Go For It?

Sometimes I think those of us who love the church the most are also faced […]

DPotter / 4.27.09

Sometimes I think those of us who love the church the most are also faced with the need to be its harshest critics. I was more than a little crushed to see this spin on the upcoming sermon series at our church (which will remain nameless). FYI, it is a large Episcopal church with a strong evangelical bent. Yesterday’s sermon (devoid of ‘cross language’) did little to assuage my concern that the church is contributing to the idea that being a Christian = being a theologian of glory, but I could be totally off.

This brings me to the point of my post, which is really about the question whether preaching must always speak about the cross. Is it possible that when we talk about the law/gospel dichotomy, we’re being unfair to texts like these which appear to be about issues like money and stress? Are we skipping over large chunks of Jesus’ teaching ministry unnecessarily? Is there truly anything wrong with a sermon series such as this?

Anyway, this is what came to my inbox last week:

How often do we just go with the flow, or take the path of least resistance – and end up feeling our life is only half-lived?

God wants us to live life to the full, and wants to help us to go for it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents challenging and risky approaches to money, stress, revenge and integrity, among other things – but says if we’re prepared to go for it we could make a real difference in our lives, and in the lives of those around us.

Sunday 26 April : Money – Matthew 6:19-24
Sunday 3 May : Stress – Matthew 7:25-34
Sunday 10 May : Future – Matthew 7:24-29
Sunday 17 May : Integrity – Matthew 5:33-37
Sunday 24 May : Influence – Matthew 5:13-16
Sunday 31 May : Revenge – Matthew 5:38-48
Sunday 7 June : Anger – Matthew 5:21-26
Sunday 14 June : Prayer – Matthew 6:5-14
Sunday 21 June : Giving – Matthew 6:1-4
Sunday 28 June : Priorities – Matthew 5:1-6

P.S. Out of respect for the church’s anonymity, I ask you not to fish for it on ‘google’, I would just like to hear what you guys think…

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38 responses to “Go For It?”

  1. Jeff Hual says:

    The proper use of the pulpit is to expound the Gospel (someone famous said that, not my original thought…who was it? Is there a theologian in the house?).

    Anything else, in my humble opinion, is a misuse of the pulpit. This could perhaps work as a Sunday school series or a small group bible study, but as a sermon series I doubt the cross will even be visible on a hill in the distance.

  2. Patrick Kyle says:


    Sorry to hear that. The issue for me is that you can get good advice,
    scriptural or otherwise, on the subjects listed, just about anywhere. Books, classes, friends, therapists etc. Only the church has the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins.
    Also, what is the purpose of worship and preaching? The sermon series listed seems to indicate the primary purpose of worship and preaching is evangelism or outreach. I just don’t see that in the NT. There is a place for evangelism and teaching; worship does not seem to be the primary venue for the subjects listed in the sermon series in question.

    Don’t misunderstand what I’m saying. Christian perspective on these questions is important and should be discussed and taught. However, to put it at the center of a worship service takes the focus off Christ,and can subtly change the purpose of Christ and His work to a divinely ordained self improvement program.

  3. Todd says:

    DP, the question your post leaves me with is whether the teachings and ministry of Jesus are sufficiently preached/understood without an explicit reference to the cross, or does the preaching of Jesus merely serve as preparation for the cross?

  4. Trevor says:

    Did you receive that “Go For It” rockclimbing poster in your inbox as well?

    I’m instantly reminded of the Bob Dylan song “The Groom’s Still Waiting at the Altar”. It was the ever astute DZ who once shared with me this song, copyright 1981, from the album Shot of Love (of the “Christian” years).

    The refrain goes:

    “West of the Jordan, east of the Rock of Gibraltar,
    I see the burning of the page,
    Curtain risin’ on a new age,
    See the groom still waitin’ at the altar.”

