The Work of the Trinity in Monergism
The Shepherd Knows His Sheep by Name
by John Hendryx
Monergism: The view that the Holy Spirit is the only agent who effects regeneration of Christians. It is on contrast with synergism, the view that there is a cooperation between the divine and the human in the regeneration process. (Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms)
God the Father made a pretemporal covenant with the Eternal Son (Psalm 110; John 6:38, 17:2; Eph 1:3, 4; Heb. 6:16-17; Heb 10:5) to redeem His people by effectually calling and supernaturally drawing them to Him (John 6:37, 44, 63-65; 15:16, Acts 13:48; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4). Christ himself was chosen to be our Savior before the creation of the world (1 Pet. 1:20; Ephesians 1:4) and accomplishes this for His people in last times by taking on their flesh, fulfilling the demands of the law for them in His life, death and physical resurrection. The Holy Spirit applies the life-giving work of the Son to the same by raising them from spiritual death, opening their blind eyes, unplugging their deaf ears, disarming their natural hostility and granting them new spiritual affections unto faith through the means of the preaching of the gospel (Ezek 36:26; Rom 10:17; 12:3; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2 Cor 4:13; Eph 6:23; Phil 1:29; 1 Thess 2:13; Heb 12:2). He then counts the obedience and satisfaction of Christ unto those united to Him through faith.
Due to the fall, the natural condition of human beings is that of total depravity which means that apart from a supernatural work of the Holy Spirit applying the work of Christ, no person would naturally submit to the humbling terms of the gospel. The will, affections, mind and body are enslaved to sin until Christ sets us free (Ps 51:5; Matt. 15:19; Rom 7:14-15; Eph 4:17-19; John 8:36; Rom. 6:22). The result of depravity is that the natural man is impotent to respond in faith to God (Rom 8:7, 8; 1 Cor 2:14). Only the work of the Holy Spirit through the preaching of the Redeemer as revealed in Scripture (John 20:31; Rom 10:17) infallibly results in His people's response of faith (Eph 2:8-9; Titus 3:5). The grace of God restores fallen human affections by softening the heart and illumining the mind so that all distorted views of God are corrected (Eph 2:4-6; 4:17-24; Phil 2:12-13). In other words, it is grace itself that makes us humble and willing to respond in faith - Our certain response is, therefore, grounded in the initiative and regenerating work of God, not in any natural capacity.
Since He knows His sheep by name, God's love for his sheep is both intensive and particular, not a general love. When He sees that His lamb is lost He goes off in search of it until He finds it. He then scoops it up in his arms, puts it on His shoulders and carries it home. He does not merely go out and stand at a distance calling to any old stray sheep, hoping in vain that it wants to come home with Him. No, God calls us by name (since His sheep know his voice) and He mercifully does what is best for us. To those who do not follow Him Jesus said, "you do not believe because you are not part of my flock. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me." (John 10:26, 27) In other words, He saves His loved ones, not with an ineffectual, passive love but with an active love which accomplishes that which he set out to do and actually gets the job done.
Monergistic regeneration is a redemptive blessing purchased by Christ for those the Father has given Him (1 Pet 1:3, John 6:37, 39). This grace works independently of any human cooperation and conveys that power into the fallen soul whereby the person who is to be saved is effectually enabled to respond to the gospel call (Acts 2:39, 1 Cor 1:2, 9, 24, Rom 8:30 John 1:13, Acts 13:48). It is that supernatural power of God alone whereby we are granted the spiritual ability and desire to comply with the conditions of the covenant of grace; that is, to apprehend the Redeemer by a living faith, to come up to the terms of salvation, to repent of idols and to love God and the Mediator supremely. The Holy Spirit, in quickening the fallen soul, mercifully illumines the mind and renews the heart, giving God's elect the capacity and inclination to exercise faith in Jesus Christ (John 6:44, 1 John 5:1). This instantaneous and intensely personal work of God is the means by which the Spirit brings us into living union with Him.
The Westminster Confession, also points out that faith is both a requirement of the covenant and something that God enables man to fulfill by granting him new spiritual capacities and affections:
the terms of the covenant of grace, God "freely offereth unto sinners
life and salvation by Jesus Christ; requiring of them faith in
him, that they may be saved, and promising to give unto all those
that are ordained unto eternal life his Holy Spirit, to make them
willing, and able to believe."
- Westminster Confession of Faith CHAP. VII. - Of God's Covenant with Man III (emphasis mine)
The great Puritan Divine Richard Sibbes once said, "God knoweth we have nothing of ourselves, therefore in the covenant of grace he requireth no more than he giveth, and giveth what he requireth, and accepteth what he giveth."
