In theory, the fruits of the Church bear witness of its spiritual state.  Not only that but the church is a spiritual work of God in a state of continuous transformation at all levels of its being, in one way or another, from its corporate body to the individual members of which it is comprised.  Moreover, 1 Peter 2:5 declares, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”[1] The biblical term for the spiritual transformation of the church is “sanctification.” Richard Lovelace has theorized that the present day church’s emphasis on “justification by faith alone” has created a sanctification gap, a disparity between what Christians know versus what they practice.  This raises the following question:  What impact has the sanctification gap theory had on the present day church?  Some church historians and spiritual theologians contend that the sanctification gap has significantly crippled the contemporary church.

The Sanctification Gap

                 Richard F. Lovelace is one the most well known of the aforementioned church historians and spiritual theologians.  In 1979 he coined the phrase sanctification gap in one of his books geared towards edifying the church.  According to Lovelace, the gap’s genesis can be traced back to Protestantism’s nineteenth-century movement of placing a compelling emphasis on “justification by faith alone” upon regeneration.[2]  Regeneration is a spiritual experience where God communicates new spiritual life to a person at that person’s conversion, enabling them to repent their of sins and grow in holiness. [3]   Lovelace suggests that this emphasis on “justification by faith alone” has been at the expense of sanctification.


                      On the one hand, there is the matter of “justification” which is a term that does not appear often in the Bible.  Despite this, it is one of the weightier tenets of Christian doctrine due to the judicial implication the word carries.  Peterson puts forward the following definition of the term, “In Christian theology justification is that act of God by which the sinner, who is responsible for his guilt and is under condemnation but believes in Christ, is pronounced just and righteous, or acquitted, by God the judge.”[4] In other words, God attributes Christ righteousness to any sinner who comes to Him in faith seeking forgiveness for sin and spiritual sanctuary.  This is epic, especially when considering the proclamation of Romans 6:23, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Thus begins the Christian life.

The Bible corroborates Peterson’s interpretation of justification in several places.  Romans 4:25 says this of Christ crucifixion and resurrection, “He who was delivered over because of our transgressions, and was raised because of our justification.” A little further Romans 5:16 asserts,  “The gift is not like that which came through the one who sinned; for on the one hand the judgment arose from one transgression resulting in condemnation, but on the other hand the free gift arose from many transgressions resulting in justification.” The condemnation of humankind resulted from the first man’s, Adam, disobedience to God.  Conversely, the free gift of Christ’s righteousness is imputed once for all time as an act of Gods grace and is the same for all Christians at their initial conversion.


            On the other hand, there is the matter of sanctification that Wayne Grudem defines as “a progressive work of God and man that makes us more and more free from sin and like Christ in our actual lives.”[5] The Bible also substantiates this application of Christian life in at least two passages.  First in 1 Corinthians 1:30, “But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption.”  Then again in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “But we should always give thanks to God for you, brethren beloved by the Lord, because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth.”   For all that, the simplest definition of sanctification is “to make holy“[6] that stands to reason “the need for cleansing of pollution.”[7]

Indeed, Titus 3:5 aptly sets forth, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit.” It is a matter of fact that Christians receive new spiritual life from God as He attributes Christ’s righteousness to them.  This spiritual life is God Himself in the person of the Holy Spirit indwelling each and every believer. God’ s character is holy, free of sin, and the “absolute antithesis to that of the world,”[8] warrants a moral change in an individual. “Having been freed from sin” (Romans 6:18) the new convert must make a break from the profane in order to embark on the spiritual formation process, sanctification, conforming them to God’s holy image.

