“One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to Him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him. That is how it is… And now you must understand that these two ways of believing are like two different religions, they have nothing whatever to do with each other.” – Giertz
In 1927, Bo Harald Giertz had an audience with Queen Victoria of Sweden, who had been a patient of his father Knut. Knowing that Bo was studying theology, and that he was a top student, she asked if he wanted to become a professor. He replied he just wanted to be a [Lutheran] priest. She then made him promise he would be a “true priest.”
From Atheist to Pastor
Giertz was born on August 31, 1905, in Räpplinge on Öland, an island off the east coast of Sweden. His father Knut was a well-known surgeon and his mother Anna was a daughter of Lars Magnus Ericsson, the founder of the Ericsson telephone company.
During his summer visits with his grandparents, Bo learned from Lars a passion from technology. He also attended the parish church and heard the gospel preached, something he never did with his parents (his father was atheist and his mother agnostic).
Giertz’s career seemed set from the start. From his teen years, he often assisted his father at his surgical clinic and recorded the proceedings in Latin. In 1942, he enrolled in the school of medicine at Uppsala University.
There, he met students from the Young Christian Movement (YCM), who were able to explain their faith with honesty and clarity. He was also impressed by the difference in behavior between these Christians and his atheist friends. He eventually moved away from his father’s atheism and decided to study theology. Though obviously displeased, his father accepted his choice but told him he would not continue to support him if he changed his mind again.
Giertz studied New Testament under Anton Fridrichsen, who taught in opposition to the liberal, and much better-known, Rudolf Bultmann. A trip that Fridrichsen and Giertz took to Palestine deepened Giertz’s convictions of the historicity of the Christian faith and inspired his book, With My Own Eyes.
Discovering the Gospel
In 1932, the year of his graduation, Giertz married Ingrid Sofia Margareta Andrén (known as “Ninni”). The same year, he began a three-years ministry as a travelling consultant for the Lutheran Church’s High School Student Association, visiting schools all over Sweden.
He was finally ordained in 1934, and served for a year as a vacancy pastor in two rural towns, Ostra Husby and Ekeby. At that time, he was still influenced by YCM, that presented a Christianity that was clear and rational, but void of a true gospel message.
“The YCM academic piety questioned or ignored Christ’s work of atonement,” he wrote, “in order to make the Gospel more understandable and acceptable to our time. In Ostra Husby, I was given reason to re-think this approach. I could not help but notice that in the midst of all the love and appreciation with which I was met, there was, nonetheless, a touch of disappointment that I did not preach Christ as one would have wished.”
Giertz discovered the gospel through the works of Henric Schartau – generally known as a Pietist – and with the encouragement of vicar Gösta Nelson.
By 1938, he had three children (Lars, Birgitta, and Ingrid), so he applied for a more permanent position as assistant vicar of the small parish of Tora. He accepted the call, and spent the next three and a half years there. Besides preaching, he wrote several books, including his famous novel, The Hammer of God.
The Gospel through Fiction
To his surprise, The Hammer of God became a national success, ranking third bestseller in Sweden in 1941. The purpose of the book was to retell, in down-to-earth stories, the main principle he had already laid out in previous theological works, such as Christ’s Church and Church Piety, namely the gospel as the foundation of both the Church and the Christian life.
Through this fictional writing, Giertz was able to bring out, through real-life situations, questions, doubts, and perplexities that Christians might hesitate to face. One example is a conversation between old, confessional pastor who challenged a young Pietist, Fridfeldt, to consider more carefully the words he was using and the message they conveyed.
“So you are a believer, I’m glad to hear that,” said the pastor. “What do you believe in?” It took a while before Fridfeldt could reply, because the answer seemed too obvious, “In Jesus, of course. I mean – I mean that I have given Him my heart,” he added.
The older man’s voice became suddenly as solemn as the grave. “Do you consider that something to give him?” By this time, Fridfeldt was almost in tears. “But sir, if you do not give your heart to Jesus, you cannot be saved.”
“You are right, my boy. And it is just as true that, if you think you are saved because you give Jesus your heart, you will not be saved. … One does not choose a Redeemer for oneself, you understand, nor give one’s heart to Him. The heart is a rusty old can on a junk heap. A fine birthday gift, indeed! But a wonderful Lord passes by, and has mercy on the wretched tin can, sticks His walking cane through it and rescues it from the junk pile and takes it home with Him. That is how it is… And now you must understand that these two ways of believing are like two different religions, they have nothing whatever to do with each other.”
The same themes of salvation by grace through faith are predominant in all his works, including another novel, Faith Alone: The Heart of Everything, set between 1540 and 1543, during the largest peasant revolt in Scandinavia, and published in 1943. Many consider this to be Giertz’s masterpiece.