Those were the last words of Capt. Miller from the film Saving Private Ryan spoken while dying on a bridge he died defending to a then young Pvt. James Ryan. In the film Saving Private Ryan (spoiler alert) a group of US Army Rangers were charged by the US Government just after D-Day when the allied forces landed in Normandy, France, with the task of finding Pvt. James Ryan who was the last of 4 brothers alive (the others had died during the invasion) and bring him home to his mother in Iowa so that she wouldn’t have to receive 4 folded US flags, representing a deceased soldier who had served in the military. Nearly the whole group of soldiers who travel deep into France die themselves trying to find Ryan and many of which were less than thrilled to be charged with the task of giving their lives to save one man.
The film climaxes with a great defense by a small group of US soldiers of a bridge against the Germans. Just before a great number of allies show up to help this small group of soldiers and an air defense arrives to save the day, many of the group die in the effort to defend the bridge (the orders given to Pvt. Ryan) and to defend Pvt. Ryan himself. After the help arrived, it was too late, Capt. Miller, the leader of this group ordered to find and save Ryan is fatally wounded, sitting on the bridge after feebly trying to stop a tank from crossing with his sidearm, and looking up as the P-51’s are flying over and stopping the tanks and the German army in the their tracks (no pun intended), Pvt. James Ryan is standing over Capt. Miller, played by Tom Hanks, and is emotional realizing this man along with his soldiers literally gave their lives to save his. Barely able to talk and gasping for breath, Miller whispers in Ryan’s ear, “Earn this…” Then, he dies soon after. The movie picks up at the end where it began, with Pvt. James Ryan revisiting the Normandy memorial where Capt. Miller was buried with his large family, now old in age, and still in tears, he looks down at the gravestone that read, “Capt. John Miller,” and shares that he has lived a long life and has a great family and hopes that he has earned it. The film ends with him left with the hope that he had earned it and an American flag waving.
My eyes are tearing up even as I type these words about this film. Not only is it one of my favorite movies, but those moments I have just described are some of the most emotionally charged of the whole film with the exception of several other scenes which might match it. Especially today, as I write this post, being the 70th anniversary of D-Day which marks the allied invasion of Nazi controlled Europe in Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, as I write this, there is a measure of reality that is brought to the film and to what those men sought to accomplish as well as that of countless other men who sacrificed so much. After watching Saving Private Ryan, all that Capt. Miller and his men went through to find and protect Pvt. Ryan, you are left wondering in a way, “How could anyone possibly earn the deaths of all of those men? How could even a great life justify the deaths of so many?”
Thoughts of the soldiers in the early scene of the film dying and not even making it onto the beach at Normandy come to mind, and the brave medic who died crying for his mother with his then closest friends there with him holding him in their arms, or the courageous sniper who regularly recited Psalms took a tank shell in a bell tower… and the list goes on and on. How could Pvt. Ryan possibly earn that? Sgt. Mike Horvath and Capt. Miller who had become brothers in the service discussed the weight of the mission within a brief time of rest in an old church while other soldiers were sleeping. In the discussion, Capt. Miller mentioned that Pvt. Ryan better invent the longer burning light-bulb or do something truly great because he didn’t think Pvt. Ryan was worth the life of one of his men or even a crippled man they met prior to the invasion. However, after Capt. Miller met Pvt. Ryan, having searched France for him and interviewed various US Airborne all over, he respects Pvt. Ryan more than he did before he met him in light of his desire to fight with “his brothers” defending the bridge, but he never believes that the mission to send so many to save one man is worth it. So, the statement on the bridge had all the more weight for Pvt. Ryan, so much weight that Ryan had been plagued his entire life constantly searching himself and wondering whether or not he had truly earned their sacrifice or not, or whether he should be dead on that bridge and Capt. Miller alive.
Often, in our lives as Christians, we believe and say that we believe in being saved by grace through faith, but we bring into our Christian life an experience that says we need to earn it. We need to earn our right to be saved by grace through faith through Jesus Christ. We cannot accept the sacrifice that God provided on our behalf in Jesus Christ, so we go through life busied and worried, anxious, wondering like Pvt. Ryan whether we have “earned this.” The problem is that we are saying we need more than the Word of God for assurance of our salvation and more than the promise and gift of the Holy Spirit and faith itself, so we try to create our assurance for ourselves. We might not even be conscious of our effort to do this because our desire to earn our salvation as opposed to trusting in the grace of God in Jesus is so ingrained within us.
