Guest Article — Misers and Miserable Sinners

BJS welcomes guest articles; here is another one from Pr. Engelbrecht. To submit your own articles, contact us.

 

From descriptions of Dickens’ Ebenezer Scrooge, we know the word “miser” (though the word does not occur in Dickens’ novel, A Christmas Carol). From the Divine Service we know the expression “miserable sinner.” But what we may overlook is that the words are so closely related. Both come from miserere, Latin “to have mercy.” In other words, the miser—like the miserable—is a person to be pitied or upon whom one should have mercy.

When the church teaches us to pray, “I a poor, miserable sinner,” it does not teach us to confess the poor quality of our sins or how we are feeling. It teaches us to say, “I a poor, pitiable sinner.” We confess how empty we are of righteousness while being so full of sin, so in need of mercy. The word pair “poor” and “miserable” is somewhat repetitious, a heaping confession that likely stems from medieval prayer books familiar to the Reformers. For example, Melanchthon wrote to Prince George of Anhalt in c. 1560, “I know that I am a man and a miserable sinner” (John Scott, The History of the Church of Christ, Vol. 2 [London: Seeley and Burnside, 1829], 178). The expression “miserable sinner” is a mainstay of Christian confession but one that strikes us odd today since modern English has lost the true sense of the word “miserable.”

In this season, we do well to confess our miserliness and misery while calling on the Lord of all mercy. Melanchthon likewise wrote to Prince George, “I pray the Son of God to make me a vessel of mercy,” a marvelous prayer. God have mercy on all misers and the miserable of all kinds. God deliver us from spare confession and unforgiveness so that we become vessels of His mercy in Christ Jesus.

Rev. Edward A. Engelbrecht
Concordia Publishing House

About Norm Fisher

Norm was raised in the UCC in Connecticut, and like many fell away from the church after high school. With this background he saw it primarily as a service organization. On the miracle of his first child he came back to the church. On moving to Texas a few years later he found a home in Lutheranism when he was invited to a confessional church a half-hour away by our new neighbors.

He is one of those people who found a like mind in computers while in Middle School and has been programming ever since. He's responsible for many websites, including the Book of Concord, LCMSsermons.com, and several other sites.

He has served the church in various positions, including financial secretary, sunday school teacher, elder, PTF board member, and choir member.

More of his work can be found at KNFA.net.

Comments

Guest Article — Misers and Miserable Sinners — 17 Comments

  1. Indeed, we all need to remember we are sinners saved by grace, apart from works, and self examination of our own attitudes, motives, desires, ambitions, and conduct….including the many thoughtless words pouring from our mouths…..is part of a continuing struggle against the Old Adam within each of us. It is my own battle each day….and very humbling that God still counts me as His child.

  2. If a word has become archaic and is not longer clear, why not simply choose terminology that is less ambiguous?

  3. Words do matter! Thank you for once again bringing that to our attention. Going back to the original languages truly opens the Scriptures to us and helps to bring the living Word to us poor, miserable sinners!

  4. @Carl H #2
    If a word has become archaic and is not longer clear, why not simply choose terminology that is less ambiguous?

    If we eliminated every word that we didn’t already know, we’d be reduced to a pitiable vocabulary with half the language indecent. [Read it in the comments section of the largest newspapers! Or listen to some of our superbly educated (even to graduate degrees) college students! Consider what passes for educated speech on this list occasionally.] 🙁

    Why not rather enrich yourself by expanding your store of words!? Especially as reducing the language to “5th grade” level, deprives those who learned their catechism young and thoroughly. (They also learned the use of large dictionaries, which you can access in this day and age w/o leaving your seat or smart phone).

    The supposedly “clear” terminology of today will mean something else in 20 years, or less.

  5. I wonder which churches of the future will be using such terms as: sacramental entrepreneur, glocal, churchianity, missiology, service multiplication, multiply, progressive worship, radical transformation, change agents, holistically discipled, miracle motif, church detoxification, multility and finally seekers. Really? Seekers? The only seekers are believers who wonder if there is such a church left out there that simply and faithfully preaches the law, lawfully and proclaims Christ, and Him crucified for poor and miserable sinners, and strike out looking for one. My husband and I did after a clear warning that we were in a wolves den rather than the sheepfold. Thankfully, we did find one. It is NOT an easy search!

  6. Carl#2, Helen #4:
    When words change meaning over the years (see Letetia #5), we lose the original meaning; sometimes the phrases used every Sunday become meaningless. If a phrase or word is understood in its original meaning by the pastor but not by the congregation, is it really proper and useful to use that word?

    Our congregation uses different phrases, styles, and formats to bring to the fore in each person’s mind their own personal failure to always do, say, and think what God wants. Then, God’s love and forgiveness of our failures is washed over us to cleanse us of our failures (sin).

