How Does Sanctification Work? (Part 2)

June 1, 2016

David Powlison (CCEF)

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David Powlison (CCEF)

BCC Staff: In our last post, David Powlison began an exploration of how God brings about change in the lives of his people. Although it is tempting to generalize from one theme of Scripture or from one’s own experiences, David has raised important questions about the legitimacy of doing this. Today, he continues his exploration.


Be careful how you generalize about sanctification

In the past week, on one day my wife and I were surprised by gifts of sheer promise. The Spirit’s sanctifying word came as a pungently evocative Old Testament metaphor as a gift of grace feeding faith. The obedience that followed arose spontaneously, uncalled for within the passage itself. On other days the Spirit’s sanctifying word came as I intentionally pondered a command. I fed on imperatives. This apostolic word called me to the energetic obedience of faith and the energetic obedience of love—premised on, dependent on, and seeking the grace, mercy, and peace of God and Christ. The work of Christ on the cross—so foundational theologically—was entirely implicit throughout this week, neither mentioned in these Scriptures, nor consciously pondered. It was not absent—the foundation of a house is always foundational. When there are cracks in the foundation, when the house is sagging, you work directly on the foundation. But other times you simply live in a well-furnished house.

My stories provide several core samples of the pastoral application of Scripture unto sanctification. But what if I attempted to draw theological conclusions from my experience? In the first case, I might conclude and teach, “All we need are the wide-ranging promises of God. Simply believe in God’s initiating and intervening care. The struggle in the Christian life is to remember that God watches over those he loves.” But if I formed my theology from the second case, I might conclude and teach, “God’s grace lays the foundation once for all. Now we must focus all our efforts on loving God and neighbor. We need to think hard, plan well, and make every effort to discipline ourselves in practical obedience.” In either case, I would have extrapolated a plausible but faulty generalization from an experience that had been personally significant. But neither of these generalizations addresses someone who needs to know how Christ reproves a high-handed evildoer; or a person in anguish, who needs to know that God is a safe place; or those who are weary, and need to trust that one day this struggle with sin and sorrow will end and all things will be made new.

God meets us with what we need—whatever that is

As I reflect back over decades, I have never been particularly changed by consciously trying to remind myself of the doctrines of justification or adoption. Those doctrines have not been in the spotlight of sanctification moments. But I know many Christians—including my wife—for whom the process of learning and relearning these truths has had, and continues to have, a crucial, life-rearranging significance. This is how it should be. We serve a King who makes no two snowflakes alike, and his thoughts regarding each individual are more numerous than snowflakes in a blizzard. It would be most odd if he said the exact same thing to change every one of us. It would contradict who he is and who we are.

Why has conscious revisiting of justification and adoption played a relatively minor role in my Christian life? It is no doubt significant that I was dramatically converted in my mid-20s as a godless, anti-Christian adult. One effect has been that God’s merciful love has been a core operating assumption from the inception of my Christian life. For reasons intrinsic to my particular story, I have never doubted that I am saved from outside myself. I have simply known that God freely chooses to call us from the kingdom of death into the kingdom of life. All of the foundational saving realities have been more an assumed given than an explicit acquisition.

Not everyone is like me.

It is perhaps not surprising that I have not struggled with trying to prove myself to him by my efforts, diligence, and achievements. The conscious drama, effort, and struggle of my sanctification has most often turned on other issues. Here are two crucibles of my sanctification.

First, I identify with the indifference, laziness, and self-centeredness of the current “Whatever” generation, having been well-nurtured in the 1960’s version of those sins. I have had to learn to value caring for others and working to accomplish goals. I have never needed deliverance from obsessive striving after relationships and achievement. Instead, the Holy Spirit set out to teach me to value relationships and achievement.

Second, I identify with the discouragement and anxiety of people who suffer, who experience life’s fragility and threats. As a young adult, several encounters with death and dying played a profound role in my eventual conversion to Christian faith. And from middle-age on, God has used chronic health problems to teach me to trust God when I am weak. Christ’s sympathetic entry into our experience of weakness—yet another aspect of his suffering and death operating simultaneously with the work of atonement (Hebrews 4:14–5:9)—has played a significant role in my sanctification. No surprise, Paul’s story in 2 Corinthians 12 and many psalms have repeatedly contributed to my growth in grace.

But I can also understand how people whose sinful tendencies default to achievement, performance, and control are prone either to self-righteousness or to depression. For them, the struggle to grasp the significance of justification by Jesus’ performance may frequently come front and center. I hope they can understand those of us whose sinful tendencies default to other forms of fallenness—and for whom other truths of Scripture have greater impact.

Here’s the takeaway. I dare not extrapolate my exact experience of God’s mercies to everyone else. Similarly, those who have had their Christian life revolutionized by awakening to the significance of justification by faith dare not extrapolate that to everyone else. One pattern of Christ’s working (even a pattern common to many people) should not overshadow all the other patterns. A rightly “unbalanced” message is fresh, refreshing, joyous, full of song, life-transforming. But eventually, if it is oversold, it becomes a one-string harp, played by one finger, sounding one note. It drones. Scripture and the Holy Spirit play a 47-string concert harp, using all ten fingers, and sounding all the notes of human experience. Wise ministry, like growth in wisdom, means learning to play on all the strings, not harping on one note.

I am certain that those who teach “sanctification by revisiting justification” have heard that message as a new and joyous song that sanctifies them. May Jesus Christ be praised! But let’s not forget to learn all the other sweet and joyous songs. And let’s learn the darker notes of lamentation and the blues. Let’s learn the call to action in work songs and marching music. And let’s learn everything else that comports with and nourishes life in Christ.

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