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Sanctification, by Michael Allen

Ryan M. McGraw

Sanctification, by Michael Allen. New Studies in Dogmatics. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2017, 302 pages, $22.99, paper.

Christians have always given attention to the role of holy living in relation to the gospel. Whether they have stressed imitating Christ to the neglect of justification by faith or they have pressed justification by faith in ways that make personal holiness suspect, the question of how holiness relates to the gospel persists. This is largely because such questions arise within the pages of Scripture itself. The series of which this book is a part aims at theological “renewal through retrieval” (15). Far from simply regurgitating past ideas, retrieval involves “relearning a lost grammar of theological discourse” (16). In this vein, Michael Allen’s account of sanctification is systematically robust, historically informed, and biblically faithful. While it does not provide readers with the depth of practical detail that most will need to grow in godliness, it gives them the foundational gospel principles without which they cannot take even a step forward in the Christian life. This makes this book important for all believers, but especially for those entrusted with the task of teaching others how to live the Christian life.

Allen treats this theme in ten chapters relating sanctification to the gospel, God, creation, covenant, incarnation, union with Christ, justification, grace and nature, grace and responsibility, and grace and discipline. He argues that sanctification must be related to all these doctrines in order to remain grounded in the gospel (44). It is not really until chapter eight that he begins to treat issues traditionally associated with sanctification directly (199). This is one of the greatest strengths of this work, as the author roots the holiness of believers in the character of the God who saves them in Christ. In a time when many Christians associate the gospel more with benefits than with the Christ who brings benefits with him, this emphasis is needed desperately. The character of the holy triune God and the nature of union with Christ are some of the primary reasons why the gospel must ultimately include sanctification. It is only this line of thinking that removes the question as to why we should obey God if we are justified by faith alone in Christ alone. A man-centered gospel might be content with forgiveness without likeness to God. However, a God-centered gospel begins with forgiveness without being satisfied with anything less than perfection in holiness before the Lord in glory. While Allen draws from a wide range of authors throughout the centuries, John Calvin looms large in these pages, especially in chapters six and seven. He notes as well the powerful influences of John Owen, Edward Fischer, G. C. Berkouwer, Oliver O’Donovan, and John Webster on his thinking on this subject (45). The irenic spirit exemplified by the author, drawing valuable insights even from those with whom he has significant disagreements, is a needed model in the church today as well. We should avoid the extreme of treating all opinions as equal as well as that of refusing to learn from those who stand on the other side of a debate. In doing so, Allen has developed a full and satisfying account of biblical sanctification.

In this reviewer’s estimation, Allen’s reflections on the relationship of justification and sanctification to each other and of both to union with Christ can open fruitful avenues in modern debates over these topics. He mediates between competing options related to the ordo salutis with two important observations. First, he writes,

Justification serves as the basis or ground for the transformative sanctification by the Spirit; syntactically, this is evident in that [Heb.] 8:10–11 describe a sanctifying work of the law written upon the hearts, and 8:12 says this transformation occurs “for” or “because” there is a justifying work of forgiving their iniquities finally and fully. (182)

Secondly, he writes,

Sanctification is the final cause of double grace; in other words, God justifies us so that God can and will sanctify us. Justification is not meant to be a final or ultimate blessing, but it is an entryway blessing that brings one into a journey that terminates in a still greater benefit: the transforming presence of the glorious God of the gospel. (183)

This obviates the problem of forcing readers to choose between union with Christ without any causal or logical order to justification or, alternatively, rooting sanctification in justification rather than in union with Christ. One of the benefits of such theological retrieval is that it reveals the existence of more theological options than the terms set by contemporary debates want to give us. Perhaps adding more voices to the conversation will pave a forward path in such debates.

I have one minor quibble with this book in relation to the author’s appeal to John Owen on the habits of grace. While Allen rightly points to Owen’s insistence that the Spirit infuses habits of grace in believers through their union with Christ (250–51), he neglects Owen’s equal insistence that infused habits of grace are insufficient to produce actual holiness. Owen insisted that believers need continual acts of the Spirit in every act of obedience to God. This strengthens the relationship between sovereign grace and the human responsibility to pursue holiness. Later Allen adds that infused habits of grace do not detract from “ongoing acts” of grace (254), yet this still falls short of Owen’s robust emphasis on the continual and personal acts of the Spirit in the lives of believers. This minor adjustment would make a great book even better.

This book does not answer every vital question related to sanctification. It will not provide a pathway to personal holiness in light of a proper exposition of the Decalogue, for example. However, it places the pursuit of holiness on better theological footing than most modern treatments. Allen’s trinitarian, Christological, systematic, and exegetical approach to his subject gives readers the foundation that they need to take Christ’s call to holiness seriously and to build on this foundation solidly. Owen believed that falling short of such biblical meditation left us without the materials needed to foster faith, and that this was the primary reason why most Christians did not make greater progress in their sanctification. The fact that this is precisely the point at which Allen meets his readers shows how necessary this book is for the church today. While we need more than such theological reflection, we certainly do not need less, and if we bypass it entirely then we will cut off our progress in holiness at the knees.

Ryan M. McGraw is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as a professor of systematic theology at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, North Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, November 2018.

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