Growth in Christlikeness is a lifelong, active progression. We are holier on the day we die than we were on the day we came to Christ. We are holier on the day we die than we are on the day before we die. Yet this long progression is peppered with seasonal lulls, drudgery, and complacency. We know we are never as Christlike as we ought to be or even as we want to be. Yet while our lack of holiness ought to motivate greater effort in godliness, we often allow it to contribute to discouragement, laziness and apathy. Sanctification is a tricky business.
How does God go about this work of sanctification? David Powlison helpfully narrows it down to five means or five streams through which God pours out his sanctifying grace. These factors work in tandem, each one contributing to our lifelong gain in godliness.
God Changes You
God changes you. He sovereignly and sometimes invisibly intervenes and interferes in your life to help you grow in holiness. This may be the most obvious means, but your natural atheistic bent paired with your inclination for self-glory threatens to lead you to forget or dismiss its importance. Your sanctification would not be possible without God first intervening to make the gospel beautiful to your darkened heart and mind. You cannot will yourself to see when you have been blind from birth. In the same way, you cannot make yourself alive in Christ when you are dead in sin.
Conversion is only one example of God’s sovereign interference. When you call upon him to be your Lord, you must welcome his permanent and perfect interference throughout the course of your life. You must remember that your sanctification too depends on him, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Truth Changes You
God chooses to work in harmony with a book, his book. Romans 15:4 shows this interplay between God and God’s Word: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Yet in verse 13, Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” The Scripture gives hope because its author is the God and giver of hope.
The Bible is “perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7). An unconverted mind may glean wisdom from its proverbial truths and even this can result in behavioural changes. But Christians drink from its words because they are indwelled by God’s Spirit and they desire to hear God’s voice. This, too, should result in behavioural changes, and changes of a much better and deeper nature. God’s truth transforms you as you read, ponder, understand, and obey his Word.
Wise People Change You
At a most basic level, you cannot know the gospel unless it comes to you. You came to faith because someone shared the gospel with you: “how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching?” (Romans 10:14). Soon after, I hope, you became a part of a church family. It is, after all, in this corporate setting that God dispenses grace through the ordinary means of grace. No man or woman is meant to be an island.
Proverbs 13:20 admonishes us to walk with wise people, for then we become wise. Conversely, the companion of fools becomes foolish. I hope you are acquainted with the sweet blessing of Christian friendship. God calls us to rebuke, to encourage, to confess our sins, to disciple, and to comfort one another in affliction. As we do that, we change each other. Perpetual isolation will keep you from one of God’s great means of sanctification.
Suffering and Struggle Change You
If even Christ “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8), how much more are you changed by suffering and struggle? Think about doctrines that became dearer to you in the darkest nights of your soul. Think about the lessons you learned in your toughest trials. Suffering and struggle necessitate God’s grace in your life in a way that ease does not.
Much of your suffering is a result of your inner darkness, and the evil in others. As you wait with expectation for your complete sanctification, your sinful nature keeps you bent towards evil, and this often opens a door to suffering. Other times, it is the result of uncontrollable circumstances, of loss, of physical deterioration, of persecution, or of the harmful effects of someone else’s sin. We live in a decadent world where trouble abounds. But suffering is never without cause, for we know “suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4). God changes us through every struggle and every moment of suffering.
Suffering, wise people, truth, and the sovereign work of God must be joined with your willful and constant repentance. You resist sanctification when you are passive and unresponsive to these four factors. You are called to be both a hearer and a doer of the Word. If someone gently rebukes you for sin, you ought to choose to repent and change. In the face of suffering, you have the choice to give in to the temptation to mental doom or to find hope in God. When you believed upon the Lord, “You turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God” (1 Thessalonians 1:9). But even your repentance is an outworking of God’s power in you.
Rather than resisting, enter into the current of God’s sanctifying work and see the Lord’s power reveal itself in all the ways God, truth, people, and struggle change you as you respond in continual obedience and continual repentance.
These points were drawn from How Does Sanctification Work? by David Powlison.