According to some Protestants, the receiver of God’s initial, justifying grace is passive in doing so. For instance, in the Joint Declaration on Justification, it is said that:

According to Lutheran teaching, human beings are incapable of cooperating in their salvation, because as sinners they actively oppose God and his saving action. (Section 4, Paragraph 20)

However, according to some of these same Protestants, man is capable of rejecting God’s grace, contra the teaching of irresistible grace. As a friend of mine has said, man is active in his damnation and passive in his salvation. Or, as the Joint Declaration puts it:

Lutherans do not deny that a person can reject the working of grace. When they emphasize that a person can only receive (mere passive) justification, they mean thereby to exclude any possibility of contributing to one's own justification… (Section 4, Paragraph 20)

However, this seems to pose a dilemma that leads these kinds of Protestants to either need to accept irresistible grace, or accept synergism.

The dilemma is this: Does man choose passivity?

Because it seems that if the Protestant say man does choose passivity, they either contradict the very meaning of being a passive recipient of God’s grace, or they must be a synergist (read: in agreement with the Council of Trent), because man is choosing God’s grace.

If they say that man does not choose passivity, then they must believe in irresistible grace, because man’s passivity is the result of God’s choice. Man is incapable of rejecting God’s grace because passivity is not something he chooses.

How could a Protestant who accepts monergism but rejects irresistible grace escape this dilemma?

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat.
    – Matthew
    Commented Jun 20 at 20:59
  • If they say man cannot reject in conversion but reject afterwards in apostasy then that's also a contradiction against monergism . Perhaps this is why the osas are most consistent. I guess the passivity of receiving is under monergism where denial of freewill is corrolary to it. The contradiction is due to unwittingly made due to using realistic language of choosing just as all such terms like conversion, preaching, invitation are used under calvinism.
    – Michael16
    Commented Jun 21 at 5:59
  • "But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name: Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God." - John 1:12-13. 'Received' here is active rather than passive and equated with believing on His name. Born of God and not man or flesh upon active reception of the Son. The gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes. Commented Jun 24 at 18:50
  • @MikeBorden Synergists don’t deny that grace is “received”. Something can be received and still be active. For instance, a present is received through no merit of the person receiving it, but it must still be opened, and used.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Jun 27 at 4:34

3 Answers 3


Being a Protestant who accepts monergism, but who rejects synergism, though not being a Lutheran, I trust I can still give an acceptable answer.

There is only an apparent dilemma with those who misunderstand the crucial differences between monergism and synergism. The clue that there may be a fundamental misunderstanding appears when the word 'choice' crops up in such questions. Let me quote from this book, wherein the definition of those two words is expertly given:

"Key Distinction: monergism / synergism

Monergism ("one working") holds that God saves sinners without their assistance.

Synergism ("working together") teaches that salvation depends on our cooperation. In all of its varieties, synergism teaches that God's grace makes everything possible, but our response makes everything actual.

Monergism, however, teaches that God's grace accomplishes everything, even granting us repentance and faith. Pilgrim Theology, Michael Horton, p.251, Zondervan, 2011

To pad out the difference between monergism and synergism, let me quote from a different book:

"At the cross righteousness of God, justifying righteousness, was brought in by Jesus Christ. Not some vague, general, universal and inapplicable righteousness, potential to ‘all’ but effectual to none. But a specific, intended, particular and applicable righteousness, effectual to ‘all them that believe’. When justifying righteousness was wrought in death, then it was ‘unto’ them. It was not that they had received it: it was not ‘upon’ them. But it was wrought on their behalf: it was ‘unto’ them.

At the cross, by the faith of Jesus Christ, God wrought righteousness to the account of all his people. Then, it was ‘unto’ them. When in process of time they were brought to believe the gospel, that righteousness which had been wrought for them, which was unto them, was revealed to their faith in the gospel. They believed God, and it was accounted to them for righteousness. Then, that righteousness was ‘upon’ them. That is, ‘Unto all and upon all them that believe.’ [See Romans 3:21-25.]

Their believing answered to a work that was already effectual. It was already effectual when Christ died. The righteousness was unto them. In particular. When they believed, that same righteousness was upon them. Their believing added nothing whatsoever to the righteousness: it was the response of faith to the revelation of what God had wrought for them, and put upon them, in particular.

When Christ died, righteousness was brought in, and justification was effected, for all that believe. That is why Paul calls it henos dikaiomatos – ‘one accomplished righteousness’, Romans 5:18… In the Bible there is no question of a conditional atonement, or of a righteousness that must be qualified to become effectual.

