Posts Tagged ‘identity in Christ’

“That’s it?”

That was my general sense after finishing David Powlison’s book How Does Sanctification Work? after my study leave ended. That isn’t quite the fairest sentiment. It communicated some good things.

I found his similar book on sexual brokenness, Making All Things New, to be better. It too is short and therefore limited in scope. This one, on a much broader topic, seemed too limited in scope.

Powlison begins with an experience he and his wife had in reading Scripture. They read Deuteronomy 32:10-12. They each came in need of grace, but with different circumstances. God addressed each of them on the basis of His Word. Yet the Spirit “illuminated” (see WCF I) different aspects for them because they needed different aspects of the truth contained in that passage. There is a sense in which the means of grace as the same for us, but the way God uses them in “tailor made” to us and our circumstances. Sanctification for David and his wife looked both the same and different.

And so Powlison continues with the truth that there are many keys to sanctification. We often try to be reductionistic regarding sanctification. We pick one of many complementary truths as if it was the whole truth. As a result, we can easily go astray. What you have found beneficial in your circumstances and in light of your personality is not a magic bullet intended to sanctify everyone despite their different circumstances and personality.

In the midst of this he seems to allude to the recent controversy over sanctification in which a prominent Presbyterian pastor taught an essentially Lutheran view that sanctification is growing in our justification. Certainly, as we grow in our understanding of justification, it furthers our sanctification. But we must not conflate the two. And that certainly isn’t all that sanctification is. But it is not less than that.

For me, the third chapter was most helpful. It is called “Truth Unbalanced and Rebalanced“. I’ll let him briefly explain his point:

“Ministry “unbalances truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness.”

Timely words are selective, not comprehensive. They are not balanced in themselves and create a bit of an unbalance. He didn’t put it this way, but think of it as exerting more strength than usual to a person who is falling. We can over-correct but get them moving in the right direction where we then rebalance them. We are pulling people out of ditches or away from cliffs. There is not the time for comprehensive conversations in the moment. But we rebalance them by having subsequent conversations that are comprehensive. The “key” becomes integrated in a more holistic theology rather than a magic bullet.

“The task of ministry in any moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to particular persons and situations.”

This is the “key” contribution of the book. Dr. Richard Pratt expressed it as taking the proper medicine from the cabinet. Not all truth is pertinent to a particular circumstance. When the crisis is over, there is time for theological reflection to establish healthy patterns of living. You offer them “the rest of the story.”

Where he goes with all this is a view similar to the book How People Change. There are a number of interactive elements (union with Christ, focus on Christ’s work for us, God’s commands, fellowship with other Christians, suffering, my choices etc.). His point is that while all these are present and used by God in our lives, at any given point one may be more powerful than the others. We do well to remember that how God works in me and through me will not be the same as how He works in you and through you, at least at any given moment. My wife is a different person than I am, and the process of sanctification will look a little different in her life though the same general elements are there.

Sanctification ends up as something we cannot control or predict. God works in us by His Word and Spirit so we apply the Scriptures, understand our identity in Christ and our will and/or desires are shaped and molded (Phil. 2:12-13). He also uses other people and our circumstances in this gumbo of sanctification. People will bring us the Word and wisdom. Circumstances provide the opportunities to obey, experience consequences, limit or expand options. God is at work in all things things to conform us to the likeness of Christ (Rom. 8:28-9).

Powlison then gets personal. He tells his own story, first in terms of his conversion and then sanctification. He then tells the stories of Charles and Charlotte. In this we see the basic patterns at work in a personalized way. In this way the book is helpful for us. It arises from his decades of work as a counselor.

This could serve as a good counterpart or complement to Sinclair Ferguson’s excellent book, Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification, which is an exegetical look at sanctification. Both should help pastors, church officers and lay leaders walk people through God’s sanctifying work.


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I am loving the fact that Sinclair Ferguson is “retired”. He has been more active in writing, and those books have been excellent so far. Devoted to God: Blueprints for Sanctification is no exception. He previously submitted a chapter on the subject to Christian Spirituality in which a number of authors of different persuasions interacted on the subject of sanctification.

Like The Whole Christ, Devoted to God seems to be the fruit of a lifetime of fruitful ministry. You sense that he has thought long and hard about the Scriptures with regard to this subject. It is not superficial or breezy in its approach. In each chapter, Ferguson focuses on one text of Scripture. Those passages are: 1 Peter 1; Romans 12:1-2; Galatians 2:20; Romans 6:1-14; Galatians 5:16-17; Colossians 3:1-17; Romans 8:13; Matthew 5:17-20; Hebrews 12:1-14; and Romans 8:29. The principles are derived from the texts that Sinclair uses. This is not a “proof-texting” approach, but a very exegetical approach.

His approach focuses on sanctification as devotion. God is devoted to making us devoted to Him and His glory through our union with Christ by the Holy Spirit. This is realistic in its approach, as he notes “Instead of being wholly yielded to Christ we discover instead that a stubborn and sinful resistance movement retains a foothold in our lives.” (pp. 5)

Beginning with 1 Peter, he focuses on our identity in Christ in the face of affliction. We have graciously received a new identity which requires a new life. He notes the distinctions between justification and sanctification, but also notes that both are necessary for salvation tying these in to our union with Christ and the reality of regeneration. In our union we receive what Calvin calls the “double grace” of justification and sanctification. Regeneration which is necessary for justification (we won’t believe until God regenerates us) is also the beginning of our sanctification.

Another focus he begins in the first chapter is the trinitarian nature of our sanctification. The Father foreknew us and chose us, the Spirit sets us apart and we are purified by the Son. Your sanctification, if you are a Christian, is the desire and purpose of the Father, Son and Spirit. In 1 Peter we see that they use, among other things, trials to accomplish this great purpose.

In other chapters he reminds us that the commands (imperatives) flow from the gospel (indicatives). It is all of grace, being produced by the gospel. He reminds us, particularly in Romans 12 that our sanctification “takes place in and through the body.” We are not gnostics. We are a body/soul unity and sanctification includes both the inward devotion and the physical devotion. Sin and sins affect our bodies (weakness, addictions which are spiritual and bio-chemical, disease etc.) and so sanctification does as well. Just as sin affects our minds, so does sanctification.

Ferguson covers plenty of ground in this volume, and he covers it well. Some of these are difficult texts with difficult concepts, especially Romans 6, and he is very helpful in understanding them better as well as applying them to the subject at hand. As I preach through 1 Peter I find himself looking back to the material here on that letter. I anticipate returning to this book whenever I preach on any of these texts. I anticipate pointing others to this book and walking with others through this book for years to come.

Sinclair Ferguson has again written on the best and most helpful books I’ve read. His retirement has been very, very good to me. If you read his books, you will discover it was very good for you too.

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