    And the 3rd verse:

    “Don’t know what I can say about Claudette that wouldn’t come back to haunt me,
    Finally had to give her up ’bout the time she began to want me.
    But I know God has mercy on them who are slandered and humiliated.
    I’d a-done anything for that woman if she didn’t make me feel so obligated. (Back to refrain)”

    Doesn’t it often seem that God is slandered and humiliated by his absent bride, the church, and is in need of His own mercy? He fails to live up to the law the that we place on Him of our skewed understandings and misdirected glorification. The second and last line especially makes me think that this is why He often doesn’t seem to “show up” when we “go for it”, to mix church metaphors…

  5. Dave Louis says:

    I agree totally with Jeff’s post when he said that these topics belong in sunday school or a small group, not behind the pulpit. It sounds like this church is trying to make Christianity “RELEVANT” to people so that they will come to Church. Big mistake! Just another reason why the culture is correct is stating that the Church is a club that teaches morals and ethics.

    However, even in sunday school or small groups. these topics should be discussed in a way that doesn’t confound Law/Gospel. Even when Paul is writing to his Churches to instruct them (ie Romans 12ff, etc…) he is talking to Christians who want to keep the Law, not Christians who need to be encouraged to keep the law for some other reason.

    This sermon series is a complete collapse into being “under the law”. When obedience to the sermon on the mount is presented as a means to achieve some “goal” in this life or the next. there is a collapse back into Law. That is the essence of Law: when obedience is compelled by either love of reward/blessing or fear of punishment or negative consequences.

  6. MK says:

    I’m not sure how you are assuming the sermon series mentioned in the post is automatically presenting obedience as “a means to achieve some goal in this life”. Perhaps you are implying that is the only way obedience can be presented…not sure.

    As for the purpose of the pulpit, I completely agree that the exclusive role of the church is to proclaim the Gospel- not to enter into politics, not to offer self-help, etc. But can the pulpit not go beyond the individual soul? In other words, must a sermon always end at the moment of our personal encounter with Grace? Is forgiveness of sins the end of the story, or is it the firstfruits of God’s renewal of Creation? Thoughts?

  7. Michael Cooper says:

    All I can say is, nothing on the list makes me want to climb that mountain. But since this is my day to raise hell (hopefully I’ll get it out of my system), I’ll raise a little here, too. My own personal test for a totally “grace” church is (1)no stewardship sermon, period, and (2) no pledge cards, period. Show me one that meets those two highly legalistic demands for a church ruled totally by grace, and I’ll mop the nave every night for free.

  8. dpotter says:

    Many good ideas here…thanks for the feedback. Let me add a few points.

    * I almost didn’t write the post because I was afraid that it may seem like I was being judgemental, but I find it helpful when I see theology interacting with current issues in the church. I see this as a mere sample of what is going on in pulpits around the world.
    * Of course, this does not answer the question of ‘where does the cross come in?’ or ‘should it come in?’ I feel the problem might lie not simply in the law/grace realm, but in the understanding of the church.
    * Aside from being a bit outdated, is the phrase ‘go for it’ too optimistic about human nature?
    * I wonder if it would be helpful to be a bit more comprehensive when preaching on this text given similar teaching about having treasure in heaven when one sells everything and gives to the poor. I’ve always understood the Sermon on the Mount to be more about ratcheting up the law’s demands rather than providing us with attainable goals.
    * An anecdote: My lovely wife responded cheerfully, ‘Maybe we need to start praying more for the pastor’ …conviction, thy name is ‘spouse’!

  9. dpotter says:

    Michael…classic. Giving is a touchy subject, especially because it rarely [read: ‘never’] comes off without sounding like a manipulative plea. Oh, did I fail to mention that the vestry approved a £5.6m upgrade to the sanctuary a couple years ago? We moved back into the refurbished building just before the financial warheads struck the earth in October.

  10. RJM says:

    The Word (which comes as Law and Gospel) speaks to all issues of life. In terms of money, the Word is that it all comes from God. This is a word of Law in that it shatters our false illusions that it is our own; but it is also Gospel because it frees to live under God, trusting him for our daily bread instead of ourselves. I think law and Gospel does not equal sin and forgiveness, but rather the way in which the Word of God comes alive and through the Holy Spirit teaches, convicts and resurrects us. Good law and Gospel sermons are not simply punts that move to forgiveness after nine minutes, but speak the Word. The challenge with any sermon is not preaching the law — that will be preached whether the preacher attempts to or not. The challenge is making the Gospel, which is for the most part unseen or seen in places we don’t normally go (theology of the cross) real and alive for people.