In other words, what God requires of us (faith, repentance, to love Him supremely) he grants to us in Christ (2 Timothy 2:25; Eph 2:5,8). This means that while there are many precious promises declared to us in the gospel (Rom 10:4), yet the Lord understands that the outward letter, even though vigorously preached, does not itself spiritually enable sinners to receive Jesus for righteousness and salvation. A command and a promise is established in the gospel that whoever receives Jesus will be accepted and justified. Yet none of us, due to our natural love for darkness, are inclined to receive the Christ of the gospel (John 3:19). Therefore, in His great mercy to those He loves, Jesus sends His Holy Spirit to quicken us (John 6:63; John 1:13, 3:6) to a living faith that apprehends Christ and His benefits. The dead in sin are granted new life (John 5:25) by the Spirit who works in us all that is required to be made partakers of his righteousness that we might be reconciled to God. As the Spirit illumines and regenerates the soul, Christ's perfect faith and obedience are reckoned to us by God's grace, and on account of Him are we accepted as righteous before Him. What we sinners were incapable of due to pride and evil inclinations, Christ purchased for us as the Spirit unites us to His life, death and resurrection. This was so the righteousness of the law might be met in us. This purchased grace which includes our regeneration, justification and sanctification is all that power and righteousness which Christ has procured for us and of which He makes us partakers.
In fact, all the benefits of our salvation can be traced back to Christ and His finished work on the cross. Regeneration, one of these redemptive benefits (1 Pet 1:3), is granted to those God has set His affection on before creation (Eph 1:4), that they may appropriate those blessings at His appointed and accepted time. Therefore, it is important to not confuse the concepts of regeneration and justification. Regeneration gives us a new sense that beholds God's beauty and excellency. This inward working of the Holy Spirit gives rise to faith in Christ and appropriates the blessing of justification. These are all spiritual blessings which Christ accomplished for us by fulfilling the covenant from our side in perfectly obeying both the passive and active demands of God's law. He lived the life we should have lived and died the death we deserved. The sinner, once willfully blind to God's loveliness, making it impossible for him to have natural affection for God or to understand Spiritual things (1 Cor 2:14), is now granted the Holy Spirit, who circumcises the heart (Ezekiel 36:26, Colossians 2:11), heals our blindness and illumines the mind to understand the knowledge of Christ in the Scriptures (John 6:45;1 John 5:20). By the Spirit alone can we apprehend God's beauty and unsurpassed excellency which gives rise to new affections for Him infallibly leading to a living faith in Christ. To come to Christ we must understand and desire Him and such holy desires and understanding require a supernatural work of God's grace. Apart from the work of the Holy Spirit we have no spiritual knowledge and thus our pride and deep-rooted affection for sin will hinder us from believing the gospel.
"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "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). - Council of Orange 529 A.D.
Why is this so vitally important? Simply because it exalts the glory of Jesus Christ and it is biblically sound. The Scripture teaches that everything related to the gospel is designed to glorify Christ and abase man. So it follows that anything that diminishes Christís glory is inconsistent with the true gospel. Therefore those who teach that the autonomous faith of natural men is what causes them to differ with others, rather than the grace of God which gives rise to their faith, are unduly exalting the role of man in salvation.
Monergism is the biblical doctrine that regeneration (the new birth) both precedes and elicits faith in Christ in those whom the Holy Spirit has sovereignly determined to save (John 6:63-65; Eph 1:3-5; Acts 16:14b; 1 John 5:10, 20). When preached in the power of the Holy Spirit, the gospel (James 1:18, 1 Peter 1:23, 25) has the power to open blind eyes and unstop deaf ears. Paul, when speaking to the elect at the church of the Thessalonians said, "for our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction." (1 Thess 1:5) In other words, the word of God does not work "ex opere operato," (automatically) rather, it is the work of the Holy Spirit sovereignly dispensing grace (John 3:8), quickening the heart through the word to bring forth life. So the written word is not the material of the spiritual new birth, but rather its means or medium. "The word is not the begetting principle itself, but only that by which it works: the vehicle of the mysterious germinating power" [ALFORD]. It is because the Spirit of God accompanies it that the word carries in it the germ of life. The life is in God, yet it is communicated to us through the word.
The gospel declares that repentance and faith (commands of God) are themselves God's working in us the desire both to will and to do (2 Tim 2:25, Eph 2:5, 8) and not something that the sinner himself contributes towards the price of His salvation. Repentance and faith can only be exercised by a soul after, and in immediate consequence of, its regeneration by the Holy Spirit (1 John 5:1, 10; Acts 16:14b; Acts 13:48; John 10:24-26; Ezekiel 36:26-27; John 6:37; John 1:13; 1 Cor. 4:7; 1 Cor. 15:10; Jas. 1:17; John 3:27; 1 Pet 1:3). God regenerates, and we, in the exercise of the new gracious ability given, repent. God disarms the opposition of the human heart, subduing the hostility of the carnal mind, and with irresistible power (John 6:37, 63-65), draws His chosen ones to Christ. The gospel confesses "We love him because He first loved us." Whereas before we had no desire for God, but now God's regenerating grace gives us the desire, willingness and delight in His person and commands that infallibly gives rise to faith. Faith and works are both the evidences of the new birth, not the cause of it.
