Reformation, Part 1: Why Works Won’t Work

The central protest of the Protestant Church is that justification is by faith alone and not by the works of the law.

When it comes to our standing before God, works won’t work.

Why? Because the law says that we’re guilty. When the law speaks, we become aware of our sin and are held guilty before the law (Rom. 3:19 & 20).

Martin Luther, whom God raised up to begin a Reformation of the Church 500 years ago this month, saw this very clearly.

Martin Luther believed that he could be justified by his works. He tried very hard to be declared righteous on the basis of what he did.

He also saw that he had sin, so he would spend two hours confessing his sins, walk away, and realize he had committed more sins that he had forgotten. This led him to adopt very strict practices and even to inflict pain on himself as a way of paying for his sin.

The more he worked, the more he saw the futility of it.

He realized that no one would be justified by the law because all have sinned, and all stand condemned and guilty before God.

Now, most people don’t take that approach. Most people aren’t trying that hard to do what’s right.
Most people get around the weight of their sin by bringing the law down to their level.

We can do this in a variety of ways. Most of the time, we think we’re OK with God because we’re not that bad, perhaps go to church, and don’t do anything society considers really bad.

Sometimes, people avoid the law by focusing on a few moral issues. However, usually that morality does not touch our heart. It’s external things that we can easily avoid and look down on others for. “We don’t smoke, and we don’t chew, and we don’t run with boys who do” (see Mt. 23:23).

Sometimes, we can make religious knowledge or awareness the basis of our standing before God. I know these doctrines, so I’m OK. Those who don’t are not in the club.

Sometimes, even grace can become a sort of club. I’m better than others because I get grace!

Wherever we tend to view ourselves highly and look down on contempt on others is a place where we are tending to rely on as our righteousness before God.

But none of these will work. They’re actually a distraction from the real issue.

They won’t work because God’s holiness demands that we obey His law, all His law, to be declared righteous.

And we haven’t. We’ve all sinned. So, we’re in trouble.

We all stand guilty and condemned before a holy God.

So, where does that lead us? To Luther’s glorious insight. We stand guilty and condemned before God, but God offers us acceptance as a free gift because of what Jesus has done.

“All are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:24).

That’s justification by grace alone through faith alone. This is what the Reformation is all about. This is what the Bible is all about.

We all stand guilty before God, but God accepts us a free gift to be received by faith alone because of what Jesus has done.

That’s a rallying point. Think about it. Meditate on it. Live it. Let it transform you. Let it transform your churches. Let it soften your heart.

Works won’t work, but the Gospel will.

Questions & Answers on Leadership Issues

This month, I’ve preached on the topic of leadership. I’ve preached it on because I believe that in the Bible, after the Bible, in leadership positions and without leadership positions, God uses leaders. If we see a problem in the world, we should pray for our leaders, pray that God will raise up leaders, and consider leading.

Anyone can be a leader. We just need a vision of what needs to be done and the wisdom to explain it to people, do the hard things that are necessary to get there, meet people where they are, and remember that it’s a process.

In all of this, we can be assured of God’s great promise to those whom He calls to lead, “I will be with you.”

Several people in my congregation asked me questions about leadership. You can listen to some of the questions and my replies here. You can read the questions and replies below.

What do you when people won’t follow you?
First, always ask first, what’s wrong with my leadership? before you ask, what’s wrong with my followers? Second, there are sometimes that we can’t lead people forward, and we have to recognize our own human limitations and give up. Third, there are some people we have to lead that are difficult to lead. Don’t give up. Keep praying, loving, and looking for ways to move the ball down the field. You never know when God may give a breakthrough!

What is leadership success?
You can look at leadership success in a couple of different ways. You can see success in terms of an objective, e.g., did I get people to the church to clean it before Sunday? In terms of the objective, sometimes you fail. It’s important to see that our value is not based on what we accomplish but on God’s value of us and desires to use us. That doesn’t change, even if we fail. Continue reading “Questions & Answers on Leadership Issues”

What the Bible Says About Leading Well

God is leading. He is bringing redemption and restoration to the world.

And God leads through leaders. He gives them a vision to lead people from where they are to where they could and should be.

So, the first question in leading is, where do I want to lead people? The next question is, how do I get them there?

One of my favorite summaries of the principles of leadership is in the Bible in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Here’s what it says: “And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak, be patient with everyone.”

This passage teaches us three crucial leadership principles for leading well. In the diagram above, these are principles for moving people along the arrow to where the “there.”

1. The leader needs to do the hard thing.
The word translated “idle and disruptive” refers to someone who has gotten out of line in a military formation. The leader has to confront those persons and things that are keeping people from moving in the right direction. Continue reading “What the Bible Says About Leading Well”

To Lead–Know Where You Are Going

When I pull up my Google Maps app, Google can usually tell me the best way to go. All it needs to know is where I want to go, then it shows me several routes, including the one that it estimates will be the fastest. I can then quickly make a selection.

The hard thing is knowing where I want to go. I try to use Friday’s as a day with my family. I always want to go somewhere and do a significant activity.