  11. Jeff Hual says:

    These are all good points, but I think my primary concern with this type of sermon series is what Michael Horton referred to in his recent book as “Christianity and something else”, ie., Christian money management, Christian giving, Christian priorities, etc.

    While these subjects are important in their own right, too often they are presented with the Gospel assumed and not expounded. This may be acceptable in some settings, but not in the pulpit, which must be reserved for expounding the Gospel Sunday by Sunday.

  12. Dave Louis says:


    I was responding to the part of the original post that is the advertisement for the sermon series.

    How often do we just go with the flow, or take the path of least resistance – and end up feeling our life is only half-lived?

    God wants us to live life to the full, and wants to help us to go for it. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus presents challenging and risky approaches to money, stress, revenge and integrity, among other things – but says if we’re prepared to go for it we could make a real difference in our lives, and in the lives of those around us. Notice the part about “living life to the full” and “making a real difference on our lives”. This sounds to me like the sermon on the mount is viewed as the path to having a fulfilled life now and complete spiritual life.

    And to answer your question, the only way obedience can be presented is with the goal of freedom. As it was said by the main speaking at the conference, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. The only true motive for obedience is that there is no motive at all.

  13. RJM says:


    Good point about the point of the Gospel; I think when Christ becomes an adjective instead of the noun — if not the verb — we are in trouble, especially on Sunday mornings. What is especially sad is that this gets passed off as Gospel — no death to life, no forgiveness, no real grace or anything like that.

    The truth is though that people always look to the law (as Philip Melacthon pointed out…), both to accuse them or to guide them. If you ask people the most Gospel centered questions in a Bible study, almost always they will respond, “Well, this is what Jesus wants me to do.” Which is not entirely problematic, but it does bring up the need for preachers to be conscious of, if not have training, to look for and then proclaim the Gospel, because this will not happen accidently…(okay, the Holy Spirit is free…but also free to show up at another congregation on Sunday).

    PS Which is why the communion liturgy (if done right) is so helpful because it does force even the most legalist, confused pastor to tell people that Jesus died for them and their sins. Indeed, the whole liturgy is set up so that a pastor will actually be an agent of grace, even if that day I am not particularly up to it.

  14. RJM says:

    PPS Actually, to be really Lutheran about it, Article VII of the Augsburg Confession (1530 document outlining key points of Lutheran faith; not written by Luther) defines church as the event of the Gospel being proclaimed and the Sacraments being administered to the gathered community. Not a bad litmus test…

  15. dpotter says:

    RJM, thanks for your thoughts. I agree with you on the proclamation of the Gospel and administration of the Sacraments…I believe Calvin said something similar, but may have included a phrase like ‘Scriptures rightly preached’. (btw, I wish I had known about your
    Paul & Ancient Greece websiteearlier, we just returned from there a couple weeks ago).

    Dave, I agree…that is how the series description struck me as well.

    Jeff, I share your aversion to this random baptising of everything in order to call it Christian…it seems a bit ‘gimmicky’, I remember Horton saying something about the other movement in the church to have 1,000 different ‘ministries’. Dance ministry, reflective prayer ministry, clown ministy, etc…he noted that if everything becomes ministry, then nothing is. Yet, I cannot say that the Bible does not also have a good deal to say about ‘general life wisdom’…Proverbs comes to mind.

    Patrick, I think there might be something good about parachurch organisations that help people with their (crushing) debt, so, yeah…I think it might be irresponsible for the church to chuck discussions about finances altogether.

    Todd, that is my personal view too…I cannot imagine leaving the pulpit without saying something about the cross. Browder (so engaged right now!) turned me on to a Lutheran radio station (can’t remember the call letters now) in seminary, and I remember listening to an interview with the now infamous Ted Haggard where he argued with the host that one could preach sermons without using the name of Jesus. (cringe!)

    Just to be a total gadfly…

    Here is an excerpt from Luther on Mt 6:24…I was actually shocked by his approach to the passage:

    “Ye cannot serve God and mammon.”

    4. God cannot allow us to have another Lord besides himself. He is a jealous God, as he says, and cannot suffer us to serve him and his enemy. Only mine, he says, or not at all. Behold now how beautifully Christ here introduces the example: “No man,” he says, “can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one, and love the other; or else he will hold to one and despise the other. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.” As if to say: as it is here in man’s relations to his fellows, so it is also before God.

