Cover Image: Possessed by God

Possessed by God :
A New Testament Theology of Sanctification & Holiness (NSBT)

David Peterson (Apollos, 1994)

Blurb Review by Bruce L. Fields

Review by Bruce L. Fields

This study is the first in a series of monographs, New Studies in Biblical Theology, intending to examine some essential topics in Biblical theology. D. A. Carson, the series editor, outlines three areas, one or more of which each writer will address in the individual contributions: 1. the nature and status of biblical theology, including its relations with other disciplines (e.g. historical theology, exegesis, systematic theology, historical criticism, narrative theology); 2. the articulation and exposition of the structure of thought of a particular biblical writer or corpus; and 3. the delineation of a biblical theme across all or part of the biblical corpora (p. 7). David Peterson's painstaking analysis of the Biblical data on the nature of sanctification touches on nearly all of these categories and leaves the reader with a deeper awareness of the multitude of Biblical data contributing to a determinative accent in the meaning of sanctification.

Peterson argues that insufficient attention has been given to definitive sanctification, the onetime event of being incorporated into Christ through faith by the Holy Spirit, in many influential theories on sanctification (p. 14). His concern is threefold in my view. First, he simply desires to be true to the voice dominant in Scripture on the matter. Second, there are a number of views, particularly in systematic theological formulation, that differ on the nature of sanctification (pp. 12-13). Third, Peterson unequivocally advocates a solid foundation for both the understanding of, and the motivation for, living the Christian life. He points out, for example, that the call for holiness "can so easily degenerate into a moralistic and perfectionist program for believers to pursue" (p. 137).

The first section (chaps. 1-3) explores the meaning of God's call and empowerment of those in Christ to live as those who are possessed by him and indwelt by the Holy Spirit. In chap. 1, "The Biblical Starting-Point," Peterson shows how an informed view of holiness is rooted firmly in the OT portrayal of God as holy and as calling his people into a relationship with him that grounds them in holiness. There is further the responsibility inherent in the relationship to manifest holiness in every dimension of their existence, individually and corporately (pp. 17, 24).

The restatement of his thesis at the beginning of chap. 2, "Sanctified in Christ," effectively holds the reader's attention to the flow of Peterson's argument on the nature of sanctification: "In the New Testament, however, it primarily refers to God's way of taking possession of us in Christ, setting us apart to belong to him and to fulfill his purpose for us" (p. 27). He argues here that in the majority of instances where the verb "to sanctify" and the noun "sanctification" are used, the saving work of God in Christ actualized in the lives of believers through the Holy Spirit rises to prominence. Chapter 3, "Sanctified by Word and Spirit," includes extended treatments of passages such as Eph 5:25-27 (pp. 52-54); Acts 20 (pp. 56-58); Acts 26 (pp. 55-56); Romans 12-15 (pp. 58-60); 2 Thess 2:13-15 (pp. 60-62); 1 Thessalonians 4-5 (pp. 65-67). These sections include references and commentary on other Biblical passages, but together they contribute to a deeper appreciation of the definitive nature of sanctification as that which is built on the word of God and the power of the Spirit.

Chapter 4, "Pursuing Holiness," builds on what has been presented before on sanctification while wrestling with the question: "How can we pursue something that is God's gift to us?" (p. 71). Peterson discusses much from the letter to the Hebrews and other NT passages showing that God is concerned about the members of the community of faith manifesting their sanctification in Christ (p. 75). "No Christian should doubt the need to give practical everyday expression to the holiness that is our status and calling in Christ" (p. 91). Peterson trenchantly observes that with the intensity of many who desire "progress" in holiness, the danger exists for a shift of attention from the grace of God to human effort (pp. 91-92).

An extended discussion on Romans 6-8 dominates the content of chap. 5, "Living Between the Cross and Resurrection." Peterson argues that moral renewal stems from the believer's union with Christ in his death and resurrection. He further explicates the tension between the "now" and the "not yet" of Biblical sanctification. The Christian is called to live in the present as those who belong in the age to come. The flesh is still a powerful influence in one's life, though it may be offset through submission to the work of the Spirit. Through such submission and the appropriation of power, the believer lives awaiting God's consummative work at the resurrection (p. 114). In chap. 6, "Transformation, Renewal and Growth," Peterson presents Biblical data with explanation advancing the point that the NT uses the language of renewal, transformation, and growth to explain what God is doing in the lives of believers (p. 136). Two helpful appendices complete his study of sanctification.

This review is woefully inadequate in reflecting the breadth and depth of Biblical analysis contained in this book. Peterson must be commended for this aspect alone. He does, however, make some unique and timely observations. The Church always exists in a sociocultural setting and can be affected, positively or negatively, by this setting. In a time when sexual promiscuity runs rampant in our society and does have an effect on the Church, Peterson wisely emphasizes the relationship between holiness and sexuality. Believers belong to the Lord and cannot indulge themselves in the abuse of their bodies (pp. 82-84). Needed in our day as well is the reminder of the corporate nature of sanctification. Incorporating favorably the suggestion of Peter O'Brien on Col 3:11, he confirms that there is the creation of a new humanity in Christ. There is a removal of the centrality of "racial, religious, cultural and social barriers" among believers (pp. 131-132). Polarization is also a growing reality in this country and in various parts of the world. The Church, simply by living in the reality of our union with Christ and with each other, can be a powerful model of reconciliation.

Peterson's impressive work would have been strengthened by greater sensitivity to two general points. In criticizing some systematicians like Anthony Hoekema, he needs to explain the relationship between Biblical and systematic theology. The systematician should indeed build his/her ahistorical categories in theology on Biblical sensitivities. The nature of systematic theology, however, calls for a response to other elements as well, such as philosophical and ethical concerns in the discussion of a particular theological category. The systematician should reflect Biblical emphases as Hoekema, for example, does in his treatment of sanctification (see Saved by Grace, pp. 202-203). A critique of sanctification in the realm of systematic formation must be informed by some understanding of this Biblical-systematic relationship to argue the case for a needed emphasis on definitive sanctification.

Second, a fleshing out of how his emphasis on definitive sanctification should affect the Wesleyan or Reformed traditions would have been helpful. Peterson revealed well some inadequacies in their explanation of the meaning of sanctification. The question remains, however, how they should reconstitute their views. How should this reminder from Scripture affect the form and content of their enunciation of sanctification?

These concerns in no way detract from the contribution that Peterson's work makes to this foundational Biblical-theological topic. The Biblical analysis alone is impressive and helpful and calls for serious reflection for those who hold to Biblical authority.

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