Every Spring, with the harsh winter behind her, Kathy begins to prepare her little plot of land for delicious vegetables. She tills and feeds the soil and makes sure the garden is protected from pesky deer. She can taste the greens and peas, tomatoes and peppers, cucumbers and squash as she plants the seeds and starter plants. Heavenly showers and the radiant sun along with ground-level nutrients will feed these plants to maturity. Kathy fertilizes and weeds to help things along.
When it comes to having beautiful vegetables, Kathy knows two things: 1) she must exert necessary time and wise effort to prepare the soil, plant, and tend her vegetable garden and 2) she has no vegetables without all the resources God provides. She knows that good gardening is a divine-human enterprise. God gives life to all creation. She is simply participating in that life in a particular “gardening” way. By God’s grace she plants and He gives the increase.
The technical word for this interaction of human and divine effort is “synergy.” Synergy is normally understood as “the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects.” “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” could be one way of expressing synergy.
Synergy and Salvation
Though not the emphasis of this post, there is some debate among a few modern evangelical theologians about synergy as it relates to justification. In what ways do God’s will and the human will interact resulting in salvation? Synergism, as a theory of justification, is rejected by most evangelicals due to its association with Roman Catholicism and the belief in human free will.
In this debate, consideration is rarely given, if ever, to the understanding of the early Church regarding salvation. Augustine may be quoted but only as he fits into someone’s preconceptions. Perspectives are skewed in the direction of Reformation and post-reformation writers who shape modern theological understanding. Scriptures are often torn apart and used as daggers to slay the theological enemy of the “true gospel.” Without the grounding of established (early) Church dogma, it’s a chaotic and heartbreaking free-for-all.
It seems the first 1000-1200 years of the Church are ignored as if they knew little of the meaning of salvation and how God brings humanity to Himself. How was it possible for people have a relationship with Christ without the insights from the reformers and their devotees?
But, as I said, synergism related to justification is not the emphasis of this post. ☺️
Synergy and Christian Living
I want to emphasize synergy as an explanation and secret sauce for the Christian life. Synergy for Christian living, using the definition above, is the interaction or cooperation of God and humans to produce God-likeness and, actually, anything in the Christian life.
The word “synergy” comes from the Greek words SYN: same, together and ERGOS: energy, work. It literally means: “work together.” In the New Testament synergism is the idea of being “workers together (Gr. sunergountes) with” God (2 Corinthians 6.1).
Paul beautifully describes this work when he writes: work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure (Philippians 2.12-13). Our past, present and future salvation is being worked in us by God as we cooperate with Him. This is not the normal evangelical understanding of salvation. Perhaps we need to pause, take a second look at Paul’s words, and wrestle with what he’s saying.
In the past, I (mis)interpreted the word “salvation” in this verse as “sanctification” only to fit my theology. Now, I understand salvation to be the broad term for all the various aspects of our relationship with God – justification, calling, sanctification, glorification, adoption, imputation, etc. These are all aspects of our one “salvation.”
God is working each of these aspects into our lives. It’s our role to cooperate with Him. We are workers together with Him for everything related to salvation, in the broad sense of the term, in our lives.
Synergy and Early Writers
From the beginning of Christian thought, the reality of synergism, though the word was not used, is seen. Listen to St. Clement of Alexandria (190 AD):
A man by himself working and toiling at freedom from sinful desires achieves nothing. But if he plainly shows himself to be very eager and earnest about this, he attains it by the addition of the power of God. God works together with willing souls. But if the person abandons his eagerness, the spirit from God is also restrained. To save the unwilling is the act of one using compulsion; but to save the willing, that of one showing grace.
St. John Cassian (360-435) in his Conferences (Chap. 13) declares that human efforts cannot be set against the grace of God but that human effort and grace co-operate.
