The movie Saving Private Ryan is set in the European theater of World War II, just after D-Day. In it, Capt. John H. Miller (played by Tom Hanks) leads seven soldiers on a mission to rescue Pvt. James Francis Ryan (played by Matt Damon) from behind enemy lines. Army higher ups ordered the rescue mission because Ryan’s three brothers all were killed in battle, and they don’t want their mother to lose her last son.
During the course of the mission, however, five of Miller’s soldiers die. In the movie’s penultimate scene, just before Miller himself dies, he whispers these words to Ryan: “Earn it!” The movie ends with an aged Ryan standing before the graves of his fallen comrades, crying, and asking, “Have I been a good man?”
Whenever I watch those scenes, two questions come quickly to mind: Was the loss of five soldiers worth the rescue of one? And can anyone really “earn” such a great sacrifice?
I ask these questions because the ending of Saving Private Ryan portrays a nearly universal human tendency to try to earn God’s favor. Even when we acknowledge that we are “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2.1–3) and can be “made alive” with Christ only “by grace” (2.4–7), we still try to show that we somehow deserve the love God has lavished upon us. But can any of us really say that we were worth the death of Jesus Christ, God’s Beloved Son? Have any of us really earned that great a sacrifice? Of course not!
In Ephesians 2.8–10, Paul shows us the proper response to God’s grace:
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.
We cannot earn God’s grace by the performance of good works; we can only receive God’s grace in faith and with humility. Faith is trust in God’s unmerited love for you. Humility is appropriate smallness before God because you know that you have been given a gift you can never repay. And what’s more, God doesn’t expect you to repay him. Salvation is a gift, not a paycheck. No work is expected or required to receive it.
But when you receive the gift of salvation in faith and with humility, you change your way of life. Grace, received in humble faith, always produces good works. That is, according to Paul, the purpose for which we were “created in Christ Jesus.” The theology of Saving Private Ryan is works-based and produces perpetual guilt. Believe it, and you will always stand before the cross wondering whether you are a good enough person. Paul’s theology is grace-based and produces undying gratitude. Good works are thank you notes we write to God for his unmerited favor to us.