If you want to know whether God loves you, don’t look in the mirror. Look to Jesus. We look away from our failures to behold his victory.
The first great Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Ulrich Zwingli never summed up their teaching with the tidy set of five phrases we now know as the five solas. The solas developed over time as a way of capturing the essence of what the Reformation was mainly about in its dispute with the Roman Catholic Church.
Sola is Latin for “alone” or “only.” The five solas are sola gratia (by grace alone), solo Christo (on the basis of Christ alone), sola fide (through the means of faith alone), soli Deo gloria (to the ultimate glory of God alone), sola Scriptura (as taught with the final and decisive authority of Scripture alone).Justification Alone
I think these five solas can be preciously illuminating, both for the crux of the Reformation and for the essence of the Christian gospel itself, which of course was central to the dispute. I say they can be helpful because five prepositional phrases hanging in the air with no clause to modify are not helpful in making clear what the great controversy of the Reformation was about, nor do they clarify the essence of the true Christian gospel.
The clause that allows these modifying prepositional phrases to do their wonderfully clarifying work for the sake of the essence of the gospel and the heart of the Reformation is the clause: We are justified before God . . . or Justification before God is . . .
Only after justification can the five prepositional phrases follow and do their magnificent work to define and protect the gospel from all unbiblical dilution. We are justified by God by grace alone; on the basis of Christ’s blood and righteousness alone; through the means, or instrument, of faith alone; for the ultimate glory of God alone; as taught with final and decisive authority in Scripture alone.” All five phrases serve to modify God’s work of justification — how sinners gain a right standing with God so that he is one hundred percent for us and not against us.Don’t Substitute with the Solas
If you substitute other clauses besides “We are justified . . .” such as “We are sanctified . . .” or “We will be finally saved at the last judgment . . .” then the meaning of some of these prepositional phrases must be changed in order to be faithful to Scripture. For example,
In justification, faith receives a finished work of Christ performed outside of us and counted as ours — imputed to us.
In sanctification, faith receives an ongoing power of Christ that works inside us for practical holiness.
In final salvation at the last judgment, faith is confirmed by the sanctifying fruit it has borne, and we are saved through that fruit and that faith. As Paul says in 2 Thessalonians 2:13, “God chose you as the firstfruits to be saved, through sanctification by the Spirit and belief in the truth.”
Especially as it pertains to final salvation, so many of us live in a fog of confusion. James saw in his day those who were treating “faith alone” as a doctrine that claimed you could be justified by faith which produced no good works. And he vehemently said No to such faith.
- Faith without works is dead (James 2:17).
- It is like a body with no breath (James 2:26).
- It is like an energy with no effect (James 2:20), and no completion (James 2:22).
- If there is justifying faith, it has works (James 2:17).
So, he says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (2:18). The works will come from faith.
Paul would affirm all of this because he said in Galatians 5:6, “In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” The only kind of faith that counts for justification is the kind that produces love — the kind that bears the fruit of love. The faith which alone justifies is never alone, but always bearing transforming fruit. So, when James says these controversial words, “A person is justified by works and not by faith alone (James 2:24), I take him to mean not by faith which is alone, but which shows itself by works.
Paul calls this effect or fruit or evidence of faith the “work of faith” (1 Thessalonians 1:3; 2 Thessalonians 1:11) and the “obedience of faith” (Romans 1:5; 16:26). These works of faith, and this obedience of faith, these fruits of the Spirit that come by faith, are necessary for our final salvation. No holiness, no heaven (Hebrews 12:14). So, we should not speak of getting to heaven by faith alone in the same way we are justified by faith alone.
Essential to the Christian life and necessary for final salvation is the killing of sin (Romans 8:13) and the pursuit of holiness (Hebrews 12:14). Mortification of sin, sanctification in holiness. But what makes that possible and pleasing to God? We put sin to death and we pursue holiness from a justified position where God is one hundred percent for us — already — by faith alone.First Biblical, Then Reformed
So faith alone doesn’t mean the same thing when applied to justification, sanctification, and final salvation. You can see what extraordinary care and precision is called for in order to be faithful to the Scripture when using the five solas. And since “Scripture alone” is our final and decisive authority, being faithful to Scripture is the goal. We aim to be biblical first — and Reformed only if it follows from Scripture.
The five solas provide wonderful clarity about the crux of the Reformation and the heart of the gospel, if the clause that the five prepositional phrases modify is “Justification before God is. . .” Justification before God is by grace alone, with no merited favor whatever; on the basis of Christ alone, with no other sacrifice or righteousness as the foundation; through the means of faith alone, not including any human works whatsoever; to the end that all things lead ultimately to the glory of God alone; as taught with final and decisive authority in the Scriptures alone.
Martin Luther didn’t stand alone 500 years ago. Nor do we today. To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we have partnered with Bethlehem College & Seminary, and several other friends, to invite you to join us on a 31-day journey, just 5–7 minutes each day, to meet the many heroes of the Reformation.
Communion calls to mind the most tragic event in the history of the world and the greatest hope ever offered. Only mature believers can set that tone.
The most subtle form of idolatry is the pride that secretly worships self. This song attacks the roots of pride with heartfelt worship.
