David Powlison’s How Does Sanctification Work? is graciously available free to Christ and Pop Culture members until August 24, 2017, through our partnership with Crossway.
Self-help books ring up $10 billion a year in sales nationwide. That’s a whole lot of money spent on the hope of life change. I don’t know about you, but I’ve been disappointed by a self-help book before. They always seem so promising, with some kind of technique that will prove to be a silver bullet to your problems. Yet, if these books actually worked, there wouldn’t be so many of them.David Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then lays the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth.
With a title like How Does Sanctification Work? one might presume this book is the Christian’s how-to guide to holiness, a self-help book for achieving spiritual maturity. Those presumptions would be off base, however, as David Powlison’s recent release from Crossway is entirely different. Early on, he confesses,
Both Scripture and personal testimony teach us that there is no single formula for the kinds of problems that call for sanctification. There’s no one-size-fits all goal. No sound bite captures the range of truths that shape change. There’s no one blueprint for the constructive influence of other people. There is no single formula for how God weaves together the turns of events, the intricacy and beauty of his creation, the rich portrayals of life in literature and the arts—all things. (20-21)
In other words, this is a book that doesn’t promise silver bullets. Rather, Powlison promises to explain what sanctification is from a biblical point of view. He intends to “drill down into how growth in grace actually works, and thus how ministry works to promote growth.” (15) He does so by a combination of personal stories and theological exposition, which I think we can all admit works well in the hands of a skilled author.
Now, I am probably biased because David Powlison is on my Mount Rushmore of contemporary writers on spiritual growth (grab me for coffee or a beer and I’ll tell you the others). If I had to list my top 10 most influential books of all time, I’d have to include Powlison’s work of essays titled Seeing with New Eyes. This recent release is a primer of sorts to the themes from that larger collection of essays. How Does Sanctification Work? is concise; as Powlison notes in the introduction, it’s slightly longer than the Gospel of John.
In the span of just over 100 pages, Powlison dispels the myth that there is a “key to sanctification” and then goes on to lay the biblical groundwork for spiritual growth across a few chapters. He wraps up the book sharing his personal stories and a couple of others as well. Along the way, Powlison helpfully explains why there can’t be silver bullets in sanctification. He points out that theology balances truth for the sake of comprehension while ministry imbalances it for the sake of relevance. (33) I think this is just about right in my own limited experience.
If I can riff on a metaphor he uses in chapter 3, there are many tools a toolbox. In a given moment, for a particular task, some tools are better than others. But no matter how helpful each tool is, one would never try to build a house using just that one tool. A particular tool does the work its meant to do, but in those moments, one doesn’t wonder if the rest of the tools are actually worthless. Many tools are needed to build a solid, functioning house.
And so it goes with our sanctification. There are many truths (i.e., tools) needed to build a solid, functioning faith. Some truths are common presumptions like “we grow more sanctified when we understand our justification better”—and these have a place. But Scripture never presents that single truth as the bedrock of sanctification. There are many truth tools necessary, each one meant for a particular task. There is no silver bullet (contrary to what some authors teach), no one tool that works in every and all circumstances.
To give a better picture of how sanctification is built, Powlison present the five factors (truth tools) of sanctification:
- Suffering and struggle
- Wise people in your life
While these five components are broad and probably hard to argue with, this list is also profound. When asked, “What changes you?” too many people may want to argue for sheer will and determination (#1) or divine providence (#2). You might want to reduce the agents of change to you and God. But that’s too simplistic to be helpful. Powlison says, “Yes, but wait, there’s more!” By including truth, suffering, and other people’s wisdom, sanctification takes on a more true-to-life dimension. These five truth tools work together to build the fullness of faith–the life change—that we long for.
In my own life, I’ve seen change attributable to all these factors. Most recently, it’s been through suffering and struggle. When lived out in the context of community, our sufferings and struggles can be occasions for growth and change. This is especially so as it combines with other people’s wisdom. One might even suggest that suffering in community makes you more apt to seek out the wisdom of others. And so the tools work together, each one completing a specific task and building a strong faith.
As such, How Does Sanctification Work? is an ideal book to offer to a vibrant community like the one found in our members’ forum, like the one found in the local church, like the one found in a community group. Sanctification happens in community, with all the tools in play. Like all groups, diversity of perspective means that not everyone will agree, and in this case, not everyone will agree with the theological position Powlison takes on sanctification. But it is hard to deny his insistence that most change and growth happens through mundane moments, especially as they play out in Christian community.
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