Review of David Powlison’s “How Does Sanctification Work?”

July 25, 2017

At its core, biblical counseling is based upon rather simple assumptions. Our faithful words consistently revolve around sin and grace and redemption and restoration. We never walk so far down any path that we cannot look back over our shoulder and see with great clarity the finished work of Christ and its implications for the problem at hand.

While biblical counseling may be simple, it is not simplistic. Unlike Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, The Internal Family Systems Model, and other counseling approaches, biblical counseling cannot be diminished into a reductionistic methodology. It is against this idea that sanctification is a formulaic one-size-fits-all affair, that David Powlison writes his new book, How Does Sanctification Work?

No Silver Bullets

The quest for silver bullets is part of our common human experience. It is no different for Christians. “We are all tempted to oversimplify. We long for one ‘key’ truth, a ‘secret’ principle, the foolproof technique, some life-changing experience that makes everything different from now on. If only there were some one thing to make Christian growth certain!” (p. 23). Powlison identifies a rogue’s gallery of secret ingredients: the sovereignty of God, identity in Christ, accountability relationships, the means of grace, serving others, and waging spiritual warfare, among others. These categories are precious and true, but when conscripted to serve as the solitary point upon which sanctification turns, they crumble. This is not due to any unsoundness in God’s sovereignty or the means of grace, but rather failure on our part as we try to make one truth bear a load by itself that was meant to be carried by many other truths. Powlison concludes, “Each of these tells us something true and good. Each highlights a facet of the many-splendored gospel of Jesus. . . These assertions become problematic only when we lapse into saying, ‘Just remember this one thing . . . Just rehearse . . . If you will just do . . .’ In the long run, a single truth harped on will disappoint even its devotees” (p. 25, 43).

A Better Way

The process of sanctification is always a fusion of four factors:

  • God changes you (Phil. 2:13)
  • Truth changes you (Ps. 19:7)
  • Wise people change you (Prov. 13:20)
  • Suffering and struggle change you (Heb. 5:8)

Powlison posits, “The way any life unfolds is nonformulaic, yet variants on these [four] factors intertwine within every story of our discipleship. This interplay appears everywhere in Scripture” (p. 63). Rather than forcing one particular truth to shoulder the entire burden of Christian growth, embracing this multifaceted approach opens up the entirety of Scripture and the entirety of life as God’s agents. One individual struggling with despair might need to focus on God’s sovereign lordship. Another struggling just the same might be more helped by hearing of God’s tender lovingkindness. Moving away from a silver bullet approach may force counselors, pastors, and friends to know their Bibles more thoroughly, but doing so opens up the richness of God’s Word and theology to accomplish far greater things.

Counseling as Balancing and Unbalancing

Powlison’s most helpful words in this little book perhaps come in his discussion regarding the interplay between ministry and theology. Biblical counseling at its core is a theological enterprise, yet its form looks very different than sitting and reading a theological textbook. Powlison sees ministry and theology as mutually dependent, but with two very different roles:

Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness. Put another way, because you can only say one thing at a time, a timely word must be a selective word focusing on the need of the moment. And this selective focus produces a kind of imbalance. But stepping back from the need of the moment, many things can be said, and this larger theological picture helps us maintain balance (p. 33).

Every counselee walks in with a different blend of life circumstances, giftedness, temptations, besetting sins, relational harmonies, church involvement, and experiences of God’s grace. We are all the same at our core (1 Cor. 10:13), but the manner in which even similar problems are approached may vary widely based upon the needs of the moment. As Powlison reminds us, “Different existential questions call for different ministry approaches” (p. 41).

Individual conversations or counseling sessions will not present the full picture of God’s revealed character. Helping the weak relies upon a different set of God’s attributes and work than admonishing the unruly (1 Thess. 5:14). And it is here that our overall understanding of the Scriptures as teaching a coherent, overarching theology holds us back from error. “A comprehensive theological vision protects us from exaggerating, ignoring, or overgeneralizing” (p. 40). We must know what God would have us say in total, even if we are only able to say it a piece at a time.


In a word, How Does Sanctification Work? is helpful. It helpfully reminds us that God has built a mile-wide highway as the road to Christ-likeness. Different people are in different lanes, but all are headed in the same direction. The truths we cherish most that serve to draw our hearts towards our Father and our Savior may not be the same. This being said, it is the same Father and Savior that are drawing us homeward. God Himself is both united and diverse, and as such we are wise to expect His ways of transforming His people to be likewise.


Nate Brooks serves as the Coordinator of the Christian Counseling Program at Reformed Theological Seminary – Charlotte ( He counsels and teaches at Oakhurst Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC where he lives with his wife Kate and two sons, Blaise and Gresham.

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