Martin Luther didn’t stand alone 500 years ago. Nor does he stand alone today. To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we invite you to join us on a 31-day journey, just 5–7 minutes each day, to meet the many heroes of the Reformation.
Sunday afternoon conversations with my family inevitably drift to what took place as the church met that morning. We might cover impacting points from the sermon, prayer needs, guests we met, unusual happenings in the children’s ministry, and of course, the “worship.”
Was the mix good? How about the song selection? Were the songs arranged well? Did the transitions make sense? Were there any dead spots? Was anyone emotionally moved?
Such are the questions that arise in a family where the patriarch has been involved in music ministry for over forty years. Of course, we all know (or at least we should know) that worship is meant to be an all-of-life response to who God is for us in Christ (Romans 12:1; John 4:21–26). Just like breathing, worship can’t be limited to one portion of our day or one day of our week. We’re always doing it.
The same can be said of our leading. Leading worship starts and ends with the way I live my life, not what I do on a public platform. Encouraging others to glory in Jesus Christ is an activity that extends far beyond the twenty to thirty minutes I give to it on Sunday mornings.
But how do we realign our hearts and thoughts to that reality?1. See your preparation as worship.
Most weeks I spend about six hours planning and rehearsing for the Sunday gathering. Some leaders I know invest even more time. All those hours of planning, preparation, and practice are meant to be worship too. Jesus is no less on his throne before the meeting as he is during the meeting. He’s no less of a Savior. The lyrics to the songs we’re going to sing are no less true. And God wants my attitudes to reflect a grateful response to the gospel, even as I “prepare” to worship.
That means that even as I plan, I can allow the significance of the lyrics we’ll be singing and the Scriptures we’ll be reading on Sunday to affect me. I can glorify God by serving band members when I communicate with them in a timely fashion. I can pause during rehearsal to remind myself and the other musicians why specific truths we’re singing are so important. I can do all my preparation with faith and joy, knowing that the Holy Spirit is just as present with me before the meeting as he will be when we gather.2. Don’t let your daily life contradict your public worship.
In both the Old and New Testaments, God rebukes those who proclaim his praise in the assembly, but sin against him through their thoughts, words, and deeds at other times (Matthew 15:7–9; Isaiah 1:12–17; Amos 5:21–24; Psalm 50:16–21). Consistency matters for God’s people, and it certainly matters for those who lead them.
No amount of passionate singing on Sunday makes up for passionate sinning on other days. Of course, if we confess our sins and trust in the substitutionary death of Jesus for forgiveness, we have every reason to sing. But we don’t sing because Jesus excuses our sins. We sing because he has freed us from them.3. Be as passionate about glorifying God in your relationships as you are up front on Sundays.
My spouse, kids, musicians, and friends aren’t interruptions to my ministry — they are my ministry. God intends my relationships to bring him glory even more than my songs (Romans 15:5–6). Those closest to me should be able to see a connection between the way I speak and act in front of people on a Sunday morning and the way I interact with them at other times.
Am I insensitive or caring? Am I unapproachable or inviting? Is the faith I exude on the platform evident when I’m going through a challenging season? Is my public passion for God’s glory reflected in my private acts of purity, humility, and generosity? If not, my view of leading worship is not only narrow, but dangerous.4. Be ready in season and out of season.
A significant part of my job these days is training younger leaders. I often don’t give them much lead time when I ask them to sing or play. I want them to recognize that life is preparation for what we do in front of others.
Of course, we want to know chords, melody lines, lyrics, and good ways to transition between songs. But our leading is meant to be the overflow of the glory of Christ we’ve been pursuing all week: in our devotions, at our jobs or schools, and in our free time. That’s why David exclaims,
I will bless the Lord at all times;
his praise shall continually be in my mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord;
let the humble hear and be glad.
Oh, magnify the Lord with me,
and let us exalt his name together! (Psalm 34:1–3)
I will bless the Lord at all times, not just on Sunday mornings. May that be our prayer and practice even as we give ourselves fully to leading God’s people every week.
Innumerable books and articles have been published over the last several years on the subject of burnout. But for all the millions of words that have been spent, the statistics continue to rise at an alarming pace. And behind the cold statistics is a conflagration of relationships, families, careers, lives, and souls.
The reason the vast majority of cures and solutions for burnout don’t work is that they merely focus on various techniques to manage stress or reduce anxiety. Some of these practical remedies can be helpful, but they don’t address the heart of the issue. They may put out the fire around the edges, but, because they don’t extinguish the central blaze, the fire within keeps erupting and charred remains keep piling up.Can’t Sleep?
So, what leads us to burnout? Ultimately, it’s false theology. Behind every exhausted person are bogus beliefs that must be identified and doused by replacing them with true theology. Let’s start by pointing our fire extinguisher at our (false) theology of sleep.
Perhaps the greatest contributor to burnout today is sleep deprivation (usually defined as sleeping less than 6–7 hours a night). Sleep researchers have published numerous studies highlighting the horrendous physical, emotional, mental, relational, and even moral damage that results from sleeping too little. Hence the multibillion-dollar industry in computerized mattresses, hi-tech pillows, and various exotic scents. In Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I list a number of practical steps that scientists have found to be effective in promoting better sleep.
