What can a Christian learn from Vince Lombardi?

by Ed Elliott

The Super Bowl trophy is called the Lombardi Trophy after legendary football coach Vince Lombardi.

Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to 5 championships. He also coached the Washington Redskins close to a championship and most likely would have succeeded if his life hadn’t been cut short by cancer.

Former players, foes, and fans alike, all agree that Coach Lombardi was in a class all by himself. He was a great motivator of men and had a keen eye for talent; he could see undiscovered potential in a player.

One of the things I discovered about Coach Lombardi while studying his coaching style, is a lesson I have adapted in my own spiritual life. I know that may sound strange to some of you; how can a rough gruff football coach teach us a spiritual truth? Allow me to explain.

When football season began and the players reported to training camp for practice and to prepare for the upcoming season, you would see a mix of old seasoned veterans and those who had only played a few years in the NFL, along with the new crop of rookies. Without fail, Coach Lombardi would start training camp with a good dose of back to the basics and fundamentals of the game of football. For all the new players, which included some seasoned veterans that had been traded and rookies, this back to basics approach seemed like a waste of time and energy. Those who won championships under Lombardi knew why getting back to the basics was the foundation of why they were the champions but the new players didn’t. As expected, there was a fair amount of grumbling and complaining from the new guys who had never been coached by Lombardi, they were highly annoyed they had to do repetitive drills of the basics they had known since they were children playing the game. After a few days, some of the new players started to get vocal with their strong displeasure at running these drills over and over again. The veterans knew better because they use to think the same way as the new guys, so they patiently waited for Coach Lombardi to passionately explain why doing these simple basic drills over and over again were necessary.

Once Coach Lombardi got wind of the whiners, complaining about his drills, he called the whole team together and addressed their gripes. Lombardi was a captivating speaker when he spoke and he held your attention but he didn’t mince words and always got to the point straightaway. With his entire team kneeling before him with helmets in hand, the veterans looked at each other with a smile, knowing what was coming. The new players looked puzzled and frustrated. “Gentlemen, this is a football.”

He would then go on to talk the team through the fundamentals of the game; even taking them out on the field to talk about the boundaries, the end zone, and that the goal was to get the football into the end zone. This legendary football coach, Vince Lombardi, was a firm believer that winning teams were the best at doing the fundamentals well.

Pretty basic stuff, especially, for professional athletes who had played the game since they were children and after all, they were the best of the best. But, Coach Lombardi’s instincts proved to be right. Over his nine years of coaching his team, the Green Bay Packers only finished third once, his first year, and took home a championship five times. In fact, his 1966 team won the first Super Bowl, thrashing the Kansas City Chiefs 35–10

Football, as in most sports, is a good metaphor for one’s spiritual life. We see a lot of similarities between both. Opposition, goals, playing through the pain, working together etc. What made Lombardi so exceptional and successful in developing champions is his devotion to getting back to the basics or fundamentals of the game. The same could be said of our spiritual life as well. In my almost 40 years of being a believer, I have sadly witnessed many believers, some who were very successful ministers, fall by the wayside. Some abandoned their faith, others just became disillusioned. Others lost their passion for God and some fell into deception. What all these people have in common is what Coach Lombardi had observed, they forgot the basics, the fundamentals. The same is true for believers who forget the fundamentals and basics of our faith.

Before a contractor builds a home, he first lays a foundation. Technically, you could build a home without a foundation but in time it would collapse on itself because it had no foundation. Many believers neglect to establish in their heart a foundation of truth that prevents a collapse. Let me explain.

Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. And this will we do if God permits. Hebrews 6:1–3.

In the book of Hebrews, the author explains that before we can go on to deeper truths and spiritual understanding, we first must have established in our heart a foundation from which we can build our lives upon. To neglect this foundation, we are like the contractor building a house without a foundation. The end is a collapse. Jesus made reference to this in the gospels when He explained that those who are able to withstand the storms of life are the ones who build their homes on the rock, not the sand. Jesus is that Rock and Hebrews 6:1–3 describes to us how we are to build our houses or lives on the Rock.

