Answering the Critics of Monergism

by John W. Hendryx

The following is a criticism that I occassionally hear from visitors (synergists) about the doctrine of monergistic regeneration: this is the doctrine that the Holy Spirit is the only efficient agent in regeneration - that the human will possesses no inclination to holiness until regenerated, and therefore cannot cooperate in regeneration (that regeneration precedes faith). Many of our synergist friends will point to verses that clearly do show that we receive the gift of the Spirit only AFTER we believe, so how can this Website argue that we can be regenerated without being indwelt by the Holy Spirit?

Here are some the scripture texts commonly cited by critics of monergism as "proof texts" (followed by their question in bold)

Gal 3:2 “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?

--- So according to this passage did these people receive the Spirit before believing or after?

Acts 2:38 “repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?

--- when did they receive the Holy Spirit before belief of after?

Eph 1:13 “And you were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the Gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.

-- When did they receive the Holy Spirit - after belief or before?

This is a really a good question - one which needs to be further clarified so people are not confused by it.

The verses presented above are used in an attempt to make the argument that because believers receive the Holy Spirit (to seal and indwell them) after faith, it therefore automatically excludes any of God's work in unbelievers prior to faith which, I will argue, assumes way too much. All three of these verses are mute on what the work of the Spirit might be in an person prior to their belief so it is an argument from silence to conclude, therefore, that God, the Holy Spirit, does not effectually bring His people to saving faith behind the scenes, especially since this is the testimony of so many other texts of scripture. Doctrinal error usually occurs, I have found, when we take isolated verses, such as these, without first consulting the immediate context, and then whole counsel of Scripture to draw our conclusions. Not only is there no complete ordo salutis plainly presented in the context of these verses, there is also no exegetical warrant to conclude that the Spirit's work of regeneration is the same concept as sealing and indwelling.

There are seven major distinct ministries of the Holy Spirit:

But it is important that we look closer at these objections one by one:

Acts 2:38

While not always explicit, the context of some of these verses themselves even point to the work of the Holy Spirit prior to faith. Take the above example of Acts 2:38 “...Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit?. Why is it that Acts 2:39, the very next verse, not quoted but is left off, since it directly qualifies the foregoing text? It says, "For the promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God will call to Himself." This demonstrates that those who come to faith in Christ are only those "God calls to Himself." The words "as many" makes it clear that this isn't a call that all people receive. The very text you are using to try to disprove monergism actually is a proof text for it. Romans 8:30 verifies this interpretation when it says, "...these whom He [God] called, He also justified". It is plain that this means "all who were called (without exception), were also justified." We all, at some point, resist the outward call of the gospel and various movements of the Spirit, but when God sovereignly determines to dispense His grace on His people, we undergo restoration, our natural hostility is melted away and we no longer desire to put up resistance. The inward call of the Spirit infallibly brings us to faith in the Redeemer. (Also see 1 Cor 1:24 for the inward call)

Ephesians 1:13

The above Ephesians 1:13 passage is also being read in isolation. It says, "Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit." Indeed, but again, what about context?. There are other verses which seem to qualify this one. Ironically in the context of the same passage two verses earlier it reads, "... also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will." (Eph 1: 11) Verse five even says, "In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved...." You see, these verses, in the same context, teach that the grace of God preceded our faith. Freely bestowed means "without conditions" or not because of something He was responding to in us like foreknowledge of our choice ... rather the text says that it was according to God's good pleasure alone. You would have thought Paul was clear enough in this passage leading up to belief, but God's free grace seems to be casually overlooked by many.

Galatians 3:2

“I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Gal 3:2 Again, the context of this whole passage speaks of whether we are saved by law or through faith. It is of interest to note that Paul uses Abraham's children as an example. Abraham had two sons, one by the bondwoman and one by the free woman. The son by the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and the son by the free woman through the promise. God unilaterally and monergistically promised that Abraham would have a son through Sarah. Allegorically speaking, these women represent two covenants: one proceeding from Mount Sinai bearing children who are to be slaves; she is Hagar. Abraham tried to circumvent God's promise by having the promised son through Hagar, his slave, rather than believe God's promise that He alone will bring it about. On Abraham's part this represents an attempt to synergistically bring about God's promise. But God's promise was monergistic and He would bring about Isaac after Sarah was beyond childbearing age so that they would get the message that salvation is of the Lord.

"Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. At that time the son born in the ordinary way persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. But what does the Scripture say? "Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman's son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman's son." Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman. Gal 4:28-31

God's Word is Honored When We Consider All He Has Said

So not only do verses need to be read in context but we must always investigate what the whole Bible teaches about a certain subject. The Spirit comes to indwell us after we have faith - this is true as far as it goes but it does not show us the whole picture. Many other texts of scripture make it abundantly clear that the grace of God and the power of the Spirit must work in us if we are to believe. We often must consider both what God is doing and what we are doing and there are many places where God gives us enough data to see that He is working behind the scenes to bring His people to faith in Christ.

