How Does Sanctification Work?

Written by David Powlison Reviewed By Dallas Pitts

The doctrine of sanctification has foundational importance in the Christian faith. It is the way Christians speak of being conformed to the image of Christ by God’s grace. This book by well-known biblical counselor and CCEF executive director David Powlison packs a considerable explanatory punch in a brief number of pages. Powlison weaves “stories and interpretation” as an explanatory framework for many chapters in this book, reminding the reader that each person has a story of their own, and God speaks his Word into their story. He aims to show the progressive nature sanctification as God’s kingdom wins out in the world by transformation in the hearts of believers.

In his teaching on sanctification, Powlison gives case studies from his own life and the lives of others, unpacks theological truths and promises, and applies biblical truth to everyday life. He illustrates how real Christians relate real promises from Scripture in situations that have caused distress of various kinds, depression, and insecurities. Powlison offers no quick fixes or a “distilled formula” for how God works in the believer’s life. This is a strength of the book. There is no one way sanctification works out in each life, only that God’s grace is at work in each believer’s story no matter how similar or different they may be.

The eleven chapters combine sound theological reflection on sanctification with real-life examples of God’s work in sanctification. The first six chapters, which give some autobiographical sketches of God’s sanctifying power in Powlison’s own life, offer a general framework for thinking about sanctification both theologically and personally. Chapter one makes it clear that there are not “one-size-fits all messages telling me how I can grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (p. 20). Chapter two brings an important question to the readers’ mind, which also serves of the chapter title, “is there one key to sanctification?” In brief, his answer is “no.” Powlison warns of messages that promote one key ingredient to successful progress on the road of sanctification. However, he promotes a timely word from the Lord in Scripture, with specific application to one’s situation.

In chapter three Powlison gives his reader a working premise of applying God’s word: “Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness” (p. 33). In other words, one cannot speak every theological truth in the moment of ministry, but upon reflection afterward, one’s theology can bring balance to the overall picture of the needs of the situation. Powlison does not claim this insight comes from him but uses it as a foundation for telling stories that illustrate this point. Chapter four brings the explicit commands of God to love him and others to bear on the believer, and that these commands are not just moral obligations but they are good for the believer and promote sanctification. Chapters five and six discuss the need to remember our justification and how it relates to our sanctification, as well as thinking deeply about what really changes us in. Powlison does well to warn his readers of making generalizations about sanctification. Instead he invites them to speak or hear or remember a timely word of God’s acceptance by the justifying work of Christ. Chapter 6 expands upon another question: “What really changes you?” He again is quick to point out that there is not one simple formula for sanctification, but sanctification can be defined better by patterns in the believer’s life. It is here that Powlison introduces five factors that influence godly change in one’s life: “God, Scripture, other people, life circumstances, and the human heart” (p. 63). The author focuses considerable attention on God, who is the decisive agent of change, and then he addresses the other four factors that one experiences as sanctifying variables.

Chapters seven through ten are half autobiographical, showing how the process of sanctification has played out in the author’s story, and the other half accounts for the work of God in specific examples in the lives of others. This last half of the book is critical for Powlison’s understanding of sanctification, namely that there is not one way, one message, or one doctrine that is central to sanctification; rather, biblical sanctification accounts for all of the variables mentioned above.

In the final chapter, Powlison considers “the meaning of sanctification, which is Christ’s working purpose on our journey” (p. 105). He calls his readers further to think on their relationship with God and others as sanctifying influences. His two sections on faith and love in this chapter rightly make the claim that one must have true, reliant faith in God, and that sanctified love must be more than “moral self-improvement”; love must be godly hope brought to others.

This little book is deeply insightful and uses real life cases to make theological points, driving the reader to the theological relevance of Scripture and human experience for sanctification.

Dallas Pitts

Dallas Pitts
Bethlehem College & Seminary
Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA

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