Precision is important in endeavors like math and science, but no less so in the “-ology of God” (theology).
All too often, I encounter theological discussion where terms are used somewhat loosely. This is unfortunate, for this lack of attention to precision can lead to confusion, or worse, error.
Currently, I am working on my next book, which will be a theological treatise on the ordo salutis, or the order of salvation.
In the ordo salutis, we study the order in which God brings salvation to a person. Sometimes the order is chronological, but other times it describes a logical order of events which occur simultaneously. For example, faith precedes justification, but justification happens immediately upon belief in Jesus Christ; it logically follows faith.
The full ordo salutis, as described by Reformed theologians, consists of this sequence: Election/Predestination – Calling – Regeneration – Faith and Repentance (Conversion) – Justification – Adoption – Sanctification – Perseverance – Glorification. The clearest biblical support for a kind of ordo salutis is found in Romans 8:29-30: “For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.”
Perhaps the primary distinction in the Reformed ordo salutis is the placement of regeneration before faith. That regeneration must precede faith is made clear in passages like John 1:12-13, where those who believe and become children of God are said to have been born of God, and 1 John 5:1, where we read, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” [note the tenses].
We call this regeneration “monergistic,” meaning that it is the sole work of one – God Almighty. The opposite of monergism is synergism, which is the viewpoint shared by Arminian theologians, that says we cooperate with God in our regeneration and that regeneration is a result of our faith.
Time does not permit me to expound on the mass of biblical evidence for monergism. Suffice it to say that dead men can’t raise themselves (John 3; Ephesians 2; Ezekiel 37). We must be born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man (John 1:13), by a monergistic act of the Spirit of God.
Where precision is needed
Now, where I want to be precise is this: some people with whom I have been in dialog, people with whom I largely agree, have said something like, “Salvation is completely monergistic.”
Here’s where precision is necessary. If by salvation it is meant the whole of salvation, I would want to offer a clarifying statement. Technically speaking, regeneration is monergistic. The act of bringing a spiritually dead person to life is the sole work of God. There is neither cooperation nor activity on the part of the person so revived.
Moving forward in the ordo salutis, regeneration results in conversion – the belief and repentance of the sinner in turning to God and Christ in faith. In conversion, the work of God in saving a person moves from the subconscious to the conscious life of the believer. “Regeneration takes place at the level of the subconscious, and conversion takes place at the level of consciousness.” (Derek Thomas – https://www.ligonier.org/learn/qas/do-regeneration-and-conversion-take-place-at-the-same-time).
At this point in the order of salvation – conversion – the believer is consciously involved. Even as we affirm that saving faith itself is a gift (Eph. 2:8), we do not say that God believes for us. Indeed, we believe; we repent.
Additionally, sanctification is a part of the greater picture of salvation. Sanctification is not the monergistic act of God, though God is the determining factor. We are enjoined by Paul in Philippians 2:12 to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” I, Mark Knox, am to work out my salvation. But the text goes on to say, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (2:13). The very reason I work out my salvation (sanctification) is because God is working in me. God is decisive in this, if not in the same monergistic way he is in regeneration.
Finally, as we move toward glory, we persevere in our faith. In fact, we must hold fast. “The gospel…by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you” (1 Cor. 15:1-2). “For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end” (Heb. 3:14). Thus, we are commanded, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering” (Heb. 10:23). I, myself, am to hold fast and persevere. But notice Hebrews 10:23 continues much like the Philippians passage continues: “for he who promised is faithful.”
I must persevere, for if I don’t, I show myself to have never been a true disciple. But my perseverance is grounded in and secured by God’s preservation. “He who promised is faithful.” “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). Though I am called upon to hold fast my faith, God is again decisive. He sovereignly preserves, and we persevere in his power.
So, perhaps it’s a small distinction, but of such surgical distinctions are we kept from imbalance and error.
I would summarize it this way – that God is sovereignly monergistic specifically in regeneration, and God is decisively determinative (but not in a monergistic way) in other aspects of our great salvation.