by David Powlison
“Sanctification” is the five syllable word used to describe the process by which we are reborn and then grow in a new way of life as followers of Jesus. But how does your growth in grace actually work? And how does ministry encourage and support growth in someone else? We need to pay attention to how God changes people. One interesting characteristic is that all Christians already have some first-hand experience. Every Christian can say: “This was key in helping me when I struggled with that in those circumstances.” Those stories teach us a lot.
But first-hand experience also presents a danger. It is easy to turn your own experience into a general rule: “This must be the key for everyone.” Both Scripture and personal testimony teach us that there is no single formula for the kinds of problems that call for our sanctification. There is no single formula for the kinds of change that sanctification produces in us. There is no single formula for the truths and other factors that produce change. There is variety in how God changes people. Here are two stories from my own walk with Jesus to illustrate the key things that helped me—with my particular struggles in my particular circumstances.
Story 1. August 31, 1975
When I was 25 years old I came to Christian faith. My conversion was dramatic. In high school I had become preoccupied with existential questions: “What lasts? What is meaningful? Who am I?” Four lines of development gave force and shape to my search.
First, in my teens I became estranged from the nominal version of church-going in which I had been raised. I never heard that Jesus Christ was anything more than a moral example. Christianity, as I experienced it, seemed like a polite veneer for people who didn’t want to face hard realities.
Second, during those same years I was immediately confronted with death and depravity: e.g., a target of bullying, the murder of a classmate, suicidal friends, exposure to pornography, people self-immolating on drugs. And then there were the normal disillusionments in the years during and after college. Neither academics, nor athletics, nor career could bear the weight of identity and meaning.
Third, I matriculated into Harvard as a math and science major, but soon migrated to psychology and social sciences, and then moved on to literature and the arts. Through reading Dostoevsky and T. S. Eliot, awareness slowly dawned that the Christian message spoke directly to the deepest matters of our humanity.
Fourth, a college friend, Bob Kramer, became a Christian when we were 20. He thought about the same kinds of questions I thought about. For the next five years we discussed, disagreed, and debated whenever we got together. I was stubborn. I did not want someone to rescue me. I wanted to do life on my own terms. But God had other ideas about how to do my life.
How did God work? He was merciful. One evening Bob spoke with unexpected candor, “I respect you as much as anyone… but what you believe… and how you are living… you are destroying yourself.” I knew he was right. The Holy Spirit used his words as an armor-piercing shell. I came under comprehensive and specific conviction of my sinfulness, uncleanness, unbelief, unacceptability before Christ. When I responded (one minute later? ten minutes?), I asked, “How do I become a Christian?” Bob shared a promise from the God of hope:
I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezek 36:25–27)
Bob invited me to ask God for mercy. I beseeched Jesus for mercy. He was merciful.
How on earth did I change? I was changed because God intervened personally. I was changed because words of Scripture invited me into Christ. I was changed because a friend was faithful and honest. I was changed because of failure, guilt, suffering, and disillusionment. I changed because I turned from sin to Christ.
Story 2. From 2000 to 2006
Fast forward 25 years. In my 50s, the front-and-center lesson significantly changed. These were the hardest years of my life. The recovery from open-heart surgery had agonizing moments. But the long-term sequelae were worse than the short-term pain. For the next 5½ years I inhabited a body that was breaking down. I liken those years of exhaustion and cumulative losses to living through a slow-motion building collapse. Only family, a handful of friendships, and writing remained fruitful.
And God met me, and changed me for the good.
How did God work? First came the suffering itself. God works in and through suffering. My faith and love had to grow up—again, as I always have to grow up.
Second, a handful of wise, godly friends played a significant role. Some were going through analogous experiences. They understood. We were in it together. Other friends helped me to plan and to act within marked limitations. I needed both the tenderness and the realism.
Third, the wisdom of saints whose race finished long ago played a significant role in how public worship encouraged me. I love a well-crafted hymn that invites me to think as well as sing. But I never realized how many hymns (like the Psalms) inhabit suffering, until I myself was in a place of prolonged hurt and perplexity. For example, Katharina von Schlegel’s “Be Still, My Soul” is honest about her anguish and bafflement. And she gives voice to her reasons for hope amid grief. The Lord is on your side, even in this. He is your best, your heavenly friend, who will not bereave you. He soothes your dark emotions. He will restore love’s purest joys.
Fourth, God’s creation proved sustaining, refreshing, and sanctifying. In all seasons and weathers I went outside and walked. I noticed…the flight of a goldfinch, a field of blooming white dogwoods, a thunderstorm rising, maple leaves like fire in the fall. I was repeatedly drawn onto a bigger stage than my troubles.
Fifth, God met me with his words and his Spirit—through preaching, through the Lord’s Supper, through the informal counsel of friends, through my own reflecting on Scripture. I heard God’s voice of truth, and sought him, and found him. As familiar words engaged current experience, they took on meanings and resonances I could not have imagined. Here are some of the passages that repeatedly met me.