Having absorbed all God’s righteousness in judgment on their behalf, in death all God’s righteousness rested upon him in peace and equanimity on their behalf… This is called, Being justified by grace. There remained, however, the imputing of this same righteousness, pertaining, as it does, to the experience of the believer. This, in turn, is named, Being justified by faith. The one is unto, the other upon, all them that believe… Here appears the folly of those who rob God of his justifying truth by saying, justification is a general work for all the world… [If so] then [God’s] work can only be completed if the good will of man concludes it by particularly accepting what he has generally offered. Equally, that work must remain ineffectual, and his love unrequited, if the ill will of man refuses to fulfil all righteousness by receiving it. All depends on man… assisting the Almighty to make it all possible. If this is not salvation by works, and the righteous being called rather than sinners, what it?

Hence Christ ought to cry ‘It is finished’ only when the essential condition of man’s acceptance is added to God’s general work in order to make it complete" [according to synergists]. Justification by Faith, John Metcalfe, pp 195-196 & 199-200, 1987 http://www.johnmetcalfepublishingtrust.co.uk/contact_us.htm

Both sets of quotes serve to show that the word 'choice' does not enter into monergism, while synergism depends on it. Until this crucial difference is understood, there will be no meeting of minds with the two 'camps'. But that is, essentially, why there is no dilemma to escape from, for the monergist.

SUMMARY - The straight answer is that no monergist can deny irresitible grace. The apparent dilemma asked about relates to non-monergists having a different view of 'choice' and 'making a decision' (either 'for' Christ or 'against' Christ) to that held by the monergist. Of course monergists have to weight matters of belief up and decide certain things! The crucial point, however, is subtle. It's shown in Romans 3:22, but modern translations have subtly changed that verse. Here's how it reads (the sentence starting in verse 21):

"And now apart from law hath the righteousness of God been manifested, testified to by the law and the prophets, and the righteousness of God [is] through the faith of Jesus Christ to all, and upon all those believing" Romans 3:21-22 Y.L.T.

Synergists think it is their faith in Christ that saves them.

Monergists realise that it was the faith of Christ, at the cross, that secured salvation to all who believe.

They believe the scripture that says Christians, who God foreknew, have been called by God, for he predestined them to be conformed to the image of the Son. God called them to faith, and - having called them - will he not give them that faith of Christ that secures salvation? (Romans 8:28-30)

  • I’m confused by your answer - you said “choice” does not enter into the monergist camp, but my question is specifically addressed to those who believe that we can (read: have the choice) reject God’s grace. So in some sense choice must enter the equation right? I’m also slightly annoyed because this answer consists of 90% quotation, quotation which is lengthy and is not elaborated on, only alluded to. Some brief summarization of the quote would be helpful along with some elucidation relating to the question I just asked.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Jun 20 at 14:27
  • @LukeHill Sorry to be unclear. I will summarize tomorrow as I have to shut down now.
    – Anne
    Commented Jun 20 at 16:07
  • I think the summary clarifies the matter (which is crucial) that justification is through the faith which is Jesus Christ's faith coming first and only thereafter does the faith of the believer respond to that first faith. Up-voted +1.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Jun 21 at 10:18
  • @Anne no pressure, just still curious to hear clarification if you can offer it.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Jul 12 at 23:47
  • @NigelJ Christ’s faith proceeding the response of the believer is perfectly compatible with synergism as well, I don’t know how that is a helpful distinction.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Jul 12 at 23:48

After looking into this, I have to say that the definition of "monergism" seems to depend on who you ask. However, the Council of Trent explicitly rejected any form of monergism with the following:

If anyone says that the sinner is justified by faith alone in the sense that nothing else is required by way of cooperation in order to obtain the grace of justification and that it is not at all necessary that he should be prepared and disposed by the movement of his will, let him be anathema.

All Protestants, as far as I can tell, reject this synergism. (At least going back to Arminius. More on that later.)

Again as far as I can tell, there are three primary Protestant positions on matters of Salvation as relating to election and monergism: Lutheranism, Calvinism and Arminianism. Understanding the differences is challenging, but a commonality seems to be that humans, of their own capacity, are incapable of cooperating in Salvation. While Catholics affirm that the process must be started by God, Catholicism seems to teach that active participation becomes a requirement at some point, which Protestants would argue violates their principle of Sola Gratia ("grace alone").

