March 8, 2017

Risks of an Atrophied Sanctification

by Eric Davis


If you’ve ever broken a bone, you recall something about that associated muscle; atrophy. Due to low attention and use, a muscle will become weak and emaciated, or atrophied. A muscle in this state is feeble and of less use to the body.

The same can occur spiritually in the lives of Christian. If we fail to give proper attention to the biblical process of sanctification, we can unnecessarily weaken our souls. And, when a church leadership shepherds with a weak approach to sanctification, they risk endangering souls in many ways.

With that, here are a few risks of taking an atrophied approach to sanctification:

  1. An atrophied sanctification risks confusing the definition of a church.

A NT kind of church is a glorious thing. It is a part of that one institution which Jesus promised to build and bless. Part of that building and blessing includes the shaping and maturation of spiritual newborns; sanctification.

However, an atrophied sanctification can turn the church into an evangelistic event, but not a shepherded flock. If souls are not cared for beyond birth, the majority of the church will remain in perpetual spiritual diapers.

But the local church is a not just a soul-birthing center. It’s also a nurturing family. The new birth is just the beginning. What identifies a church is not only people making professions, but professors maturing.

  1. An atrophied sanctification risks diluting and socializing the gospel.

The Person and finished work of Christ grants us the infinitely blessed gift of salvation from the penalty and power of sin. It’s a package deal, beginning at regeneration and justification. So, the process of sanctification is the logical continuation.

But if sanctification is put in the trunk, the gospel can be darkened a bit. It can morph into that which saves from sin’s penalty but not its presence, which is not the biblical gospel.

Instead, the gospel becomes something to display and imitate before it is something by which I am made acceptable to God. Often that something else is social cause. The death of Christ is to rescue us from our social needs instead of the wrath of God. The gospel which saves becomes the gospel which socializes.

Social causes are necessary. But, the work of God in Christ is about rescuing us from our personal penalty and power of sin. It will not do to reduce Christ’s substitutionary penal atoning death to a means of increased social awareness. A low view of sanctification can contribute to that confusion.

  1. An atrophied sanctification risks stunting the growth of God’s people.

Souls are born by the Holy Spirit to grow. Like a seed to a fruit tree, the seed of regeneration is to be tended to for progressive maturation. Sheep need shepherds, not just welcome-to-the-flock attendants. We are to equip the saints so that they “are no longer tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine,” giving care so that they “grow up in all aspects in Him who is the head” (Eph. 4:14-15). Leaders are to labor for each soul’s completion in Christ (Col. 1:28-29).

A church with an atrophied sanctification will foster a culture of immature Christians at best. Members will be carried about by every wind of doctrine, indulge the flesh, ride imbalanced doctrinal hobby horses, spurn correction from others, and, perhaps worst of all, have no idea how desperately they need to grow. While there’s nothing wrong with lacking maturity, there is with doing nothing about it.

  1. An atrophied sanctification risks becoming an irrelevant church.

God’s people are said to be salt and light (Matt. 5:13-16). Which means we ought to stand out in a world of darkness and distaste. How do we do that? Take it from Christ. Was he relevant? And, how so? Not because he was so like the world, but unlike it. His relevance was in his holiness, not his worldliness. So it must be with us.

Little attention given to biblical sanctification renders a church spiritually immature and therefore, irrelevant to reach the lost. Sanctification is what makes the church evangelistically relevant in a dark world. Christ was so relevant, not because he was methodologically and culturally trained, but because he was so holy. He is the best evangelist because of his holiness; complete in sanctification. So, christlikeness renders us far more evangelistic than cultural-likeness. A lack of holiness cripples evangelism. Giving time to repenting and mourning over our sin will position us for powerful witness far more than strategizing cultural maneuvering.

  1. An atrophied sanctification risks neglecting those hurting in the flock.

The Chief Shepherd requires his undershepherds to bring care to the local sheep (1 Pet. 5:2). And the needs in any church are great. Marriages are teetering. Parents are battling. Singles are wavering. God’s kind of deep sanctification is the need for these types of situations. Caring for such needs requires a local church atmosphere where sanctification is held high. A church which is light on sanctification will not likely be conducive to raising up individuals to come alongside these sanctification needs.

   6. An atrophied sanctification risks failing to raise up biblically qualified leaders.

One of the most important things a church needs to do is equip biblically qualified leaders. It’s no easy task. Leaders cannot be mircorwave-made. Raising up leadership who will last in the rigorous demands of shepherding involves more than a quick, cookie-cutter program. It’s a long process, requiring much hard work, patience, and care for the man.

