David Powlison Explains How Sanctification Works

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This past Sunday, like every Sunday, thousands of Christians in churches around the globe sang the familiar words, “Oh that day when free from sinning, I shall see thy lovely face.” Many of us so wish we could snap our fingers and instantly be transformed into Christlikeness. But while justification happens in an instant, sanctification is a long, winding process. God moves our hearts gradually toward loving what he loves and living how he would have us live.

Over the years David Powlison—TGC Council member and executive director of the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation (CCEF)—has helped many struggling believers identify how the Spirit helps them to put off sin and put on Christlikeness. 

I corresponded with Powlison about his new book, How Does Sanctification Work? (Crossway, 2017). The slender volume is filled with scriptural wisdom matched with personal experience. 


You describe how ministry “unbalances” truth while theology “balances” it. How do you carefully help a brother or sister who knows little theology and so is easily tipped out of balance?

Let’s consider the opposite end of this question—how do we think about someone operating with just a sliver of God’s rich truth? God is merciful. He works with what we’ve got—and then builds us, grows us, enriches us.

How do you build upon a sliver of truth? Could this person be misapplying that truth? Is the truth they know inadequate for their current struggle? Do we correct their misunderstanding?

Consider this example. Someone has experienced a terrible betrayal—they’ve been seriously wronged and sinned against. The piece of truth they know is that Jesus died for us and for our sins. You can see right on the surface that this sliver of truth—which is absolutely fundamental to salvation—is not exactly what this person needs in her current struggle.

The best response is a compassionate, “Yes, and . . .” You might say, “Yes, Jesus died for your sins. God accepts you. You’re his. You belong to him.” Then, open the door to another meaningful aspect of truth. “And he is a refuge in your affliction. He binds up the brokenhearted. He doesn’t treat our suffering lightly. He’s a very present help in trouble. Let’s look together at how that works out.”

One of the beauties of our faith is that all truths are interconnected. Because of this, we can affirm the truth a person knows, regardless of the level of knowledge or ignorance. Then we can work to enrich our brother or sister with further wisdom.

You list multiple meanings of the cross. How do you know which of these to emphasize with different individuals?

Here are three primary meanings of the cross:

  1. The Lamb of God bearing our sins.
  2. The defeat of dark powers.
  3. The pattern for how we are to live.

Each meaning does something different.

That first meaning is the one we mention most often. We’re forgiven because Jesus died in our place. But consider also the significance of how Christ’s cross overcomes the power of darkness. I have friends in an urban, largely Hispanic, multicutural church. They trust Christ’s death for our sins as the foundation of their faith. But they’re also really comforted that he overcame darkness. They live in a dark world. They witness crime, neighbors being killed, drug addiction, violence, and threats—they live with real fears. The reality that Christ has defeated the powers of darkness touches their need and gives courage and hope.

We’re forgiven and beloved through the cross. We’re then called to walk in the way of the cross, forgiving and loving others.

And consider how the cross reveals the Christian life’s pattern. Christ’s self-sacrifice is embodied in us. To follow Jesus is to say “no” to our instinctive self-absorption, to be willing to suffer while trusting God and loving others, and to gain a new life purpose (Luke 9:23). So you forgive as God in Christ forgave you. You walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us (Eph. 4:32; 5:2). We’re forgiven and beloved through the cross. We’re then called to walk in the way of the cross, forgiving and loving others.

“We serve a King who makes no two snowflakes alike,” you write. “It would be most odd if he said the exact same thing to change every one of us.” Can you explain what you mean, especially since God has written an unchanging Bible to us all?

The Bible is fascinating because it’s a Word given once-for-all to specific people who lived several thousand years ago, and yet it becomes timely and personal to each of us today. This unchanging Bible contains many places where we’re invited to insert our lives’ particulars into the teaching.

The Bible is fascinating because it’s a Word given once-for-all to specific people who lived several thousand years ago, and yet it becomes timely and personal to each of us today.

For example, James says, “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (Jas. 1:3). What difficulties are you facing? Whether you face rejection from a friend, a cancer diagnosis, or huge work pressures, this verse in James can contour the details of your life. This unchanging Word is designed to give you touch points.

Or consider this: Jesus said you serve either God or money (Matt. 6:24). This single command applies to every single human being, whether you’re facing starvation in South Sudan or living in a coastal mansion with a yacht. You’ll either serve God or money. “Serving money” can take a thousand different forms. When you understand how Scripture works, you realize that it’s designed to invite us exactly as we are to come into relationship with God.

You write of how the Lord met your friends Charles and Charlotte through his ​Word—two individuals struggling, respectively, with betrayal and fear. How does sanctification work when there are further complicating factors such as a traumatic brain injury, Alzheimer’s, or brutal harm repeatedly done to a person?

Charles and Charlotte experienced what I call a “low-temperature affliction,” which involved feelings of betrayal (for him) and social discomfort (for her). They could tell me what was going on. But when people experience severe brain complications, it might be impossible to access what’s going on inside. For example, my mom died a slow death over three years from vascular dementia. She couldn’t tell me about her struggles or her relationship with Jesus, like Charles or Charlotte could. But I could see evidence of the Lord’s work in her heart when her eyes would brighten and she would give me a look affirming my offer to pray and sing a hymn with her.

It can be intimidating to minister to people with psychiatric disorders, but we must remember there’s always a person inside. This person is still a person, so we can always do ministry. Cases of extreme suffering tend to slow down and simplify ministry. They call for patience and repetition. But severe complicating factors don’t nullify the need for ministry or the power of God to work in ways beyond our perception.

You mention the Lord has used struggles with health to sanctify you. What have you seen of Jesus that you wouldn’t have seen without those struggles?

My conversion had been about my sin—it was similar to the conversion of the tax collector in Luke 18:13. I cried out to God for mercy because of my sinfulness.

Suffering prompted a different cry of the heart. When I came out of open-heart surgery, I experienced pain to a degree that completely changed my answer when a doctor asks, “On a scale of 1 to 10, rate your pain.” My need for God’s presence was primal: “Lord, you say you are a very present help in trouble. This is trouble. Help.” We come to know God by needing him. We need his forgiveness. We also need his protection. We also need his strength. We also need his hope. Some of the mercies we need we only discover in affliction.

We come to know God by needing him. . . . Some of the mercies we need we only discover in affliction.

Suffering also changed my understanding of “the gospel.” Previously, I saw it to be largely about how God deals mercifully with sinners. He forgives us, accepts us, transforms us, is patient with us. But going through physical suffering added a whole new dimension to my understanding of the good news. Christ also deals mercifully with sufferers. He is my “refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble” (Ps. 46:1). 

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