Book Review: How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison
David Powlison, How Does Sanctification Work?. Crossway, 2017. 128 pps, $9.99.
As she glanced at the title that I was reading over breakfast, the busy mom whose life overflows with needy people asked, “Yes, how does sanctification work? That’s the question we’ve all been wondering.”
It would be difficult to imagine a more pressing question for Christians, which is also more open to misunderstanding and confusion.
WHERE CHRISTIANS OFTEN GO WRONG
In his book How Does Sanctification Work? David Powilson, experienced counselor and professor, explains the process of sanctification using clear, simple, and vivid biblical wisdom. His main concern is the confusion believers experience when the advice “just remember your justification” is offered as the sole principle for advancing our sanctification.
The problem with this oversimplification is twofold.
First, it’s a theological error to elevate justification to a status that Scripture never affords it. Powlison explains that sanctification is not essentially remembering justification (though calling to mind this truth is certainly helpful). Justification is crucial. But when we run everything through its grid, we find it doesn’t all fit. This leads to discouragement and burnout. We fail to do justice to the manifold grace of God and the multi-dimensional needs of his people. We also undermine the goodness of God’s law, which describes a life liberated from sin and free to love God and others.
Second, what we need isn’t so much a position statement on sanctification but a rich—some would say “thick”—description of what the process entails. Powlison believes the process follows a definite Trinitarian pattern: (1) God must initiate our reconciliation with him, (2) salvation comes through the redeeming work of Christ, and (3) the Holy Spirit changes our nature. But Powlison also describes Scripture’s nearly endless flexibility concerning how this pattern is realized. All ministry to real people requires accentuating some truths above others to meet the need of the moment. While theology aims to balance truth for a total picture, the nitty-gritty of people’s lives necessitates unbalancing truth for the sake of application.
Powlison’s book explains how this process of application contributes to greater sanctification. It addresses questions such as: Where do we often get stuck? Why do we go up and down? How does Scripture function in the human heart? How do we connect with God? What’s the dynamic by which God works and we work? But it offers no boilerplate, one-size-fits-all answers. The biblical truths he discusses are inhabited by real people in real situations.
Consider Powlison’s description of sanctification:
To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened. . . . You know God. You love God. How other people are doing matters increasingly to you. Becoming more holy . . . means you are becoming a wiser human being. You are learning how to deal with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality. You are learning to pray honestly, bring who God really is into the reality of human need. . . . It means you live in more clear-minded hope. You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.
There’s nothing particularly novel in this description, and by Powlison’s own admission, he isn’t trying to break new theological ground. Rather, he’s trying to add personal nuance, color, and dimension to an area that’s too often studied only in abstraction. If sanctification is about change, then it’s about real life. Therefore, to expound on the subject one needs an intimate knowledge of human experience. This is where Powlison shines: he understands people.
What grips me in the paragraph quoted above is the number of concrete expressions of sanctification over such a variety of life experiences. Powlison caused me to feel the realness of my sanctification (or lack thereof) in the concrete particulars of my life. When I read the sentence about “clear-minded hope,” I can’t help but contrast that with my vague confidence that God is sovereign, which is not as helpful as I feel it should be. I also couldn’t help thinking about what other specific categories for sanctification could reveal more unique ways that I need to change.
In Chapter 4, Powlison lists nine categories of situations in which the Redeemer could work through a single spiritual truth from Romans 8. But then he reminds the reader that it’s people who are sanctified, not categories. He ends the book with the stories of two people—Charles and Charlotte—as well as his own spiritual autobiography. These sections are critical, for they demonstrate that this theology of sanctification works in real life.
THE SIMPLICITY ON THE OTHER SIDE OF COMPLEXITY
For a book this nuanced, you’d think we’re talking about a lengthy tome. But Powlison’s work is only 112 pages. Moreover, its brevity contributes to the argument. Powlison writes: “Human beings do well with simple. We do poorly with complicated. And we do poorly with simplistic.” He avoids a simplistic “just ________” approach by reminding us that God works through multiple means and none of them will be easy. He avoids too much complexity by bringing the reader again and again back to the central truth that sanctification is about connecting with the person of Christ through his grace and by his Spirit. It’s as simple as the book’s final words: “We are one in Christ. We are headed home. We will see his face. And all will be made well.”
Powlison hasn’t given us the last word on sanctification. Instead, he’s demonstrated that such a word doesn’t exist, because—as he explains—we can no more see the end of the book on sanctification than we can record all the acts Jesus performed (John 21:25). After all, isn’t sanctification the working out of the Savior’s life in the complicated particulars of our lives?
It’s possible some won’t benefit from this work as much as they should because they’ll be looking for something that wasn’t intended to be found. But we all need what Powlison has offered. We search in vain for a tidy system of sanctification, yet on every page of this short book we witness the process unfold.