The Heart of Christianity

Saving Private Ryan is one of my favorite war movies. The title actually summarizes the plot. James Ryan is the last living sibling in his family and serving as a paratrooper in Normandy. His three brothers have been killed in combat so the United States Army launches a mission to find and rescue him from the war. 

Surviving the bloodbath of Omaha Beach, a handpicked squad of 8 Rangers travels behind enemy lines to locate him. The leader of the outfit is captain John Miller, played by Tom Hanks. They suffer multiple battles, injuries, and casualties in their mission.  

When they finally reach private Ryan, Captain Miller is wounded. He’s dying, and in a powerful scene he motions over private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. You can barely hear the final words Hanks whispers into his ear. He says:

“James…Earn this. Earn it!” Then Miller dies. The movie transitions into the distant future, when James Ryan is a grandfather, walking into a war memorial Cemetery with his family. He approaches the tombstone of Captain Miller. With tears in his eyes, he talks to him out loud, saying: 

“Every day l think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. And l've tried to live my life the best l could. l hope that was enough. l hope that, at least in your eyes, l've earned what all of you have done for me.”

With a troubled look on his face, Ryan turns to his wife and says: “Tell me l've led a good life. Tell me l'm a good man.” And that’s pretty much how the movie ends, with his wife trying to reassure him that he had lived a life worthy of Captain Miller’s sacrifice. 

I think some Christians play that scenario in their mind spiritually, secretly wondering, “Am I a good enough Christian? Have I earned what Jesus did for me?” 

If you were to ask them: “What is the heart of Christianity? What does it mean to be a Christian?”, you may hear a response like this: “Well, I think it means to try to live like Jesus, try to love your neighbor, and try to live by the Golden Rule.” 

That’s a great idea. Let’s do that. I’m all for it, but that’s not good news. That’s not the heart of Christianity. And that’s certainly not the gospel. But sadly, it’s an answer I hear from people in churches. What’s the problem?

Maybe they misunderstood the question. Maybe they heard, “How should a Christian live as a follower of Jesus.” So let’s re-word the question to this: “Are you a Christian?” If someone answers: “I’m trying,” You know they have no clue what the gospel is.       

That’s why the Apostle Paul wasted no time in letting the Christians in Rome know the heart of the Gospel, and consequently the theme of his letter. After telling them he was not ashamed of the gospel, he wrote: “For in it [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

What is Paul saying? He is reminding the Romans that what God demands from us (perfect righteousness, obedience, and faithfulness) He also provides for us (the perfect, flawless righteousness of Jesus Christ). Christianity is about a ‘standing’ with God. Not ‘climbing’ up to God with our flawed efforts to earn His favor and love.   

Our righteousness is stained, ‘filthy rags.’ But Jesus is the spotless lamb of God whose obedience is accepted by God. It was enough. And it is offered to us through faith.

That’s huge. So huge, in fact, that it launched the protestant reformation when a monk named Martin Luther discovered it and ‘walked through gates of paradise’ as a born again man converted from religion to Jesus.

This passage in Romans chapter one reveals the heart of Christianity. It’s God’s saving power, for all who don’t measure up, on the basis of faith. We’ll unpack the rest of that next week. But I want to leave you with a reminder. If someone asks you what Christianity is all about, and you answer with good advice, rather than good news, I’m guessing you are missing out on the freedom, confidence, assurance, and joys of the gospel. 

In essence, Christianity is not about supporting a cause—or standing against a cause. It’s not about financial decisions, social causes, sexual ethics, politics or morality. It certainly has implications for all of those areas. But they follow our faith. They don’t cause it or even support it.

Paul understood that after years of wrestling with the mission of Jesus. Martin Luther understood it after years of wrestling with the Apostle Paul’s writings in Scripture. Have you experienced the breakthrough yet? Have you seen that your righteousness is worthless so long as you are depending on it for putting you right with God? 

Are you still envisioning God whispering into your ear from the Cross, “Earn this.”? Or do you instead hear him cry out “It is finished! Enjoy this!” The former is religion. Working to be saved. Earning wages. The latter is Christianity. Justification by faith in Christ alone. Salvation by grace through faith.    

That’s the heart of Christianity. That’s the gospel. God’s saving power for all who don’t measure up, on the basis of faith. You can trust in that. You can rest in that. And you can work from that to live a life that honors Jesus and expands His Kingdom.