But often the core problem behind our sleeplessness are wrong views of God and of ourselves.
For example, ask yourself what’s behind your sleep deprivation. What beliefs are driving your decisions about bed-times and rise-times? How about some of these:
I am indispensable. Sure, I believe God is sovereign, but he needs all the help I can give him. If I don’t do the work, who will? Although Christ has promised to build his church, who’s doing the night shift?
I am indestructible. I am strong enough to cope without God’s gift of sufficient daily sleep. I refuse to accept my creaturely limitations and bodily needs. I see myself more as a machine than a human being.
I am infinite. I can neglect my body, and my soul will not suffer. I can weaken my body and not weaken my mind, conscience, or will.
I am an idolater. What I do instead of sleep shines a spotlight on my idols, whether it be late-night football, cultivating my online persona, surfing the Internet, ministry success, or promotion. Why sleep when it does nothing to burnish my reputation or advance my glory?Lullaby Gospel Truths
The only way to suffocate these destructive flames is with health-giving truths such as:
God is my heavenly Father. As God cares for me more than the sparrows, I can trust him to provide for me in every way and so I cast all my cares, including my career and my children, upon him (Matthew 6:25–27).
God is good. His command to sleep is not optional advice for the weak, but a loving gift that I must gratefully receive (Psalm 3:5).
God is truthful. Therefore, when he says that it is vain, it is utterly pointless, for me to rise too early or stay up too late (Psalm 127:1–2), he’s telling me the truth. I will believe this even when I’m convinced that sleeping less and working longer will benefit me or the church.
God is my protector. “Father, I’m sometimes afraid for my job, my church, or my country, but I believe Psalm 4:8, which says, ‘In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.’”
God is strong. I am not. I will therefore respect rather than stretch the limitations of my weak humanity and trust far more his almighty divinity.
Do you see that when and how long we sleep makes a huge statement about what we believe about ourselves and God?What About the Puritans?
One burned-out pastor confessed to me that he had been depriving himself of sleep for years because “that’s what the Puritans did.” If they could do it, why couldn’t he? After eventually accepting that his frail humanity needed rest, he said,
As long as we are working hard while we work and getting the sleep our body needs, we are honoring the Lord. In fact, I was quite dishonoring God by saying, “I realize you tell me in Psalm 127 that sleep is a gift. But really, why don’t you give it to somebody else? Somebody more needy. Somebody less superhuman. Some mere mortal, on whom the world is not depending so much?”
I was also abusing coffee, trying to compensate. I was a paper Calvinist, but a closet Pelagian, working more by law than by love. Work is good. But it’s only good if it’s anchored and totally conditioned by grace. Now I’m receiving grace and receiving the grace of sleep. Because my Father is good and I am needy.
Many godly Christians who have tried to follow the reported sleeping practices of the Reformers and Puritans died as young as many of them did.Firefighter with Faith
Hopefully this step-by-step guide to replacing false theology with true theology in the area of sleep will encourage you to tackle other fires that may be burning you up from within. After lack of sleep, the three biggest and most common fires I’ve seen in the lives of charred counselees have been neglect of a weekly Sabbath, digital intoxication, and false identity.
Regarding the latter, the most common false identities I encounter are “I am my children” (mainly women), and “I am my career” (mainly men). Not surprisingly, anticipating this future problem, God put a specific gender-related curse on each of these areas to ensure they would never satisfy or fulfill us (Genesis 3:16–19).
Ask yourself what false beliefs stoke these and other fires, and what biblical truths will put them out in your heart.
At the heart of true womanhood isn’t the right looks or the best husband, but unceasing hope in God.
Jesus is clear that abiding in him is not optional. But what does it actually mean to daily remain attached to him?
Are you humble enough to point to your own life as an example to others of godly living?
I think most of us consider self-effacement and self-deprecation — admitting our sin and brokenness and pointing to others who excel us in holiness — as marks of humility. And they certainly are, when they are true.
But what are we to do with statements in the Bible like Philippians 4:9?
What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me — practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you.
Have you ever told someone in so many words, “If you want to know how to ‘walk in a manner worthy of the Lord’ (Colossians 1:10), listen to what I say and look at what I do and follow my example”? If not, why?
Full disclosure: I don’t recall ever saying something like this — certainly not as straightforward. It’s not that I don’t want my life to be exemplary. I certainly do. But I’m so conscious of my failings that I think I would immediately begin to qualify such a statement. Why?
The most significant factor is my pride. I don’t hold myself up as a godly example like Paul did for two proud reasons: my life is not as exemplary as Paul’s, and I don’t want others to think I’m proud.Don’t Look at Me
To admit that my life is not as exemplary as Paul’s is a humble admission — not because I’m such a humble person, but because the admission is true. Humility is not a human emotion or demeanor; it’s simply the lack of pretense. Humility is the acceptance and honest confession of what is actually true. So my admission is humble, as far as it goes.