And therefore the aforesaid teacher of the Gentiles [Paul], though he bears his witness that he had obtained the grade of the Apostolate by the grace of God, saying: “By the grace of God I am what I am,” yet also declares that he himself had corresponded to Divine Grace, where he says: “And His Grace in me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: and yet not I, but the Grace of God with me.” [1 Cor. 15.10] For when he says: “I laboured,” he shows the effort of his own will; when he says: “yet not I, but the grace of God,” he points out the value of Divine protection; when he says: “with me,” he affirms that [the grace of God] cooperates with him when he was not idle or careless, but working and making an effort.
Or, St. Peter of Damascus (12th c):
Human effort is profitless…without help from above, but no one receives such help unless he himself chooses to make an effort. We need always both things, we need the human and the divine, ascetic practice and spiritual knowledge, fear and hope, inward grief and solace, fearfulness and humility, discrimination and love.
The early Church, the apostles, and patristic writers did not pit grace and works against each other. The synergy of grace and works made possible all things related to God. To accomplish anything worthwhile for God on earth, there must be synergy between God and humanity.
For example, God alone is holy. We are not. Our actions and thoughts make this very obvious. The only way we become holy is cooperating with God; interacting with His holiness. We don’t make ourselves holy. And, God doesn’t make us holy against our will. We, God and us, work together to see holiness come about. Synergy makes holiness a possibility.
Without the experience of synergy we’re in danger of swinging the pendulum between strict legalism and complacent libertinism – we think it’s all up to us or we don’t do a thing. Synergy stops the pendulum.
Synergy in the Scriptures
There are examples of synergy all throughout scripture.
We see synergy in Joseph’s life: “The keepers of the prison did not look into anything that was under Joseph’s authority, because the Lord was with him; and whatever he did, the Lord made it prosper” (Genesis 39.23). Joseph worked yet it was God who prospered the work. How was the work accomplished? By God and Joseph working together.
Nehemiah worked hard to prepare and build the walls of Jerusalem but only because “the good hand of my God” was upon him (Nehemiah 2.8). When opposition came, Nehemiah replied, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build…” (Nehemiah 2.20). The servants built. God prospered their work. The walls were finished because God and Nehemiah (and hundreds of helpers) did the work together.
An understanding of synergism makes certain Bible passages come alive.
For the the Apostle Paul, synergism is how his and our life, ministry and inner transformation take place.
I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gave the growth. He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor. For we are God’s fellow workers. You are God’s field, God’s building. According to the grace of God which was given to me, as a wise master builder I have laid the foundation, and another builds on it (1 Corinthians 3.6-10).
This whole passage demonstrates the interaction of God and His servants to accomplish His work. The Greek word for “fellow workers” is sunergoi (syn – with + ergoi – work) from which we get our word “synergy.” You work with God and He works with you.
In this case Paul is pointing out that we work together with God as He plows the field of our heart and builds the building of our lives. God works within us yet we participate in His work. Without our participation, nothing is accomplished. Without God’s work, nothing is accomplished.
For I am the least of the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me (1 Corinthians 13.9-10). We are to work hard yet God works with us.
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2.20). How can Paul no longer live but still live? Answer: Christ in him; living life in Paul as Paul lived life.
Now to Him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to Him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen (Ephesians 3.20-21). His power works in us to do above what we ask or think.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure (Philippians 2.12-13). We work for it is God who works in us.
Even Peter gets in on the action. Note that God has given us all His resources to live and be like God. Yet, as we become participants in God’s nature we are to make every effort to supplement our faith: His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature,…For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. (2 Peter 1.3-7)
God develops all His virtues in us as we participate in Him and cooperate with Him in that process.
Illustration of Synergy: Sword & Fire
Pastor Jon Braun writes about a sword in a fire as an illustration of what strength is available to us when we are joined to Christ. This is an ancient illustration of synergy.
“Imagine a steel sword being heated in a fire. The sword becomes red hot. Does the sword become blended with the fire so that the fire and sword become one substance? Obviously not. The sword is still distinctly steel and the fire is still distinctly fire. The steel does not become fire, nor does the fire become steel. But the sword does get hot. It partakes of the heat of the fire. The heat of fire, the energy of the fire, interpenetrates the substance of the sword.” (Divine Energy, pp. 74-45)
“To expand on this ancient example, you heat a sword in a fire until it’s white hot. Then you dip it in a tub of water. What happens? The hot sword makes the water sputter and hiss. Or, if the red-hot sword is pressed against a piece of word, the wood will scorch — perhaps even burst into flames.
