Acting the Miracleby David Mathis, John Piper
Length: Approximately 5 hours. To read (161 pages).
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In Acting the Miracle, the contributors discuss the definition of sanctification, its place in the biblical storyline, what it looks like for struggling Christians to pursue their sanctification and the means of grace God gives us in our every-day lives to act this miracle—the miracle of sanctification.
Who should read this?
This book is intended for intended for all Christians. It will be especially helpful for individuals who wrestle with the tension of being Christians who are called to obey Jesus but who still sin; Christians who are seeking to live a life of good works, but not as a way to earn God’s favor.
Acting the Miracle is the fruit in print of the Desiring God 2012 National Conference. As such, the book is made up of the condensed and slightly reworked messages of five of the conference speakers: John Piper, Kevin DeYoung, Ed Welch, Russell Moore, and Jarvis Williams. One of the benefits of an edited (i.e. with multiple authors) work like this one, is that the reader gleans from the thoughtfulness and the distinct focus of multiple voices who address the issue not only from unique perspectives, but from a variety of important and related angles.
The book was written because the authors (speakers) saw a particular need to clarify what progressive sanctification is, but more importantly, how Christians should pursue it and how God intends it to be worked out. So more than a book about the what’s of sanctification, this is a book about the how’s of sanctification.
David Mathis introduces the book by acknowledging that sanctification talk can get all kinds of messy. First, it is unavoidably personal. Every conversation, sermon, or debate about sanctification ultimately says something about who we are and how we are living. Sanctification talk is talk about us and therefore often puts us on edge and makes us extra sensitive to what is being said.
Furthermore, sanctification talk is inherently complex. Not only does the Bible speak about two types of sanctification (definitive and progressive) but understanding it requires us to bring many aspects of Christian theology together (e.g. grace, works, sin, law, gospel, faith, the Holy Spirit, obedience) and figure out how they all fit together.
Because of its complexity, many have sought to find a key to putting it all together—what Mathis calls “the holy grail” of sanctification. This often takes the form of clever slogans that ends up overemphasizing some aspects and minimizing others.
The complexity of sanctification is a theme that runs throughout the book. Piper explains how the place of sanctification is embedded in “the sequence of divine acts from eternity to eternity that infallibly come to pass” (41). It is something that God through the Spirit is currently working in us, and yet it is something that is guaranteed to be completed in us.
Similarly, DeYoung’s chapter attempts to correct a problem of oversimplification. Many believers, in their pursuit of holiness, believe and live as if there was only one proper motivation for holiness. In response, DeYoung presents the spectrum of motivations which the Bible, like a skilled doctor, prescribes to individuals who face a spectrum of challenges in living holy lives.
Therefore, he argues that no motivation should be treated as the every-obstacle-removing solution: duty is not enough, gratitude is not enough, even our justification alone is not enough to completely motivate us in our sanctification.
Welch continues the trend by introducing the readers to the complexities of living holy lives as embodied beings. He urges us to remember that the problems of life can cluster around sin, suffering, or both and that, as such, we need to be careful when diagnosing what to us might look like an “unholy life.” As an experienced counselor, Welch is not afraid to discuss some issues that plague Christians and that make living like Jesus difficult. These include things like ADHD, depression, and panic attacks.
Williams pens the most exegetical chapter in the book, walking the reader carefully through Paul’s logic in texts like Romans 8:28–30; Ephesians 1:3–5; 2:4–6; and 2 Thessalonians 2:13. The focus of his chapter is to reiterate the manifold means of grace that God has ordained y which to enable us to pursue practical maturity in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Moore’s chapter brings in the dynamic of the church into the discussion of sanctification. Christians are part of a body, part of a family, part of a corporate reality under which we are to pursue holiness. With this reminder, Moore presses us to think not only about our own sanctification, not just about the role that others have in our sanctification, but also the responsibility that we ourselves have in spurring others to walk in holiness.
The book ends with a two-part conclusion. Piper brings the conversation full circle by reminding readers about the beauty of God’s holiness and the important initiatory role of our holy God in sanctification. God authors all, we act all. Canceled sin comes before conquered sin. It all begins with the cross and it all culminates in “the predestined glory where the beauty of holiness fills the earth” (138).
This book has become one of my favorite books on the topic of sanctification. Its primary contribution is that while it begins and ends with the theological and doctrinal details of what sanctification is and the role it plays in the life of the believer, its goal is to go one step beyond and to tread carefully into territory that has often misunderstood and misapplied how that sanctification is to be worked out.
In other words, what sets this book apart from so many others is that it focuses not on understanding the miracle (of sanctification) but on acting the miracle of sanctification.
It is no surprise then that the strongest chapters, in my opinion, are those that most directly help the reader navigate the complexities of pursuing a holy life in the midst of sin and suffering. Mathis’ introduction is engaging and assures the reader that the book will address the very practical and personal questions that arise when the rubber of the Christian life meets the road of a fallen world.
DeYoung’s brief but persuasive exegesis is effective in presenting the reader with important biblical categories often dismissed in sanctification talk. Furthermore, he really sets up the reader well to expect an explanation of how to walk in sanctification that is anything but monolithic. Welch similarly guides the reader through the real issues that surface when sanctification talk happens not in the doctrinal stratosphere, several thousand feet in the air, but at the sea-level of regular Christian experience—in the eating, sleeping, worrying, working, and speaking.
Each of these chapters would be of tremendous help for pastors, counselors and church leaders who desire to bring the full breadth of resources the Scriptures offers into the trials and struggles of Christians seeking to live holy lives.
There is, however, one oversight in the book. Although sanctification is discussed from a variety of angles, there is one major focus that is absent in the book. As has been pointed out by some, the reader might find it surprising that a book devoted to developing a robust practical theology of what it looks like to be conformed to the image of Jesus does not devote much time to, well, Jesus.
While many of the doctrinal fine-points of sanctification are clearly articulated in the epistles, surely the Gospels and the testimonies of our Lord also have something to contribute. As per the Scripture index at the back of the book, the Gospel of Mark is only cited once in the whole book and there are almost twice as many references to Romans as there are to all the Gospels combined.
Paul urges his readers to follow him as he follows Christ (1 Cor. 11:1) so the reader might have benefited from a closer examination at the life of Christ and the perfect example of holiness presented to us in is life.
“The process of sanctification… the action by which we bring our feelings and thoughts and acts into conformity to the infinite and all-satisfying worth of God” (36).
“The problem with much of our thinking on sanctification is that we assume people are motivated in only one way” (48).
“If we ignore the biblical category of strengths and weaknesses we will assume, by default, that the tardy but well-intentioned cleaner is immoral rather than a poor judge of time” (71).
“His [God’s] sovereign work in us does not cancel our need to work out our salvation or to pursue him with great intensity. Instead, his work in us propels us to do so; that is, we should wear ourselves out intensely pursuing God through various spiritual disciplines and means of grace because he has worked in us” (105).
“The discipline of the congregation spurs us to holiness not only in bringing to light issues of rebellion and unrepentance, and not only because the ambassadorial proclamation from Jesus works in our hearts to bring about repentance, but also because the accountability within the church itself changes us” (117).