What was the primary battle cry of the sixteenth-century Reformation? It is the unifying point of classic, historic evangelicalism: justification by faith alone, sola fide. Anyone who calls himself an evangelical, historically speaking, is saying by that title, “I believe in the doctrine of justification by faith alone.”

Justification has to do with repairing the damage that sin creates in our relationship with God. It describes how we are declared just in the sight of God because God is holy and requires righteousness from His people. Since we fail to meet that requirement, we either stand under God’s judgment or we are justified in His sight. We are justified through the imputation of the merits of Christ so that the basis of our justification is the righteousness of Jesus alone.

I want to call our attention to what I think is a great distortion of justification by faith alone. Incidentally, this is the very thing the Roman Catholic Church feared from the teaching of Martin Luther. They feared that if the doctrine of justification by faith alone was disseminated throughout the Christian community, people would come to the conclusion that works are utterly unimportant in the Christian life.

However, Luther and the other Reformers recognized that the New Testament calls us again and again to do good works. Good works are not the cause of justification, but they are the fruit of justification. One could even say that works are the indispensable fruit of justification. If a man says he has faith but has no works, can that faith save him? That’s the question the Apostle James asks in James 2. If a man says he has faith, but he has no works, will that man be justified? If he doesn’t have any fruit, that proves he doesn’t have any faith. If he doesn’t have any faith, he doesn’t have any justification. Do the works count for justification? No. Must the works be present if a person is truly justified? Yes.

The Lutheran church came up with a formula that I think all Christians should commit to memory: Justification is by faith alone, but not by a faith that is alone. Justification is not by a lonesome faith that exists in isolation from good works. If it is alone with no works present, then it is not justifying faith. Good works add nothing to our justification, but they are crucial to our sanctification, which follows and flows out of our justification. We do not trust in our good works in order to reconcile ourselves to God, but we should constantly be examining ourselves to make sure that the fruit of the gospel—good works of service to God and neighbor—is being borne in our lives.

Good Works and Cultural Impact

According to the church historians with whom I’ve spoken, never in the history of the Christian church has there been so great an evangelical awakening as there is in our day. Yet at the same time, it has had little impact on the culture in which it is manifesting itself. We are living in a time of intense interest in evangelicalism, yet the evangelical community is making almost no impact on the culture in which it is flourishing. Why is that?

I’m sure there are several factors involved, but one key factor is the myth that grace means the end of work, labor, or effort. Theologically speaking, we call this the false teaching of quietism. Quietism means that the working out of my salvation is strictly and simply the work of God in the sense that we do nothing. We do not have to labor, we do not have to sweat, but instead we “let go and let God.” We allow God to work through us while we quietly wait upon the Lord. Not only does God have no expectations for us to produce good works, but we have no right to expect any other Christian to be laboring diligently for the sake of Christ. Likewise, no other Christian has the right to call us to excellence.

Let me put it in simple language. The underlying motif of this myth is that once a person accepts the grace of God, he or she has a license for sloppiness. It is the belief that forgiveness—the heart of the Christian faith—means never having to make demands on people. No matter what we do, God accepts us wherever we are, never asking us to move from where we are. That is how the myth goes.

It’s easy to fall into the belief that forgiveness means no demands on people. When I tell people, “You can never achieve merit that will get you into the kingdom of God,” what’s the normal human response? People respond by saying: “Well then, I might as well not sweat it. I might as well relax, take it easy, bask in the arms of Jesus, and let it go.” That’s what we call quietism, where someone is totally removed from any serious call to excellence.

Justification has to do with repairing the damage that sin creates in our relationship with God.

Now, add to quietism the ruthless spirit of competition that we see in the world around us, particularly in American culture. The competitive mentality of our society is in conflict with Christian values and Christian virtues. Our culture has no room for whoever finishes second. We idolize and exalt those who win the prize. Traditionally, Americans are highly success-oriented, but that has come to mean that success is all that counts. It doesn’t matter if a person is virtuous or not. If they’re a good actor or actress, it’s OK if their lives are scandalous privately because their performance excuses their morality. If a quarterback can take his team to the Super Bowl and win, it doesn’t matter what his lifestyle is off the football field. We honor excellence and winners. Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.”