But the deeper question is, why is my life not as exemplary as Paul’s? And the answer is harder to admit: I’m more selfish than Paul was. I’m not as passionate about the gospel (Acts 20:24), not as joyful (Philippians 4:1), not as thankful (1 Thessalonians 5:18), and not as focused and rigorous in my pursuit of attaining the resurrection as Paul was (Philippians 3:11). I don’t anguish over the state of lost people (Romans 9:1–3) or discipline my body like Paul did (1 Corinthians 9:27).
Why don’t I do these things or pursue them with greater tenacity? I could try to let myself off the hook by saying, “I don’t have Paul’s capacities.” This is doubtless true; God gave Paul and me different capacities. But I also know in my heart that I’m not pursuing and experiencing these things in the same manner Paul would have had he shared my constitutional limitations.
Which means, the pride of unbelief and selfishness is active in me — unbelief that greater joy in God is to be had if I pursue these things with greater abandon. And I don’t want others to look too hard at my life and see these things.
I also fear sounding proud to others. Telling people to look at me as an example sounds pompous. However, if there is something in my life that is exemplary that might help you, but I don’t say anything because I’m more concerned with how you view me than with helping you increase your joy, that’s just pride borrowing humility’s clothes. I love me more than I love you.Look at Me
Paul was not a proud man. He considered himself the foremost sinner whom God saved by grace alone (1 Timothy 1:15; Ephesians 2:8). He knew that he was what he was — including being the hardest working apostle — only by the grace of God (1 Corinthians 15:10). He lived his whole life by faith in Jesus and put no confidence in his flesh (Galatians 2:20; Philippians 3:3). And yet he could say without guile practice what you see in me.
We might be too quick to assume that Paul pointed to himself as an example because he was an apostle. There is, of course, some truth in this. Paul knew he had unique authority as an apostle. But I think he would correct us if we think his example was merely due to his apostolic status, because earlier in the same letter he wrote,
Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us. (Philippians 3:17)
There were others whose lives were also exemplary and worthy of imitation. In fact, the entire New Testament teaches us that the fruit of our lives — the observable way we live — is intended to bear witness (to exemplify) that God exists and is the rewarder of those who seek him (Hebrews 11:6). All leaders, in whatever their large or small spheres of influence, are expected to be examples of what living by faith means:
Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. (Hebrews 13:7)
Do you not wish to be someone who without pride or shame can tell others, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11:1)?Imitate Me as I Imitate Christ
That’s what we’re after: so experiencing the reality of Christ in us that we can point others to Christ in us.
Paul could say imitate me because he had pressed on to make the reality of Christ in him, the hope of glory, his own, because Jesus had made him his own (Philippians 3:12; Colossians 1:27). He had not been conformed to the world, but had profoundly experienced his soul being conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 12:2; Romans 8:29). He had put God’s promises to the test and seen God provide all he needed in every situation (Philippians 4:11, 19). He had fully embraced the ministry the Lord gave him (Acts 20:24), had walked in the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5), and had kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7). Therefore, he could say in all humility — not merely because he was an apostle, but because he was a faithful disciple — “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”
Let us also lay aside every weight and prideful sin that makes us timid to hold ourselves up as examples of Christlikeness (Hebrews 12:1). Such timidity often has its root, not in godly humility, but in pride — pride that wants to conceal our tolerated disobedience and fleshly indulgence, or pride that fears what others think of us. Let us with humble honesty confess our sinful failings in order to be increasingly free of them, and our capacity limitations in order to benefit more from others’ gifts. But let us also be humble and honest enough to point to the grace of Christ in us that is meant to help others walk in a manner worthy of the Lord.
Jesus is clear that abiding in him is not optional. But what does it actually mean to daily remain attached to him?
Grossing $117 million in its opening weekend, and $218.7 million in its first 10 days, the new horror movie It fast became the highest-grossing September release in Hollywood history.
The nightmare-to-paper thriller from Stephen King, about the child-hunting clown named Pennywise, was first an award-winning novel (1986), turned TV miniseries (1990), turned R-rated film phenomenon (2017).
But if a horrifying clown is good for the box office, it’s proving bad for the clowns-for-hire business. New York City clown John Nelson claims he lost six kid birthday gigs in the first week after It was released. In response he launched a pro-clown rally in his city to “raise enough awareness so when people think of clowns they won’t think of scary murderers.”
A group of clowns rising up in revolt brings a smile to my face like no clown has for many years (even if Nelson’s rally may have simply been a publicity stunt for the film, according to new reports).
Any clown with literary sense would know that since at least the time of Shakespeare, clowns have been called on stage, not to relieve tension but more often to jar the audience and to amplify the horrors of the storyline. The bard’s clowns didn’t draw blood, but their appearance often anticipated a tragic turn (Nason).Why I Don’t Watch Horror
The wild success of horror movies in our culture, especially the most graphic and bloody ones, like It, mystify me. As a matter of settled principle, I don’t watch R-rated horror movies, and I have no intention of seeing It, nor do I encourage anyone else to. Violent games and films and shows feed in me a sinister curiosity for bloodshed and death. I’ve felt the lure.
