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How to grow in grace

David Powlison's insight into sanctification

David Powlison’s volume, How Does Sanctification Work? (Crossway), is meant to function as a basic, user-friendly primer on sanctification. Sanctification is a deep topic typically discussed in systematic ways with theological terms. Powlison gives a bit of that in his book, but even more than that, he breaks the topic of sanctification down practically. As Powlison says, “most of this book will come down to street-level living” (15). This book explains how growth in grace actually works through Powlison writing both biographically and theologically.

When talking about sanctification, to be accurate, Powlison is discussing what is called progressive sanctification. To best understand what that means, Powlison describes sanctification in its past, present and future tenses. In the past tense, sanctification has already happened. A sinner is made a saint through Jesus Christ. In the present tense, sanctification is being worked out. The believer is being remade to look like Jesus. In the future, the believer will be perfected. In short, through Christ, a person is saved, is being saved and will be saved (13).

Though sanctification can be broken down into nice and neat explainable terms, it is not experienced as such. Quite often, many long for a foolproof technique, containing one “key” truth that will help them grow as a Christian (23). The problem is, there is no such thing. As sojourners with fellow believers in this Christian walk, it is helpful to remember that simply giving spiritual platitudes does not always unlock a channel of grace needed in a struggling Christian’s life. Theological truths and statements are necessary and vital, but they provide the framework used to speak to others in direct and specific ways. There is a balancing act at play in regards to sanctification. A clear, wide-ranging knowledge of the Bible and its systematic contents go hand in hand with situational application.

The Interplay of Factors

The goal in sanctification is to see a mature faith and wise love in the life of a believer (45). This process comes about through multiple factors. As Powlison says, “constructive change occurs through the interplay of these five factors: God, Scripture, other people, life circumstances, and the human heart” (63). The entire Christian life is a series of “variations and permutations of this five-dimensional process” (69). This makes sanctification complex on the one hand, but simple on the other. Complex in that there is not one verse, one comment or one source that causes a believer to change. Simple in that through multiple means are at work, change does occur. As sojourners with fellow believers in this Christian walk, it is helpful to remember that simply giving spiritual platitudes does not always unlock a channel of grace needed in a struggling Christian’s life. Click To Tweet

Powlison spends the first six chapters explaining the truth of sanctification. He does this again, not in a separated, stoic and impersonal way, but in a way that accounts for the personalities and situations of real people. The remaining five chapters give the personal account of the real people and their stories of change that are set within the framework Powlison gives for sanctification. It is here that a necessary variety is given to sanctification. Powlison says,

Redemption in Christ plays out in every story. This is how it should be. Pastoral ministry – both preaching and counseling – should relish the variety. 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 (78).

Through his own story and the stories of others, Powlison shows the outworking of the five dimensions of God, Scripture, other people, life circumstances and the human heart. Sanctification is a process that makes the believer “connected, wedded and joined to Jesus Christ and all the other people whose gravity is shifting outside of themselves” (109).

David Powlison does a masterful job of weaving his own personal story as well as the personal stories of others with the truths of Scripture and the process of sanctification. Not only does he communicate a theological framework for this systematic topic, but he displays the practicalities of sanctification through the experiences of real people.

This book will prove helpful to ministry leaders discipling others, as well as anyone striving to grow in the grace of God. With a topic that can easily seem complicated, readers will feel refreshed in understanding how sanctification works. As we walk this Christian life together, Powlison ends his book with this comforting truth: “We are one in Christ. We are heading home. We will see his face. And all will be made well” (112).

Michael Nelson

Michael Nelson (ThM, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Grandview, MO, as well as a PhD candidate at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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