Is There a Silver Bullet of Sanctification?

“Just . . .”

We are all tempted to oversimplify. We long for one “key” truth, a “secret” principle, the foolproof technique, some life-changing experience that makes everything different from now on. If only there were some one thing to make Christian growth certain! But there is no single key.

You often hear people say things like “He should just remember that . . .” Or “If only she would just do . . .” Or “If I could just experience . . .” You’ve probably said things like that yourself. I certainly have. Preachers, teachers, counselors, authors, and friends instinctively gravitate toward naming some truth, some spiritual discipline, some action step, or some experience as the key that will unlock everything. The phrase “Just . . .” is a tip-off. But there are no “Just [do x, y, or z]” solutions to the puzzles of our sanctification.

The Silver Bullet?

Like you, I’ve heard monochromatic, singular, one-size-fits-all messages telling me how I can grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. Theological fads and fashions come and go. Here’s a selection of perennial candidates that tempt us to think, “This one thing is the secret key that will unlock your Christian life!”

  1. Remember that God is sovereign and is working all things for good in those who love him. The meaning of your troubles changes as you realize that he has called you into his saving purposes in Christ.
  2. Rehearse and remind yourself of your identity in Christ. Union with Jesus Christ is the anchor of your salvation. All other identities are secondary.
  3. Make sure you are in honest accountability relationships. None of us is meant to bear our burdens alone. God so works things that we can truly help one another as servants of Christ.
  4. Avail yourself of the means of grace. Sit under good preaching, participate in corporate worship and sacraments, and maintain daily Scripture reading and prayer. To flourish, you need truth that is in Jesus to fill your heart.
  5. Wage spiritual warfare against the predator of your soul. Clothe yourself in Christ. Put on God’s weaponry of faith and love. Resist the enemy’s lies, accusations, temptations, and aggressions.
  6. Get busy serving others with the gifts the Lord has given you. Get out of yourself. Do something constructive with your life today.
  7. Remember that you are accepted by God as his child and that he fully forgives your sins through the shed blood of Jesus. Past grace affirms that God is forever for you.
  8. Ask the Lord to give his Holy Spirit that you might walk in his ways. Present grace daily strengthens you in the reality that God is with you.
  9. Set your hope fully on the grace to be revealed at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Future grace carries you forward through affliction because God will come for you.

There are no “Just [do x, y, or z]” solutions to the puzzles of our sanctification.

Every one of these tells us something true and good. Each highlights a facet of the many-splendored gospel of Jesus. We need every one of these things—and many other things as well. These nine assertions become problematic only when we lapse into saying, “Just remember this one thing . . . Just rehearse . . . Just make sure . . . Just ask . . . If you will just do . . .”

Our nine items capture some of the promises, revelations, purposes, commands, perspectives, providences, and helps that our God reveals in revealing himself to us. None of these stands supreme, relegating the others to the shadows. None of these is magic. And you could never remember all of these at any one time. Not one of them means the end of the struggle—not even all of them put together. They speak in different ways to how we struggle. And the Lord makes different truths meaningful at different times to different people.

We Need God’s (Multidimensional) Help

Notice something else about the nine truths. I’ve framed each of them a bit abstractly. No eagles hover over eaglets. No people wander through the desert wondering what awaits them on the other side of that river. We hear no conversations, feel no emotions, and watch no particular struggle unfold. These truths and exhortations—wise truths, helpful exhortations—have been taken out of context.

How Does Sanctification Work?

David Powlison

Weaving together personal stories, biblical exposition, and theological reflection, David Powlison highlights the personal and particular means God uses to make us more like Jesus.

As propositions, they have been stripped of the names, places, experiences, failures, successes, dramatic actions, and vivid metaphors that clothe most biblical revelation. They will need to be brought back into the here and now. You and I need each one of these truths—and many more—to be reclothed and to walk on the ground where we walk.

We need stories and word pictures, both from Scripture and from the testimonies of daily life. We need to understand how Scripture illumines and connects to our current situation. We need practical help to work out the implications and applications for who we are, for where we struggle, for what we face. We need Jesus to be present—the Lord who is my Shepherd, the Lord who watches over my going out and my coming in.

Scripture vividly and inductively demonstrates how these truths get traction and get personal. We need to get traction and get personal. We need other people. We need to hear and take to heart other people’s stories. We need God’s creation. We need to understand our times. We need honesty about ourselves. We need fresh object lessons. We need embodied faith and love. We need many different wisdoms to illumine the different parts of life.

The “Just . . .” formulas never meet the need.

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