    5. We find very few, who do not sin against the Gospel. The Lord passes a severe judgment and it is terrible to hear that he should say this of us, and yet no one will confess, yea, no one will suffer it to be said that we hate and despise God and that we are his enemies. There is no one, when asked if he loves God and cleaves to him? would not reply, yes, I love God. But see how the text closes, that we all hate and despise God, and love mammon and cleave to it. But God suffers us to do this until his time; he watches the time and some day he will strike into our midst with all violence, before we can turn around. It is impossible for one, who loves gold and earthly possessions and cleaves to them, not to hate God. For God here contrasts these two as enemies to one another, and concludes, if you love and cleave to one of these two, then you must hate and despise the other. Therefore, however nicely and genteely one lives here upon earth and cleaves to riches, it cannot be otherwise than that he must hate God; and on the other hand, whoever does not cleave to gold and worldly goods, loves God. This is certainly true.

    6. But who are they that love God, and cleave not to gold and worldly possessions? Take a good look at the whole world, also the Christians, and see if they despise gold and riches. It requires an effort to hear the Gospel and to live according to it. God be praised, we have the Gospel; that no one can deny, but what do we do with it? We are concerned only about learning and knowing it, and nothing more; we think it is enough to know it, and do not care

    whether we ever live according to it. However, on the other band, one is very anxious when he leaves lying in the window or in the room a dollar or two, yea, even a dime, then he worries and fears lest the money be stolen; but the same person can do without the Gospel through a whole year. And such characters still wish to be considered as Evangelical.

    7. Here we see what and who we are, If we were Christians, we would despise riches and be concerned about the Gospel that we some day might live in it and prove it by our deeds. We see few such Christians; therefore we must hear the judgment that we are despisers of God and hate God for the sake of riches and worldly possessions. Alas! That is fine praise! We should be ashamed of ourselves in our inmost souls; there is no hope for us! What a fine condition we are in now! That means, I think, our names are blotted out. What spoiled children we are!

    Link to full sermon:
    Click me!

  16. Michael Cooper says:

    “It requires an effort to hear the Gospel and to live according to it. God be praised, we have the Gospel; that no one can deny, but what do we do with it? We are concerned only about learning and knowing it, and nothing more; we think it is enough to know it, and do not care whether we ever live according to it.”

    This illustrates the valuable point that it is always good to actually read LUTHER and not just what others claim Luther said. That also goes for Mr. Calvin.

  17. Chris Rosebrough says:

    The reasoning behind the need for a sermon series like this is based on a false premise and false understanding of John 10:10.

    The false premise is stated as, “God wants us to live life to the full, and wants to help us to go for it.”

    The Abundant Life in this way of thinking is God helping a Christ Follower apply secret Biblical principles that will help them attain success in the 21st century version of a happy western middle-class life.

    In this motif a true Christ-Follower is one who budgets successfully and tithes, has a plan for their life and future, applies Biblical stress relief principles, uses a day planner, manages anger properly and has his priorities ordered properly.

    This is really nothing more than a newer and more user-friendly version of pietism.

    In this way of thinking you may not even be a true Christ-follower (saved) if you occasionally bounce a check, have credit card debt, don’t use the Franklin-Covey day planner, occasionally lose your cool and are overweight because you stress eat.

  18. dpotter says:

    ‘uses a day planner’…lol

  19. StampDawg says:

    I totally agree with Chris R. Loved his post. Plus if you click on his name you’ll be taken to this ultracool web site called PIRATE CHRISTIAN RADIO.

    Many thanks to Dylan for starting this, and for the contributions of Dave Louis, RJM, Jeff Hual, etc.

  20. Aaron M. G. Zimmerman says:

    Hi Chris. Totally agree. This line from the promo Dylan shared says it all: “God wants us to live life to the full, and wants to help us to go for it.”
    That is not Bible Christianity. Jesus actually said we need to die. And the language about “God wants to help us go for it” is pure theology of glory: God is your executive assistant who helps YOU on YOUR path to YOUR success.
    This reminds of a line from “Stand Up Comedy,” a track on U2’s new album: “Stop helping God across the street like some little old lady.” God is not a subservient helper. He is the actor. He is the subject. We are the objects.
    God is not about making my life awesome. He is basically about killing me so that I can stop being what Luther called a proud, sad little god and be, rather, a real human being. That is, a sinner justified by grace. That is, a real person who is loved.