While salvation is a unitary work of God it is helpful to distinguish various aspects of it if we are to get the gospel right. The word "regeneration" is a synonym with the concept "born again" and is what initially unites us to Christ giving us the grace to believe (John 1:3, 6, 21). The Scriptures, as we have already seen, clearly show us that our belief is a result, not the cause, of the effectual calling, illumination and inner work of the Holy Spirit (John 1:13, 1 John 5:1, Matthew 16:17, Rom 9:16, Hebrews 12:2, 2 Timothy 1:9) What takes place behind the scenes (the Spirit's work) is not always discussed in every verse which shows someone trusting Christ. But when we look at the whole counsel of Scripture it is abundantly evident. Sometimes God opens a spiritual window so we can catch a glimpse of what is taking place when a spiritually dead person is brought to life. Acts 13:48 is such an example of God working behind the scenes when the gospel is preached: "When the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord; and as many as had been appointed to eternal life believed."

Although the benefits of salvation all happen simultaneously, it is helpful if we distinguish them here for a moment. (Keep in mind that all references to a sequence in time is merely for your benefit). We are only born again once yet this new birth has abiding effects. The inaugural entrance and His indwelling are all a part of what instantly takes place. So regeneration is the Spirit working in us to raise us from spiritual death, to open our spiritual eyes (and ears) so that we may see and understand and most willingly trust in Christ (and His work). As part of the same action, this immediately and infallibly results in the Spirit coming to seal and indwell us. As so many scripture texts testify, the Spirit can work in us prior to our belief to restore our spiritual eyesight but faith and the sealing work of the Spirit only comes as the immediate effect of the preceding cause. When the Holy Spirit germinates the seed cast forth by the preaching of the word of God, as it were, the Spirit also quickens the fallen nature of the elect, in order that His word be gladly submitted to. Our new disposition cannot but guarantee that we will place our faith in Christ. In 1 Thessalonians 1:5 Paul even differentiates a gospel without the power of the Spirit and a gospel that includes the Spirit: "for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." As we look more carefully then, Galatians 3:2 is not so much referring specifically to the inaugural act of regeneration, or what led up to and caused belief, but rather to our being sealed in Christ as the result of the simultaneous effect of regeneration, faith and justification. This specific text (Gal 3:2) does not, in any way, attempt to deny the work of the Spirit prior to belief but is more interested in explaining an unrelated doctrine.

It is clear, then, that all the benefits of salvation that Christ purchased for us on the cross are closely and organically interrelated as the Spirit applies them to His people. In fact, regeneration, believing and the Spirit's sealing occur at the same time just like the act of opening our eyes and the act of seeing are simultaneous. While the spiritual reviving, the response and the indwelling are simultaneous, it is with absolute certainty that it was the power of God that caused the "light" to go on (mercifully illumined our darkened minds), so to speak. Those in the flesh are in darkness and cannnot understand spiritual truth... but those born of the Spirit have the light that they might believe, like heat is fire. To try and separate the various aspects of salvation is like trying to separate sight from seeing or the rays of the sun from the sun itself. One must arise from the other and they are not separate. Also certain is that the power of Christ's fiat to raise Him preceded and called forth his spirit to enter back into him. Similarly, God giving us the power of new life and the actual exercise of that new life are intimately mingled together and components of causedby God alone.

When justified, the Spirit comes to indwell us, to take up residence, since the justifying benefits of the atonement have been applied to us. Justification makes it possible, so to speak, for the Holy Spirit to dwell within us since our sin has been taken away. However, we must remember this all happens instantaneously so that those sinners the Spirit regenerates when hearing the word will immediately place their faith in Christ with delight. But this all occurs in relation to the other components of new life. So, regeneration is both inaugural and has abiding effects. The inaugural causal work is like the Spirit calling to us and giving us the power of response working in, through, and around us. There is no time that transpires here. Our faith is wrought by God (John 3:20) yet our response is certain because it is the Spirit that works life in us. We must admit that the Scriptures do not describe exactly how this takes place so there is certainly mystery but the Scripture explicitly teaches that we are born of God and only then exercise faith (John 1:13).