- Matthew 5:3–10 (the Beatitudes). The first four blessings bond to weakness as we depend on God: honest neediness, sorrow, submission, and longing. The second four blessings bond to strength as we move out into the world: active generosity, purity of purpose, constructive engagement, and courage. Jesus lived this unusual interplay of weakness and strength. This is what it looks like to be truly human.
- Psalm 103. This psalm befriended and renewed me. It drew forth my faith: to need, trust, and worship my Father. It enabled me to love others who share in the iniquity, frailty, and mortality of the human condition. “All the good things he does” (Ps 103:2) is a prequel to “every spiritual blessing” (Eph 1:3) that we find in living color, specified, and fulfilled in Christ.
- 2 Corinthians 1:4 and Hebrews 5:2–3. My first-hand experience does not terminate in me. It is transmuted so that I become able to deal gently and helpfully with others in their struggles. My particular troubles—mastered by the God of mercies and comfort—equip me “to comfort those who are in any affliction.” My sins and weaknesses—dealt with honestly before the Lord who gives mercy—equip me to minister well even to “the ignorant and wayward.”
The bookshelves in my home could not contain all the books that could be written about what Jesus did during those years.
How did I change? I was changed because God never let me go. I was changed because Scripture spoke many words of God’s mercy, protection, strength, and will. I was changed because many friends bore me up. I was changed because I had to walk through darkness, destruction, and the uncertainty of no explanations and no solutions. I changed because I repeatedly turned outward in faith and love, reversing my inward-turning tendency.
Implications for Ministry
In my twenties I was primarily changed because failure, guilt, and disillusionment led me to turn from sin to Christ. Birth into a new life, freely-given forgiveness, and justification by faith were truths that caught fire. In my fifties I was primarily changed because darkness, loss, and suffering led me to turn in trust to my heavenly Father. God’s presence and purposes in affliction—sustaining faith, making love wiser and more helpful—were the operative truths. Different struggles and circumstances of life brought different truths into the foreground.
How then can we think about sanctification in a way that generates ministry traction? Here is my core premise: Ministry “unbalances” truth for the sake of relevance; theology “rebalances” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness. Think about that for a moment with me.
The task in any ministry moment is to choose, emphasize, and “unbalance” truth for the sake of relevant application to this particular person and situation. You can’t say everything all at once—and you shouldn’t try. Say one relevant thing at a time. When Jesus talks with people he is astonishingly concrete, direct, and specific. By saying one thing, not everything, he is always challenging, always life-rearranging, always nourishing to those who are listening.
The task of theological reflection is to abstract, generalize, and “rebalance” truth for the sake of comprehensiveness. Balance—whether topical (systematic theology) or narratival (biblical theology)—protects us from exaggerating, ignoring, or overgeneralizing. Part of why one truth cannot be the entire truth is because every Christian doctrine and every part of God’s story also matters. In order to actually minister to people, you need wise selectivity while bearing in mind the fullest possible repertoire of options from which to choose. You do not build a house with only one tool in your toolbox, when God gives us a truck-load of tools. But you do use your tools one at a time, the right tool for the right job.
Here’s the takeaway. I dare not extrapolate my exact experience of God’s mercies to everyone else. One pattern of Christ’s working (even a pattern common to many people) should not overshadow all the other patterns. A rightly “unbalanced” message is fresh, refreshing, joyous, full of song, life-transforming. But eventually, if it is oversold, it becomes a one-string harp, played by one finger, sounding one note. It drones. Scripture and the Holy Spirit play a 47-string concert harp, using all ten fingers, and sounding all the notes of human experience. Wise ministry, like growth in wisdom, means learning to play on all the strings, not harping on one note.
Jesus teaches us to sound all the notes
The Gospels largely consist of scenes selected from Jesus’ encounters and conversations with various followers, foes, inquirers, and undecideds. The variety of personal details is as significant as the common themes. Watch Jesus interact, person by person, situation by situation. Notice how he notices things. Listen to the questions he asks and how he answers questioners. He rattles, invites, irritates, teaches, argues, clarifies, perplexes, saves, warns, encourages. Jesus reveals people for who they are. He precipitates decisive choices. In response to him, people change, either making a turn for the better or taking a turn for the worse.
The ways that Jesus meets me are analogous to the ways he meets you. Analogous, but not identical. God seems to love variety. You and I do not reduce to a category. Our Father is raising children, and every child I’ve ever known is unique. One privilege I have had is to read thousands of students’ experiences of growth. And so I encourage you—pastor, friend, counselor, parent, small-group leader, missionary—to ask people in your church to share about times when God really met them, so much so that their lives were changed. By listening you will grow in wisdom because you learn more about God’s ways from those stories. And by listening, you will be learning how to better sound the right note, for the right person, in the right moment.
You can read more about the subject of sanctification in two Journal of Biblical Counseling articles: “How Does Sanctification Work? (Part1)” by David Powlison (27:1) and “How Does Sanctification Work? (Part 2)” by David Powlison (27:2).