltrate the hearts and minds of our profs and laypersons.



  7. @George A. Marquart #4

    Luther’s explanation of what baptizing with water signifies in the Small Catechism affirms that the Christian is simul iustus et peccator–we have both the old Adam and the new man in us, every day of this earthly life. Where does the text say or suggest that we must or can do the drowning?

  8. We are to remember our baptism as part of our daily repentance, reminded that the old Adam is drowned and a new man is alive in Christ?

  9. @Jon Alan Schmidt #7

    Jon Alan: it is questions like this that make me think some assign different meaning to words than what is commonly accepted. The text clearly says that we must, though it makes no reference to “can” do the drowning. “It signifies that the old Adam in us should, by daily contrition and repentance, be drowned …” The English translation “should” does not convey the certainty of the German original, “soll ersäuft warden…”; that is, “must be drowned. Had Luther wanted to soften the “must”, he would have used a different tense, “sollte ersäuft warden.”
    But what enrages me the most is the insistence that this is what St. Paul writes in Romans 6. St. Paul writes about the life long effect that Baptism has, Luther writes about the daily struggle of sanctification. If we follow St. Paul, and believe in monergism, then there can be no “we must” in our salvation.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  10. The necessity of monergistic intervention in the life of sinners is certainly most clear in BOTW.

    But speaking of necessity, I find it interesting how Luther’s own language seems to tip-toe the line on a more Calvinistic understanding of predestination.

    In section XXIV, Luther affirms that the doctrine he’s disputing with Erasmus is prudently preached 1) because God commands so and 2) because through such preaching the elect will be brought to faith.

    Then, speaking of faith, Luther writes:

    “The other reason is that faith is, in things not seen. Therefore, that there might be room for faith, it is necessary that all those things which are believed should be hidden. But they are not hidden more deeply, than under the contrary of sight, sense, and experience. Thus, when God makes alive, he does it by killing; when he justifies, he does it by bringing in guilty ; when he exalts to heaven, he does it by bringing down to hell: as the scripture saith, ‘The Lord killeth and maketh alive, he bringeth down to the grave and raiseth up,” 1 Sam. ii. Concerning which, there is no need that I should here speak more at large, for those who read my writings, are well acquainted with these things. Thus he conceals his eternal mercy and loving-kindness behind his eternal wrath; his righteousness, behind apparent iniquity.

    This is the highest degree of faith — to believe that he is merciful, who saves so few and damns so many; to believe him just, who according to his own will, makes us necessarily damnable, that he may seem, as Erasmus says, ‘ to delight in the torments of the miserable, and to be an object of hatred rather than of love.’ If, therefore, I could by any means comprehend how that same God can be merciful and just, who carries the appearance of so much wrath and iniquity, there would be no need of faith. But now, since that cannot be comprehended, there is room for exercising faith, while such things are preached and openly proclaimed : in the same manner as, while God kills, the faith of life is exercised in death.”

    I am wrong to understand Luther’s argument to be:

    1) In order for faith to be faith, the things believed must be necessarily hidden.
    2) The hiding described operates on a system of contrary concepts.
    3) Example: “…he conceals his eternal mercy and loving-kindness behind his eternal wrath”
    4) Thus, to believe in the showing of eternal mercy unto the elect “is the highest degree of faith — to believe that he is merciful, who saves so few and damns so many; to believe him just, who according to his own will, makes us necessarily damnable”

    Any help in sorting this out is appreciated.

  11. @George A. Marquart #9

    Whether we translate the German as “should be drowned” or “shall/must be drowned,” the text never states that we must or can do the drowning ourselves, any more than we must or can baptize ourselves. On the contrary, it is the Holy Spirit who kills the old Adam by the Law and calls forth the new man by the Gospel; and this dynamic keeps playing out daily, as long as we continue to have both within us.

  12. “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.”

    – Same Catechism

  13. @Jon Alan Schmidt #13

    This responds to Jon Alan and T-rav. This kind of rhetoric is what brought the “dreamers”, or “Schwärmer” into such ill repute with Luther. The followers of Calvin claimed that the Holy Spirit was always whispering in their ears, telling them what to do. But Luther knew better, and nowhere did he express it better than in his explanation of the Third Article, which you, T-rav are quoting.
    In Baptism, through the work of the Holy Spirit, we get a new nature – we are literally reborn, as our Lord explained to Nicodemus – so that the will of God becomes our will. Not perfectly, but enough so that we can want to be contrite, but what is more, we can want to love our neighbor.
    St. Paul writes this clearly when he refers to the prophecy in Jeremiah 31, “33 …I will put my law within them and I will write it on their hearts” in 1 Corinthians 2:16, “But we have the mind of Christ.” The Hebrew word “Torah”, in its widest sense means “the mind of God” – hence, “the mind of Christ.”
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  14. @George A. Marquart #15