And I see this conviction as part of the answer to the most beautiful question in the Bible: “Who has eyes that will behold the king in his beauty?” (Isaiah 33:17). Answer: He who “stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil” (Isaiah 33:15). The beauty of God is for those who do not feed their sensory curiosities with violence and wickedness. On this basis I believe entertainment-by-gore is forbidden in Scripture, even at the level of what gets communicated to my senses as entirely fictional media.Why Others Do
But I’m also intrigued by It as a cultural phenomenon, enough to dialogue with a Christian who, as a matter of professional calling, has seen the film. Among other things, Brian Godawa is an award-winning Hollywood screenwriter (To End All Wars), a teacher on faith, worldviews, and storytelling (see this and this), and a popular author of biblical fiction (like this series).
What follows is a discussion between two Christians who disagree. Brian is pro-horror film, and has studied the genre for many years. I am anti-horror film, and have been so my entire adult life. My prayer is that our discussion will enlighten believers on both sides, and so serve the church, her wisdom, and her witness. I want to understand the popularity of the horror movie phenomenon, both outside the church and even within it, because frankly the phenomenon leaves me perplexed and unconvinced (even after this discussion).
Reinke: Brian, thanks for your time. As you know, It experienced the biggest opening weekend for any horror film to date, now on pace to become only the fourth R-rated movie to ever gross over $300 million in the United States. Theaters will again be full of moviegoers this weekend. More generally, 2017 has been a huge year for R-rated horror films, and audience appetite for It and other films are very high. Why is It so uncommonly successful? And what is behind the popularity of the genre right now?
Godawa: I think the success of it (and its predecessor, Stranger Things) lies in the universal archetype characters and their issues that most of us relate to: nerds, outcasts, rejects, fatty, skinny, “losers.” The kids are classic sympathetic heroes with strong moral growth, and we are hungry for such things since we are awash in an entertainment culture of anti-heroes and morally relative stories that ultimately do not satisfy someone who desires moral clarity.
Reinke: I want to talk about these kids more in a moment, but we cannot talk about It without first talking about clowns. Why are clowns a favorite antagonist in the horror genre?
Godawa: Horror is often based on irony and the unveiling of evil that appears to be good. Like real life. In real life, evil monsters — as in abusers, rapists, and killers — use the disguise of good in order to capture and hurt the innocent. So, using common images of safety to caution the innocent against naive trust is an excellent moral lesson.
John Wayne Gacy was a professional clown for a reason. This doesn’t mean all clowns should be considered evil images, any more than all cops should be considered dirty, just because there are lots of movies that portray dirty cops.
Although, personally, I’ve always considered clowns to be creepy.
Reinke: Likewise, yeah. So what, in your opinion, is the positive value of horror films as a genre?
Godawa: Well, horror as a genre is not simply about fear and violence for the sake of fear and violence. Yes, some movies do descend into that, but it is not the essence of the genre. Every genre has good examples and bad examples. Is the “biblical movie” genre always holy and good? No. Even biblical movies can be evil. Take Noah, or Exodus: Gods and Kings. Those movies are demonic twists of the Bible into its opposite. It’s called subversion.
So we must understand that no genre is intrinsically good or evil. They are used for the purpose of good or evil. Genres are not for everyone. Romance isn’t for everyone. Neither is horror. But they each have distinct purposes.
Reinke: You have not convinced me to see It, though a movie adaptation of the opening chapters of Job would be horrifying (Job 1:1–2:10). Not to mention the first Passover (Exodus 11:1–12:32). Or the ravaging Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5:1–20). Given the nature of Scripture, to get into the grit of this fallen world, what are the redeeming traits you see in the horror genre?
Godawa: The moral purpose of the horror genre is to expose what evil is, reinforce our need for courage to fight evil, and to have a healthy righteous fear instead of naive innocence when it comes to discernment in the world. Sounds like the Bible.
God uses the horror genre to solicit righteous fear of evil, and encourage repentance and righteous living. Beyond your examples, the books of Daniel and Revelation are epic horror fantasies of blood and gore using symbolic horror monsters as an analogy for real life. That’s what all horror does. It works as metaphor for something else, like social commentary (Underworld), spiritual truth (Jekyl and Hyde), or man’s hubris (Frankenstein).
God uses zombies and vampires as metaphors for spiritual evil in Scripture — I kid you not (see Micah 3:1–3; Ezekiel 39:18–19). God uses Frankenstein monsters as metaphors for political and social commentary (see Ezekiel 11:19; Revelation 13:1–2). One of God’s favorite horror metaphors is cannibalism as a literary symbol of spiritual apostasy (see Ezekiel 36:13–14; Psalm 27:2; Proverbs 30:14; Jeremiah 19:9; Zechariah 11:9).
This does not justify all horror stories ever told. Far from it. It simply establishes the genre, in broad terms, as one that God uses; therefore, it can be used with moral purpose.
Reinke: So back to It. You’ve seen it. What’s the overall thematic impact that you took from it?
Godawa: I have, and it contains many elements, common to the horror genre in general, that are quite in line with the Judeo-Christian worldview and values.
Reinke: Stop it.
