God, Guilt, and Then What?

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.

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).


Most people in the U.S, where I live, believe in God and sin. Surveys show that 90% of Americans believe in God and 87% believe in sin.

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.

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