However, the beauty of God’s grace in Jesus Christ and the importance of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is that because we cannot save ourselves and because God is merciful and compassionate, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast loving faithfulness to those who obey Him; God provided the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross for us to take upon Himself the wrath of God against our sinfulness on His sinless, perfect Son, and God raised Him to new life in the resurrection defeating the power of sin Himself as well as death showing all who believe in Jesus Christ have the forgiveness of sins and eternal life and justification and the gift of the Holy Spirit as assurance of God’s promise of future presence with His people and that the present power of sin has been defeated for those who believe not because of what you do, but because of what God has already done in Jesus Christ. The beauty of God’s grace is that we cannot ever earn the favor of God and atone for our own sinful condition. We can do works to make right for wrongs we’ve done in our life to others, but what can we do to make right for a wrong heart condition before a perfect and holy God? The Old Testament shows us that we can do nothing. Something infinitely greater is needed than our imperfect and sin-tainted best efforts to appease God because God is not some false, pagan deity that can be appeased like the false polytheistic Greek gods and others who are angry at humanity and so humanity has to play the game of “don’t step on the crack” in life in order to not upset the gods. God is God alone, there is not other. We don’t treat God as One among many because God alone is God, we believe in one God who is Father-Son-Holy Spirit, and in Jesus Christ, His only Son our Lord who is fully God and fully man. Without the perfect deity and humanity of Jesus Christ our sins would not be atoned for at the cross and the resurrection of Jesus would be an impossibility for any mere man.
God’s grace in Jesus is a free, unmerited gift. We cannot earn a gift, we can merely receive it. That alone is against the fabric of our being. We both love and hate getting things for free as human beings. As children we love it, and as adults we like it but are suspicious of things that are free and feel that we have to do something in return to justify our receiving of the gift. This is simply how the world works and how we are, but the problem is that doesn’t work with God. We can do nothing to deserve and justify the salvation God has provided in the sacrifice of Jesus at the cross because we who believe in Jesus Christ are already justified at the cross and we stand in within a realm of grace, not of works. The grace we stand in isn’t to fuel a desire to do not works, but the contrary we do good works for God and others but not in order to earn our salvation as that has already been done through the work of Jesus Christ and we are utterly incapable of doing that work, being neither perfect deity nor perfect humanity, but we do works out of love for God and others, and in order to give glory to God in our lives showing that we are grateful and thankful for the grace that God has shown us. Now, someone will say, “Well, wait a minute, isn’t that simply doing something to pay God back with just kind words and pleasantry attached to it?” Good question, but no, it is not. Why? The burden of doing something to atone for our sins and showcase our goodness to creation has been removed as we have believed in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We accept that our best efforts cannot save us from our sin, but only the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. Our faith in Jesus says not merely that we believe in the existence of God, that is not enough, but that we trust in the One true God with our lives and will follow Him, in obedience to God’s Word. So, our purpose then is not to showcase our own glory over all creation as we might with our goods works in order to appease a holy God, but to showcase the glory of God in our lives all over creation, filling the world with the glory of God.
Faith takes effort, it is not easy. Just because we are saved by grace through faith doesn’t mean life isn’t a battle every day and it’s not an excuse to do whatever we please outside of God’s will and the interest of loving others. Holiness is a necessity to the life of faith. However, perhaps one time in life you have asked yourself as Pvt. Ryan, whether you’re young or old, “Am I good enough? Have I accomplished enough in my life? Have I done enough to make my name great and so earn my salvation and justify the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for me?” The good news is that you can never be good enough, you can never do enough, you will never accomplish enough to earn God’s favor and justify the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for you, but God loves you and died for you without you ever having done anything. You in the midst of your weakest and lowliest and most sinful moment, God loves you. That doesn’t mean God wants you to remain in that condition and lowly place, but God loves you as you are. You don’t have to earn God’s love, God freely has given it to you because that’s who God is.
“…God is love… not that we loved God, but that God loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” (1 John 4)
Sinner, you don’t have to worry whether or not you have been good enough to deserve the grace of God in Jesus, your salvation, God has freely provided it for you out of the greatness of His love for you. May you never stand as Pvt. Ryan did at the end of your life thinking back as to whether or not you have been saved or earned your salvation. If you believe in the Gospel of Jesus, that Jesus is Savior and Lord, that Jesus really lived, suffered, died for sins, and was raised and appeared, and you have confessed your sins to God and repented, you are saved by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. The wrath of God has been taken at the cross for you who believe the Gospel. So, may you never despair or worry or be anxious. Work out your faith in fear and trembling as Paul says, but rest assured in the grace of God in Chris Jesus and the great promises of God in His Word and the presence of God in your life by the Holy Spirit.