There is a gap of action and desire in Christian holiness today. The Christian is called to follow Jesus, become more like Him, and die to self. Most Christians know that God is calling them to live a life of holiness and submission to Christ, yet few actually act on these desires. This is what we call the “sanctification gap.”
Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34-35, ESV). The dichotomy of losing life to find it, denying self to find our true selves, and following Jesus to find our true purpose is at the crux of the Christian experience. It’s a beautiful opportunity to experience life and spirituality outside of ourselves and, as I say in the article: “The death of self and submission to Christ is not a sad end to an otherwise great life, it’s a huge gasp of air after living underwater.”
Sadly, many Christians see the Christian experience as the opposite of a breath of fresh air: a confining list of rules, regulations, and heaping levels of guilt and shame when failure comes. Churches have been complicit in this idea, either watering down the necessity of sanctification or creating incredible burdens that no one can bear. We need to understand the Gospel to help us come to solutions.
In the article, I quote some helpful statistics to get our minds around the holiness gap:
39% indicate that they “confess . . . sins and wrongdoings to God and ask for forgiveness” every day 27% confess a few times a week 8% say they rarely or never confess sins and ask God for forgiveness
Related to the following statement: “A Christian must learn to deny himself/herself in order to serve Christ.”
64% of churchgoers agree with the statement 19% disagree with the statement
I state: “The 19% is what should concern us as pastors and leaders (and the rest who did not know or answer). The essential, biblical mandate to follow Jesus and deny ourselves to serve Christ is not affirmed by almost 1 out of every 3 participants.”
We say we want the life of Christ and believe in Him for salvation, but we can’t seem to get past the denial hurdle. Combined with this, churches are also playing a part in this gap.
Some churches minimize the call to obedience, but far more have bastardized the truth of grace into a list of dos and don’ts. The result of this is:
It makes sanctification a by-product of our obedience. It says the Gospel is something we believe to get saved, then we go on towards ‘maturity’ by serving and giving. This is moralism, acting good as a way to become good, and it has a major effect on how people perceive holiness and becoming more like Jesus.
Here is the insidious lie behind it: it lessens the work of Christ’s superseding work on our behalf. His obedience is what allows us to obey. His work allows us to rest. But, as I mention in the article, “Many pastors preach sermons that essentially say ‘Christ did His part, now you do yours.’ This burden of sanctifying ourselves is then placed on the shoulders of Christians, and becomes impossible to bear. The result is either rejection or resignation.”
The deeper problem is that instead of “come and die,” many churches say “come and do.” It is a subtle twist to see all we cannot do in full view, instead of all we CAN do with Christ in us. This come-and-do moralism inspires rejection and isolation, forcing our sins into hiding, confession into the past, and community more like a country club than the trenches of war. It also inspires resignation. The impossible standards create a sense of worthlessness and hopelessness which drive people toward sin.
I explain in the article: “It creates to-do lists instead of I-can’t-without-Christ lists. It has the appearance of godliness while denying the power that makes the Gospel “Good News.”
The solution “is not the denial of our passions and desires as bad and then doing moral things to be good. CS Lewis once said: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.” The answer to the sanctification gap is not moralism, but instead falling more deeply in love with Christ.”
When Christ becomes the full view of the Christian, sin fades away. When He is seen as OUR ultimate good, in a personal way, then the call to die is really a call to experience life the way we were meant to. Sanctification is not sin management, it’s walking out a life in view of Jesus’ love and work for us. We become who we are truly made to be as we follow Jesus into His death and resurrection on a daily basis.
My exhortation in the article is the same here:
As we fall more in love with Jesus, we fall more in love with His cross and all that means for our daily life. We bridge the gap not by working harder, but by believing deeper and experiencing God’s grace in greater ways through His Spirit and by His power.
Ed Stetzer holds the Billy Graham Distinguished Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, is executive director of the Billy Graham Center, and publishes church leadership resources through Mission Group.