Justification By Faith Alone

                    Lovelace suggests that Protestant Evangelism’s inclination towards “justification by faith alone” has caused them to all but “lose sight of the central importance of sanctification.”[9] Even though Protestants prefer the complete statement “justification by grace alone, for Christ’s sake, through faith in good works,”[10] good works do not amount to spiritual formation.  At any rate, church historian Richard Lovelace is convinced that he has traced the roots of the sanctification gap back through Protestantism as far back as the English Puritans.  His premise purports that the Puritans frontloaded initial conversion with so much mature Christian sanctification substance that one had to basically be a “practicing mystics before they could be counted a Christian.”[11] Furthermore, the Puritans would tell prospective Christians that, despite their faith, God could refuse salvation to anyone He chose to.[12]

So then, on the authority of the English Puritans, faith in God alone was not sufficient to receive God’s justification, one also had to demonstrate mystical assurance of God’s acceptance before being allowed church membership.  Besides miring new converts in contrived trials to test whether they had the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, this method of evangelizing discouraged people from seeking God’s justification towards the end of the eighteenth century.  At the turn of the nineteenth century Protestants leaders seeking a revival in the Church realized that some reformation needed to brought about.  Upon realizing that there was no biblical reason for frontloading conversion with sanctification the Protestant Church leaders did away with the Puritan practice. Thus re-introducing “justification by faith alone,” a simpler mode of entering the kingdom of God that only called for faith in God and repentance from sin.  All the meanwhile, they neglected to reapply the biblical principle of sanctification.  This is where Lovelace’s sanctification gap found fertile ground in the Church and took root.[13]

Legacy of the Sanctification Gap

Beyond that, Lovelace also attributes the sanctification gap to an ever-present “conspiracy against spiritual power in the church on the part of the world, the flesh and the devil.”[14] As Protestantism moved more towards its evangelical “justification by faith alone” stance in the world, it moved further way from spirituality.  His belief is that, over time, Christian spirituality has become an experience cordoned off to personal devotion time and to pastors.  As recently as fifty years ago, Bible scholars were giving much emphasis to an academic Church theology and structure while, nearly altogether, neglecting the Holy Spirit from which it receives its countenance and stature.[15]  This historical background provides a legitimate foundation from which to assess the “current state of evangelical spirituality.”[16]  An evangelical movement of which Lovelace cautions “has a weakened sense of the holiness of God and the depth of personal sin.”[17] Inevitably, this weakened sense of holiness and sin has enfeebled the spiritual state of the Church.

Lovelace maintains that not only does evangelical Protestantism characteristically give prominence to Church growth by way of mass evangelistic efforts, but also knowingly minimizes the significance of spiritual growth through progressive sanctification.  For instance, neo-evangelicals have built lasting platforms from which to share the gospel in many cultures, yet, all the meanwhile they harbor a distrust of Spirituality.  This is not an indictment of the entire Church for lacking salubrious Spirituality.  Certainly, there is a simplified lay form of “Scripture study and prayer”[18] practiced in the Church today but its impotence can be measured by the absence of any wide spread social reforms in our communities today.  Besides that, there are many other areas within the Church itself where an apparent “gap between belief and practice”[19] exists.  In particular, Alan Johnson[20] attributes the increasing rates of divorce, child abuse, and politicizing of Christian ethics to the sanctification gap.  On the whole, the legacy of the sanctification gap is one of  “grace that saves the sinner, but makes no claim upon the sinner for obedience and holiness, grace that the saves the sinner, but leaves him in his sin.”[21]

Closing the Sanctification Gap

            Sanctification is a spiritual formation exercise that continues all through out the natural life of Christians so long as they are surrendered to the process.  The apostle Paul’s directive in Romans 6:19 addresses the Church at large, “I am speaking in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness, resulting in further lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness, resulting in sanctification.”[22] Elsewhere in the Scripture the Church is exhorted to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling because it is God who is at work in you” (Philippians 2:12,13).  Both of these passages indicate that the work of sanctification is a shared one in which God and Christians cooperate.  By all means, God is the main component of the sanctification as 1 Thessalonians 5:23 indicates, “May the God of peace sanctify you wholly.”[23] Even so, Christians have a two-fold part, presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to God (Romans 12:1) and making efforts to grow in holiness (2 Peter 1:5) in the power of the Spirit (Romans 8:13).[24]


