Each year as Veterans Day and Memorial Day approach, TV networks often play epic war movies that help Americans remember the sacrifice and the service of the soldiers who have protected and defended us. Perhaps the most popular war movie is Saving Private Ryan. As the movie reached its climax, some of us preachers sat on the edge of our seats looking for an epic illustration.
The film seems to be leading to a great illustration of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Private Ryan (Matt Damon) has been pursued for a rescue just as Christ pursues us. He has been saved from death just as Christ saves us. As the movie draws to an end, the leader of the rescue mission, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), sacrifices his life for Private Ryan.
The moment is hanging right there. Here comes the great illustration…
But then as Miller gasps for his last few breaths, he grabs Ryan’s hand and says these final words: “Earn this. Earn it.” In other words, I just gave everything for you; now spend the rest of your life earning this moment.
If you were looking for an illustration, you sat back in your chair disappointed because that one line radically ruined a great illustration. Even in the movie, these words seem to have haunted Private Ryan for the rest of his life. The movie ends by showing him as an elderly man, standing among the graves of the men who gave their lives for him. And he is hoping he “earned it.” Evidently he spent his entire life under the burden of trying to repay the sacrifice that was given for him.
The burden of earning will crush you.
Serving as an attempt to pay God back for His grace is futile—not only because our best efforts would prove woefully inadequate in paying Him back but because there is nothing to pay back. The gospel reminds us that the debt of our sin has already been paid in full.
Ministry, then, must not be unintentionally promoted to the people in our churches as a means of restitution for what Christ has done. Believers who live with that burden will serve out of obligation as they drift from the grace of God. Churches who place that burden on believers are peddling a new law that enslaves.
So church leaders—don’t ask your people to serve God because “they owe Him.” Or because “it is a way to pay Him back.” Invite people to serve because Christ has radically served them. If a lack of serving pervades a church culture, the answer is not to crank up the guilt and arm-twisting but rather to refocus on Jesus and His gracious work for us.