A Post About A Book About Sanctification

“To be sanctified is to have your faith simplified, clarified, and deepened.” Writes David Powlison, author of How Does Sanctification Work. “You know God. You love God. How other people are doing matters increasingly to you. Becoming more holy means, [among other things], that you are becoming a wiser human being.”

He goes on: “You are learning how to deal with your money, your sexuality, your job. You are becoming a better friend and family member. When you talk, your words communicate more good sense, more gravitas, more joy, more reality.”

“You are learning to pray honestly, bring who God really is into the reality of human need. It means you live in more clear-minded hope.” And finally, “You know the purpose of your life, roll up your sleeves, and get about doing what needs doing. You are honestly thankful for good things. You honestly face disappointment and pain, illness and dying.”

According to Powlison, Sanctification does not simply boil down to vaguely thinking about one’s Justification. Although the scriptures say “remember your Justification,” it does not mean that each time I sin, my responsibility is simply to remind myself that I am fully, freely, and forever forgiven because of the work of Christ on the cross.

And it does not simply mean that we try super-hard to be super-good outside of the power of the Holy Spirit. According to Powlison, our whole salvation was purchased by Christ, for Christ, and is accomplished through Christ, including our Sanctification. As we “remember [our] Justification,” we submit to the Spirit whom Christ sent, and the Spirit conforms us, over the course of a lifetime, to the likeness of the Christ whose righteousness is already imputed onto us.

There is absolutely no version of Sanctification that happens outside of relationship with other people. Powlison lists ‘accountability relationships’ as an indispensable resource that the Spirit uses to hammer us into the likeness of Christ. Sanctification involves using all of the ‘tools’ that He has given us. Powlison writes that we are given a ‘truckload’ of tools, and none of them are end-all-be-all; neither accountability nor ‘spiritual warfare’ nor ‘rooting our identity in Christ’ are individually efficacious to root out our sin nature. God has bestowed us with a ‘truckload’, and we submit to His work by using all of them.

There’s no ‘formula’ for Sanctification whereby we follow seven simple steps and come out the other side as a new creation. The process is always scattered, unfolding at a rickety pace, in fits and starts, as we stumble and grasp at straws before submitting again to the Spirit whose work isn’t scattershot and rickety. The essence of Sanctification, he says, is submission to the Spirit – we “remember our Justification” when we allow our Justification to bear its fruit; because we are Justified in Christ, the Spirit comes to us to Sanctify us, completing the work of the cross.

The call to Sanctification and the call to live on mission are essentially the same thing, Powlison writes. God does not simply Sanctify us because it pleases Him for us to reflect the perfect righteousness of His Son (although this is one reason), but because it pleases Him for His elect to draw others into the fold by embodying a righteousness that proves contagious, that gets others God-sick. Our Sanctification, which others see as they know us through the years, is one means by which God seeks out the lost. Sanctified people are de facto missionaries because they are being sanctified, publicly, and it causes people to want to know the God who does the Sanctifying.

Sanctification takes place chiefly in the context of discipleship: you are sanctified as you are discipled, and you are sanctified as you disciple. If we are not being discipled by other believers who are being Sanctified, then we are likely not growing in grace, and we are likely not being “transformed, from one degree of glory to another, into the image of Christ”. And, if we are not discipling others, Christian and non-Christian, then we are probably not being changed by grace. Sanctification is for sinful people, and our ongoing struggles with sin do not derail our Sanctification. But sluggardliness can.

If we are hiding from community and accountability, we are probably hiding from God, even if we think we aren’t. We are conformed together, the passage from Ephesians says, into His image, and we need each other.

Knowing that there is no formula by which Sanctification plays out challenges us to seek out every opportunity to submit to the Spirit’s work in us. This means that every opportunity to share the gospel with someone – say, a homeless person that you have an opportunity to buy lunch for – is to be used for the kingdom. It is not simply a good thing to do, it’s part of the Spirit-wrought process whereby we grow into our identity in Christ.

To paraphrase Powlison, Sanctification is what happens as the Spirit works out the life of Jesus in our own lives. Even if we have jobs and homes and pets, we are, in essence, itinerant evangelists who insert ourselves into the life of our communities as witnesses to the gospel of grace.

“Ministry ‘unbalances’ truth for the sake of relevance; theology ‘rebalances’ truth for the sake of comprehensiveness,” Writes Powlison. “Put another way, because you can only say one thing at a time, a timely word must be a selective word focusing on the need of the moment. And this selective focus produces a kind of imbalance.”

He concludes: “But stepping back from the need of the moment, many things can be said, and this larger theological picture helps us maintain balance.” So it goes with Sanctification.

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How Does Sanctification Work can be purchased on Amazon and probably other places, too.

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Spurgeon Remembered: A Lay History of a Baptist Giant (Part 1)

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Spurgeon preaching at the Surrey Music Hall circa 1858. From Spurgeon’s Sermons Fifth Series; Sheldon & Co. 1858. At Surrey Music Hall, Kennington.