A look at the pastoral charge in 1 and 2 Timothy, for example, is telling. The bulk of Paul’s commands contain things like upholding sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:3-5, 18-19; 4:1-6), training up qualified leaders (1 Tim. 3:1-13, 5:17-22, 2 Tim. 2:2), rigorous devotion to personal holiness and endurance (1 Tim. 1:18-19, 4:6-12, 15-16, 6:11-16, 2 Tim. 1:6, 2:1, 3-13, 20-22, 4:5), caring for the flock (1 Tim. 5:1-16), and hard work in faithfully teaching the Scripture (1 Tim. 4:11, 13-14, 2 Tim. 2:15, 24-26, 4:1-2). All of these things relate directly or indirectly to equipping men for biblical leadership. Producing this kind of a man cannot happen with a weak approach to sanctification.

   7. An atrophied sanctification risks leading souls astray.

Church leaders have the mandate to “ensure” the salvation of the flock (1 Tim. 4:16). The shepherd’s vigilant self-watch is one means of ensuring that the saved continue, and finish, in the faith. However, when there is an atrophied approach to sanctification, the church will reap what it sows. Souls will suffer. Those who make professions of faith, if converted at all, will hardly progress in Christ. Unnecessary spiritual instability will persist.

false-assurance-logo-blackEven worse, the line between regenerate and unregenerate will be blurred. With sanctification low in priority, the wheat and tares will look similar. Church leaders risk propagating false assurance among the flock. Like a pediatrician who is indifferent to the growth of a newborn, leaders with low emphasis on sanctification endanger those in their care.

    8. An atrophied sanctification risks unfaithfully shepherding the Lord’s flock.

Shepherds will give an account for the souls for whom they care (Heb. 13:17). The Lord will not punish them for being obscure and not having a mega-church. Christ bought and brought each regenerate soul into the church. They must be shepherded with eagerness, so that we might hear, “Well done, good and faithful slave.” Jesus purchased those souls with his own blood and the Father cares to prepare them for a great wedding some day (Rev. 19:7). Our stewardship of the Son’s Bride does not end at their conversion, it only begins there.

Sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18). And people are called to rigorous involvement (Phil. 2:12-13). So, if we have an errant view of sanctification, we can endanger souls in various ways. But, if we align with Scripture here, we can be sure that we are doing our part in caring for the maturation of souls.

Eric Davis

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Eric is the pastor of Cornerstone Church in Jackson Hole, WY. He and his team planted the church in 2008. Leslie is his wife of 14 years and mother of their 3 children.
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  • Jason

    “While there’s nothing wrong with lacking maturity, there is with doing nothing about it.”

    Well stated. Immaturity and lukewarmness are not the same thing, but they get mixed up VERY often in my experience.

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  • tovlogos

    Amen, Eric.

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  • grh

    “The shepherd’s vigilant self-watch is one means…”

    I think most would agree that the primary form this watching takes is the faithful exposition of Scripture.

    But notice I said “primary” and not “only”. It seems to be a prevalent and increasing thought today that those who are charged with shepherding a portion of God’s flock only do so by becoming talking heads set on their podiums far above the heads of the little people, to the exclusion of all other mandated shepherding duties and common-sense leadership principles that are shown in Scripture.

    The atrophied view of sanctification that Eric wrote about also displays itself by those shepherds who refuse to get down in the weeds with the flock, be a part of the flock in practice as well as in name, and get to know the flock not only for mutual refreshing and enjoyment, but also to assess their flock’s spiritual condition and minister to them personally to address those areas where there is need for spiritual growth by bringing the word of God to bear on the individual lives of the flock.

    I was reading a brief overview of (I think) Thomas Boston’s ministry, where he had accepted a pastorate at another church, and when he moved there he wrote something like this (paraphrased):

    “When I arrived, I found the church’s spiritual condition to be in much need, such that they needed basic exhortation and instruction in the things of God.”

    So, he proceeded to visit each home of his congregation on either a weekly or monthly basis for the express purpose of checking in on them, seeing how they were doing spiritually, and teaching them, praying for and with them, and exhorting them personally to a better walk with the Lord.

    Like I said, it might not have been Thomas Boston, but it was from around that time period, and I can’t think of a better example that displays a concern for the continued sanctification of each member of the church body, and it’s something that is sorely lacking today.

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