the shape of leadership

The Sanctification Gap

Overcoming the deception of self-sufficiency

Ed Stetzer on November 14, 2017

The call to be a Christian is a call to die. Jesus said as much in Mark 8 when He called the crowd to Him: “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 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. God’s call to take our cross and follow Him is a gift — an invitation to become more like Jesus through grace — regardless of the sacrifices. But sadly, today many see it as more of a list of rules than an opportunity for freedom and grace. We have a sanctification gap in our churches.

Holiness by the Numbers

In Lifeway Research’s Transformational Discipleship study, we uncovered some fascinating statistics about holiness. Here are a few related to repentance and confession:
  • 39 percent of churchgoers indicate that they “confess … sins and wrongdoings to God and ask for forgiveness” every day
  • 27 percent confess a few times a week
  • 8 percent say they rarely or never confess sins and ask God for forgiveness
Repentance and faith are essential to the Christian walk. Before a Christian can move forward to maturity and faith, the individual must come face-to-face with his or her sin. A surprising number of Christians don’t do this. But it doesn’t stop there:
  • 64 percent of churchgoers agree with the statement, “A Christian must learn to deny himself/herself in order to serve Christ”
  • 19 percent disagree with the statement

The 19 percent (along with those who did not know or chose not to answer) should concern us as pastors and leaders. Nearly 1 out of every 3 churchgoers does not affirm the essential, biblical mandate to follow Jesus and deny oneself to serve Him.

We have a holiness problem. There is a sanctification gap between what we say we want and what we actually do.

Churches Play a Part in the Gap

While some churches have watered down gospel truths to make them more palatable to a broader audience, others have turned the truth of God’s grace toward His children into an incredible burden we must earn. It makes sanctification a by-product of our obedience. It says the gospel is something we believe for salvation before we independently and self-sufficiently go on toward maturity by serving and giving.

The good deeds are not the focus; they are a result of us falling more in love with Jesus.

This is moralism — acting good as a way to become good, and it has a major effect on how people perceive holiness and the mandate to become more like Jesus.

The standard for sanctification is impossible without Christ’s superseding work on our behalf. Yet for some, it becomes something we can achieve through work, energy and effort. When we try to do it ourselves, secret sin forms, confession flees from us, and we seek to justify ourselves by meeting a standard instead of running to a Savior.

Many pastors preach sermons that essentially say “Christ did His part; now you do yours.” This places a burden of self-sanctification on the shoulders of Christians, and it becomes impossible to bear. The result is either rejection or resignation.

The deeper problem is that moralism demands we deny our passions. It tells us that sex is wrong. Ambition is pride. Boldness is disrespectful. It says that to be good, we must not do bad things. It leaves us empty and dry, and that’s where it becomes an even greater lie.

The greater lie is that instead of, “Come and die,” many churches say, “Come and do.” And it’s seductively subtle. It begins with preaching that there are bad things we can’t do, and it ends with a list of moral things we must accomplish. 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 Denial, but Deepening

The solution to the sanctification gap is not the denial of our passions and desires as bad and then doing moral things to be good. C.S. 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 falling more deeply in love with Christ.

We do this through spiritual disciplines, learning about Jesus through practices that retrain our hearts to come and die that we might experience true life. New loves shape and replace the sinful inclinations of our hearts, and the by-product is good works. The good deeds are not the focus; they are a result of us falling more in love with Jesus.

The answer is not sin management, but walking in the fullness of the Spirit and growing in relationship with other believers. This is how we end up in a robust spiritual life that ultimately causes us to live a more sanctified life.

As we fall more in love with Jesus, we fall more in love with His cross and all that it means for our daily lives. 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.

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