The climactic moment of the movie, "Saving Private Ryan," comes shortly before Captain Miller turns to Private Ryan and says, "James ... earn this! Earn it!" Then, Miller dies leaving Private Ryan to carry the weight of this moment for the rest of his life.

Captain Miller, and most of his makeshift battalion, all die trying to make sure James Ryan safely makes it home from World War II. All three of Ryan's brothers have already died in the war and the army wants to return this last remaining son home to his family safely. With such a high price paid in human lives for his own rescue, Ryan lives his life trying to "Earn it!" The movie ends, as Ryan kneels before the white cross marking Captain Miller's grave in the cemetery overlooking Omaha Beach, Normandy, France. He has brought his family fifty years after the events, and he confesses that he has tried to earn what was given to him by living the best life he could.

So many folks who look to Jesus as Savior and Lord live with this same sense of obligation. They look at the awful sacrifice of Jesus for them, and they hear the words, "Earn this!" In reality, however, the message of the Cross is something very different:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, while we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! (Romans 5:6-10 TNIV, underlining added).

We didn't deserve this sacrifice of Jesus. Notice the description of who we were without Jesus — powerless, ungodly, sinners and enemies. We cannot "earn" what the Son of God did for us. It is a gift from God: a gift from the heart of his mercy and grace (Ephesians 2:1-9). Instead of living our lives out of a sense of obligation to be worthy of the sacrifice of Jesus — something we could never accomplish — we are called to respond with a life of character and compassion. We do this out of our thankfulness for this gift of grace from God and out of our recognition that God made us with his artistry to do his good work in others' lives (Ephesians 2:10).

We act because God has already acted on our behalf. We are committed to reflect our Father's mercy and grace in our dealings with others. We do this with thankful joy and reverential love for our God who acted first on our behalf. This principle, which I call redemption ethics, runs throughout the whole of New Testament teaching. Jesus calls us to love each other, and to serve each other, just as he has done for us so the world will know we follow him (John 13:34-35). The apostle John reminds us of this same principle as he nudges us to love each other in tangible ways (1 John 3:16-17). Jesus reminds us that we are to forgive those who have wronged us because we have been forgiven an incredibly larger debt (Matthew 6:12-15;  Matthew 18:21-35). The apostle Paul picks up this same theme as he works with new followers of Jesus (Ephesians 4:32;  Colossians 3:13).

Such love, service, and forgiveness is risky in a world where people can be mean and selfish. This radical lifestyle, however, is a response to an even more radical gift of grace! We love others: not out of a sense of obligation to deserve God's love, but because God's love was lavished on us so freely! (1 John 4:7-12). We are to be moved by a deep sense of appreciation of the gift we have received, so we share it with others.

So frequently in ministry, I run into folks who are stuck in their relationship with someone with whom they are in conflict. Sometimes this is the person to whom they are married. The darker parts of one spouse's soul wants to get even for some deep wound or fear that leads them to wait for the other person to apologize or change behavior first. They get stuck in the mire of fear and selfishness because they have been hurt — sometimes repeatedly. Similar things can happen between parents and children, business partners, roommates in college, best friends, and neighbors. Each of these can get stuck because that person wants some assurance that if he or she were to "go first," the other person will follow suit. So the relationship sits there ... stuck ... with deepening bitterness ... smoldering resentment.

This is where the grace of God liberates us from our fears and our selfishness. God went first! He sacrificed for us first! He loved us first. He forgave us first. He risked with us first! Our Holy Father did this when we didn't deserve it and couldn't earn it. And this godly character, this holiness filled with grace, has captured our hearts and remakes us by the Holy Spirit to be like Jesus (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). So we act graciously! And we do it because He went first. We are not stuck waiting for someone to reciprocate because God has already acted on our behalf. We can risk beyond our fear and our sense of fairness because God has already done that with us in Jesus. We can live with the character and compassion of Jesus — not because we are trying to "earn" God's grace, but because our hearts have been captured by it.

So what is your reaction to the idea of "redemption ethics" — recognizing that God has acted first and given us his mercy, grace, and forgiveness before he asked us to share those with others?

Why is it so hard to "go first" and love, forgive, or serve when we have been wronged by someone or they don't seem to deserve the gift we are going to give them?

How have you tried to "earn" the cost of God's grace given to you in Christ?

What difference does it make to respond to God's grace rather than trying to live with a sense of obligation that you have to earn it (Ephesians 2:1-10)?

Paul describes God's love and grace as well as our condition before that love and grace (Romans 5:6-10). Which of those four terms best describes your walk with God before salvation in Jesus?

Who is someone to whom you need to extend mercy, grace, forgiveness or service?

I'd love for you to share your thoughts with me on my blog: