September / October 1995 The Synergistic Controversy


From the September / October 1995 issue of The Concordia Lutheran




Dr. Martin Luther had died in 1546. The Schmalkald War had erupted. The Schmalkald League, a standby army formed by nine Lutheran princes and 11 cities, which had been established in 1531 as a defensive force against two Romanist forces, the League of Dessau and the League of Regensburg under the control of Emperor Charles V, was utterly defeated. The chief founders of the Schmalkald League, Elector John Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse, were imprisoned. Compromise of the pure teachings of God’s Word, especially with the glaring errors of the Roman Church, had become politically feasible as interim settlements were being forced upon the German states. No longer was salvation by grace alone (sola gratia) and alone by faith in Christ (sola fide) to be heard from Lutheran pulpits and taught in the universities of Germany. Leading Lutheran theologians, who evidently felt themselves under the pressure of the period, looked about for compromise in order to alleviate strife and to maintain their comfortable positions. “They that are such,” writes the Apostle Paul, “serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own bellies,” Rom. 16:18.

Satan, the father of false doctrine and discord, indeed helped those false teachers (as he does to this day) to set forth a compromise of God’s Truth in such subtle terms so as to deceive the hearts of the simple and to beguile the fearful to find a way out of impending strife and bodily harm.

The most trusted and influential theologians on the faculty of the University of Wittenberg, some of Luther’s closest friends and associates, aligned themselves on the side of compromise–and much of their liberal teachings are found imbedded in the false doctrine which permeates the large Lutheran synodical bodies of today which, being influenced by numbers and earthly gain, no longer insist upon doctrine and practice which perfectly harmonizes with what God plainly sets forth in His Word.

The Reformed (Zwingli, Calvin, etc.) had always built their teachings on the shaky foundation of Scripture AND Human Reason or Scripture IN THE LIGHT OF Human Reason. In doing so, their false teachings appealed to the people especially in the areas of original sin, freedom of the human will, good works, the Lord’s Supper, Baptism, and the like. The Papistical System, leaning heavily on human wisdom and what they called “tradition,” and moved especially by monetary gain and earthly power, had developed an elaborate and bulky doctrine of good works meriting salvation. In order, therefore, to compromise with the Papists and to bring about a peaceful relationship with the Reformed, the Scriptural principle of salvation by grace alone had to be ignored and good works as being necessary for salvation had to be emphasized–but in such a way as to feign a Scriptural stance while following human reason. (What tremendous lessons we can learn from history as it continues to repeat itself in the days in which we live. What is more reasonable to natural man than, “Be good and do good and you’re going to get to heaven!” Our natural pride always wants to get credit for something whether this is in the form of doing something meritorious after we have become Christians or in the form of doing something which helps us initially to become Christians.)

Now, in the Doctrine of Good Works in the Life of a Christian (Sanctification in the Narrower Sense), the liberal and compromising Lutheran Theologians of the Wittenberg faculty became followers of the teachings of their colleague George Major and later Justus Menius who had been students of Melanchthon. Even while Luther was still living, Melanchthon had shown strong tendencies in this area where Major and Menius now boldly and vigorously propounded their false teachings. Their reasoning was simply this: If it is absolutely necessary for a Christian to do good works, it follows that no Christian gets to heaven without good works and that consequently good works are necessary to salvation. Their reasoning continued: Since evil works destroy faith, good works are necessary to preserve faith. Both men, Major and Menius (even though Menius strongly opposed the terminology of Major), tried to smooth over their false teaching by statements such as, “Yet we are not justified by love and good works, but by grace for Christ’s sake,” (Major) and “By faith in Christ alone we become just before God and are saved,” (Menius). Both men even encouraged others not to use such statements as, “Good works are necessary to salvation,” or “The new life or new obedience is necessary to salvation,” in order to “avoid misinterpretation.” Yet, they persisted in defending such terminology as not being contrary to Scripture. This resulted in what became known as the Majoristic Controversy which was finally settled, in the light of God’s Word, by genuine Lutheran pastors and theologians in Article IV of the Formula of Concord (Triglotta, p. 939 and Epitome, p. 797).

Notice carefully how Scripture teaches that the very opposite of the reasoning of Major and Menius (cited above) is true. A Christian performs good works as the fruit of his faith, out of love for Jesus his Savior. This fact has nothing to do with his salvation! Heaven is already his through Jesus’ blood and righteousness and his good works flow only from this fact. Even though, as James declares, “Faith without works is dead,” James 2:20, it does not follow that good works make faith alive. (A tree is not made alive by its fruits. Rather it bears fruit because it is alive. This is what St. James plainly teaches! So also, we breathe because we are alive; we are not alive because we breathe. We do things with our hands, feet, body and mind not in order to be alive BUT because we are alive!) The fruits of your faith have nothing to do with making you spiritually alive or with your eternal salvation. You who, by nature, were spiritually dead (“dead in trespasses and sins,” Eph. 2:1) were made spiritually alive when the Holy Ghost through the power of the Gospel worked saving faith in your heart. Now you are spiritually alive, not because of anything you have done or will do, but by God’s grace alone in Christ Jesus your Savior. Heaven is yours and you are an heir of salvation not by works of righteousness which you have done, Titus 3:5, but only through that faith which the Holy Ghost has worked in your heart and which trusts and believes, rejoices and finds comfort alone in Jesus who kept the holy Law of God perfectly in your stead and, as your Substitute, suffered the punishment of Hell, which you so richly deserve by your sins that through Him alone you might have the forgiveness of sins and the certain hope of life everlasting. It is such faith alone which makes you spiritually alive. That which you now do in your thoughts, desires, words and actions which flow from your faith in and love for Jesus does not make you have a living faith but bears witness to the fact that your faith is indeed already alive; nor do those things save you or have anything at all to do with your salvation. Rather, they show that salvation is already yours and that “your conversation (citizenship) is in heaven,” Phil. 3:20.

