James Ryan arrives at a headstone, and falls to his knees, tears in his eyes. On the headstone is the name “John Miller”. Ryan looks up to his wife by his side and asks, “Have I been a good man? Tell me I’ve lived a good life.” His wife looks down and assures him that he has. However, the tears continue because James Ryan does not seem to be able to believe that he has been good enough.
Many immediately recognize this scene from the movie Saving Private Ryan by Steven Speilberg. The movie is well written. John Miller is portrayed by Oscar winning actor Tom Hanks who is tasked with taking a squad of men to find James Ryan. Ryan is the fourth son of a woman who has lost three sons already in World War II. Military commanders have decided that Mrs. Ryan will not lose her last remaining son. Miller’s squad eventually loses 8 men so that it can save this one.
Miller dies in battle with Ryan by his side. With his last breath, he looks at Private Ryan and whispers, “Earn this.” Back at Miller’s headstone, Ryan has clearly lived his entire life with a tremendous weight on his shoulders. Has he earned the sacrifice of John Miller and his men? Miller himself, earlier in the film, says, “He better be worth it. He’d better go home and cure a disease, or invent a longer-lasting light bulb.”
Christians too often hear these words, “Earn this,” coming from Jesus’ lips as he dies on the cross. We live our lives trying to earn it, to become someone for whom such a sacrifice isn’t so incredibly incomprehensible. We turn into James Ryans, questioning if anything we do could ever be quite enough.
“It is Finished” is in the Gospel text the single word tetelestai. Being in the perfect greek tense, it means literally, “it has been and will for ever remain accomplished, completed, finished.”
Christ’s salvation is a free gift. He purchased it for us at the high price of his own blood. There is nothing left for us to pay. IT IS FINISHED. There is nothing left to contribute. Not that we now have a license to sin. On the contrary, the same cross of Christ is the most powerful incentive to a holy life. But this life follows the cross, it does not purchase it. First, we must humble ourselves at the foot of the cross and receive from him a full and free forgiveness.
But Jesus doesn’t say, “Earn this” from the cross. He says, “It is finished.” The message of the Gospel is diametrically opposed to John Miller’s “Earn this.” Miller applies the law to Ryan’s future in a way that Ryan can never escape. No matter what Ryan may ever do or who he may ever become, Miller’s words will never allow Ryan to live in peace, or safe from Miller’s judgment-from-beyond-the-grave. One word of law destroys the grace Miller shows in giving his life for Ryan.
No word of law escapes Christ’s lips from the cross. Incredibly, the word of law is applied to Christ (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). We are freed, and safe. Don’t allow your ingrained pride to rebel against God’s grace. Instead of stumbling on the cross because you insist on trying to earn God’s favor, bow at the cross and receive his gift.
Jesus doesn’t say, “Earn this.” He says, “It is finished.”
*My friend, Ricco Tice, Associate Minister at All Souls Church in London, gave me the original idea for this post. He has graciously granted permission for me to use it.