So, we have this sense of competition that says the only value is success. The only value is winning. What happens when we say that? We come to the conclusion that it’s not important for us to compete. Since the variety of competition that we see in the world is characterized by ungodliness, ruthlessness, brutality, pride, ego trips, and all the rest, we look at that and say: “We don’t want any part of that. Therefore, we should remove ourselves from the arena of competition. Otherwise, we may be guilty of conformity to the spirit of the age.” Though it is true that we are not called to participate in the brutal, ruthless, pride syndrome of success, nevertheless, we are called to work even more diligently than anyone who is motivated by a success ethic could possibly be. Yes, God accepts us as we are, but He accepts us to change us. He calls us to excellence. He also calls us to discipleship.

Discipline and Discipleship

Discipleship means discipline. Paul says, for example, “I discipline my body and keep it under control” (1 Cor. 9:27). “Run that you may obtain the prize” (v. 24). Other biblical authors echo this teaching. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with your might” (Eccl. 9:10). Seek the higher things, but with diligence. The author of Hebrews says, “You have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood” (Heb. 12:4). The Christian is called to Herculean efforts of discipline and achievement that would make the labor and industry of the world pale in comparison. In other words, Christianity is not an exercise in slumber where we take our ease in Zion and spend the rest of our life being ministered to. I remember when I first became a Christian, and the fellow who led me to Christ said to me one day, “R.C., what you have to do as a Christian with respect to the world is out-think the world, out-fight the world, and out-love the world.” That’s a tall order—to out-think, out-fight, and out-love the world.

Where do we see greatness in Christian art today? Where do we see greatness in Christian music today? Who are the leading great Christian novelists of our age? Who are the great Christian politicians? Where are the great Christian research scientists? Consider the great composers—Mozart, Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and Handel. Of those men, which one most consciously sought to use the medium of music as an instrument to capture men’s minds for the glory of God? It was Bach. Bach was bitterly opposed to the forces of the Enlightenment that were eclipsing the influence of Christianity. Bach determined to use his gifts and talents to stem the tide as far as he could against those forces. Now, consider some of the greatest painters of all time—Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Da Vinci, and Raphael. Out of those five, many people would say Michelangelo and Rembrandt were the greatest. Anything peculiar about those two? About 85 percent of Rembrandt’s work centered on Christian themes and biblical themes. The same is true of Michelangelo. Now consider some of the greatest writers of all time—Milton, Shakespeare, Dickens, Donne, Dostoyevsky, and Tolstoy. Out of those six, many would say that Shakespeare was the greatest. His work is filled with biblical allusions and imagery. The same is true of Milton, Dostoyevsky, and Donne.

See the influence in history? We could look at other fields. We could go look at the natural sciences. We could look at Galileo; we could look at Kepler. Johannes Kepler, a key figure in the Scientific Revolution, believed that the purpose of science was to think God’s thoughts after Him. We see this down through the ages. The leaders of the classics in all the fields have been Christians.

Today, however, we live in a time of an eclipse of Christian influence on culture. Why? Can we say that it’s simply because the secular forces are so strong that they have strangled any attempts of Christian infiltration and influence? Can we say it’s because Christians are being persecuted? That’s true to a degree, but can that satisfactorily explain this failure of the Christian community to dent the culture?

If somebody paints great art, sooner or later, the level seeks the top. The cream comes to the top. Great novelists have a tendency to get discovered sooner or later. You don’t hide the really great people forever. The great contributors, the great musicians, the great novelists, the great artists, and the great thinkers will be recognized sooner or later. Where are they today? We have a whole generation of Christians who say: “For me, Christianity is a private, personal matter. It’s something I enjoy. I get a trip out of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean I am called to give everything I have back to the glory of God.” One thing I know for sure is that every person has at least one gift they have received from God. We may not know what it is, and I may not be able to recognize what it is, but we all have one. The gift that we’ve been given by God is supposed to be brought back to God and be developed to its ultimate potential.

The Christian is called to Herculean efforts of discipline and achievement that would make the labor and industry of the world pale in comparison.

I had a professor in seminary, Dr. Gerstner, who was noted for his rigorous demands in the classroom. Students were so terrified of Gerstner’s classes that I had a seminar course, an upper-level elective in the theology of Jonathan Edwards, and out of twenty-two people in that seminar, twenty of them were auditors. Only two students took that class for credit. The other twenty took it as auditors. Why? They were afraid that they would not do well if they took it for credit and had to take the examinations, being evaluated in terms of their mastery of the material. They all wanted to hear what Gerstner had to say on the subject, but they didn’t want to compete. They didn’t want to submit themselves to the discipline of his teaching, and I’ll tell you why.

