Being a Pentecost Christian: Monergism

            It is in that well worn and wonderful passage of John chapter 3 where the apostle tells us that God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. But previously in that very same chapter Jesus tells us that God must also give His Spirit, and that without the blowing of God’s Spirit, there will be no believing and no eternal life.

            In Jesus’ late night conversation with Nicodemus, we become privy to some foundational truths concerning the doctrine of regeneration. And what becomes clear is that regeneration is accomplished by the Holy Spirit and it is done so monergistically. What is monergism? It’s simply the word which describes the biblical doctrine that the work (ergos) of salvation is accomplished by God alone (mono). And when it comes to a person’s regeneration, or what Jesus calls being born again, it is something only the Holy Spirit brings about.[1]

            But doesn’t a person have to believe in order to be saved? God doesn’t do the believing for a person, does he? No, but without regeneration, no man can believe, and so God’s Spirit must bring new life to those who are dead in their sins and trespasses. Indeed, as Paul convincingly argues in Romans 3, “No one seeks for God, all have turned aside” and until the Spirit of God brings about a spiritual resurrection, unbelievers are dead in their sins, following the course of this world and enslaved to the leading of Satan (Ephesians 2:1-3).

            So the big question is this? How is anyone born again? Answer: “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Jesus means that a person’s regeneration is not up to them. It’s not their work. This is why theologians refer to the work of the Spirit as monergistic. It’s His work!

            Let’s let the Gospel of John lead us. When the Son of God, the true light who enlightens everyone, came into the world, did people immediately believe in him? No, “the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, that is, who believed in his name, he gave them the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:10-13). Did you see that last line? It wasn’t their family line or upbringing that allowed them to believe in Jesus. Nor was it their self-exulted “free-will”. No, they were born again by the will of God.

            This is exactly why later in Jesus‘ ministry he explicitly states that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail... this is why I told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted him by the Father” (John 6:63-65). That’s right! Jesus is talking about the monergistic work of the Spirit. Man in his fallen flesh can avail nothing towards gaining new life. Could Lazarus raise himself from the dead? No, a divine work of God was needed. Could Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones walk again and regenerate new flesh and life? No, the Spirit of God was the sole agent in bringing about such a miracle.  “And such were some of you! But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11).

            So how does the Spirit regenerate me; how does He give me new life? Well again, it’s done monergistically; there’s nothing we can do to secure it. As Paul so poignantly put it in Titus 3:5, “God saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior.”

            This isn’t a reference to physical Baptism, but a reference to our Spiritual baptism. Remember what Jesus told Nicodemus back in John chapter 3? “Unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.” Jesus is referencing the words of the prophet Ezekiel where God promised to one day cleanse his people from sin and place his Spirit within them, transforming them from a spiritually dead and desolate people into a living and holy people.[2] That transformation comes only through an immersion of God’s Spirit.[3]

            It is God who pours out his Spirit to make those who are blind, deaf, and dead to now miraculously see, hear, and live. And what the apostle Peter points out is that God does this through the hearing of the Spirit-inspired Scriptures. In other words, the extraordinary work of regeneration comes through the ordinary act of hearing God’s word, and all of it accomplished by God’s Spirit.

            “To those who are elect exiles [i.e., believers]... according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ....According to his great mercy, God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead... [and] you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:1,3, 23).

            Do you see the robust monergism in this passage? Our being born again is caused by God, but it comes through hearing the Spirit-inspired word of God and is accomplished by the sanctification of the Spirit of God. What is the effect this truth should have on us? Listen to what the Spirit says in 1 Corinthians 1:29-31:

            “Let no human being boast in the presence of God. [It is] because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.”

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] The phrase γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν could mean either born again, as many modern translations take it, or it could mean born from above. Context may demand the latter as the same word is used later in verse 31 where the meaning is clearly above. As has also been mentioned, Jesus’ only other use of kingdom language in John 18:36 suggests that Jesus is thinking about the kingdom of God from above when he states twice that “my kingdom is not of this world”(18:36). But because Nicodemus seemingly understood the meaning to be again when he responds as he does in verse 4, and because Jesus didn’t correct him, some have argued that γεννηθῇ ἄνωθεν must mean again.  As D.A. Carson notes, it is not unordinary for John to be using double-entendre, and so the phrase may carry both meanings just as well. Carson, John. 189.

[2] Belleville, Linda L. "Born of Water and Spirit: John 3:5." Trinity Journal 1, no. 2 (Fall 1980): 125-41.

[3] This same idea is proclaimed by the prophet Joel, especially Joel 2:18-29 and 3:18. After a description is given of Israel being made desolate, a veritable “Garden of Eden” which becomes “a desolate wilderness” (2:3), God promises to send life-giving waters (2:23) which he later describes as pouring out His Spirit (2:28-29). Joel continues, in alluding directly from Isaiah 2, to describe that latter day when all the world will gather in peace around God’s new Temple out of which “a spring will go out from the house of the Lord” (3:18). The climax of the whole scene being perhaps 2:27 where Joel declares that “you will know that I am in the midst of Israel, and that I am the Lord your God.” Here again is described God’s dwelling with his people in terms of a future temple which pours forth life-giving water, water which is said to be God’s Spirit. Jesus identifies himself as that new Temple and as the giver of life-giving Water, namely the Holy Spirit (John 7), all of which has bearing on how one reads John chapter 3.

 


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