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

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