So the statements of Major, “No Christian can be saved without love and good works,” or “No Christian gets to heaven without good works,” must be rejected as absolutely false. To be clear on this, ask yourself, “Does a Christian get to heaven with or without good works?” and observe that the answer, in the light of God’s Word, must always be, “A Christian always gets to heaven without good works, only by God’s grace through faith in Christ–otherwise he wouldn’t get to heaven at all!” Good works must never be spoken of in connection with eternal salvation. There we must only speak of God’s grace and Christ’s work of redemption.

Now, the title of this article is “The Synergistic Controversy.” Synergism, like Majorism, also brings in the works of man as being necessary for salvation but the works which the synergists address involve man’s conversion rather than his life after he has become a Christian. The reasoning of synergism is this: Since those who are lost are eternally damned by their own fault so that God is not to blame but only themselves for rejecting God’s grace in Christ Jesus, those who are converted must at least be given some small credit toward their eternal salvation–perhaps a better attitude towards the Gospel than those who are lost. In this respect, synergism is evidently more subtle and dangerous than Majorism since it reduces man’s cooperation to a seemingly harmless minimum which the unsuspecting Christian might easily accept to his eternal destruction.

The word synergism comes from the Greek prefix “syn” which means “with” and the Greek word “ergasia” which means “work.” The term therefore means “with works” and implicates the elimination of the Scriptural teaching of “by grace alone” as far as our salvation is concerned. This controversy closely parallels the Majoristic Controversy both time-wise as well as in its destructive influence against the sola gratia. It involves basically the same Wittenberg theologians–many of whom were former friends and co-laborers with Luther prior to his death. The seeds of synergism were being sown even before Luther was called to his eternal rest and in 1548, two years after Luther died. Melanchthon openly taught and defended synergism. At this time, however, the genuine Lutheran pastors and theologians (Chemnitz, Selneccer, Andrae, Chytraeus, Musculus, Cornerus, Flacius, Amsdorf, and a host of others) were so engrossed with the Adiaphoristic and Majoristic controversies (in their preparation of the Formula of Concord under the wholehearted encouragement and financial support of Elector August of Saxony who with his wife was often on his knees in prayer, while the theologians were in conference, beseeching the Lord to enlighten them with His Holy Spirit) that the synergistic error caused small concern and was given little consideration. The Synergistic Controversy, therefore, did not begin until 1556 while Majorism was opposed already in 1548.

In their preparation of the Formula of Concord (over a period of 10 years) the loyal Lutherans endeavored to adhere strictly to what Luther had taught, in full harmony with Scripture, on conversion and salvation by God’s grace alone–in their opposition to the Synergists. The father of synergism was, of course, Melanchthon, who, even 15 years before the death of Luther, began to teach in the University of Wittenberg three concurring causes of conversion, namely, 1) the Holy Spirit, 2) the Word, and 3) the consenting will of man. (The first two causes are absolutely right; the last cause, # 3, is contrary to what the Bible plainly teaches and to what Luther also plainly taught.)