Charles Haddon Spurgeon (1834-1892) is mostly remembered as an innocuous Victorian preacher whose quotes show up on hallmark mugs and Baptist sermon illustrations. Although he is generally admired by modern Evangelicals, his reputation has prevented his legacy from benefiting the Evangelical Church to its fullest capacity. Over the next few weeks, I’ll examine the degree to which Spurgeon diverged from the prevailing attitudes of Victorian British Christianity, and seek to identify his “integrative motif.” Finally, I will explore several ways in which a proper appraisal of his theology and ministry would be beneficial to the modern Evangelical Church as we seek to imitate those aspects that would prove fruitful in contemporary gospel ministry.

Spurgeon Remembered
There is no dearth of information surrounding the life and character of the “prince of preachers,” but it is exceedingly difficult to separate fact from folklore when attempting to wade through the vast ocean thereof. Many of the inspiring anecdotes that surround his life come from dubious sources, or are difficult to source altogether. Even biographical information that came from his own pen, when scrutinized carefully, does not always hold up to the standards of modern historiography. The many accounts that he produced of his own conversion, for example, are not easily harmonized. It is not only the emphases that vary from one retelling to the next but also the details themselves. Additionally, those who have undertaken to verify the details of the story have found that the external evidence that is available conflicts with, rather than confirms, his version of the events of that fateful Sabbath morning.

It is unclear whether the inconsistencies between the accounts themselves and between the accounts and the external evidence are due to the inherent unreliability of human memory and/or the sheer creativity of a mind as imaginative as Spurgeon’s or if they are due to a conscious effort on his part to shape the events of his conversion to illustrate the gospel most clearly. In any case, this and other parts of his biography appear to be closer to creative Midrash than straightforward history. It is tempting, therefore, to draw a clear distinction between the “Spurgeon of Faith,” i.e. the near mythic figure who shows up in sermon illustrations, and the “Charles of History,” i.e. the unglamorous man who pastored a thriving congregation and tried to lead a household beset with tragedy. This is done, both consciously and unconsciously in many an academic study of the preacher, as scholars seek to humanize a man who has become the stuff of legends.

The reigning paradigm in academic writing at this point in time posits that good analysis of any historical figure requires us to deal exclusively with “the bald facts of history,” calling into question anything that appears to be the product of “imaginative interpretation” of the historical data on the part of the subject themselves or past biographers, particularly those who wrote in a premodern context. Under this paradigm, any sort of interpretive retelling of the subject’s life events is branded as propaganda and a new, “objective” picture of said historical figure is produced—often a more cynical picture. I want to establish that I will be eschewing this practice for the purpose of this paper. The paradigm described above is not merely flawed, but defunct, not least because it vastly misunderstands human nature and the nature of truth itself.

In her wonderful book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre writes that purposeful articulation of life experiences is the essence of autobiographical story-telling. As a form of self-disclosure, the objective is not, in fact, to relate the bald acts of history in an orderly and coherent fashion, but to process through narrative the goings-on of our lives and put to words the complex, emotionally nuanced movements of our daily struggles and joys so that the point of the story is clear. If, for example, one was to have a subtle but humorous encounter at a cafe, it would be necessary to embellish certain aspects of the story when relating it to friends. The humor of the encounter arose in the moment out of a multitude of factors both external (i.e. circumstances, timing, etc.) and internal (i.e. emotions, past experiences, etc.) that came together to produce amusement. Communicating the humor of the encounter to an audience who did not experience it may entail playing up certain details of the encounter and omitting others, rearranging in some part the order of events and rephrasing the words exchanged to render their significance more immediately obvious.

As can be seen in the way that the authors of the four canonical Gospels would rearrange events, alter minor details and shift the emphases of various pericopes shared between them, the aforementioned principle applies across all mediums of storytelling. In short, much of what contemporary biographers of Spurgeon have sometimes written off as ahistorical folklore about the man is probably just purposeful storytelling. Therefore, I have no designs to “strain out gnats” in my treatment of the historical Spurgeon. I will deal instead with the portrait that has been passed down to us, because that is the way that those who loved him, whose lives were transformed by his staggering influence, who needed him, and whom he needed, remembered him. This is not a treatment of the so-called “historical Spurgeon.” I will treat the pithy anecdotes about him as integral so long as they do not contradict what is known about him. Therefore, this is a treatment of “Spurgeon remembered,” not because I prefer to work with a “false” Spurgeon, but because the storified Spurgeon we encounter in the lively anecdotes about him is, by any meaningful measurement, the best window we have into Spurgeon as he actually was.

The Subversive Spurgeon, Remembered
The life and ministry of Charles Haddon Spurgeon is incomprehensible without a cursory understanding of the Victorian backdrop against which he lived and ministered. Author Iain Murray has noted that the unfortunate lack of nuance in Spurgeon studies can be traced to the tendency amongst previous scholars to neglect the specific points of divergence between Spurgeon’s ideology and the prevailing attitudes of the contemporary Victorian culture. The failure to situate their subject firmly within the prejudices of Victorian London can be regarded as the chief contributor to the popular but inaccurate portrait of Spurgeon as an innocuous Victorian preacher.