Let us make two observations from this illustration. First, the fire has one kind of nature and iron a nature quite distinct from it. It is the nature of a sharpened sword to cut; it is the nature of fire to burn. Yet, now the heated sword can both cut and burn. The heat of the fire penetrates the sword. The sword does not become fire by nature. But it does participate in the heat, the energy, of the fire. Through all this, though, both the fire and the sword maintain their distinct natures. ”
Now is it the fire or the sword that burns the wood which the sword touches? The answer is both. Once the sword participates in the heat of the fire, it can inflict a burn quite easily. The energy produced by the fire is passed on to the sword and heat becomes characteristic of the sword as well as of the fire. It is accurate to say that the fire burns through the sword. And it is every bit as correct to say that the sword itself burns the wood with heat from the fire.” (Divine Energy, pp. 114-115)
“What causes wood to burn when touched by a heated sword? There are a least three correct answers: the fire, the heat, the sword. It is inherent in the nature of fire to radiate heat, and thus it has the capacity to burn. It is not inherent in the nature of steel to radiate heat. But it is in the nature of steel to be able to participate in the heat of a fire and radiate that heat. Similarly, energized by union with Christ, we have access to the qualities needed to be godly. Then we are capable of living God’s way….Living God’s way is not just getting a bit of help; from God, nor is it the old, “God is my co-pilot” scheme, where I’m in charge and He cooperates with me. It is me cooperating with Him. In cooperation there is one operation, but two parties working together. Our God and King works, and we, His servants, work with Him. In dynamic union with Christ, participating in the energies from God’s own nature, we are able to work together with God.” (Divine Energy, p. 125)
Thoughts on Synergy
- Synergy is not among equals. Limited and finite humans work together with Almighty God. In our weakness, brokenness and nothingness, God is strong, pure, and all we need. Our contribution is minuscule compared to His power. He is great, we are not.
- Synergy changes the way we consider certain supposed dichotomies: law and grace, faith and works, Old Testament and New Testament, nature and grace, spirit and body, reality and symbol, God’s faithfulness and humanity’s faithfulness, secular and sacred, Church and state. These pairs of concepts are no longer in conflict but cooperate in a true understanding of the Faith and God’s will for us.
- Synergy sheds light on the interactive operation of the Trinity. Three Persons are indeed One as they work together in perfect unity. It is this unified cooperation into which all of us are invited and for which Jesus prayed (John 17.20-26).
- Synergy is the way you and I are to live. Our goal is to live in union with the life of the Triune God. God’s work, then, becomes our work and our work is God’s work. We seek to be in such (com)union with God that we do His will with ease and effectiveness. We spend the rest of our lives in this quest.
- Synergy gives us theological equilibrium. We are not carried away with fanciful notions related to grace and faith, works and righteousness, Jesus and Church, prayer and scripture. Accepting and practicing synergy provides a clarifying perspective on divisive theological issues.
- Synergy challenges us to be humble, to trust, to be faithful, and to commune with God. If we know that nothing happens in our life apart from God’s work in and through us, then we will do what’s necessary to allow God full access to our heart, mind, soul and body. Moment by moment, we acknowledge our need for His mercy and grace.
Those who would oppose synergism believing that any work of humans diminishes God’s grace, fail to see that a greater sense of God and His grace are actually experienced in synergism. As Jesus teaches us, “apart from me you can do nothing.” Synergists actually know that to be true.
Seek to live in such communion with God that His will becomes your will and your will becomes His will. Then HIs work will be your work and your work will be His work.
Always recognize you have work to do, yet it is God who does the work in you.
Are you familiar with synergism as it relates to your own Christian living? Share your thoughts about synergism below. Thanks!
P.S. It is my prayer that this post is written in cooperation with God’s work in your life and mine.