    This is more meaningful for me.
    For others, the repetition of the same phrase, which that person understands, each week is more meaningful.

  7. Thanks, readers for your comments. Prayer language tends to be conservative in part because generation after generation we pray what we learned, which keeps the expressions from changing (think of Heb. Amen and Hosanna, which take us all the way back to Old Testament expressions of worship!). I think we also want language that we trust and feel confident in. If we change the language often, we may have doubts about its reliability.

    I personally like the confession of sins to be familiar since that allows me to think about the sins I’ve committed during the week while confessing them. If the confession is new, I simply can’t do that very well, though I suppose a freshly worded confession might point out sins we have not even considered.

    As a teenager, I confessed myself to be a miserable sinner for years before I heard a layman complain about the confession, thinking it was about one’s feelings. At that time I had not learned the liturgical use of “miserable” but also had not thought about it. I guess I would prefer that we keep the term but enrich people’s understanding by explaining it just like we might explain Amen or Hosanna. There are church history and theology lessons in these words that are rich and beneficial. We might also hold out the potential for receiving new, rich words from our own time and from sister churches as they wrestle to teach the faith today.

  8. jim :
    Carl#2, Helen #4:
    When words change meaning over the years (see Letetia #5), we lose the original meaning; sometimes the phrases used every Sunday become meaningless. If a phrase or word is understood in its original meaning by the pastor but not by the congregation, is it really proper and useful to use that word?
    Our congregation uses different phrases, styles, and formats to bring to the fore in each person’s mind their own personal failure to always do, say, and think what God wants. Then, God’s love and forgiveness of our failures is washed over us to cleanse us of our failures (sin).
    This is more meaningful for me.
    For others, the repetition of the same phrase, which that person understands, each week is more meaningful.

    (bold emphasis mine)

    To illustrate your point, you use the word “sin”. It’s a good one to use, as it’s a word you will rarely hear, if at all, in many churches. It’s a bad one to use if you want to make your point with a word no longer in use, as you’d be hard pressed to find someone, even among unbelievers who don’t know the meaning of the word.

    Rick Warren, the Druckerites founder and self-appointed pope has done away with the word “sin” in favor of “hurts, habits and hangups”. Mistakes is also an approved substitute for the forbidden (irony) word “sin”. Failure is a bit too negative and a bit too close to the mark, but will likely only get you a raised eyebrow, as long as you don’t use it too much. If “hurts, habits, hangups and mistakes” is more meaningful to you, get thee to a Druckerite church. If not, keep looking.

    Rick Warren is hardly alone in doing away with words used in Scripture and defined by Scripture, so that even children understand the word “sin”. That word is hardly the only one that is being scrubbed from preaching and teaching. The meaning of words such as justify, wrath, sanctify, holy, righteous, are being replaced at an impressive rate. At this point, if this keeps spreading, we’ll need to print new Bibles with all the substituted words. In the meantime, preachers who are doing away with these words and substituting their own spiritually-correct words (altering the meaning to attract more) are making do with the New Living Translation and the Message paraphrase, primarily.

    We’re also going to have to have more churches to satisfy the individuality of preferences for certain words over others. Sacramental entreprenuer, glocal and multility may be meaningful to one, but not another. Finding a church with the right combination of new words and a Bible paraphrase that fits it could be a real challenge.

    Make no mistake. We ARE being separated from the Word. Empty words of their meanings, distort their meanings, or better yet, dispense with them altogether in favor of different or even new words and you have emptied, distorted and dispensed with truth.

    “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.” 2 Timothy 4:3-4 ESV

  9. >> … you’d be hard pressed to find someone, even among unbelievers who don’t know the meaning of the word. …

    Q: What is sin?
    A: Being out of alignment with my values. (Emphasis, as they say, added)

  10. @Carl H #2

    Why not instead educate the flock? Your approach is somewhat lazy. Catechesis is hard, but enthusiasm is easy. We’re not talking justification here. We’re talking about taking the vocation of “sheep and shepherd” seriously.

  11. @Letetia #8

    Great points, Letitia! As we listen to the Church Growthers try to justify changing and replacing the true Words of Scripture, we hear explanations such as “you must reach the unchurched in a language they understand,” but doesn’t it seem odd that the new words are not words used by the unchurched anyway but are instead an entirely new language to be learned. Sacramental Entrepreneurs, glocal, and multility are not words that are in the vocabulary of the unchurched. The “unchurched” are taught this brand new language after being lured into the Contemporary church or “campus.”

    Also, the new words used to replace the old “out-dated” language aren’t synonymous with the old words. Sin is not synonymous with hurt, habit, hangup or mistake.

    A new language with a new meaning is replacing God’s Word in our churches.

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