Here it is necessary to add a note about this man, Melanchthon. Who was he? What part did he play in the Reformation and in the period after Luther’s death? Philip Schwartzerd, later called Melanchthon, was born February 16, 1497, into a prominent and gifted family at Bretten, Germany. He was 14 years younger than Luther. When he was 11 years old, his father died and during the next years of his life he lived in the home of his maternal grandmother in the city of Phorzheim. Here he was taught the ancient languages by the famous humanist Simler and was greatly influenced by his great uncle, the celebrated Johann Reuchlin, also a humanist, who, as a compliment to his young, scholarly, great nephew, changed his name to Melanchthon. Melanchthon received his Bachelor’s degree in 1511 from Heidelberg University at the age of 14, and his Master of Arts degree at Tuebingen University in 1514 where, for the next four years, he did research, wrote, and taught. Luther’s most ardent desire for a good teacher of Greek at the University of Wittenberg was fulfilled beyond his highest expectations when Melanchthon, having been appointed by the Elector of Saxony through the influence of Reuchlin, became Professor of Greek and was solemnly inducted into his office at the Castle Church on August 29, 1518. He was 21 years old. In 1519, he received his Bachelor of the Bible degree and modestly refused every opportunity to become a Doctor of Theology. On November 20, 1520, he married Katharina Krapp, a daughter of the Wittenberg Burgomeister, who bore him two sons and two daughters–one son died at the age of two. As a classroom teacher, Melanchthon was outstandingly successful. The scope of his teaching was broadened so that besides the ancient languages of Greek, Hebrew, and Latin, he also taught philology, philosophy, ethics, history, mathematics, the natural sciences, jurisprudence, medicine, physics, astrology, grammar, dialectics, dogmatics, and the Bible. For many of these courses he prepared textbooks which were so highly regarded that they were still in use 300 years later. While Luther was teaching about 400 students, Melanchthon had about twice as many attending his lectures, and, when Melanchthon died in 1560 (April 19), his former students were active everywhere throughout Germany and the surrounding countries. He was known and highly respected as the “Teacher of Germany” (Praeceptor Germaniae). So closely associated was he with Luther that it was through Luther’s influence with the Elector that Melanchthon was required to teach theology as well as philosophy and was head of the Theological Faculty in Luther’s absence (at the Wartburg, 1521-22) and following Luther’s death in 1546. He was vitally helpful to Luther in his work of bringing external Christendom back to the Scriptures alone, and, throughout his life, continued to be Luther’s most highly respected friend and colleague.

During the early years of his work at Wittenberg, Melanchthon was perfectly agreed with Luther as to man’s inability to do anything in spiritual matters and that making a person a Christian is entirely the work of God alone in Christ Jesus, our Savior, through the Means of Grace–the Gospel and the Sacraments. His views to this effect are incorporated in the Augsburg Confession (which Melanchthon authored)–especially in Articles II, V, XVIII, and XIX. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1530s, Melanchthon’s errors in the Doctrine of Conversion were becoming more apparent both in the classroom and in his writings. However, during this period, until Luther’s death, he was sufficiently skillful in avoiding a direct confrontation with Luther–giving his false teaching as little emphasis or publicity as possible, even backtracking in order to retain a peaceful relationship with the Reformer.

After Luther died, Melanchthon came out plainly and publicly with his synergistic teachings , namely, that man is able to cooperate with God in his conversion–much like the synergists among the Romanists and protestant sects of today who credit man with the ability to do something toward his becoming a Christian, for example, who teach that a person is able to make his own decision for Christ. Such a teaching destroys salvation BY GOD’S GRACE ALONE and corrupts the Scriptural doctrine of Original Sin which teaches that no one, by his own reason or strength, is able to believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him. Here we must remember those Scripture texts which describe every person, as he is born into this world since the Fall of Adam, as being spiritually blind, dead, and an enemy of God, e.g. I Cor. 2:14; Eph. 2:1; Rom. 8:7, and which ascribe our conversion or regeneration to God alone, Jer. 31:18; Heb. 12:2; I Pet. 1:23; John 1:13.

NOTICE CAREFULLY: 1) Synergism is also a very prominent false teaching among those heterodox Lutherans who make a false distinction between “natural resistance” and “willful resistance,” saying that the Holy Ghost can indeed work faith in the hearts of those who only naturally resist while He cannot accomplish saving faith in the hearts of those who are guilty of willful resistance–thus making a difference in people by nature and crediting some with that which helps toward their conversion. 2) Synergism also plays a part in that false teaching which is prominent among heterodox Lutherans in the area of Predestination. It is known as the doctrine of Intuitu Fidei (in view of faith). This doctrine bases God’s eternal decree of predestination upon man’s believing, rather than on God’s grace alone for Christ’s sake. Furthermore, 3) synergism is also active among those heterodox Lutherans who deny objective justification and make a person’s faith the determining factor in the forgiveness of their sins, rather than God’s grace alone through Christ’s work of Redemption because of which the sins of all people are forgiven and all mankind is declared righteous. Such heterodox Lutherans follow right along in the footsteps of Melanchthon who, in his Loci of 1543 and especially in his later editions from 1548 on, never retreated from his synergistic position the remaining years of his life but rather gave it increasing emphasis.

By God’s strength, grace, and wisdom, the writers of the Formula of Concord were able successfully to combat and expose the false doctrine of Synergism in Article II, Concordia Triglotta, pages 881-915, Of Free Will, or Human Powers. The State of Controversy is stated succinctly both by thesis (setting forth the true doctrine) and antithesis (setting forth the opposing false doctrine) in the Epitome on pages 785ff (Triglotta). In the three closing paragraphs of the Epitome, we find these words, “In conversion God, through the drawing of the Holy Ghost, makes out of stubborn and unwilling men willing ones,” and that “man’s will in his conversion is pure passive, that is, that it does nothing whatever.” “Therefore, before the conversion of man there are only two efficient causes, namely, the Holy Ghost and the Word of God, as the instrument of the Holy Ghost, by which He works conversion. This Word man is indeed to hear; however, it is not by his own powers, but only through the grace and working of the Holy Ghost that he can yield faith to it and accept it.” These statements are substantiated by clear Scripture texts in that section of the Epitome, entitled AFFIRMATIVA (Triglotta, p. 787).