Godawa: No, really. The movie is a coming of age story, which means that it is a metaphor for what makes us adults, or as one of the Jewish characters says, what it means to “become a man.” Godless secularism often tells stories that try to tell kids that growing up is having sex before marriage —
Reinke: As do a lot of horror films, right? Glorifying teen sex as part of the coming of age motif.
Godawa: Yes, that’s right, but not in this case. It not only denies that common lie, but preserves the sexual innocence of youth by showing how children should not be considered sexual at so young an age (a couple adult characters are shown to be evil for sexualizing children). Rather, its message is that maturity, growing up, is about facing your mortality, not about having sex, but learning that we die and that life is not one big fun summer of play.
The kids in the movie don’t want to grow up and tend to run from the bad things in their life, like bullies and abusive parents. One kid has a controlling mother, another an abusive father, most all of them are bullied, and the protagonist has a stuttering problem. They all win only by facing their fears, not by running from them. Another biblical maxim.
Children run in fear, adults — mature people — face their fears. This comes not only from facing the monster clown, but every kid in the movie has a difficulty that they run from in their lives. They must learn to face these fears in order to grow up.
There is no gospel of Jesus Christ here, but this notion of growing up is very much in line with the Bible. But this is where I would use the opportunity to discuss my belief with others that growing up also includes wrestling with the afterlife and the existence of God. Every good movie can be a doorway to the gospel.
Reinke: And as you alluded to earlier, it’s more than simply facing evils, though.
Godawa: Right. Most important of all, It teaches very explicitly that we should fight evil, which is another excellent moral element of the horror genre. And not just “take a stand,” but fight real evil to the death. The evil clown monster is an obvious metaphor for the fear that cripples our society’s courage. In today’s postmodern world of schools that provide ‘safe spaces’ to encourage childishness, while denying real evil like radical Islam, that will hunt us all if we don’t undermine it, this is no mere tautology of a simple existence of good and evil.
This is one of the most profound moral messages that we need to reinforce through our stories. We have become a relativistic society of cowardice, so fighting evil with a willingness to protect the innocent is a truly profound Christian value. And part of that “fighting evil” moral in the movie is to be willing to sacrifice one’s self to protect the innocent.
Several key turning points in the film stress that the kids must be willing to risk their own safety to protect or save others. It illustrates how to stand up to bullies and fight back, not merely in self-defense, but on behalf of others. This willingness to self-sacrifice is not merely a strong component of moral maturity, but it gets at the heart of a Christian worldview.
Reinke: That’s an interesting take on horror films in general, confronting the relativism of evil. Of course, many horror films, like this one, are graphic bloodbaths. So too are many military films. Each of us has different thresholds for the visualized violence we can handle. Mine is quite low. But many of the best horror films released over the years have become noted for a simple ability to build tension, and remain relatively free of blood and gore. What is the best case to make for the usefulness of gore in making a moral point?
Godawa: I challenge Christians to read Ezekiel 16:1–58 and Ezekiel 23:1–49, for two examples, and tell me if they think God is not graphic in his artistic descriptions of violence and sexuality, but all of it used as creative metaphors for spiritual moral truths.
Reinke: You say that, beyond the gore, It has other issues viewers need to weigh, including issues of profanity and in portraying all the adults in a negative light. There’s a number of things to consider in this case. But for Christians drawn to movies and novels in this genre, what will an obsession here do to Christian joy?
Godawa: An unhealthy obsession with horror stories can certainly reveal a character flaw, as would an unhealthy obsession with romance, comedy, or just about any genre. Why? Because truth is multi-faceted and includes all of these elements, but too much of a good thing can be harmful to our spiritual balance. Horror is not intrinsically bad, but it can be used for bad, just like biblical epics can be used for bad.
But at the same time, the Christian joy is a balanced joy of righteousness and healthy fear of evil (in addition to other things). Yes, we must rejoice at Noah’s righteousness — but it is in the context of a violent evil world where everyone but eight people are drowned to death. The joy of entering the Promised Land does not exist apart from the righteous violent and bloody slaughter of every man, woman, child, and animal of the cursed Canaanite clans. A necessary part of the joy of the resurrection of Jesus includes the evil betrayal by Judas and the unjust crucifixion of the Son of God, all monstrous evils as part of God’s plan of ultimate good.
Horror sets the stage for Christian joy. We should maintain a balance and not be so focused on happy talk and flowery religious sentiments that we remain as children in reference to a very real world of evil within which we are supposed to be agents of redemption. Wise as serpents, innocent as doves.
Reinke: Yes, there’s a sense in which an inability to process the graphic nature of Scripture leaves the faith in a perilous place — a true threat to our own faith and eternal joy. That’s a good point, Brian, thank you.
Horror films remind us of things true about the evil in a fallen world, and about facing up to real evils. While I have read more Stephen King than I would like to admit, I’ve never seen any of his films or television series. And I have no plan to change this conviction. It seems to me there’s a fundamental difference between reading about bloodshed in a book, at a distance, especially as an expression of God’s confrontation with sin, as opposed to seeing it presented on a screen, in the full sensorial plunge of a theater. There are a lot of other things to address, and I’m sure we have plenty more to disagree on here, too. But alas, we’re out of time. Perhaps in the future.
