How Does Sanctification Work? (Book Review)

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To try and succinctly describe what it means to live the Christian life in a few words is an impossible task. It’s nearly just as impossible in only one hundred words. Most people would struggle to do so, in all reality, in only one hundred pages. That’s because Christian growth is a tricky thing — its complexity transcends our ability to compartmentalize. We instead live a life trying to figure it out, and most of us die in the process of arriving at an answer. It’s no wonder that Walter Marshall called the doctrine of sanctification a “gospel mystery.” We know it’s good news, after all. We know much about it from God’s Word. But to know it in this life is another thing. Perhaps that is partly what Paul meant when he lamented seeing through the mirror dimly (1 Cor 13:12). I know it’s often how I feel. That’s why I’m grateful for David Powlison’s honesty when it comes to Christian growth:

“Scripture portrays the transformation of our lives in a range of colors and shades. There are reds, yellows, and blues—with 16.8 million shades in between. So any monochromatic view of sanctification is like saying, “You are changed by the color red.” For some Christians, some of the time, amid some life struggles, to remember the color red—justification by Christ’s death, adoption as God’s child, the forgiveness of sins—proves pivotal. For other Christians, at other times, facing other specific struggles, other colors prove pivotal. (27)

Powlison’s question is simple, yet complex: “How do we explain the dynamics of sanctification?” “And how does someone do it only a hundred pages!” I thought to myself. Thankfully, How Does Sanctification Work? is one of the most brilliant attempts at answering that question. It’s not a book of fluff, telling us what we’ve already known and heard for much of our Christian life and experience. It engages with orthodoxy and orthopraxy in a way few books are able to do so. This is standard quality for Powlison, of course, an extremely gifted writer, scholar, and Executive Director of CCEF.

In How Does Sanctification Work?, Powlison argues that “Jesus finds each one of us in our particulars,” (15) that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to Christian transformation. So, he chronicles much of his own experience, showing how components of it are both objective and subjective. But despite the clear complexity Powlison finds in the process of Christian sanctification, he also argues that there is a simplicity to it all. “The truly simple,” Powlison writes, “account for all complexities…Simple words probe and account for every complexity. That is the sort of generalization that serves us well. It is not reductionistic. It is not vague. It does useful work in helping us understand ourselves and each other.” (62) Powlison goes on to present five factors, all interrelated, working together to help us become sanctified followers of Christ:

  • God Changes You
  • Truth Changes You
  • Wise People Change You
  • Suffering and Struggle Change You
  • You Change

To put flesh on the systematic and practical theology Powlison unpacks in the first portion of the book, he goes on to tell his story, and two other “case studies.” He invites us in to witness God’s work of sanctification in real-time with multiple people. As Powlison ends up concluding, we are not summiting the mountaintop of sanctification as much when we’re feeling happy and confident in Christ, but more so when we’re using our sanctification to help others walk the journey, when we become people “sobered by the human condition and willing to help.” (110)

This book, despite its size, manages to speak with great depth and intensity about a most significant doctrine that’s often mysterious, even confusing, to us. It is biblically refreshing, and full of insight for daily life. I’m glad to have a new primary resource on the doctrine of sanctification for teaching, groups, and my own heart. Every Christian can and should take some time to learn from Dr. Powlison and this important book.

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