One might hope all Christians held theistic monergism as a primary belief, but some branches within the Christian community are influenced by Arianism or synergism. We, therefore, list this belief under a Lutheran distinctive.
Big words. Big ideas.
“Lutheran distinctive” means we recognize there is a difference among Christians when we think and talk about some of the specific things we believe. As Lutherans we have a unique view of what God speaks to us in the Bible about certain items of our faith. One distinctive has to do with how much we do or don’t participate in our salvation.
The two other big words we are considering are monergism and synergism. Monergism means there is only one agent acting toward a purpose. Synergism means there is more than one agent cooperating toward the desired outcome. The belief of theistic monergists is that only God (Theos) can act toward the salvation of humanity. The belief in any synergistic approach is that either God is helping us toward salvation or that we are helping God toward salvation (seen in the idea that we can choose God or decide to be saved).
Perhaps the clearest statement within Lutheranism regarding how we come to salvation is stated in the explanation to the Third Article of the Apostles’ Creed in our Small Catechism. We confess that, “we cannot by our own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ, or come to Him, but the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel, enlightens us by His gifts, sanctifies us, and keeps us in the true faith.” The two key phrases are “we cannot” and “but the Holy Spirit.”
When God created Adam and Eve, he placed them in a garden in which He had planted two special trees. One was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The other was the tree of life. God told Adam and Eve they could eat from any tree in the garden except for the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. He told them that if they ate from that tree they would die. The tempter came to them in the form of a snake and questioned God’s word. The tempter suggested that death would not be the result of eating. Instead of dying, he told them, they would be like God and know both good and evil (Genesis 3). He suggested that God had withheld something of great value from them and that they should not trust God. Adam and Eve had a decision to make. Would they trust God, or would they fall to the temptation and break trust with God? They could stay true to God, or they could choose to disobey God. And that they did. They ate. Death came into the world, and with death also bondage to sin. The question we are asked in the Letter to the Romans is, “Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?” (6:16 NASB). Because we inherit death from Adam, we are also slaves of sin as we read in Romans 5:12, “just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned—”
We have a problem; but because we are slaves of sin and our will is bound, we cannot solve the problem. We cannot choose God, but God chooses us. “You did not choose Me but I chose you, and appointed you that you would go and bear fruit” (John 15:16a). This choosing is ours as a gift. “…being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 3:24) and “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8, 9).
Our confession is that our wills are bound by sin. The only choice we can make is to sin (bound meaning both we are its slaves and we must do it). But God in His great love and grace has had mercy on us. He has come to us in Jesus who through His death and resurrection, through His shed blood, has redeemed us. He bought us out of slavery to sin and set us free to be His people. This act is His, completely by His choosing, apart from anything we can reason or do.