How Does Sanctification Work? Book Review

I received a digital copy of this book for free through Crossway’s Blog Review Program. However, this does not mean my review is tainted by this in any way—I still wholeheartedly recommend this book because of its rich content.

I remember leaving the room that day feeling like I had taken in a lot of information, and yet none of it was relevant or helpful. I was discouraged. This was not the first time I had received advice for my problems to only feel partially filled afterwards. I had finished books, talked to friends, read articles, and listened to lectures and came away with that same feeling of, “Yeah, I know that, but what does that mean for me?”

Maybe you’ve experienced something similar. You went to counselling, talked to a friend, or read a blog post that gave you one of the following takeaways (or something very similar):

  • Just trust God more

  • Just remember the gospel

  • Just think about heavenly things

  • Just pray more

  • Just memorize _____ Bible verse

  • Just dwell on God’s sovereignty

  • Just be thankful

  • Just fear God more

  • Just be content in Christ more

None of these pieces of advice is inherently wrong. Most Christians probably do need to work on each of those areas of their life. But therein lies the problem: This advice applies to anyone and everyone. You could struggle with anxiety, depression, an eating disorder, rebellious children, or any kind of spiritual problem and I could respond with this advice and be “right” in a sense. You probably do need to trust God more, you probably could dwell on the gospel more, you could probably think on heavenly things more. But sanctification doesn’t always work that way.

God has created each person in the image of Himself, but He has done so creatively and uniquely. There are no two people the same—even twins and triplets have differences. As people who are different from each other, God sanctifies us each differently. Though He uses the same means—Himself, the Word, fellow believers, and suffering—He uses each differently.

This is the premise for David Powlison’s book, “How Does Sanctification Work?” He calls us to stop giving generalized advice to people that could apply to anyone and recognize that God works in a variety of ways to sanctify us.

“And it is noteworthy that, in finding us, Jesus never ministers by rote. Because people and circumstances are not clones, there is no boilerplate in his conversations, friendships, or preaching. No distilled formula. No abstract generalizations. No ‘Just do x’ sorts of advice. Because situations and persons come unscripted, fluid, and unpredictable, Jesus engages each person and situation in a personalized way. It is no truism to say that Jesus really does meet you where you are. Always. Scripture does the same. No boilerplate. The Holy Spirit makes words personal.” 1

I am thankful that I came across this book and read it before become a Certified Biblical Counsellor because I would be that counsellor who gave the easy, generalized advice to each person who came in with a similar problem. The same book recommendations, the same verses to memorize, the same counsel. But this book is a great reminder to counsellors and counselees alike that God works in a variety of ways.

This book has changed the way I will consider counselling not only in the counselling room but also in the way I interact with friends and family. In conversations with friends who are struggling, I am more sensitive to my use of the words, “Just do…” or “Just try…” There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to giving counsel for putting off sin and growing in righteousness.

But in order to give this personalized counsel, we need to actually know the people we counsel. This requires more than the “cliff notes” of their story or problem. Giving counsel that is both Scriptural and meets the needs of the person requires getting to know that person deeply and understanding them. This requires work, patience, and love. We meet them where they are as God meets us where we are.

Consider the various encounters Jesus had with people during His time on earth. If you laid them all out side-by-side, you would see a vast amount of differences between how He counsels them or speaks to them. To one He gives a rebuke, with another He weeps, another He calls out sin, and to another He calls to sell all his possessions. Jesus counsels and speaks to these people according to their past, their desires, their knowledge, and the like. He doesn’t prescribe, “If you just do this,” to each person He encounters.

This book has not only challenged me in the way I interact and give counsel to others, but it has also made me rejoice in God who knows me so well and works so patiently with me, providing exactly what I need in the moment. In reading Scripture, the Holy Spirit can work in such a way that a verse I have read fifty times becomes anew to me and reminds me of the truth I had forgotten.

In this way, I must trust in God’s sovereignty in my sanctification. Sometimes I become annoyed that I’m not growing as fast as I would like. But I must trust God’s sovereign hand in my sanctification, knowing, “it is God who is at work in [me], both to will and to work for His good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 NASB). He knows me best and He knows what I need to grow more in the likeness of His image. Maybe it will be through the fiery refining fires, or through the confrontation of sin by a friend, or the comfort of a Bible verse. Whatever the case, God is at work in my sanctification, through changing my heart Himself, His Word, fellow believers, trials, and my efforts towards obedience in a beautiful, unique way that only He can.

David Powlison, “Introduction,” in How Does Sanctification Work? (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017), 15.