In the epic World War II film “Saving Private Ryan,” there’s a moving scene (among many) in which Captain Miller (Tom Hanks’ character), who is about to pass into eternity as one of many men who sacrificed their lives to (you guessed it) save Private Ryan (Matt Damon’s character). Right before Miller dies, though, he asks Ryan to come close so he can impart his final words. He says to the young soldier, “Earn this…earn it.” Here’s that clip, in case you haven’t seen the movie (or to refresh your memory):
This morphs into the final scene of the movie, in which we see the elder Ryan standing over Miller’s grave in the National Cemetary. It becomes clear that he has lived his life trying to earn the sacrifice of Miller and so many others when he says to Miller’s grave, “I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me.” Then he turns to his wife and says, “Tell me I’ve led a good life…tell me I’m a good man.”
This is a moving couple of scenes because it’s gratifying to see that Private Ryan did everything he could to follow Captain Miller’s final order–to live in a way that made his sacrifice worthwhile. But, touching as it may be, it’s a work of fiction.
In the real world, there’s someone who, along with his own band of brothers, also made the ultimate sacrifice. He did this for me. And he also did it for you.
But here’s the thing. His last words to us were not, “Earn this.” In fact, if he were going to say anything like this, it would have been, “You can’t earn this.”
But the secular world has gotten this all wrong. Even a lot of religious people have bought into Satan’s lie. There’s a commonly accepted notion that by behaving well enough, anyone can earn their way into heaven–that God will have no choice but to accept you because you are a good person. Conversely, the thinking goes that if you behave badly enough, that will disqualify you from ever getting into heaven.
One important thing that’s overlooked and clearly not well understood by people who hold this view is God’s grace.
The Apostle Paul explains this really well and with uncharacteristic simplicity in the second chapter of his letter to the Ephesians. He starts the chapter off by pointing out that everyone has lived in disobedient opposition to God. But, he says, because God is rich in mercy, and because He loves us so much, He didn’t just turn His back on us or banish us from heaven forever. Instead, He enabled us to get right with Him by offering up His Son, Jesus, to take the punishment we deserved for our disobedience. This is the gift of grace, which he explains like this:
When he says, “not by works,” he means that we can’t earn it. We are only saved by grace. The only thing we can–and must–do is to receive the gift of grace by placing our faith in Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
An analogy came to me as I was thinking through this article. We all live in darkness. But we know there’s a light switch that, if we could flip it, would enable us to live in the light. The trouble is, we can’t reach the switch to turn it on. We may think we can–we believe we can jump high enough (live well enough)–but in reality, we cannot. Only God can reach the switch. In fact, He has already turned it on, but we have covered our eyes. All we have to do now is trust Him enough to take our hands away from our faces.
Having pointed out that we can’t earn the gift of God’s salvation, I should also say that it is an entirely appropriate response to live into that–to live in such a way that shows gratitude to God for the grace He has given you. Because of God’s unbelievable gift to us, we should do the things He has asked us to do: feed the poor, show kindness to a neighbor, put others’ needs above our own, and so on.
A caution with this, though, is that if we aren’t careful, our thinking could once again devolve over time into believing that the gift of grace came after we lived well and not before it. In other words, we could return to the incorrect belief that we earned salvation, that we were such good people that God had no choice but to forgive us for our sins.
Why is this so important? For one thing, in order for us to relate correctly to God, it’s essential that we understand that our relationship with Him has everything to do with Him and nothing to do with us or what swell people we are. Also, in order for us to truly treat others the way God wants us to, we must realize that we are no better or no worse than each other. We all have screwed up. My mistakes are no better or worse than yours. Just like you, I would be living in darkness if God had not flipped the switch and helped me take my hands away from my eyes.
As Paul puts it in the next sentence in his letter to the Ephesians:
Bottom line, even though we can’t earn God’s grace, we should live like we are trying!