  21. Chris Rosebrough says:


    Well said!! I couldn’t agree more!

  22. Michael Cooper says:

    In many ways, this program and Osteen and just about every preacher on TV are easy targets. Too easy. I am bored with shooting them with Forde quotes. So, my new mission is to try to understand why they have such an appeal. One thing that I think might help is that many of the folks who eat this up are themselves ALREADY dead. They don’t have fancy educations or fancy jobs, or they are middle class and a zillion dollars in debt and don’t know where their next sales commission is coming from. They don’t need to hear that they need to die; they are already there. Jesus did not have the same message to everyone he met. To those who were healthy (the “rich young man”) he offered death, but to those who were already dead, he offered “arise, take up your mat and walk.” I am not advocating Osteen, etc. but for me anyway, it helps a little to understand their appeal, and to have a little compassion on those who flock to them.

  23. burton says:


    I hear what you’re saying, but I think maybe the problem is that they’re “not dead yet” (Holy Grail).

    Holding on by a thread, yes, dead, no. In fact, I think the appeal in Osteen, et al, is that they don’t want to die and are desperately looking for a message from someone that will keep them alive.

    This is what I see this message and these preachers providing – life support. People don’t want to die, they are afraid to die and these preachers are telling them they don’t have to if….

  24. dpotter says:

    Michael, I take your point about these figures as strawmen…thank you.

    I could be wrong, but I think we find this sort of topical, self-help stuff all over the socio-economic spectrum (albeit, slightly skewed). Just as an FYI, the 300 year old parish is just the opposite of what you are describing; we have an abundance of ‘haves’and few ‘have nots’ in the congregation. (Plenty of Oxbridge diplomas, period homes, and double-barred surnames to go around). So I tend to think that it is an attempt to be ‘cool’ and ‘relevant’ so that worship doesn’t feel too doctrinal or stuffy. They’ve also done away with liturgy, though we still use the 1984 Liturgy at the early service–not much to sink one’s teeth into.

    The odd thing is that the while the Anglo-Catholic parishes here are quite socially progressive…the services are really pretty good–they follow the 1970 Scottish liturgy, readings from Psalms/OT/NT, prayer of humble access, reverent, not kitschy, vertical.

    I think the ‘not dead yet’ diagnosis might be on the money. These sorts of messages appeal to those who are willing to continue ticking more boxes as a means of keeping up appearances with God and their own conscience. As if…

  25. Michael Cooper says:

    Burton- You are probably right as far as the offer of “life support.” But I can’t blame anyone for not wanting to die. I don’t want to die, either. For the young and the healthy, “death is so romantic” (as Dylan sang) in the abstract, but it loses its appeal as it becomes a more concrete prospect. Osteen’s congregation may be down, but not out, but I just can’t muster the theological energy to kick them to death.

  26. Sean Norris says:

    The good thing about it is that we don’t have to kick them to death. The irony is that Joel Osteen and company is putting them to death already by always giving them something to do and, therefore, something at which to fail. It is a tragic reality. The thousands upon thousands go for encouragement, and their sin just eats up what they hear in those services and cons them once again into thinking, “Hey, that’s right. I can do this. I can go for it.” I can already hear the funeral procession beginning.

