So when I share the gospel, I appeal to both those beliefs and then tell people they need Jesus.
Trouble is, most don’t think they do. Only 28 percent of Americans agree with the statement, “I am a sinner and I depend on Jesus Christ to overcome my sin.” More people—34 percent—say “I am a sinner, and I work on being less of one.” The rest say sin doesn’t exist or they’re not a sinner or they’re OK with being a sinner.
In other words, instead of relying on Jesus, people accept one of two other options: they think sin isn’t really a big problem or they think they can overcome sin on their own.
These two choices are brilliantly dramatized in the book Lucky Per by Danish novelist Henrik Pontopiddan, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature for it in 1917. If you’ve never heard of Lucky Per, you’re not alone. Even though Lucky Per is regarded as the greatest Danish novel and served as a basis for the classic study, The Theory of the Novel, it wasn’t translated into English until 2010 and wasn’t available from a non-academic press until last year.
It’s hard to describe how great this book is. Its sweeping story spans urban progress and rural traditions, technology and art, liberalism and conservatism, Christianity and Judaism, faith and atheism. A decent summary can be found in this October New Yorker article: “Heavy, God-infested, magnificently metaphysical, unafraid to court ridicule, and playing for the highest possible stakes—they don’t write like that anymore.”
Per Sidenius, the main character, is the son of a Lutheran pastor in a rural town. The men in the Sidenius family had been pastors for generations—all the way back to the Reformation.
But Per rebels and leaves home to study engineering in the fast-modernizing capital of Copenhagen. His father—who with Per’s mother and many siblings is portrayed with a genuine but judgmental faith—pronounces a curse on Per, that like Esau he will wander the earth all his days.
(Interestingly, Pontopiddan himself was the son of a rural Lutheran pastor who moved to the city to study engineering and drifted away from his faith.)
Per finds considerable success in Copenhagen, becoming engaged to a wealthy Jewish heiress, whose family pays for him to study abroad. The Jewish family connects him with financiers who want to fund his engineering project, which aims to turn his rural homeland into a thriving seaport.
But at every juncture, Per rejects the worldly success within his grasp. Haunted by the faith of his father and mother, he eventually acknowledges the reality of God and the guilt of his sins. Pontopiddan’s description of Per’s conversion is the most accurate and arresting account I’ve ever read of someone coming to faith—including the real-life versions.
"He could no longer resist the deadly, terrifying haunting of his conscience. He sank down on the edge of the bed and his sobbing face in his hands. Oh, God, I have deserved all this, all of it, all! That evening and night, he broke decisively with his past. The whole night he lay sleepless, and when he reviewed his life, he felt more and more guilty. His consciousness of sin brought the sense of humility that he had not yet felt that morning. And from this, at last, came prayer." (464)
Per’s prayers lead him to see the real presence of God in his life, even when he had rejected God.
"And he thought of the many other times when he could have become a self-destructive prey if he had not had, in his soul, an instinctive horror of sin, or if, through his parents—and, above all, through his father’s legacy of generations of pastors—he had not had a surreptitious pact with the life-saving force he had wanted to defy in the arrogance of his youth … what was this other than the breath of God, the Bible’s Holy Ghost, the Angel of Christianity that invisibly watched over him and kept his foot from stumbling and led him safely through all aberrations?" (475)
Sadly, while Per accepts God and the guilt of his sin, he doesn’t persist in the next step—trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice for his sins. Per gave up trying the first choice—saying sin is no big deal. But he thought his only option was the second choice—making sacrifices on his own for his sins.
"In all ages, the same demand: self-denial, obliteration of the self. Happiness lies in renunciation. But from the wings of the world the opposite advice sounds: happiness comes from a confident self-assertion, self-love, the power of the developing body and courage of the will. There was no bridge spanning the abyss between castrating the soul or the body. That was the choice. … It was necessary to take a standpoint, swear fidelity, without anxiety or hesitation, and with a willing determination and even enthusiasm, to the cross or champagne." (527)
Per’s rebellion had been his period of champagne—of self-promotion and pleasure. He turned from that to embrace the cross—a life of self-renunciation and even pain. But he did not embrace Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Rather, he placed himself on the cross. Per ultimately left his wife and kids and moved to a deserted region, renouncing both his faith and bodily pleasures.
Per was able to see God as judge but not as mediator. And because he couldn’t believe in God as mediator, he couldn’t accept that the judgment of God, having been satisfied, becomes the abundant love of God.
Like Per, most Americans get the first two ingredients of faith—belief in God and sin. But that isn’t enough. The third and final element of faith is for each person to believe that God’s Holy Spirit applies the “death and resurrection of Christ unto them”—as the Westminster Larger Catechism says. If we trust that Jesus Christ made the one and only sacrifice we need, we can be freed from the false choice of either minimizing our sin or making sacrifices on our own. We can instead focus on enjoying God’s love and loving Him by sharing that love with others.
That is apparently what Per (and Pontopiddan) wanted—yet couldn’t find. Near the end of his life, Per writes these words in his journal:
"How can someone give alms to a poor man with a clean heart when he believes, and has an interest in believing, that there is a God who keeps score in heaven, who looks down and nods in approval? … If there really is a God, then we should seek to forget Him, to raise up men who will to do good for goodness’ sake, not out of fear of punishment for their bad deeds?" (586)
But this is—apart from the part about forgetting God—exactly the message of Christianity. When we embrace Christ’s sacrifice, our sins are no longer scored against us (Psalm 103:10-12). And when we embrace Christ’s resurrecting power, our wills are changed so that we desire to do good, no longer out of fear, but purely for the enjoyment of the Source of all good (Rom. 6:4-11).
The truth of Christ’s death and resurrection is what turns our belief in God and our sense of guilt into the salvation of the gospel.