I remember when a student came back from picking up his term paper. He looked at the grade on the term paper, and it was a C or a C- from Dr. Gerstner. The student was crestfallen. He said: “I can’t understand this. I worked so hard on this paper. I did so much labor and so much research. I’m going to go talk to that professor and see why he gave me such a low grade.” So, this fellow went to see Dr. Gerstner and said: “Dr. Gerstner, I don’t understand why I got a C- on this paper. I did my best.” Dr. Gerstner looked at him and said: “You did your what? Young man, you’ve never done your best.”

How many times have we said that we’ve done our best? How many times have we actually done it? How many times have we reached the absolute peak that we could possibly achieve, where we expended the supreme level of effort and energy on any task? How many times?

This student came in and said, “This is my best.” If Dr. Gerstner was honest with that student, he’d have said to him: “If this truly represents your best, young man, let me suggest to you that you stop school right now. You just simply don’t have the gifts necessary to do the job if this is your best.” Of course, Dr. Gerstner knew very well that it wasn’t that fellow’s best. He knew that student could have done much better than he did.

As Christians who believe in God’s forgiveness, we understand that we’re not going to lose our salvation, that we’re not going to lose the acceptance that we have in the Christian community. But from that we often draw the false conclusion that there’s no point in trying. There’s no point in developing a gift that God has given us to the fullest measure that we can. But none of us have done that with any of the gifts we’ve been given. Believe me, I know.

The Pursuit of Excellence

Here’s what happens: we start piano or any other skill, and when we start, it’s very easy at the beginning. We’re playing little three-fingered melodies: “I am playing middle C. I can play it well, you see.” One finger—anybody can do that because it requires no great effort. So, you cruise along and, all of a sudden, the teacher says, “Now we’re going to start playing with two hands.” Then it starts to get difficult. This is a new level, a new plateau. At that first plateau of difficulty, a percentage of those children who began piano lessons with eagerness and enthusiasm then decide to drop out.

Maybe 90 percent continue and make it to the second level where they’re playing with two hands. Then they have to begin to learn how to play chords. In order to do that, they need to learn something about scales and rhythm, and they go to another level of difficulty. Now about 30 percent more drop out.

It gets a bit more complicated when learning five-fingered chords, difficult tempos, four sharps, and five flats. That gets us to classical compositions, and about 5 percent of those who started piano lessons make it there. Then it becomes a question of learning harmonics, fill-ins, and little musical terms and cadences, which becomes more difficult, and about 2 percent of those who started piano lessons make it there.

Then, in order to go from 2 percent to be in the top 1 percent of piano players in the world, it is almost a sheer vertical wall of difficulty. That is where the boys are separated from the men, and the honky-tonk players are separated from the musicians. That is just to divide the top 2 percent from the top 1 percent.

I’ll give you another illustration. I play golf, and I take golf seriously. I have had probably two hundred lessons of golf in my life. I’ve been playing golf for many years and have read every serious book of instruction there is. I work hard at my golf game. I have a four handicap, which puts me in the top 1 percent of golfers in America. Do you realize what the difference is between a four-handicap golfer and a zero-handicap golfer? It’s all the difference in the world. A guy who has a four handicap has a serious problem with his game.

When you get to a zero handicap, where you’re shooting par regularly, maybe ten thousand people can do that in this country. There are a ton of them. How many of those can win a state championship in America? Fifty. Those guys start separating the men from the boys. How many of those fifty make it on the professional golf tour? Maybe 10 percent of those can do that, down to five. How many of those can make it big on the golf tour? Do you know what the difference is between a four-handicap golfer and Jack Nicklaus? It’s the difference between you and Van Cliburn on the piano. Not too many people are coming to pay money to hear you play the piano, and nobody pays to watch me hit a golf ball.

What it takes to achieve excellence, more than anything else, is not talent but perseverance. Once a person reaches a certain plateau of mastery and proficiency in a skill, it becomes simple to get even better, but the cost of reaching a certain level of achievement is high. Very few people ever develop any skill or gift to the plateau where they are in the top 15 percent. Things start easy, but as soon as we run into obstacles or difficulties, we quit. We have no perseverance, no commitment. Excellence takes work. It takes the monotonous routine of running your fingers up and down the scales.

What it takes to achieve excellence, more than anything else, is not talent but perseverance.

