Synergism & Prayer: Ne’er the Twain Shall Meet

In his brevery, “Minister’s Prayer Book,” John W. Doberstein writes that “The difference that separates [Lutherans and Roman Catholics] is that all Roman Catholic meditation rests upon the dogmatic assumption of synergism. For the Catholic, meditation and spiritual exercises are self-preparation for the reception of spiritual graces.” (p. XII)  He goes on to say that, “By employing the whole mechanical and psychological apparatus of exercises he seeks to call down divine grace. This the Evangelical must reject.” (p. XII-XIII)

Now I love Doberstein’s Minister’s Prayer Book. Despite CPH’s wonderful Treasury of Daily Prayer, which I find absolutely perfect for congregational Offices and Family Prayer, Doberstein is fast becoming my choice for my own prayers at the hours of prayer. So my comments here do not take away from Doberstein’s work; it is a great work.  But I can’t help but wonder if Doberstein hasn’t misapplied the distinctions of synergism, justification, and the life of the Christian (ie, prayer).

It is true and must be maintained that synergism in all it’s forms and types must wholly be rejected.  But synergism refers to the dogma that man is capable in some small way to prepare himself to receive salvation from God.  Synergism is to justification by grace alone, what salt water is to an iron ship.  It erodes it, eats it away, and ultimately only a shell of the iron ship remains, weak and useless.  The opposite of synergism is monergism, the doctrine that God alone affects faith and salvation in man through His Word and Spirit.  This is the orthodox faith. Yet our Lord said, “Seek and you will find; ask and it shall be given; knock and the door will be opened.”  Was Jesus teaching synergism?  Of course not.  He was teaching prayer.  Prayer is to synergism what tea time is to being born.  No one can will themselves to be born, but once born anyone can enjoy tea time.  No one can will their salvation (in part or in whole), but once saved anyone can pray.

Faith comes and goes, it fades and brightens.  If this were not so why does our Lord and His apostles constantly encourage us to strengthen one another and pray for one another.  Oops, there it is: we are to pray for the salvation for other people and that they remain in the faith.  Do our prayers cause the salvation of others?  Did Jesus’ High Priestly prayer cause my salvation as He prayed for me?  I’m not going to answer that, but our Lord said to Peter, “I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail” (Lk. 22:31), and St. Paul says to the Corinthians, “Your restoration is what we pray for” (2 Cor. 9:14), and St. John writes, “If anyone sees his brother committing a sin not leading to death, he shall ask, and God will give him life” (1 Jn. 5:16).

What I am going to do is explore what I think is Doberstein’s (and most Lutheran’s) mistake when teaching on prayer.  His mistake is not about the evils of synergism or the propriety of monergism.  His mistake is in comparing Roman Catholic dogma of preparations for grace through prayer with grace alone.

If Rome teaches that man can position himself to be favorable to divine favor before faith, then Rome is anathema.  No one can please God except through faith.  And faith is a gift of God.  Synergism is out.  But this has nothing to do with prayer. Prayer is post salvation.  Prayer is post faith, done in faith; all prayer.  Even the weak prayer of the father whose boy was ill and dying, “Lord, heal my boy, if you can!” was a prayer of faith so that when rebuked by Jesus for the “if you can,” he prays, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!” (Mk. 9).  The man had faith, else he would not have prayed to begin with, yet still he prayed for faith.  If we could give a time-line of salvation (a dangerous proposition, to be sure, but and effective one), faith would precede prayer.  Prayer is not given to the unbeliever but to the believer.  This is most evident in that all prayer – table, liturgical, formal, or ex corde – is in Jesus’ name, a name given only to the elect and not given to the unbeliever.  Prayer is done by the communion of saints in the community of which Jesus is the Head, which is why the chief prayer of the community is the “Our Father”.  We never pray as unbelievers, but always as believers, those of faith.  Even if our faith is weak or unnoticeable, to call upon God in Jesus’ name is to have faith.

Consider our Lord’s parable of the persistent widow.  The widow bugged the judge until he gave in. This, our Lord says, is how we are to pray: without ever giving up, believing that our heavenly Father hears and answers our prayers.  So also, what of the faith of the friends of the parapalegic whom Christ healed?  Their prayer was in faith for their friend, and the Lord heard and answered and the friend was benefited by the faith of his friends.  It seems that the Gospels, indeed, the whole Bible, is filled with examples of the faithful calling upon God to give deliverance, mercy, faith, grace, hope, strength, and all good things to them.  None of this is synergistic.

Doberstein writes, “The theological foundation of evangelical meditation must be free of all synergistic and Pelaginaistic concepts. It rejects any mysticism that puts the initiative with the worshiper.  Man cannot by searching find out God. Prayer is turning to the Word of God.” (p. XIV)  Yes! Doberstein is right, if the prayer being prayed is not one of faith in Christ but one of man’s own desire to come into communion with some divine essence other than with the revealed God in Jesus. But we don’t go around to unbelievers saying, “Pray to God for faith and you will get it.”  Instead we pray for them and when (and if) they come to faith, they join in our prayers.

When our Lord says, “Seek and you will find, ask and it shall be given, knock and the door will be opened” He is not teaching synergism.  Those who have no faith will not seek. Those who do not believe will not ask (James says the same thing).  Those who do not believe will not knock.  Jesus’ words are for the community of saints (they come in the Sermon on the Mount – Matt. – and on the Plain – Luke).  But those who have faith will seek the kingdom of God and His righteousness.  Those who have faith will call upon the name of the Lord to be saved from their enemies. Those who have faith will pray that the Lord not take His Holy Spirit from them, but restore unto them the joy of salvation.

Doberstein is right to condemn synergism.  But perhaps finding synergism in prayer and meditation is a straw man.  It is true that many, many Christians (not just Romans, but even many Lutherans) think that God answers prayer because of their preparations and spirituality, and they need to be taught otherwise.  God answers prayer because of faith (ie, all the “your faith has made you well” statements by Jesus).  And all true prayers are offered in faith since the one who asks without faith receives nothing (James).  Our prayers do affect God since the prayers of a righteous man availeth much (yes, Christ is the righteous man, but that’s not the context of James).  Doberstein rightly says that “Evangelical meditation is founded upon obedience and faith” (p. XV – XVI). But we are never obedient without faith, and faith is never disobedient.  Our prayer, the prayers of the Church – which include individual petitions, since we are all one Body – have nothing to do with justification by grace alone but with the promise of God that He hears our prayers offered in the name of His Son, Jesus.

We need to teach the people of God that their faith begets prayer and that prayer is for faith.  My faith depends upon God’s mercy.  But since I believe, then I will pray for God’s mercy.



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