A Review of “How Does Sanctification Work?” by David Powlison

Biblical Counseling is all about sanctification. The goal of counseling is to help people, in the midst of their suffering and/or sin, to grow in their likeness to Jesus Christ. This means that the way we understand the process of sanctification, then, had direct bearing on our counseling methodology. David Powlison, executive director of the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, knows the importance of this doctrine for counseling. In How Does Sanctification Work? he seeks to help readers not simply understand the doctrine, but to revel in its diverse out-working. This book reminds us that there is no simplistic formula for sanctification.

It is tempting for Christians to reduce sanctification to a “monochromatic, singular, one-size-fits-all message telling me how [we] can grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (24). Powlison notes a number of these singular approaches: remember that God is sovereign; rehearse and remind yourself of your identity in Christ; make sure you are in honest accountability relationships; etc. Most notably, he aims his sights on the popular trend right now to reduce our sanctification to the remembrance of our justification. He states:

The dynamic of the Christian life is portrayed as a matter of continually pressing into how God forgave and accepted you. You are sanctified by remembering and believing afresh that you are justified by what Jesus did on the cross for you. Is that true? Justification by faith in the sacrifice of Christ certainly is a cornerstone of our salvation. But is remembering that always the crucial ingredient in how we are progressively changed and sanctified? The Bible’s answer to this pastoral and practical question is sometimes yes, often no. (27)

In response to this reduction of the process of sanctification Powlison outlines through both Scriptural example and testimony the varied ways that God’s Word produces and promotes our sanctification. He highlights the promises of God’s presence as one example, and the commands as another. He explores the various factors that contribute to our change, paying special attention to the role of hardship. He notes that “Different existential questions call for different ministry approaches” (41), and thankful Scripture is broad enough to provide us with different approaches. That variety allows us to be effective in the application of Scripture to various needs, and prevents us from having to settle for the trite and simplistic in Biblical Counseling helps.

Readers of The Journal of Biblical Counseling will note that the content of several chapters parallels the content of Powlison’s essays in from various editions of the Journal. Those essays are invaluable, and yet compiled this way in the book they create a great logical flow and fresh insight on this issue. The inclusion of Powlison’s own personal testimony and the case studies of several individuals gives some tangible context to this doctrine. Readers will find a great deal of help here both for their own counseling practice and their theological understanding. In truth the usefulness of this book goes beyond counseling to general theological education and practical Christian living. It should, however, be required reading for counselors as they seek to establish a solid theological foundation for their practice.

You won’t regret picking up this volume. The book is short, sitting at just barely over 100 pages. The content, however, is not simplistic. Written in a highly accessible and engaging way, as is common to Powlison’s work, the chapters are full of rich and nuanced theological truth and counseling help. This is an important volume on an important subject and I cannot recommend it highly enough. How Does Sanctification Work? encourages readers to see the variety of ways that God’s Word sanctifies and it invites us, then, to take full advantage of this rich diversity.

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