However, I’ve come up to many Friday’s and had nothing. I realized not too long ago that I need to make a list of things I want to do with the family: the Knoxville Zoo, ice skating at Ober Gatlinburg, a day trip to the Cumberland Gap. Once I’ve selected my destination, then it’s fairly easy to figure out a plan to get there.

I think life and leadership is like that. The hard part is often figuring out what we really want to go. I remember asking a woman not too long ago, if you had a week without kids and any responsibilities, what would you do? She answered, “I have no idea.”

She’s like me. I’m often not even clear on what I want. How am I going to have clarity on what is best for other people? How can I lead?

This past week, I was having lunch with another Pastor from our presbytery (a regional group of churches). I asked him, what if all the churches said, “we’ll appoint you pope for a day, and anything you ask us to change, we’ll change in our churches”? What would you tell them to change? It was a hard question to answer. Continue reading “To Lead–Know Where You Are Going”

We Were Made to Lead

God did not create human beings to sit around.

He wanted them to take leadership and do something.

Here’s what God said: “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Gen. 1:28).

In other words, don’t leave things the way you see them. Take leadership to do significant things that bless yourselves and others and glorify God. Continue reading “We Were Made to Lead”

God Uses Leaders

Leadership is a common topic in the modern world. Because it is so common, some people might think it’s just a secular topic and not a Christian one.

Consider, though, that God Himself is a leader. He is leading the world where He wants it to be.

But how does He lead? How does He move things forward in redemptive history? Generally, through leaders. Continue reading “God Uses Leaders”

God Will Supply All Your Needs

We all need things we don’t yet have, don’t control, or worry we’ll lose. We’re dependent on other people and things for our survival, much more than we think.

This worry about our needs can become all consuming. We can get consumed with worry about food, shelter, and savings. We can get consumed with whether or not we’ll be loved. We can get consumed about making sure we have security and protection from harm.

Into the midst of our worries, we have this promise from God, “And my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of his glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19).

This promise is a rock of refuge in a sea of anxiety about our needs. It is a foundation on which we can build our lives as Jesus taught us (see Matthew 6:25–34). Continue reading “God Will Supply All Your Needs”

The Secret to Contentment

Have you ever had a big event where you expected a lot of people to show up? You planned for a Bible study and had 25 people tell you that they would come. Then, only 5 showed up. You planned an anniversary party for 100, and only 50 showed up. Disappointment.

Getting involved with people can be disappointing. The Apostle Paul was involved with a lot of people. He was dependent on people to give him money to fund his work.

We might expect that when people didn’t give what they had promised, he might be frustrated. But he wasn’t. He had learned the secret to contentment: “I am not saying this because I am in need, for I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want” (Phil. 4:11-12).

Most of us walk around thinking that we would be happy if other people would change. If my kids would act differently, if my spouse would show me respect, if my employer was more understanding, if I had more money, if I had a better car, if I lived somewhere else, I’d be happy.

The trouble with this approach is that things outside of us will rarely match up to our expectations inside us. So, we’ll always be unhappy.

There’s another option. We can adjust to our circumstances. That’s the secret to contentment that the Apostle Paul had learned. Continue reading “The Secret to Contentment”

Hardwiring Happiness

Our brains present an interesting paradox. When it comes to bad things, we worry about them and go over them again and again.

When it comes to good things, we don’t even hold them in our mind for ten seconds.

Rick Hanson, in his helpful book Hardwiring Happiness deals at length with this paradox from the perspective of brain science.

Hanson notes that our brain “has a hair-trigger readiness to go negative to help you survive” (20). He describes the way our brain works this way, “when the least little thing goes wrong or could be trouble, the brain zooms in on it with a kind of tunnel vision that downplays everything else” (21).

In contrast, Hanson notes, our brains hardly give any attention to good experiences. “Your brain is like Velcro for negative experiences but Teflon for positive ones” (27). Continue reading “Hardwiring Happiness”

Your Best Days Are Ahead of You

How much can you grow? How much could you improve if you really worked at it?

Many of us think that our days of growth are behind us. We think we’ve mastered most of the things we can master. We think we’ve learned most of what we need to learn.

True, we might not say it, but that’s our operating assumption. We don’t think of ourselves as people who have a lot of growing to do.

I’m going to recount an embarrassing story that illustrates these points. Around 2012, I spent some time studying leadership principles. I enjoyed that study, and I learned a lot.

By 2014, I felt (this is the embarrassing part) that I had learned most of what I needed to learn from the leadership gurus. My learning was over in that area.

Earlier that year, I had reserved my spot at a satellite campus presentation of the Global Leadership Summit. By July, I was not excited about it because I felt that I wouldn’t learn that much from it.

Well, I was wrong. That year, I listened to Susan Cain talk about introverts and leadership and Joseph Grenny talk about how to have crucial conversations. Both of these talks (and later the books) introduced me to extremely important concepts that I’ve continued to incorporate into my life and ministry. Continue reading “Your Best Days Are Ahead of You”