  27. Aaron M. G. Zimmerman says:

    burton, I think you’re right on. These people are maybe in desperate straits, but the ego dies hard. The “go for it” message seems to me to be this: Jesus will tell you the steps you can take to deal with money, integrity, stress, anger, etc. Basically, Jesus will be your Tony Robbins. I think the appeal of Osteen and Robbins come from the same place: everybody wants someone to tell them the formula that will make their lives less full of suffering. And Christians want this too. Pastors want to “get better” and pews are full of people who want advice on how to fix their lives. And that’s totally understandable: who doesn’t wish life was a little easier? Who doesn’t wish they had a bit more self-control and happiness? So if you do a sermon series like this, you get lots of people excited, lots of affirmation. But the question is, even though this is what people want, is it what they need? Jesus did say, “rise, take up your mat and go home,” but he first said, “Your sins are forgiven.” See, the problem, in my view, with sermon series like this is that they assume that the listeners can actually do what’s being asked of them. I mean, there is very little new in Jesus’ ethical teaching, except that he makes being ethical even harder. But basically he says stuff we all already know on some level: don’t be angry, be loving, don’t be materialistic and greedy, don’t be sexually aberrant, put others before yourself. I mean, is that news to anyone? So how is telling people all of this all over again going to help them if they’re not already doing it? These passages certainly need to be read, taught, and preached, but always in the light of Romans 1-3: we all fall short and need a savior. I’m not saying preach for 9 minutes and run to the cross in some shallow fomulaic way. But any preaching on ethics that does not have a snake-belly low anthropology (people are bound and unable to do good) and an ultimate recourse to the work of the Holy Spirit is a failed enterprise.

  28. Michael Cooper says:

    Aaron– I am right on board with everything you have said. The diagnosis is perfect, the cure is perfect, the theology is perfect. But I just can’t help thinking of Jesus looking out on the crowd of theologically screwed up, shallow people who had followed him out into the hinterlands, all with very mixed motives, and he had compassion on them and decided to give them all a good meal of fish and bread. I doubt that he was telling them they needed to die as they ate. So sometimes, just a little relief may not be all bad.

  29. Anonymous says:

    Amen Michael Copper.

  30. Sean Norris says:

    As a preacher, what does that relief look like from the pulpit? I agree with you Michael that relief is needed, but what gives it to them? Osteen’s preaching or preaching about the unconditional promise of forgiveness from God for sinners found at the cross. I think that the point of Dylan’s post is that this type of preaching is actually not relieving, it is heaping a new burden upon already burdened people. Pastorally, I don’t many of these preachers are looking with compassion upon their people. It seems that they are actually sending a message of, “Hey, I know it’s hard, but you just gotta keep trying. I’m with you. Let’s keep on trying.” It appears to be sympathetic except for the fact that they completely misunderstand the real problem. it’s not just “hard” it’s impossible.

    I’m with you. I think that it would be much better if Osteen, or any of these preachers, just decided to take everyone out for a drink and bite to eat like Jesus did:) Wouldn’t that be refreshing?

  31. Sean Norris says:

    Please forgive my many grammatical errors in that last comment:)

  32. Michael Cooper says:

    Sean- I agree that Osteen offers a false relief. But the thing about the “theology of the cross” is that if it is not preached with real love and real compassion, with the real bleeding and dying of the preacher along with everyone else, then it can become abstract and hard. The preacher can even get a kick out of making paradoxical, outlandish-sounding statements that are the favorite of many Lutheran theologians. They may even be true statements, but it ought to be painful to make them. Part of that real love that the true theologian of the cross has is to know when his hearer IS dead, and doesn’t need any instruction on the subject. So my advise would be just as you have said: preach the cross, but offer a Guinness as well.

  33. Michael Cooper says:

    that should be “advice”, but I hear that is a dirty word around here, however it is spelled 🙂

  34. Sean Norris says:

    My advice to you Michael, is to never give advice:)
    I’ll take that Guinness right about now…

  35. Michael Cooper says:

    Sean- I am on that d— South Beach Diet for the umpteenth time right now (even “grace” people use the “law” to lose weight: it never works, but we keep on trying), and my frig is full of Guinness that I can’t drink. Come on over!

  36. Sean Norris says:

    Nice! I don’t know where you live, but I’m sure the Spirit will lead me…

  37. Aaron M. G. Zimmerman says:

    Hey Cooper, I am totally on board with the relief thing. That’s what I always seek to bring to the pulpit.
    And about bad theology–that’s why I’m sl glad for justification by faith: it even covers bad theology.
    So that’s why we can just give people bread and fish, or a Guinness, and not have to “fix” their theology. (That said, getting one’s theology in order can be a hugely healing and therapeutic thing–but as always, it’s a work of the Spirit).

  38. Michael Cooper says:

    Aaron, Well said. You are invited to the party. But not because you have spoken well, just because you are you, and also because I have enough beer.

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