Foundations: No.73 Autumn 2017

Book Reviews

Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken

David Powlison, Crossway, 2017, 128pp, £9.05 (£6.71 Kindle)

David Powlison has served for more than 35 years at the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation in Philadelphia, and is its current Executive Director. He is senior editor of the Journal of Biblical Counseling, and has written extensively on biblical counseling and on the relationship between faith and psychology.

Whilst many books today seek to offer counsel on issues of sexual immorality and many other books seek to do so on sexual victimisation – and often with Christians in mind – these topics are rarely treated together. In this, his latest book, David Powlison writes to offer counsel to those struggling with either of these problems or with both of them. He is aware that he is attempting to cover a lot of ground in a relatively short space.

Though short, the book is not superficial, and despite its occasional use of big words, is easy to read. The sentences are punchy and artfully alliterated. Many expressions are pithy and memorable. There is a lot of repetition, which helps to glue the lines of thought together. The impressions given are strong and clear. The author does not baulk at tackling difficult subjects and the reader does not squirm when he tackles them.

Powlison’s argument is that the gospel addresses the issues underlying life’s problems. Everyone needs the gospel; and Christ’s work of renewal is for all aspects of life, including our sexuality. Jesus begins where we are. The book looks at both sin and affliction (at what we do and at what happens to us). Though different in kind, these are yet intertwined in our human condition. Pro-active sins inflamed by immoral desires are different from reactive sins emerging through fear and the desire for protection, yet both can be renewed and sanctified by the gospel. The gospel is for sinners and sufferers. Whilst the book challenges behaviours which today in the West are becoming cultural norms, it is aimed primarily at believers. The presenting issues within the context of the church can be tackled today through a whole variety of pastoral ministries, but the dynamic by which both the immoral and the victims are renewed has a core similarity, which Christ alone can address.

Generally, books on immorality are written for men and books on victimisation for women. But, as Powlison maintains, sexual sin and suffering cannot be rigidly “sex-typed”. Also, grace crosses male and female boundaries: “no temptation has overcome you that is not common to man…” (1 Cor 10:13). So the Lord Jesus Christ engages us in his work of renewing the immoral and the fearful – and aims to purify both.

The book begins with a vivid illustration and gathers momentum through an extended metaphor. The trajectory illustration is about fabric quality. Our sexual lives are somewhere on a spectrum between a clean, bright, luminous quilt (the pure end of the spectrum to which we are being renewed) and a dirty, sordid, oily rag (the experience and feeling many of us have with regards to our own sexuality). The book’s main metaphor is one of “battle”, which is used effectively throughout the remainder of the book. Believers, violators and violated alike, are in a battle. The illustration and the metaphor are appropriate, but to my mind might have been connected more clearly.

Powlison states that God has a positive view of sex and a negative view of immorality. And whilst God has a deep concern for the abused, he is also concerned for the immoral, whether their actions are consensual or criminal, that they, too, be renewed. Working against God’s work of renewal are temptations, coming by allurement and affliction, by a variety of paths, through a range of provocations. “The world, the flesh and the devil” form a complex of formidable foes that can hardly be disentangled from one another. And the battle, basically between obedience and disobedience, can be fierce. But there are aids to help in the fight.

The reader is led through the importance of conscience, and the value of having a good conscience, shaped through obedience to the gospel. That “we are all deviants in one way or another”, would suggest the author is working from within the doctrine of total depravity.

Powlison develops the helpful insight that those battling do well to look long-term. There are no quick-fixes; sanctification is life-long. Turning from sin and shame is a gradual process. Life never operates in cruise-control. So we cannot put a timetable on God’s delivering of us from either sexual sins or from results of sexual victimisation. Neither ought we to judge others’ behaviours rashly. Whilst God prunes, he is always patient. It is God’s prerogative to bring matters to completion (Phil 1:6, a verse Powlison utilises often, and helpfully so). And in the battle, the direction in which we are heading is key, more so than the speed or distance travelled. With Luther and Calvin in support, repentance is seen as life-long, a way of thinking, a life-style. Being always with his people, God will prompt them to repent if their direction becomes wayward. God loves them and is always for them. Despite his sin, David understood by faith that God would remember his mercies more than David’s sin.

Sinful thoughts and actions dethrone God in our lives. But growing sanctification deepens the significance of the Saviour who sees our hearts and still loves us. As believers grow they become more aware of the subtlety of the struggle. And “as we get better we get worse at the same time” [!]. It is healthy to know one’s poverty of spirit, need of the Saviour and God’s faithfulness. While the fight is long, and deep, Jesus’ goal is to make us like himself in real life – and so we realise that his love is greater than we first perceive. Whilst, as the author says, Jesus may address the unruly and lustful in a manner different from the fainthearted, the author’s case may have been helped had he supplied more concrete examples.

And renewal in one area of life can affect other areas as well; sexual problems rarely come alone. Attitudes and motives can intertwine and affect the topography of the battle-field. The author gives a lengthy and helpful case study. Throughout the book he seeks to consider the redemption of sex holistically. Victims often identify themselves as “survivors”. They have set up “self-asserted boundaries”. But their attitudes sometimes need a lot of cleaning up. Post-abuse anger, loneliness and feeling misunderstood are areas the gospel also addresses.

God’s direction is that you treat others properly and that you be persuaded that good sex (within marriage alone) is normal. And what matters are the moral choices you make today. Other voices will compete to suppress God’s voice, but he is always with you, so you must talk to him and walk with him through the problem. It is crucial to ask if God is with you in the situation. You must be assured whenever you find yourself in trouble that the God who is always for you is full of free mercy.

Powlison writes with a desire to help people at the practical level. He has a helpful realism about marriage, writing to help those who have practised or who still practise sexual immorality (according to biblical standards) or who have been victims of sexual betrayal or violation. He writes also to those who may be in a position to offer counsel to people in either or both categories. He is aware that the two issues are not always neatly compartmentalised, but that one can affect the other, and also be affected by various other theological-ethical issues.

Would I recommend this book? Yes. Do I think it could benefit those in the battle? Very much so! I could happily recommend it both to church members struggling with either sexual sin or sexual suffering and to counselors seeking to help them. It might even be used “evangelistically” to point out from a biblical perspective what is sexually sinful and what is not, and how we might respond biblically to either.

On a wider front, Powlison uses Scripture texts respectfully to support, and sometimes “proof-text”, his arguments, but his sensitivity to the original context of these texts varies. This means that texts used to address particular pastoral issues can have their use and interpretation influenced by the issue itself. Similarly, because human sexuality is something to be renewed and sanctified, it is a subject properly incorporated within the doctrine of sanctification. This being the case – as some argue – the pastoral issue is better brought to the biblical-theological framework (rather than the texts being brought to the pastoral issue). Powlison communicates well an underlying awareness of relevant theology, but it is not always clear which way his method is working – a more complex subject.

Gareth E. Williams
Pastor, Bala Evangelical Church

 

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