But as Evangelical churches increasingly self-marginalize and an alarming number of once doctrinally robust denominations succumb to theological drift, we need a subversive Spurgeon. Contemporary Evangelicals are inescapably the intellectual heirs of Spurgeon’s legacy, and he remains a hugely influential figure among our ranks. It is in our interest to reconstruct an image of him that is theologically robust and politically iconoclastic. Just as the reintroduction of William Wilberforce through Eric Metaxas’s Amazing Grace into the mainstream Evangelical consciousness has enabled him to be a transformative tool from beyond the grave toward refocusing Evangelical efforts around an elucidated communal identity, so also will a fresh look at the fiery preacher provide us with a refined vision for the future. Fortunately for us, the subversive Spurgeon that we need is, in fact, the only Spurgeon that ever existed.

Servantlike Images of a Self-Exalting God

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Christ Washing the Feet of the Apostles by Meister des Hausbuches, 1475 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin)

“And they came to Capernaum. And when they were in the house, Jesus said, “What were you talking about on the way?” But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued about who was the greatest. And He sat down and called the twelve. And He said to them, “Anyone who would be first must be last of all and servant of all.” And He took took a child and put Him in the midst of them. And taking him in His arms, He said, “Whoever receives one such child in My name receives Me, and whoever receives Me receives not Me but Him who sent Me.” (Mark 9:33-37)

“If anyone would be first, he must be servant of all.” The question we have to ask ourselves when we want to be godly bosses, godly parents, godly pastors and godly professors is, “How can I be a servant to those over whom I have ‘authority’?” Jesus came as a servant, and He never met a person He didn’t serve. Even the religious leaders who met harsh reprimand from Him were served in the process. No one else was willing to call them to repentance, save for the recklessly self-marginalizing Essene cult, whose reprimand resonated only with fringe wilderness dwellers. There is nothing inherently unloving about issuing rebuke. It is only selfish rebuke, served out of unholy fire, with little concern for the propriety of the context in which it is issued, that is unservantlike.

Even if we are not leaders in any capacity, if we are faces in a crowd, we are called to the joy of being everyone’s servant. We aren’t called to be doormats. Jesus was everyone’s servant and nobody’s doormat. There’s a difference. A servant is constantly posing the question: “What is the most loving thing that I can do for this person in this situation, given these circumstances?” Becoming someone’s doormat is never loving because in doing so you are only helping them to become more of a monster. Being a servant in the way that Jesus was a servant means being bold and assertive, although never overbearing or coercive. It means loving yourself so you have a reference point on how to love your neighbor as yourself. It means respecting yourself so that you have a frame of reference from which you can understand what kind of respect to give other people.

Being a servant like Jesus means resisting the temptation toward laziness or idleness because there is always someone to serve.  As a husband it means taking every opportunity to give your wife a chance to rest from the rush of the day. It means doing the dishes so that she can watch television, or take a nap, or read a book (or whatever). As a father it means playing with your kids when you’re exhausted from the day, and trying to create opportunities for them to build a good life for themselves in the future. It means doing what you need to do to prevent burnout. If that means waking up early to spend time alone to recharge, do that. If it’s something else, do that. It means stirring your affections for your wife by reflecting on her best qualities and choosing to dwell on them.

If you’re aggressively introverted–like myself–it means sacrificing solitude to be with your friends and family. It also means protecting your time alone so that you’re in a position to treat people well and engage in friendship with them.

We are citizens of a kingdom where everyone serves everyone. At one level, our lifestyle of servanthood is a walking apologetic for the truth of Christ to a world ruled by self-interest. We are called to this life style in order to display the selfless love of the self-exalting God. How does that work? The gospel begins with a Trinitarian God, fully satisfied in the bounds of His own intrinsically communal existence, creating a world of creatures to be servants, lovers, friends–communitarians. He created a people with the end in mind of shaping them to become like Him. That doesn’t mean that we are meant to become gods, but that we are meant to become a community of mutual servanthood.

That God is passionate about being glorified is a given because He is intrinsically glorious, and the intrinsic glory that He embodies demands redamancy from all creatures who encounter it. But with that reality in mind, it is necessary to situate our theology in the simultaneous reality that the intrinsically glorious God whose glory demands worship is also intrinsically satisfied. He has no needs that are unmet within Himself. It is not simply because He “owns the cattle on 1000 hills”, but that any and all conceivable needs that a person might have are satisfied fully by the perfect community that He experiences between the persons of Himself.

That means that when He created people, animals, greenery–everything–He did so with no designs of seeing a personal emotional deficit filled. He did not create us to be loved but to give love. He did not create us so that we might satisfy His emotional needs, but in order to multiply His own satisfaction to a whole world of creatures. The self-exalting God is selfless because His glory is self-authenticating. He can put real weight behind His claims to love people because He has nothing to gain from dying for them. He is self-exalting because He bloody well ought to be.

Jesus modeled this servant lifestyle to us and called us to do likewise because we have been newly created by the gospel to be servants after God’s own heart and Jesus’s own example. The servant lifestyle to which we are called is not only an apologetic to a lost world; it is written into the DNA of our identity in Christ.