(If I seem to be using a lot of equivocations, it is because individual believers will differ in their understanding. As a result, it can be difficult to pin down official doctrines, and individuals within a body may not always agree with each other. Many Protestants would claim that, while the Roman Catholic church is in error as an organization, there are nevertheless true believers within their ranks... just as there are heretics within the ranks of all branches of Protestantism.)

By contrast, monergism asserts that the individual can do nothing of their own will to assist in Salvation. Differences arise, however, in whether an individual can freely work against Salvation. Irresistible Grace, in particular, says "no".

Ironically, if I understand correctly, Arminians are actually more synergistic than Catholics, asserting that one "makes a choice for Christ". Some sects might view this as Salvation-by-works, perhaps even "worse" (in their view) than what Roman Catholics teach. That said, whether this is consistent with Arminius' own teachings is debatable. (More generally, "Arminianism" probably needs to be more finely divided; however, as will be further explained, we aren't actually focused on Arminians for this Question.)

All of these beliefs lie on a spectrum, where one end indicates that Salvation is entirely in God's hands, and the other indicates that it is entirely in Man's hands. On the whole, Christianity tends toward the former, while man-made religions tend toward the latter. However, it is likely that some man-made religions involve the assistance of a deity, and some "Christian" sects (particularly the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, which is widely regarded as heretical and non-Christian by "mainstream" Christians) are further from the "God only" end than others.

I would summarize the differences between sects thusly:

Branch Beliefs
Calvinists Believe that Salvation is entirely in God's hands and that Man can do nothing to either obtain nor reject Salvation. Grace is "irresistible".
Lutherans Believe that Salvation is entirely an act of God, but that Man can resist.
Catholics Believe that Salvation is initiated by God but that the full process requires cooperation on the part of the believer.
Arminians Believe that one must "make a choice for Christ" in order to be Saved.

This article also uses TULIP to discuss the differences between Lutherans, Calvinists and Arminians.

This Question, therefore, seems to be asking about Lutheranism specifically. Thus, the best answer I can give is that Lutherans believe in monergism in the sense that Man is incapable of contributing to his own Salvation in any active way, but is capable of detracting from (and potentially even losing) Salvation. By contrast, Calvinists believe Salvation cannot be lost, while Catholics believe Man must actively cooperate.

To use an analogy, Calvinists see humans as cars that are broken; the car has no say in whether the mechanic (God) fixes them or leaves them broken, and no ability to interfere with being fixed. Lutherans and Catholics, however, see humans as something like Frankenstein's monster; dead (spiritually) to start with, but brought to life by God. However, Lutherans would say that all we can "do" is to let God continue fixing us, while Catholics would say that at some point the believer has to actively help.

To be fair, this is a subtle and difficult-to-grasp distinction, and particularly as it lies in between Calvinism and Catholicism, it's understandable why the difference is confusing.

Further reading:

  • This is a somewhat helpful answer in distinguishing Catholics and Lutherans, but I’m not sure that it helps solve the dilemma. If we just define synergism as “human beings cooperate with God towards their salvation, even though God freely chooses to initiate the process of salvation”, then Lutherans must bend over backwards in redefining cooperation such that it excludes passively allowing God to work on us. Of course, as I pointing out earlier, this might have unintended consequences in our discussion of the nature of sin.
    – Luke Hill
    Commented Jun 21 at 20:32
  • @LukeHill, as I noted in chat, I'm not convinced you have a genuinely Roman Catholic understanding of Roman Catholic theology. 🙂 My understanding of the Lutheran understanding of Roman Catholic theology is that the RCC teaches that a more "active" form of cooperation is required. Is that a straw man? Maybe. If you are actually a monergist but think you're a synergist, that might explain your difficulties.
    – Matthew
    Commented Jun 21 at 21:06

I agree with this philosophical dilemma or contradiction by the non-fatalist reformed believers. I think the reason behind the apparent rejection of fatalistic points of Calvinism such as irresistible grace is to avoid the implications of fatalism that comes with holding sotereological monergism. The metaphysical fatalism is corollary to the theological monergism.

The paradoxical language of choosing passivity is rightly pointed out. It is the controversy in fatalism that renders all terms and human functions as paradoxical, which leads their proponents to change definitions of terms. If humans are presupposed as puppets without freewill, then all actions involving salvation, such as believing, preaching, converting, perseverance, apostasy, convincing are all paradoxical and meaningless. Under reformed theology, it seems inevitable that freewill or human nature stands in conflict with monergistic model of grace and soteriology. Thus, If I were a reformed theology follower, I would rather choose to appeal to ignorance or mystery, rather than falling into fatalism, which is what the other's motivation seems to be.

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