What will make the timid speak, the cowardly stand, and the weak strong? Belief in their God.
What will make the timid speak, the cowardly stand, and the weak strong? Belief in their God.
Eternity hangs on the truth of the genuine gospel. Anything that leads us away from Jesus deserves only our disdain.
Among scores of interviews I’ve conducted over the years, one simple statement from counselor Ed Welch may be the single most memorable.
Five years ago, I had a few moments with Ed to record an episode on biblical counseling for the podcast Theology Refresh. As no expert in counseling myself, or even modestly versed in the topic, I started the interview by asking a very basic question. I’m not sure I realized at the time how big a question it was, how potentially controversial, and how many respected counselors might find it difficult to answer.
“What is biblical counseling anyways?”
First, he characterized “biblical counseling” as taking sin seriously, and increasingly, he said, “we’re growing up and taking suffering seriously as well.” But then he went right to the heart: “Wherever you are, there is something you’re going to hear that is shockingly good.” The Bible, he said, always has something to say, into every kind of situation, that is good and pleasant and surprising. God’s words take us off our guard with their goodness. “If it doesn’t sound good, then we’re not really onto the ethos of Scripture.”
At its heart, that’s what it means to counsel from the very words of God: having listened well and asked insightful questions, we draw from the vast reservoir of what God has spoken and have something hopeful to say, even shockingly so. With plenty more to say, and a few disclaimers in place, that’s biblical counseling in a nutshell — and far more than just counseling.Tell Me Something Good
What Ed captured that day in a couple short sentences carries implications beyond just pastoral counseling to every aspect of the Christian life. For one, our devotional lives. As we read God’s words for ourselves, we’re on the lookout not only for what’s true, but also what’s good, what delights the born-again heart. And in conversation with a brother or sister in Christ, we aim not only to communicate truth, but also to share something good, to speak the truth in such a way that it sparks joy in God.
Another place where Ed’s insight often comes into practical view is Christian teaching. On every subject, related to every doctrine — in teaching any text in the Bible — there is always something good to see, and something good to say. That doesn’t mean we only have things to say that sound and feel good. Indeed, in a world like ours, with sin-sick hearts like ours, we have many difficult, inconvenient, even offensive truths that love must speak. But Christianity always has more to offer than just the hard words. We always have something good to say.Always Something Good
When Moses asked to see God’s glory, what did God put on display? “I will make all my goodness pass before you” (Exodus 33:19). Small children may sing, on repeat, the simple line, “God is so good,” but as adults, and as the most veteran of Christians, we dare not move beyond this basic and all-pervasive reality.
The message of Christianity is not only true at every point, but also good. We do, after all, call it “the good news.” And as Christians — and Christian counselors and Christian teachers — we have this shockingly good privilege: we always have something good to say. No matter how dark the day, no matter how deep the sin, no matter how devastating the consequences — and without minimizing or suppressing the pain and hurt — we always have something good to say. Christians are the best resourced people on the planet. It’s true in the counseling room, true in the classroom, true in community group, true in the pulpit, and true in personal conversation.Teach What Is Good
The apostle Paul gives this clear and simple charge: “As for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Truth is vital. But truth alone is not enough, and that’s evident from what he says just two verses later. Older women, he says,
are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. (Titus 2:3–5)
Some things never change. Apparently unbelievers in the first century were trying to sell young women on things not all that foreign to what our society is selling today. And Paul’s counsel to the older women is not to simply smash it on the anvil of what is right and true, but to teach what is good.
What Christianity offers is good, not restrictive — not mere duty, but delight. It is good to love husband and children. Self-control will reap greater joy in the end. There is deep satisfaction in attending to the home, great beauty in genuine kindness, sweet blessing in glad submission — all that God himself may be honored, not reviled, not only as true, but also as good.Good News Rebukes
This word to older women gives us a glimpse into the calling and privilege of every Christian. When we are faithful to speak what accords with God’s own words, we say something good — and we should own it and act like it and aim to embody it. Christians do not lay heavy burdens on their hearers, but continually offer them God’s own goodness. Our hard words always serve a greater good. We rebuke, reprove, and correct, to offer something better. We warn and admonish, to keep loved ones on the path of joy.
When Titus 1:9 tells elders in the local church that they must “be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it,” we shouldn’t take that as a charge to split our energy and attention in half between instruction and rebuke. Teaching what is good comes first, and is ultimate. Correcting opponents serves the greater goal of offering something good. Christian teaching is asymmetrical. Attacking error is not the end, but a means to drawing others into the sight and enjoyment of truth.What Good Do I Have to Share?
One of the great privileges and callings of being a Christian is that we’re always peddling hope. We always have something good to say — whether we’re walking into a hospital room, or spending another holiday with hostile family members, or scrolling through discouraging news about our nation, or sitting with a friend who has been running from God.
Whether by nature or nurture, some of us identify and explicitly hold out the good to our hearers more naturally than others. But whatever our tendencies, one habit any Christian can cultivate is to ask ourselves, What good is God calling me to speak into this context? In addition to the warnings, corrections, and hard truths, what good do I have to offer?
