Sunday, March 11, 2012

Monergism, Synergism, and God’s Image, 2 of 2

This is post 2 of 2 concerning concepts related to being created in God’s Image and the debate of Monergism vs. Synergism. See the first post where I laid out the fundamental concept of humanity being agents of God’s authority precisely by being made in His Image.

How does this affect discussion concerning monergism and synergism? Are we saved or justified on account of faith alone? Is there any sense in which we are saved or justified on account of works? In moving forward I think there are a few conceptual links that can be made that close the gap in these disjunctions:

1)   Given the understanding of the fall outlined in the first post, “fearing God” is just simply another way of speaking about trusting him or having faith in him. Faith or trust is precisely an orientation of acknowledging God’s rulership or wisdom instead of assuming it for oneself. This side of the cross, that trust must be placed in Jesus’ person and work as he and his work are the ultimate manifestation of God’s rulership (I won’t even touch the inclusivism vs. exclusivism debate). Jesus enacts God’s rule from the cross. Death cannot contain him because he has enacted God’s rulership perfectly. Genesis 3.24 and the death threat of Genesis 2.17 cannot have any hold over him.
2)   As human beings, we cannot help but “work” to some degree. We have to function in this world. But there is functioning that is according to the orientation of God as ruler and functioning that ascribes no fear to God.
3)   There is also, it seems to me, subtle NT understanding of faith that is often missed in churches. Faith is not simply acknowledgment that e.g. Jesus is God or that he died and rose or that there is a God (James 2.19) or even that “Jesus is Lord” (Romans 10.9). There is a functional imperative that lies behind NT faith: You must act according to what you believe! To claim “Jesus is Lord” is to make oneself servant to him and so act in a way that conforms to his example and standard. This may seem obvious or trite but is actually in sharp contrast to how many in the church evangelize: “You need to believe that you’re a sinner and Jesus died for you to be saved…” In much of my experience of the (Protestant) church, belief that certain things are true (e.g. Jesus died for you, Jesus is God, etc.) is what makes the Christian, and then the Christian develops in service to God. But NT faith isn’t so abstract; it’s a whole package, it’s being in a kingdom.
4)   When we get to Paul in the NT, he rejects any effort that a person can produce in and of himself that attempts to gain (or maintain) favor with God. Such effort is necessarily done not in the “fear of God”.  Thus one cannot be “justified” by works, since for God to do so would be for him to acknowledge that his creation can get by without acknowledging him as sole creator.
5)   In contrast James (Chapter 2) seems to be coming from the other side. Mere faith (belief in an abstract set of truths) is not sufficient but works are needed also. In context, these works are assumed to be from the point of those already acting “by faith” and what James has to say is towards those not living the life of faith (2.14-17). But then James says something in 2.24 that (most) Protestant exegetes from the time of Luther have squirmed at: “a man is justified by works and not only by faith.”
“Justified” is usually taken in the NT to mean “declared to be righteous” in the standard Reformed “judicial” sense of God considering us to be righteous even when we aren’t because we have believed that Jesus died for us – declared righteous because of faith. But when we get to James 2.21 and 24, “justified” can’t mean that without contradiction to Paul (and our nicely packaged Protestant theology) so it’s usually taken to mean “demonstrate to be declared righteous” where the works demonstrate that the justifying faith is indeed justifying and genuine. A few passages in the gospels are thought to provide parallels for this unusual meaning (see Mt. 11.19 (cf. Lk. 7.35), Lk. 10.29, Lk. 16.15). Even if that meaning is questionable in at least the last 2 Luke passages, the context is much different here: God is doing the justifying.
6)   So what does “justify” mean? It’s important here to recognize that much Protestant/Reformed exegesis has (often) assumed one definition of “justify” or ”justification” for our theological system and inserted the definition into whatever instance of the word. It’s important here to consider the OT perspective of God “justifying”. “Justify” is usually used in legal settings where one’s actual conduct forms the basis for being vindicated. And oftentimes vindication has in perspective the final judgment (1 Kings 8.31-32; Ps. 7.8-11**, 9.3-8, 11.7, 15.1-5, 18.20-24, 26.1-3ff., 106.1-5, 119.121-128; Isa. 43.9 & 26, 45.25, 50.8, 53.11; See also 4QMMT C Line 31 (=4Q398)) Note Psalm 7:8ff: “The LORD judges the peoples; judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness and according to the integrity that is in me. The point is hardly that the Psalmist is perfect. But there is certainly an orientation that God will judge favorably on account of personal integrity. This can be compared with say Psalm 9.10 where the Lord is a favorable judge for those who trust and seek him. However, I don’t think this means the two passages stand in tension, as I’ll get to. (Note: this does not mean there is no sense of “justification” in the Reformed sense in the OT; see Ps. 32 and perhaps Isa. 53.11.)
7)   Along with this it’s important to remember that everyone is indeed judged according to works according to the NT. See Mt. 12.36-37, 2 Cor. 5.10, and especially Rom. 2.6-10. The OT sense of “justify” is picked up in these passages.
8)   So then, in James it appears by context that “justification” is from the perspective of the end (like the passages mentioned in #7) when all people will stand before God and be judged according to what they’ve done – in James 2.22 Abraham’s faith is “made complete” by works and that his works “fulfilled” the Scripture that “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness”. Not that his faith was somehow incomplete before works, but rather, his faith was “filled out” so-to-speak or “brought to maturation”. It is part of a faith-works package where, as James would have it, faith and works are “working together” (v. 22, Grk. sunergeo).

