What Does the Gospel Say About Sanctification

As a test, I frequently ask people “What does the Gospel say to that?”

For example, if the topic is gender confusion, I try to help people formulate a broader response in light of the Gospel. But people typically respond with law of some kind:

  • Genesis says God created man male and female
  • You should not lie with a man as you would lie with a woman
  • They exchanged the glory of God for a creature

All of these are some form of “just stop it.” They are true, and are legitimate expressions of God’s will for us in the area of gender identity. But they don’t get to the heart. The Gospel provides a more comprehensive response — including law — that addresses what has happened to distort the heart’s desires.

But in the last few years I noticed that in relation to a believer’s sanctification, not only in the area of mortifying certain sin but also in general spiritual growth, there is an increasingly tendency to tell people things like “just remember the Gospel.”

There is no attempt to direct the person, with particular heart, head and hand issues, to the truth he or she needs at the moment, but to give everyone a blanket admonition to “remember your justification” or some equivalent.

David Powlison has addressed this issue in his book, How Does Sanctification Work? The book is the product of several articles he published in the Journal of Biblical Counseling, with additional material.

Powlison points out that Jesus did not resort to such simplistic responses, but addressed truth to the individual as needed.

We learn how Jesus sizes up people. We watch how he finds the point of engagement, and then how he enters in, reacts, helps, invites, irritates, teaches, argues, clarifies, perplexes, saves, warns, encourages. … In response to him, people change, either making a turn for the better or taking a turn for the worse. Whenever a person makes a turn for the better, sanctification is happening.

Powlison’s aim for the book is to “revel in the variety of how Jesus Christ works to change lives” (15, emphasis in original). Along the way, he challenges the simplistic “just remember grace” mindset:

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.

Jesus, through his Word, changes people with promise and with command, with assurance and with warning, with duty and with delight. Powlison describes the process as “unbalancing” truth and then “balancing” it again. The particular word of encouragement, admonishment, law, or promise is the “unbalanced” aspect of sanctification. Backing away and placing that particular word in the context of the whole Word, the Gospel, provides “balance” to sanctification.

Powlison maintains that this is precisely what we see Jesus doing.

By saying one thing, not everything, he is always challenging, always life-rearranging, always nourishing those who are listening. Jesus’s own example is one reason we know that “sanctification by remembering Christ’s substitutionary death” cannot be the beating heart of all sanctification.

The simplistic “just remember grace” is akin to the pat answer. Powlison says “There is no formula or pat answer. When two friends say the same thing, or when you say the same thing to every struggler, it is probably a pat answer” (50).

Powlison identifies the main change agents in a person’s life:

  1. God
  2. Truth
  3. Wise people
  4. Suffering, struggle, and troubles
  5. You

I would describe this a bit differently, and attribute all change in a person’s life to the gracious work of God through the Holy Spirit, though he works through other believers and trials. But I would agree with the basic point: God changes us using different means, not simply one means of “remembering the gospel.”

If you desire a better understanding of what the Bible teaches about how we are sanctified, or want to better help others in their own sanctification, Powlison’s book is a good place to start.

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