Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In 1973, Richard Lovelace penned an important article detailing the causes of an acute problem that persists in the lives of many evangelical Christians. He calls it the “sanctification gap” and zeros in on the history of Protestantism to explain why evangelicals have so many problems with focusing attention on spiritual formation. I learned of this article from my professor in spiritual theology & formation, Dr. Steven Porter, whom I have briefly mentioned here. Of course, all Christians everywhere who profess belief in the resurrection of Jesus have experienced a gap between the ‘real’ and the ‘ideal’ Christian life, but as Lovelace argues, evangelicals have a particular problem with it and there is no shortage of pastors and commentators condemning the arid and anemic spiritual life of ‘born again’ Christians.

This does not mean that is no shortage of pet solutions offered. Some believe we need a more robust doctrine, stronger teaching on truths like justification by faith, more participation in social activism for just causes, more evangelism, a return to a proper understanding of gender roles, more political involvement,  to join various small groups, to create community, to read the right books, and attend more conferences. All of these have interesting potential, but most of them say more about the people offering the solution than they do about the people needing one. The overarching issue that Lovelace seems to point to is that evangelical theology has not paid that much attention to the teaching of sanctification. Most systematic theology books published by evangelical presses have abbreviated sections of sanctification compared to say, the doctrine of Scripture. The practical result of these texts simply advocates more participation in duties like Bible reading, prayer, church participation, and evangelism. Many evangelicals faithfully do these things, and yet many still experience the problems caused by the”sanctification gap.”

Porter describes what some of these problems are:

Pretense. Christians feel pressure to act if everything is fine, because (1) they are supposed to be better off than their unbelieving neighbors, and (2) they do not have the liberty to be “not fine” in their respective Christian communities. This is not outright hypocrisy, but it does breed the necessary dishonesty that hypocrisy requires.

Despair. Christians feel hopeless of change, because they feel saddled with the same burdens and beset with the same sins. Feelings of helplessness and frustration over not having a solution or a way forward result in a depressed Christianity that either will settle into complacency or outright rejection of God.

Programmatic & personal solutions. Christians will often attack the “sanctification gap” with the above description of pet solutions offered by the church or the pocketbook of the struggling Christian. Books, conferences, and recovery programs are thought to provide pseudo-solutions to the perplexing inability to grow.

Moral formation. Many Christians may actually make some real improvements. They might learn some moral regiment or modify their behavior by using some sort of knowledge that is simple and accessible to everyone. The only problem is that it is not specifically Christian. Anyone, secular or otherwise could enter into the program and experience the same kind of change. Dieting, exercise, and developing simple hobbies are all good and right, but do not inspire the kind of Spirit lead self-discipline that leads to humility and service towards others. Instead, it can breed legalism and judgmentalism.

Ministry activism. Others see taking up the cross as translating into constant busyness. Involvement in ministry, service, and evangelism are taken to be authenticating signs in a life well lived by a Christian. Surely, a minister must have his or her ducks in a row! Yet we are shocked when it is revealed that the ministers in our midst are caught in affairs or financial scandals. It seem as though our service to Christ can be our greatest hindrance to knowing Christ (Nouwen).

These are common experiences in Christianity today, and they certainly have been common in my own Christian walk. Before I write a post explaining Porter’s response to the “sanctification gap” I would like some feedback: have you experienced these? In what regard and to what degree?

More on: Christian Life

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter First Thoughts Posts

Related Articles