In this series, “Secular Wisdom at the Movies,” we hope to offer student leaders a resource – whether for summer programming or just regular teaching. So often we overlook biblical insight from the secular world. The movies in this series each offer a unique Gospel perspective that we can bring to our students. To read our last post in this series, click here.
We all felt how powerful it was for Katniss Everdeen to “volunteer as tribute” for her sister, Prim. I remember chills in the theater. She saved her sister from the capitol and certain death, by volunteering for the “Hunger Games” as her substitute.
The youth-pastor part of me logged this moment away to use in a later sermon. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in seeing gospel shapes in that act – substitution. But most of my analogy-searching stopped there. Many others touted the Katniss-volunteers-for-Prim as shorthand for the gospel. But I think, to a large degree, most in the religious community have neglected the point that The Hunger Games trilogy was actually making.
The point that substitution, in and of itself, is not enough.
Even after winning the 74th games, Katniss is haunted by the war left unfinished – those she loves are not yet safe. There are more battles to fight, and bigger enemies to take down if her act of substitution is to really mean something. This point is brutally made near the end of the trilogy when, moments from victory, Prim dies at the gates of President Snow’s home. We all felt it then – her substitution in book one was not enough. Prim is dead.
Substitution did not lead to salvation.
In Taste and See, John Piper asks: “What makes the gospel Gospel? What makes The Good News, actual good news?”
He suggests that being “saved” is only good news if it’s connected to real promises and solid joys, and guaranteed victories. Forgiveness of sins isn’t good news by itself. You can leave the courtroom “innocent,” but still be stabbed on the street; forgiveness doesn’t always lead to joy. Escaping hell doesn’t even necessarily lead to joy – not if we don’t have a proper vision for eternity. And substitution isn’t good news by itself either. If your friend only steps in front of the first bullet you are not safe from the war – your joy and salvation is far from guaranteed.
Substitution can only be good news in light of the gospel.
Unlike Katniss’ volunteerism, Jesus’ substitution leads us to what Paul calls the “unsearchable riches of Christ” or the “gospel of the glory of Christ” or the “immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness.” When we are saved by Jesus, we aren’t just delivered a verdict. We are given a savior and, more than that, we are given His Spirit. The very spirit of Christ lives in us; animating us to do good works, healing our sicknesses, giving us boldness to be fools for the claims made in the resurrection, and providing joy when we are suffering.
The good-news-ness of the gospel isn’t just found in brute substitution, but where that substitution takes us. Katniss’ substitution was as reliable as a leaning post or a spider’s thread. It defeated no real enemies. The only thing it guaranteed was two more books and three more movies that rested on the potential for Katniss’ efforts to actually fail.
The good-news-ness of the gospel is that the substitution of Jesus takes us into the guaranteed riches of Christ – where victory, joy, peace, and a whole treasure of promises are guaranteed through the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ substitution was enough, because in its completion He destroyed the works of Satan, abolished the sting of death, and gave to believers His Spirit.
What makes the gospel Gospel is that it brings us into everlasting and increasing joy. Prim’s joy could only be measured by the future success of Katniss’ efforts. But our joy is measured by the final completed works of Jesus, which we are told in Revelation is a total recreation of not just ourselves, but our entire world.
Piper said, “He is not merely the rope that pulls us from the threatening waves; he is the solid beach under our feet, and the air in our lungs, and the beat of our heart, and the warm sun on our skin, and the song in our ears, and the arms of our beloved.”
Trusting in Christ’s substitution will always be an adventure of seeing new heights of Jesus’ love, and new joys found in his sacrifice.
Join us for Rooted 2016, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore the good news that God’s grace is sufficient for our relationships: with ourselves, with others, with the world, and with God. Jesus is our reconciliation yesterday, today, and forever.