The Synergistic Fallacy

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.

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