SO THAT NO MAN MAY BOAST
“What then becomes of our boasting? It is excluded.” – Romans 3:27
Within the Christian faith, theologians have long debated the theological issue of man’s role in his salvation. Debates over this topic and related issues such as the freedom of the will and the doctrine of election have caused a great amount of controversy and have created substantial tension between (and even within) Christian denominations.
A number of different views have become prominent over the centuries. Some maintain that man must perform righteous works or live a righteous life in order to earn his salvation in some sense. Others, on the far opposite side of the theological spectrum, claim that man has absolutely nothing to do with his salvation and that God works completely independently from the will and activity of man. Seeking a middle ground between these two positions, a third group argues that God saves entirely by grace alone, but that man must first accept this gift of salvation, or allow God to save him.
Which approach is the most biblical?
The main issue of note is the sinner’s role in the process of regeneration, or the new birth. In theological terms, this question is known as the debate between monergism and synergism. The former argues that the sinner plays no role whatsoever in the process of being born again, while the latter argues for an active role that is limited.
The word monergism consists of a combination of two Greek parts. The prefix mono indicates “one”, “single”, or “alone”; the suffix ergon comes from the Greek verb which means “to work”. The resulting term therefore carries the understanding of “the work of one”.
Similarly, the word synergism also consists of two main parts. The Greek prefix syn signifies the idea of “with” or “together”; the suffix ergon again comes from the Greek verb meaning “to work”. Strictly speaking, the result thus indicates “the work of more than one”, or the concept of two or more parties working together.
Theologically, these terms are then applied to the regeneration of the sinner’s heart. Monergism teaches that the heart is regenerated entirely based on the work of God alone – no other factor is at all in play. Synergism, on the other hand, teaches that God and man work together in some way in the process of a sinner’s rebirth.
Why It Matters
Why does any of this matter? Theologians have debated this issue (and other issues related to it) since nearly the beginning of the foundation of the church. But why? Is all of the controversy necessary?
While division is never to be sought out, asking this question is entirely necessary for a number of reasons.
First of all, the heart of the gospel – how God has chosen to save sinful man – is at stake. Matters regarding salvation are of the utmost importance. While all theology and doctrine matter, soteriological matters bear an extra weight because they often play a large role in formulating our theological worldview.
Additionally, this question matters since it determines who receives the credit for salvation. If God alone is responsible for the regeneration of the believer’s heart, God alone then receives credit for that salvation. Conversely, if a sinner works together with God in accomplishing this regeneration, then God shares the credit with man in some regard for this work.
Imagine a scenario where two individuals are born in extremely similar circumstances and exposed to the teaching of the gospel the same way. One responds to the truth and is saved, while the other is not. If you were to ask the one who was saved why he had responded to the gospel while the other individual did not, his answer would reveal who received the credit for his salvation.
For example, if his response were to be anything along the lines of “God saved me by grace alone,” it would clearly indicate a monergistic understanding of regeneration. As a result, only God could receive credit for it. However, if he were to respond with something in the spirit of “I believed the gospel,” or “I accepted the gift of salvation offered to me through Jesus Christ,” credit would have to be shared between him and God.
Finally, whoever receives the credit is the one who deserves the glory. As such, this question has massive implications on how we view God and ultimately how we worship him.
The Issue of Boasting
One key passage of Scripture addresses a component of this topic that must be considered, namely the issue of boasting.
In Romans 3, following a lengthy discussion of the issue of justification by faith, Paul asks a question relevant to this discussion when in verse 27 he says, “What then becomes of our boasting?”
His answer is emphatic. “It is excluded!”
The Greek word that is translated to this English phrase comes from the verb ἐκκλείω. It literally means “to shut out”, or more literally, “to slam the door shut”. In other words, Paul is categorically rejecting the possibility of any human boasting in matters pertaining to salvation. This is a clear declaration of monergism, since Paul claims that any form of boasting is completely impossible.
Now, those who hold to a synergistic understanding in relation to this question would scoff at the idea of openly boasting of their activity or participation in regeneration. I have never seen or heard of anyone openly boasting in this manner.
However, if a sinner were to play any role whatsoever in the process, he would have at least some grounds for boasting. He could always claim that the separating factor between him and someone who rejects the gospel is his active role in accepting the free gift of salvation or in responding with faith.
Paul, though, vigorously eliminates this possibility altogether. It is excluded. The door has been slammed closed on human boasting. Because God – and God alone – is responsible for our salvation.
In 1 Corinthians, Paul expounds upon this idea and completes the thought when he says, “God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:29–30).
As a result of this truth, the message of the gospel becomes infinitely sweeter. We can humbly recognize that we played no part whatsoever in our salvation, and that God alone deserves the credit and the glory for it. The gospel becomes less about us choosing God, but more about God choosing us. For it is by grace that we have been saved through faith. And this is not our own doing in any way, but rather it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast (Ephesians 2:8–9).
Jonathan Edwards, arguably the greatest theologian in American history, perfectly summarized our role in salvation when he said, “You contribute nothing to your salvation except the sin that made it necessary.”
So let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord (1 Corinthians 1:31). Anything else is categorically excluded.