How Does Sanctification Work?

May 30, 2016

David Powlison (CCEF)

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David Powlison (CCEF)

BCC Staff: This post—and our next post this week—have been submitted by Dr. David Powlison, one of the presenters for Biblical Counseling Coalition’s Global Summit, June 5-7, 2016. To hear more of David’s insights on biblical counseling’s potential to touch the hearts of people around the world, consider joining us for the Summit. You can do so either onsite in the suburbs of Chicago or online. Contact us today to register!

When the risen Jesus gave final instructions to his disciples, he commissioned them to make more disciples (Matt 28:18–20). In other words, they were to serve the processes of sanctification: the birth and growth of new people with a new way of life. Perhaps describing his ministry goal as sanctification sounds surprising. We often hear Jesus’ words as a call for personal evangelism, church planting, and world missions, with conversion as the desired result. But conversion is the birth that leads to a lifetime of growing up into Jesus’ image.  Sanctification is discipleship into his way of life.

This post—and the next one—drill down into key aspects of how growth in grace actually works, and thus how ministry works to promote growth. I will alternate between personal stories and exposition. The Bible weds stories and interpretation, and I hope that my attempt to do likewise will prove helpful.

Both Scripture and personal testimony teach us that there is no single formula for the kinds of problems that call for sanctification. There is no single formula for the kinds of change that sanctification produces. There is no single formula for the truths and other factors that produce change. Multiple stories help, because they make you realize that not everyone is like you. Are there common denominators? Yes. But to become a general rule, the underlying patterns must be of the sort that adapt well and flexibly to a multiplicity of cases. I will seek to do justice to both the variety and the commonality.

This article does not arise in a vacuum. The backdrop is a popular view that teaches that Christian growth is essentially and continually a matter of digging more deeply into how God forgives and accepts us: You are sanctified by remembering and believing afresh that you are justified by what Jesus did on the cross for you. Is that true? I think the Bible’s answer to this pastoral and practical question is straightforward: sometimes Yes, often No. For some Christians, some of the time, amid some life struggles, to remember justification by Christ’s death proves pivotal. For other Christians, at other times, facing other specific struggles, other themes from Scripture prove pivotal.[1]

What is the motivation for sanctification?

How do we explain the dynamics of sanctification? That has been controversial through all Christian history. But I’ve noticed that most discussions do not reckon adequately with how practical theology operates—both in the Bible (which is practical theology in action) and in people’s stories. How do people actually change? How does ministry actually effect change?

When the debate is framed in formal theological terms, all Christians agree in broad strokes. Three things precede any process of progressive transformation.

  • God must reconcile our fatally broken relationship with him.
  • Jesus Christ must accomplish his redeeming work for us.
  • The Holy Spirit must change our sinful human nature.[2]

Yes, and amen. No one disagrees, because such generalizations are the rudiments of Christian faith.[3] But the burning question remains: how are disciples made? This cannot be answered in broad strokes of theological formulation. It is a practical theology question, a ministry question, a life-lived question. Could the sole key to sanctification be to continually revisit how our broken relationship with God was reconciled by the work of Jesus? A vast Bible, centuries of pastoral experience, and innumerable testimonies bear joint witness that there is a lot more to it. When practical and pastoral implications are deduced from a sweeping theological generalization, and then buttressed with a single-stranded personal testimony, important things are swept under the table.

How then can we think about progressive sanctification in a way that generates ministry traction? Here is my core premise: Ministry “unbalances” truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness.[4] The first half of that premise might sound odd, but this is what it means. The task in any ministry moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations. You can’t say everything all at once—and you shouldn’t try. Say one relevant thing at a time. When Jesus talks with people, he is astonishingly concrete, direct, and specific. By saying one thing, not everything, he is always challenging, always life-rearranging, always nourishing to those who are listening.

Practical ministry focuses on one truth out of many for the sake of relevance. But the second half of the core premise is equally important. The task of theological reflection is to abstract, generalize, and “rebalance” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness. Balance protects us from exaggerating, ignoring, or overgeneralizing. Part of why “sanctification by revisiting justification” cannot be the entire truth is because every Christian doctrine and every part of the story also matters. In order to actually minister to people, you need wise selectivity, while bearing in mind the fullest possible repertoire of options from which to choose. You do not build a house with only one tool in your toolbox when God gives us a truck-load of tools. But you do use your tools one at a time, the right tool for the right job.

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We will continue this exploration in the next BCC post. For now, though, what themes of Scripture have you found profitable in counseling others?


[1] This particular teaching is my immediate case study, but my larger intention is to address any and all forms of reductionism.

[2] Of course, Christians significantly differ over how the details work! How do we rightly and helpfully express the categories, priorities, ordering, emphases, wording, and definitions? I have my views, but for the purposes of this article, it is enough to assert the areas of broad agreement.

[3] Similarly, everyone also agrees—in broad strokes—that three kinds of things will culminate the process of transformation. Jesus Christ finishes his work by returning as King; our relationship with God becomes face-to-face; our human nature is perfected in love. What God began, he finishes. Progressive sanctification is about how we live in between God’s laying the cornerstone and setting the capstone.

[4] I am indebted to Rev. James Petty for this way of putting it.