There will be times to say very little as we sit and weep with those who weep. But a time will come to speak. We don’t always have to say something good. But we do always have something good to say. Even in the darkest of days, even in the deepest of valleys, even to the most recalcitrant of sinners, we have hope to speak.
God’s words, faithfully represented, will prove soul-saving and life-giving to our hearers. They are good for us, and when we turn to extend them to others in a way fitting to the moment, we are doing them profound good. Especially when we let the goodness of his word pervade the flavor of ours. Stocked with Scripture, we always have something good to say, even shockingly good.
You can want to be married, long to meet your husband or wife, and still love every minute of your single years with Jesus.
Sooner or later the hard truth settles in that this world is out to kill you. Brown rivers swell up in Houston and Bangladesh to wash away everything you own, even wash you away if you don’t watch your step. Even on a calm, pristine beach day, the ocean’s sub-currents are silently trying to grab hold of you, and pull you out to sea, under the surface of the water before you even know what happened.
Forget sharks. The gentle tug of submerged water is our true ocean enemy. Look away for a moment and water attempts to assassinate — one reason why no one objects to bestowing upon the red-clad guardians the exalted title of “Life Guards” at the neighborhood pool.
But dried off and standing on solid ground, we fare little better because the air silently carries around invisible particles to slip in to our lungs and cultivate a little patch of cancer that can kill us from the inside. Or the burning rays of the sun might do the same from the outside.
And then of course there are the much less subtle forms of dangers. About one hundred times a second, bolt-action lightning snipers with an ungratified desire to spite mighty trees and tall steeples, and who occasionally take aim at arrogant creatures who dare to walk about on two legs. Under us, at any moment of the day or night, the ground can rumble and split and we can fall into an earthquake crack in the earth. Whole houses can get sucked down into a sinkhole without warning, or the gigantic white swirl of a hurricane or the wobbly freight train of a tornado can chase us off in a high-speed escape.
The world seizes one ankle and we pull it away and escape. For now. The world — as full as it is of wonder, and it is full of incredible wonders — surrounds us on all sides with deadly dangers.Death of Love
Likewise, “this evil age” is perpetually trying to kill our loves — not through blunt force, but through coercion by seduction. The world tempts us daily to leave greater loves for lesser lusts.
“The moment we care for anything deeply, the world — that is, all the other miscellaneous interests — becomes our enemy,” wrote G. K. Chesterton. “The moment you love anything the world becomes your foe” (Works 1:59–60).
To love something genuinely is to immediately face all the second loves that are making an attempt at killing your first love. It is the wink of the adulteress to the married man. It is the invitation from a clique to abandon a true friendship. It is the ignoring of the familiar gifts around you, in search of the next thing to charge on your credit card. Worldliness kills because it exchanges loves. The world becomes your foe.To Love Is to Fight
This is why true love must fight. “In every romance there must be the twin elements of loving and fighting,” writes Chesterton. “In every romance there must be the three characters: there must be the Princess, who is a thing to be loved; there must be the Dragon, who is a thing to be fought; and there must be St. George, who is a thing that both loves and fights.” The same is true of all our loves. In fact, “To love a thing without wishing to fight for it is not love at all; it is lust” (Works 15:255).
A man who has stopped fighting for his marriage will not fight against the lure of adulterous flirting, because he is driven by the passivity of lust, not the earnestness of love. Which means that true love must be fought for.Misdirected Love
Theologically speaking, this is why to love the world is to lose the love of God. It’s a horrible trade, but we do it all the time.
Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life — is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:15–17)
Misdirected love is the root cause of worldliness. Worldliness sucks the sap from our greatest love until it becomes a dried-up branch.
So we can love and treasure the day Christ will return. Or we can love the world. But we cannot go on trying to love the world and love the day of Christ’s return (2 Timothy 4:8–10). In the same way, we cannot love darkness and love the light (John 3:16–21). Love for the light will die once the heart falls in love with the darkness. And this is how the world proves to be our love-killer.Heart of Worldliness
When we talk about worldliness, primarily we are not talking about the substitutes of adultery and materialism and money. We are not simply warning against television shows too graphic and media too lewd and skirts too short. All of those things are secondary matters. Curing the true heart of worldliness is not in the forbidding or what is forbidden; mending the true heart of worldliness must always begin with finding a core love worth fighting for — a love so precious that we will guard it with the proper holy jealousy it deserves.
The problem of worldliness only emerges with any real clarity in our lives once we have discovered our “first love,” a fundamental love, a central love for our Savior Jesus Christ (Revelation 2:4).
If talk of worldliness falls into hard times and does not surface much in our thoughts and conversations, it is not a sign that the dangers have disappeared. It is a sign that we have grown careless with the exclusivity of delight in Christ at the center of the Christian life. And once the jealous love is gone, the danger of worldliness grows more deadly and more invisible at the same time.
This slogan became the heartbeat of John Piper’s life and the hallmark of Desiring God’s ministry. So where did it come from?
Prosperity preachers would rob us of the opportunity to show the world that Christ is truly worth suffering and dying for.