            For all that, modern Evangelical Protestants would first have to acknowledge there is a sanctification gap before concerting efforts to close it.[25]  In this case, no amount of retooling or debugging of tradition will suffice in this case.  The only hope for lasting revival in the evangelical tradition is return to the Holy Spirit for sake of spiritual equilibrium and vigor.  Particularly, in the area obedience to God for fear that modern Evangelicalism becomes nothing more than “a tame lecture circuit”[26] when compared to previous generations of the Church.  It is Richard Lovelace’s opinion that the sanctification gap between belief and practice will remain unless the Church approaches its mission with the “same fear and trembling, the same prayer to be endued with power from on high, that characterized the first apostles.”[27] Prayerfully, this Spiritual power from on high would put to death works of the flesh such as fornication, idolatry, selfishness, and dissension (Galatians 5:19-21) while bearing the fruits of love, patience, joy, and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).[28]                

[1] Unless otherwise identified, Scripture quotations are from the New American Standard Bible.

[2] Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 232-237.

[3] (Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, s.v. “Regeneration”)

[4] L.M. Peterson, “Justification,” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia, 5 vols., ed. Merrill C. Tenney (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975), 3:765-772.

[5] Wayne, Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 746.

[6] R.E.O. White, “Sanctification,” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology,” ed. Walter A. Alwell (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 1051-1054.

[7] Donald Pickerill, New Spirit Filled Life Bible, ed. Jack Hayford et al. (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2002), 1581.

[8] R.A. Finalayson, “Holiness,” New Bible Dictionary, ed. J.D. Douglas et al. (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1982), 486-488.

[9] Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 233.

[10] Martin J. Heinecken, “Justification By Faith,” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics, ed. James F. Childress and John Macquarrie (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986), 333-334.

[11] Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 233.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 234.

[14] Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 232.

[15] Richard F. Lovelace, “Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Study 31, no. 1 (March 1, 1998), 25, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2011).

[16] Richard F. Lovelace, “Evangelical Spirituality: A Church Historian’s Perspective,” 33.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Alan F. Johnson, “Paul, the Spirit, and the Sanctification Gap,” Reformation & Revival 13, no. 3 (June 1, 2004), 90, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2011).

[20] Alan F. Johnson (PhD, Dallas Theological Seminary) is Emeritus Professor of New Testament and Christian Ethics and Emeritus Director of the Center for Applied Christian Ethics (CACE) at Wheaton College.

[21] Alan F. Johnson, “Paul, the Spirit, and the Sanctification Gap,” Reformation & Revival 13, no. 3 (June 1, 2004), 90, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2011).

[22] Wayne, Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 748.

[23] Wayne, Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 753.

[24] Wayne, Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 754-755.

[25] Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 236.

[26] Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, 237.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Wayne, Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 756.

Works Cited

Finalayson, R.A.  “Holiness.” New Bible Dictionary.  Edited by J.D. Douglas et. al.      Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1982.  486-488.

Heinecken, Martin J.  “Justification By Faith.” The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Ethics.  Edited by Childress, James F. and John Macquarrie.  Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1986.  333-334.

Johnson, Alan F. “Paul, the Spirit, and the Sanctification Gap.” Reformation & Revival 13, no. 3 (June 1, 2004): 89-106. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed November 5, 2011).

Lovelace, Richard F.  Dynamics of Spiritual Life: An Evangelical Theology of Renewal.  Downers Grove: IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996.

Lovelace, Richard F. “Evangelical Spirituality : A Church Historian’s Perspective.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 31, no. 1 (March 1, 1988): 25-35. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed October 29, 2011).

Peterson, L.M.  “Justification.” The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia.  5 vols.  Edited by Merrill C. Tenney.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1975.  3:765-772.

Pickerill, Donald.  New Spirit Filled Life Bible.  Edited by Jack Hayford et al.  Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2002.

Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words.  Edited by F.F. Bruce.  Old Tapan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company.

Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.  Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994.

White, R.E.O.  “Sanctification.” Evangelical Dictionary of Theology.  Edited by Walter A.

Elwell.  Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1984.  1051- 1054.