More Biblical Support
Aside from the two places where the word "regeneration" is actually used in the Bible text (Titus 3:5, Matthew 19:26) the same doctrinal notion is elaborated in many places under various terminology such as (1) spiritual resurrection (John 5:21; Romans 6:13; Ephesians 1:19-20; 2:5; Colossians 2:13; I John 3:14) and our (2) re-creation in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:17; Galatians 6:15; Ephesians 2:10; 4:24). The apostle John, apart from recording Jesus' famous discourse on the new birth in John 3, further refers to being born of God eleven times. Interestingly, while being born again is necessary for salvation, it is never once spoken of in the imperative mood as if the hearer could independently produce it. Rather, it is always spoken of as a work of God alone. For example John 1:13 (as if to stress this point) says we were "born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. " While John 1:12 teaches that faith is the crucial precondition of justification, but verse 13 teaches that regeneration is a necessary and efficient precondition of faith in Jesus Christ. Verse 13 therefore qualifies verse 12 making clear that regeneration causally and immediately precedes faith.
Of particular note the apostle John speaks of our spiritual resurrection (John 5:21 & Eph 2:5). The text (John 5:21) shows Jesus Himself clearly exercising sovereignty on whom He will grant the spiritual resurrection: "For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will." Ephesians 2:5 likewise says we were dead in sins until God, who is rich in mercy, "made us alive together with Christ." Paul's word for "made us alive" or "quicken" is the Greek term Paul uses for regeneration with Christ. In both these instances we must conclude that the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit causally precedes and enables man's response of saving faith to God's call.
Another critical text that we should take a closer look at is 1 John 5:1, 10:
"Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God...Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony [of God] in himself."
Before anything else I want you to notice the clear sequential cause and effect aspect of regeneration and faith in this passage. Important for us to note is that John speaks of our actions that take place as the result of regeneration several times in this epistle (1 John 2:29, 1 John 3:9, 1 John 4:7, 1 John 5:1, 1 John 5:18). For example in 1 John 3:9 he says, "No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God's seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God." Here we also find a cause and effect relationship between the cause of new birth and the effect that the Christian does not continue in a life of sin. 1 John 5:18 gives us a similar pattern of speech. Both showing that the cause of regeneration brings about the effect of a life that does not continue sinning. So not only does the tense of 1 John 5:1 show belief being actualized as the result of regeneration but this is also a continuation of a pattern of speech that John uses throughout the epistle. Therefore it is extremely unlikely that the Apostle means anything else by this than faith is the result of our spiritual birth ... that the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit is the cause of the desires that give rise to faith. Verse 10 further demonstrates the reality of this when it says that "whoever believes in the Son of God has this testimony [of God] in himself." Consider whether it is even possible for an unregenerate man, who does not have the testimony of God in himself, to actually understand or believe the gospel. It isn't possible. Instead, a person must first have the testimony of God in him if he is to believe. In other words, we must be taught of God, illumined in mind, given a new understanding... and once we are taught and understand, we will infallibly come to faith in Christ. To further drive the point home notice that 1 John 5:20 gives us the following assurance:
"And we know that the Son of God has come, and has given us understanding so that we may know Him who is true; and we are in Him who is true, in His Son Jesus Christ. This is the true God and eternal life."
Jesus has given His people understanding so that they might know Him. In other words, true spiritual understanding and the knowledge of God (salvation), which is unique to the saints, are inextricably linked. One gives rise to the other and, therefore, all those given this understanding will infallibly come to know Him. "For God, who said, 'Light shall shine out of darkness,'is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ." (2 Cor 4:6) From these and similar passages it is, therefore, a certainty that this same kind of understanding is never given to the non-elect. Rather, the understanding of spiritual things granted by God alone infallibly brings those who are illumined by it unto a living faith in Christ. A real world demonstration of this is recorded in the book of Acts when Paul is preaching and a woman named Lydia, "... was listening; and the Lord opened her heart to respond to the things spoken by Paul."(Acts 16:14) This should remove all doubt as to the biblical nature of this doctrine.
To summarize, those dead in sin (Eph 2:1,5,8), play no part in their own new birth (Rom 3:11, 12; 8:7) and are just as passive as a new born physical baby in the regenerative act. However, once restored with a new sense and given spiritual understanding through Word and Spirit, the soul's new disposition immediately plays an active roll in conversion (repentance and faith). Thus, man does not cooperate in his regeneration but rather, infallibly responds in faith to the gospel as the Holy Spirit changes our hearts' disposition (John 3:6-8; 19-21). Faith is, therefore, not something produced by our unregenerated human nature. The fallen sinner has no moral ability or inclination to believe prior to the new birth. Instead, the Holy Spirit must open one's ears to the preaching of the gospel if one would desire to hear and believe.
Monergism: "In theol., 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."
The following are some Christians in the history of the Church who defended the biblical doctrine of monergism:
Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martin Luther (who considered this doctrine the heart of the Reformation), John Calvin, John Owen, the Puritans of the 17th century, Augustine, George Whitefield, and some contemporary pastors and theologians such as Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John Piper, Wayne Grudem, R.C. Sproul, Michael Horton, J.I. Packer, James Montgomery Boice, and signatories to the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals.