As the movie Saving Private Ryan reaches its climax, some of us preachers sit on the edge of our seats looking for an epic illustration. The film seems to be leading to a great comparison of Christ’s sacrifice for us. Private Ryan (Matt Damon) has been pursued just as Christ pursues us and has been saved from death just as Christ saves us. The leader of the rescue mission, Captain John Miller (Tom Hanks), is sacrificing his life for Private Ryan. The moment is hanging right there. Wait for it . . .
But then as Miller gasps for his last few breaths, he grabs Ryan’s hand and says these final words: “Earn this. Earn it.” I just gave everything for you; now spend the rest of your life earning this moment.
We sit back in our chairs disappointed, because that one line radically ruins 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 tombs 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.
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. Acts of service, then, must not be unintentionally advertised 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.
Because of the gospel, we serve because our hearts are overwhelmed with gratitude. Because of the gospel, believers can serve in freedom and joy. If a lack of serving pervades a church culture, the answer is not to crank up the guilt and arm-twisting but rather to instill a new, intense focus and awareness on the gospel.