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In the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic work Les Misérables, the protagonist Jean Valjean comes to a crisis point in his life when he becomes overwhelmed by his guilt as a former criminal and convicted felon. In a strikingly emotional scene, Valjean asks the penetrating question, “Who am I?” As he considers his past, his present, and his future, he wrestles with the reality of his guilt and his deserved condemnation before man and God. He is forced to question his identity and his integrity and to reckon with the innocence of a man falsely accused because he has been wrongly identified as Valjean. Though Valjean has escaped being known as a convict by changing his name and identity, he has to come to grips with the truth about who he really is—a convict whose prison number is 24601.
Many readers of Les Mis don’t know the significance of that number. Literary scholars argue that Hugo assigned Valjean that number as a way to identify himself with his protagonist, because it signified the date on which Hugo believed he had been conceived—24 June 1801 (24-6-01). Hugo was identifying himself with Valjean as a sinner not simply from the moment he first sinned but from the day of his conception. Hugo very well could have had in mind what David confessed: “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Ps. 51:5).
Most people in the world do not know why they are here, who they really are, where they have come from, or where they are going. Furthermore, they hold to an altogether wrong view of themselves, believing that they are fundamentally good, were born good, and that they’re on their way to a good place. They don’t understand that they are guilty sinners, conceived in sin, born with a sinful nature, living under the wrath of God, and awaiting God’s just condemnation. All humanity is by nature in a state of sin, and all people desperately need to hear the good news of Jesus Christ so that by the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit, they might be justified before God by faith alone and eternally saved through Christ. Only through the Spirit’s work in us through the gospel of Christ does God show us who we really are so that when we are moved by the Spirit to ask, “Who am I?” we can humbly and boldly declare: “I was conceived in sin, born a sinner, deserving of condemnation, but I have been born again by the Spirit, have been united to Jesus Christ, and am bound for glory. That’s who I am: my identity, by God’s grace, is in Christ.”