    Who said anything about the Holy Spirit whispering in someone’s ear? As I stated in #11, “it is the Holy Spirit who kills the old Adam by the Law and calls forth the new man by the Gospel.” In other words, the Holy Spirit works contrition and faith–which together constitute repentance (AC XII)–using the (external) means of grace; namely, Word and Sacraments. We indeed have a new nature that delights in God’s will, but we also still have the old nature that chafes under it; hence our need for daily contrition and repentance. As Luther famously put it in the very first of the 95 Theses, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent,’ he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

  15. @Jon Alan Schmidt #16

    The Holy Spirit does work contrition and faith, but we do it.
    The First of the 95 is Luther before he understood the Gospel. According to our Lord, the entire life of the Christian is serving his neighbor, as expressed by the “New Commandment”, that we should love one another. Otherwise, the whole Christian life becomes a self-centered working out of our own salvation, without regard to our neighbor.
    If you read Luther’s later explanation of the First of the 95, it really becomes not a matter of us continually repenting, but repenting daily, as when we pray the Lord’s Prayer. That prayer shows repentance on the level of importance our Lord considered it to be.
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  16. All,

    Will try to get back here later today, but for now, jumping off my comment above (#1), here is more on that:

    Packer version of the Bondage of the Will, pp. 180-181:

    “the Apostles…at that time…were in grace, higher than ‘free-will’ can rise… But our present debate specifically concerns ‘free-will’ without grace.”

    Were the Apostles “reckless workers” then to, as Luther accuses Erasmus as being with his view of the Christian life? Clearly not.

    Those who use the BOTW as the ultimate filter for understanding not only justification BUT sanctification as well are fooling themselves and others. This kind of thing ultimately just leaves you with a kind of Fake Lutheranism/Christianity.


  17. George, all

    Working backwards here…

    “Otherwise, the whole Christian life becomes a self-centered working out of our own salvation, without regard to our neighbor.”

    Re: Philippians 2:12, I’d argue that is a total misreading of the text. Verses 13-15 show that the purpose of working out our salvation is for our neighbor’s sake, not ours.

    Overall, I think persons are talking past one another here….doesn’t remembering our baptism have to do with both justification and sanctification, even as we always should be ready to make critical distinctions as necessary?

    Why should we have an issue saying that we, empowered by the Spirit, participate in the drowning of our old Adam, by means of remembering our baptism and what it means? To quote Pastor Tom Baker, not so much “I was baptized” — but “I am baptized!” (like how I might say I am married, not was…).

    What I find interesting is that justifying faith is something that we do as even as God gives it to us. But some these day, jumping off this fact (clear in many a biblical text, old and new) prefer to talk about God repenting us, faithing us…

    But that’s not biblical language really. That’s not the manner of biblical speaking. When we talk about us remembering that “I am baptized!” do we say God remembers us? (wait, that doesn’t work…)

    At some point though, as baptism leads into our life in the world, in the sanctified life, does He start “good-working us” as well? Perhaps, in a sense, as He has prepared them beforehand for us. And yet, here, to be sure matters take on a more *active* consent, “let’s move” feel….

    Early in his Genesis commentary Luther states that man, with a nature that “somewhat excelled the female” would have, in the face of the serpent’s temptation, have crushed the serpent saying “Shut up! The Lord’s command was different.” He goes on: “Satan… directs his attack on Eve as the weaker part…” (AE: 1, 151). Here, there is certain a focus on an aggressively active will in Adam, motivated entirely on the basis of God’s word.

    Therefore, here it seems that the one who resists man’s active participation in the fulfillment of the commandments of the First table in particular (as well as the commandments in general) must ask whether the authors of the Formula of Concord believed that they were being faithful to Luther’s views when they insist that man does not cooperate in regards to his justification but does cooperate in regards to his sanctification.

    Pax Christi,

  18. @Nathan Rinne #20
    Not really, only in part of what is wrong. Clearly, Luther writes about sanctification in the SC. St. Paul writes about justification in Romans 6. Luther says they are one and the same. So, who is confusing what?
    Peace and Joy!
    George A. Marquart

  19. @George A. Marquart #21

    Could you please elaborate on why you see Romans 6 as being about justification and not sanctification? It seems to me that Paul writes there about how Christians should behave because of their justification – not continuing in sin, but walking in newness of life (verses 1-4); presenting our members to God as instruments for righteousness, rather than unrighteousness (verse 13). He goes on to say explicitly that presenting our members as slaves to righteousness (verse 19) and the fruit that we get as the result of being set free from sin and becoming slaves of God (verse 22) lead to sanctification.

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