A Gift That Doesn't Need to Be Earned

In the movie Saving Private Ryan, the government has decided that because three of his brothers have already been killed in action, Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) needs to be discharged from active duty and brought back safely to the United States. Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks) leads the team which has been assigned to find and rescue Private Ryan. In the end, Captain Miller sacrifices his own life in order to save Ryan. As Miller gasps his last few breaths, he grabs Ryan’s hand and says these final words: “Earn this. Earn it.” The Captain seems to be saying, “I just gave everything for you. Now go and spend the rest of your life earning this moment.”

It appears these words then haunt Private Ryan for the rest of his life. The movie ends by showing him as an elderly man, standing among the tombs of the men who gave their lives for him. He is hoping he has “earned it.” The implication is that he spent his entire adult
life under the burden of trying to repay the sacrifice that was given for him. Though it was certainly a great blessing for James Ryan to be able to return safely from the battlefield, always feeling the obligation to prove himself worthy of what was done on his behalf may have seemed like a curse.

There is a wonderful parallel between this story and the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like Private Ryan, each of us as Christians, has benefited from the sacrifice of another. Jesus’ death in our place provides eternal life to all who, by God’s grace, place their trust in him. Yet, there is also a wonderful difference between Private Ryan and Christians. Those of us who have experienced God’s salvation through Jesus Christ never have to worry about “earning” it. We do not ever have to be burdened by the thought that we need to somehow repay the Lord for His sacrifice on our behalf.

As believers in Jesus, we ought to realize that any attempt to pay God back for His grace is futile. Not only would our best efforts to do so be extremely inadequate, but there is also really nothing to pay back. Jesus has already paid the debt of our sin in full. We should not ever look at our service to God as a means of making restitution for what Christ has done. When we place that burden upon ourselves, we drift from God’s grace. Churches that try to place that burden on their members are promoting not the gospel, but a new law which enslaves.

The best reason for serving God is gratitude. When our hearts overflow with joy because of Jesus saving us, we then choose to serve Him because we want to, not because we are obligated to do so. As a pastor, I need to remember that if people are not enthusiastic about
serving the Lord, the answer is not to pour on the guilt and crank up the verbal arm twisting. Rather, I need to keep reminding these folks of the gospel, of the great news of what Jesus has done for us through His life, death, and resurrection. When God enables us to truly grasp and experience His salvation we don’t have to be told to earn it. Instead, we will naturally choose to joyfully and freely make glorifying God a priority in life.
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Dan Erickson