Ordo Salutis

While it is true that no time or sequence is involved, I cannot emphasize enough that regeneration, the work of the Holy Spirit which brings us into a living union with Christ, has a CAUSAL priority over the other aspects of the process of salvation. Other benefits such as conversion (faith & repentance), justification, sanctification and perseverance presuppose the existence of the work of the Spirit in opening our eyes and changing our hearts' rebellious disposition. The work of applying God's grace, however, is a unitary process given to the elect simultaneously. Though these benefits cannot be separated, it is helpful to distinguish them for our understanding. Therefore, instead of imposing a chronological order we should view these as a unitary work of God to bring us into union with Christ. Herman Bavinck said of the order of salvation, "Regeneration, faith, conversion, renewal, and the like, often [in the Bible] do not point to successive steps in the way of salvation but rather summarize in a single word the entire change which takes place in a man." In other words, there is no delay and there is no one out there who is born again who does not place their faith in Christ. Similarly a physical baby, when born, gasps for air with its lungs for the first time only after it is born, not before, but it occurs as his/her first act.. The various works of the Holy Spirit in our salvation as well as bringing us to faith all take place instantaneously . Regeneration carries with it the concept of the opening of our eyes of understanding as it was in the case of Lydia (Acts 16:14b). So while it is biblically correct to say that the Spirit comes to indwell us when we believe the gospel, even the very ability to humbly accept the terms of the gospel itself must come by God's grace to open our darkened understanding. Similarly, when the disciples questioned Jesus after he explained that salvation was as difficult as a camel going through the eye of a needle, they asked, "who then can be saved?" Jesus answered, "What is impossible with man is possible with God." In other words, salvation is by grace alone, belief is always by grace alone. "...By grace, through faith, and that NOT OF YOURSELVES, it is a gift of God."(Eph 2:5, 8). Some modern evangelicals, having lost sight of what actually was gained in the Reformation, are exalting sola fide (faith alone) above the equally biblical teaching of sola gratia (grace alone). Why look back and again desire the flesh we ate in Egypt (in the bondage of human works) when we now have the pure manna of grace from God (Jesus Christ)? To the Apostles and the Reformers, sola gratia was always ultimate while sola fide was penultimate. Faith looks away from itself to the work of Christ, yet no one has a natural capacity for faith, or God would be saving us based on our innate abilities. What differentiates us from the unregenerate is the grace of God, not something we can produce or contribute to the price of our salvation independently.

The Atonement and Its Relation to Regeneration

Important: Here I wish to show the further connection the cross and regeneration. An error made by many persons in our evangelical circles, in this respect, is to make an unbiblical bifurcation of the work of Christ and our regeneration. That is, to separate the two as if they have nothing to do with each other. But the Scriptures teach that Christ did everything necessary for our salvation, including purchasing us out of our unregenerate state.

"...Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again [caused us to be born again] unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" - 1 Pet 1:3 (also see Titus 2:14)

R.L. Dabney said, "Christ's sacrifice has purchased and provided for the effectual calling of the elect, with all the graces which insure their faith, repentance, justification, perseverance, and glorification. Now, since the sacrifice actually results in all these different consequences, they are all included in God's design. This view satisfies all those texts quoted against us." To somehow believe that the grace of God that helped us believe is separate from the work of Christ is to make the work of Christ of no effect. All Christians believe the application of the atonement is limited to those who will be saved , right?... so the question is .. who limits this application of redemption ... does natural fallen man, who is hostile to God, by exercising his natural free will, apart from illuminating grace, do the limiting ... or does God, who set His affection on us from eternity determine to whom He will apply the benefits of the atonement? If one concludes it is unregenerate man that does this autonomously, then this amounts to a faith-contribution which is itself a principle standing ultimately independent of God's action of grace; owing exclusively to man's natural endowment with a free will and thus arises out of an inherent capacity of the natural man. In this unbiblical scheme, some men naturally have this ability and some don't. This is contrary to the gospel which says "what do we have that we did not receive?" So when God comes to us in His regenerative grace, even that is something Jesus purchased for us on the cross. To separate it is to say we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps.

Furthermore, while it may be inconsistant of synergists, a (perhaps) subconscious belief in monergism is how even most of them actually pray for their unbelieving friends. We all do so because we rightly believe that God is actually going to do something for them. If God cannot actually go in and change their hearts' disposition, then what are we, in fact, praying for? If everyone has an equal opportunity before God, and God can do nothing more, as the synergists are saying doctrinally, then what is the use in praying for our unbelieving friends?. Either God does something in answer to your prayer for that person's soul or He does not. We don't say "Oh God, may they autonomously make the right decision, etc.!", for such a prayer would be tantamount to having God do nothing but stand on the sidelines with folded arms, so to speak. Instead we pray, "God, turn their hearts toward You; open their blind eyes, open their deaf ears, and save them." The real reason we pray is that someone would have the grace to believe and that God would overcome that individuals resistance when we preach the gospel.

To conclude, even the beginning and the very desire for faith, by which we believe in Him who justifies the ungodly comes to us through regeneration --- "And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Phil. 1:6). It is God that began the work in us, not we ourselves and ALL those He began a work in, He will bring to completion. It is by the regeneration, infusion and inspiration of the Holy Spirit within us that we even have the faith, the will, or the strength to do all these things as we ought. Do you make the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and not agree that it is the gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble? If you do then look closer at the Scriptures which say, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10).

Related Resources:
A Simple Explanation of Monergism by John Hendryx
Two Views of Regeneration by John Hendryx (chart)
The Jesus Syllogism: A Biblical Reflection on John 6 by John Hendryx