In the movie Saving Private Ryan, Captain Miller (played by Tom Hanks) and several other men are ordered to find Private James Ryan (Matt Damon) and bring him home to his mother who had lost two other sons in the war. Along the way, they endure incredible hardships and most of them lose their lives to save this one man. Near the end, mission accomplished, Captain Miller lies dying. He pulls Ryan close to him and with his last dying breath gasps, “James, earn this. Earn it.” In other words, go back and live in such a way that shows you appreciated the sacrifices we made for you.
Believers in Jesus have been rescued from eternal destruction by his life, death, and resurrection. We can never earn what he did for us, but he calls us to live a life that shows our appreciation. We are to seek to become like the One who saved us, to walk out and work out the salvation he freely gave us.
Therefore, my beloved as you have always obeyed, so now, not only is in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (Philippians 2:12–13)
Someone once said, “We must work out what God has worked in.” Jesus saves us as a gift, and “sanctifies” us, or sets us apart, for himself. We then must begin to walk out that “sanctification,” in which the Holy Spirit moves and empowers us to cooperate with him to become like Christ. Someday, we’ll be as much like God as any creature can possibly become. We won’t be gods, but we’ll be more like God even than the angels! He’s changing us to think, act, and reflect the glory of Christ.
Suppose you were raised in another country, then adopted by an American family. You arrive on the doorstep with your bags. You’re technically a son or daughter, since you’ve been adopted. You have all the family rights and privileges, and you’re an heir of the family estate. Yet you know very little about the “culture” of the family—the foods they eat, the way they speak and interact, their values, religion, manners, and duties. Though you’re a son or daughter, it will take a long time to learn to act like it. The moment we believe in Jesus, we’re sons and daughters, but it takes years to learn to think and act like him.
When I learned to play guitar, trying to form chords with my uncooperative fingers felt like trying to corral wild cats. Switching chords felt like I was twisting my fingers into some kind of deformed bird claws. It was an excruciatingly slow process and hard work. But gradually it became more natural, and I didn’t even have to think to form a chord. That’s like the process of sanctification. We work. We kill sin and put on Christ. It’s hard at times. It’s not “natural.” But eventually we change because it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
It’s like we’re driving a locomotive. We sweat and strain as we pull levers, shovel coal, watch the tracks and the instruments. We put all our effort into it. But all the while, there’s this mighty engine propelling the whole train. God is at work in us. The Creator of the galaxies strengthens and propels us. That’s why Paul said:
By the grace of God I am what I am and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” (1 CO 15.10)
This is what gives me hope to drag myself out of bed every day and put my hand to the plow again. Despite failing so many times and feeling miles from being conformed to Christ, my hope is not in my own strength, but in God’s grace. He began this work in me and he’ll finish it (Php 1.6). He who called me is faithful; he will surely do it (1 Th 5.24).
In Saving Private Ryan, after Captain Miller charges Ryan to live a life worthy of their sacrifices, he dies. But Jesus didn’t charge us to work out our salvation, then disappear never to be seen again. He rose from the dead and sent his Spirit to infuse us with desire and power to obey. Yes, we labor, strain, and strive to reach the prize. But we do it in the power of God who works within us.
Mark Altrogge serves as a pastor at Sovereign Grace Church. Find out more at The Blazing Center.