I remember when I went back for music lessons when I was in seminary. I went to my teacher and said, “I want to learn how to play Chopin.” She said, “You’re not ready to play Chopin.” I said, “I don’t care; I want to play Chopin.” She said, “OK.” So, she gave me some pieces that had all these runs up and down the scale, and I said, “I can’t do that.” She said to me: “Here’s what you do. Figure out how that goes and start with your left hand, really slowly, and then add the right hand. Do that ten times until you can go very slowly without making a mistake. Then turn the metronome up a little bit. Do it slowly, over and over again, and gradually increase the speed.” After a couple of weeks of that, a person can sit down at the piano and go up and down the scale without ever missing, but the discipline it takes to train your fingers to do that is simply tedious. It’s laborious.

We hear men like Van Cliburn, who is very expressive and has mastery over his instrument, and we understand that it is not until you master those discipline areas that you have the freedom to do anything you want with the piano. The more you master the details, the more freedom you have to be creative. Do you want to be a creative painter? You better learn the basics first. You better learn all those laborious steps in order to do it. Most of us don’t want to pay the price.

What happens is that we have people in our secular culture who are more motivated than we are. You can’t tell me that God, all of a sudden, quit giving gifts to His people in this century. You can’t say that the secularists have all the talent, that the Christian community is working hard but they don’t have any talent. No, the secular man is out-motivating the Christian person. The Christian person is not motivated to excellence. I don’t understand that. How can that be? How can you have any understanding of what God has done for you and have no motivation to return your gifts, which He gives you, to Him?

Diligence, Laziness, and Love

Do you love Christ? Is love a strong motivation? It’s one of the strongest motivating forces in the world. If you love Christ, you are called to give yourself as a living sacrifice to Christ. It’s your reasonable service. It means you are called to work, to labor diligently. I defy you to go through the New Testament and count how many times the word diligence appears. It occurs over and over and over again. The Christian community by and large, it seems, is slothful. It’s lazy. It’s sloppy. It doesn’t want to be challenged. It doesn’t want to have to work hard for things. We’re turning out a whole culture of unmotivated people who want to drop out and take it easy.

I talked to a Christian student not too long ago who was graduating from college. I asked, “What are you going to do with your life?” The student responded to me: “I don’t know yet. I think what I’m going to do this next year is take the year off, go trucking through Europe, and have the experience of having some fun. I’ve been working in college for four years. I’m tired of going to school, and I don’t want to go to work yet, so I’m going to spend a year trucking through Europe.”

I wanted to tell the student: “Hey, there’s a war going on. People are dying all over the world, and you haven’t even started into the ministry. You haven’t even begun to pay your dues, and you want a year’s vacation right now?” Where is the Christian community that is willing to give their best to the Master, as the old song says?

The Old Testament principle of the firstfruits relates to this issue. What were the firstfruits? A man goes out, plants his field, and sees that part of his crop perfectly cultivated. The fruit is lush and firm and beautiful, so he goes through that crop and picks it. In those days, the Jewish man would go through the selection process and say: “I want the finest 10 percent of that fruit. We’re not going to put that in the market. We’re giving that to God.” Today, we take the finest we have, which isn’t very fine, and sell it for as much as we can get. Then, we come down to the stuff that’s withering and dying on the vine, take that, and throw it to God like slop to hogs.

Listen to part of the Sermon on the Mount: “Ye are the salt of the earth: but if the salt has lost his savor, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing, but to be cast out, and to be trodden under foot of men. Ye are the light of the world. A city that is set on an hill cannot be hid. Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick” (Matt. 5:13–15, KJV).

That’s simple enough. You take a candle and put it on a candle stand. You don’t put it under a bushel. Christ calls you to be the light of the world. Is He going to put you under a bushel? That’s not His way of doing things. He wants to put you on a lampstand. The only person who will put a bushel over your light is you.

The light that is on the candlestick gives light to everyone that is in the house. If you give a gift back to God that He has given to you, not only does it honor God, but it enriches God’s people. It becomes a blessing and an inspiration to everyone around you.

“Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (Matt. 5:16, KJV). That is the Christian impetus for excellence—the mandate of Jesus, “Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works.” Your good works are supposed to be visible. You are supposed to be a light that can be seen. You are not supposed to be a closet Christian but a visible Christian whose gifts bring illumination and light to this world. Let it shine so that men can see it, as Jesus says, so that they see good works to the glory of God the Father.

Let me finish this by saying that one theologian made this observation: the essence of theology is grace. If you don’t understand grace, you can’t understand theology. The essence of ethics is gratitude. That’s the motivation for excellence.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on February 9, 2021.

Faith and Creation

A Forgotten Father: Cyril’s Fight for the...