To synthesize then, humans were created to be utterly dependent on God (faith or “fear of God”) and also to act (works) as agents of his authority and rule (kingdom), that is, act in God’s Image.  In the fall we lost the ability to do the latter when we failed to the former. It is only by trust that one is truly a part of God’s kingdom and so it is only by trust that one can personally act or work for God’s kingdom. However, when we stand at the judgment seat, we are shown God’s favor precisely by whether or not we have willingly acted (works) as God’s agents of his kingdom. That necessarily entails works, works that are produced only by faith. Paul is mostly concerned with addressing those lacking “fear of God” (Rom. 3.27) and James is wholly concerned with working for God’s kingdom (2.14-17). There is then some sense in which synergism holds true even though monergism is dominant. In the framework I’ve laid out, it seems synergism would simply be a subset of monergism rather than standing against it in any sense.

In the end, this is hardly ground for boasting or pride-of-self. As soon as we boast we assume autonomy with respect to God and, moreover, we deny that such works were prepared and given us by God in the first place (Eph. 2.10). Let’s work to have a kingdom orientation for we will ultimately be judged as to whether or not we were willing participants of it.


  1. This is an interesting post and appreciate the take on "justify" in James. While I'm unconvinced that James had the whole-life view in mind when he meant we're justified by works, rather than a kind of quality of faith that produces works vis-a-vis a faith that merely acknowledges the truth of propositions, this has provoked me to see it from another angle. I'll have to "work" with a few commentaries now that you've "matured" my faith in this direction [wink].

  2. Hi Paul! Thanks for "work"ing your way through the posts. ;^)

    Just to be clear, I don't think I'd exclude the thought of a works-producing-faith in James, just that it's not the primary thought. Given what I've laid out, it's clear that one doesn't properly 'work' for God's kingdom apart from a proper 'faith' framework.

    When I was going through James, I had Peter Davids (NIGTC), Doug Moo (PNTC), and the Carson/Beale powerhouse Commentary on the NT use of the OT. Doug Moo is not to be missed if you want a perspective similar to what I've presented. I've since then gotten McKnight's (NICNT) who, upon consultation, seems to land at about the same place as Moo. I'd also recommend Richard Bauckham's book on James (Routledge, 1999).


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