Notice, the first point is about going on to “perfection.” Some assume that this is talking about your behavior and conduct but it isn’t. We can’t perfect ourselves by our own efforts, true perfection is a work of God. The word “perfect” is used in the New Testament to describe what happens when we allow God to love us. At first glance, it seems impossible to be perfect but you are viewing perfection differently than how Jesus and His Father see perfection. In 1 John 4:18, it speaks in the eyes of God, allowing Him to love you, is what perfection is all about. Being “perfect” isn’t what you do, but what you allow God to do to you and through you. God’s perfection is when He loves you and you love others as He has loved you. And you might have thought being perfect was impossible.

So, the first foundational principle of the doctrine of Christ is knowing and believing that God loves you. Only His love for us can perfect us. I would say in my many years of ministry and the thousands of conversations and counseling sessions I have had, this first foundational principle is the most neglected or in many cases, misunderstood principle believers miss. Yet, it was at the heart of everything Jesus taught. He commanded His disciples to teach this truth to their disciples as He taught it to them.

This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. John 15:12

Paul warned the Ephesians and said to them in the first chapter, I have heard of your faith and love. In Chapter 3, he encouraged them to get their hearts grounded and rooted in the knowledge of how much God loves them. Jump ahead 40 or 50 years, and we see John on the Isle of Patmos writing Revelations and we also see Jesus addressing the church in Ephesians by telling them, “I have seen your good works but one thing I have against you is you need to return to your first love.”

Jesus is telling them that they have forgotten one of the basics. We love God because He first loved us. 1 John 4:19.

The Ephesians were busy doing good works but those good works weren’t motivated by God’s love. One has to wonder what we’re motivated by if it wasn’t God’s love. The point is this church started out well; Paul commends them for their faith and love and encourages them to pursue knowing God’s love for themselves but like Coach Lombardi points out, they didn’t stick with the fundamentals and lost their way.

The next foundational principle is repentance from dead works. So many believers confuse this principle with repenting from past sins. While dead works are sins, it is the belief system that the author is trying to get his audience to see that needs to be repented of. Keep in mind, the letter is written to Jews who were believers but wanting to go back to animal sacrifices for forgiveness and law keeping they believed could grant them favor with God. All of these things are called “dead works” because they were unable to give the doer life or make them righteous. The writer of Hebrews is trying to get the Hebrews refocused on Jesus who is their life, not their personal efforts. It is interesting to point out that along with a repentance of dead works we see connected to that is the third principle of “faith towards God”. One can’t fully trust God that if they are still clinging to their performance as a means of acceptance and blessings from God. Serving two masters is the problem here; you can’t trust in your ability and God at the same time. You will only be loyal to one or the other.

With faith towards God’s principles also comes from having a proper understanding of who God is so you can trust Him. Jesus said, when you see me, you see the father.

The only fair and accurate representation of God’s character is seen in Jesus. If your view and understanding of God aren’t framed around how Jesus portrayed God to be, you will have a false understanding of who God is and it will impact how you are able to trust Him.

The author of Hebrews explains that until these three foundational principles are established in our hearts, it makes no sense going on to other doctrines because these three essential foundational truths are what all other doctrine is built on.

Vince Lombardi saw that failure in football revolves around teams who forgot the basics and fundamentals. And the same is true for believers. If we neglect these essential fundamental truths of our faith, we won’t reach the goals God has for us.

1. Going on to perfection is allowing God to love us and it is His love that brings us to perfection.

2. Repenting of dead works. You can’t trust in your own works and efforts to earn your righteousness or blessings from God. They all come by faith in Christ, not by works.

3. Faith towards God; Knowing the true character of God is your source of faith.

There are seven foundational principles of the doctrine of Christ that we all need to establish our heart in. I just touched on the first three to show how those are often ignored, overlooked, neglected or misunderstood. One could easily write a book on why these seven principles are so vital for us to know for our spiritual success and to have a healthy relationship with God.

If we don’t forget these basic foundational principles of the doctrine of Christ, our foundation will always be solid and the storms of life won’t blow us off the Rock we are grounded and rooted into.

I suspect if Vince Lombardi was a pastor today, he might start every sermon with, “this is a Bible and …”