Hallelujah, I’m a Miserable Sinner
A curious phenomenon exists in Christianity. Many people in the past have rejoiced to confess their sins, even to call themselves “miserable offenders.”
This phrase was removed from the Episcopal Church’s 1979 Book of Common Prayer because it was thought to be off-putting, and it is undoubtedly true that many of today’s churchgoers, not having grown up with the phrase, would be baffled, even repelled, by such language if they walked in off the street.
The underlying dynamic here is that we cannot rejoice to think of ourselves as sinful, let alone “miserable offenders,” unless we are already claimed by the divine light of the gospel. There is no way to help people to the knowledge of sin except to offer the news of God’s “prevenient” purpose in overcoming sin through the cross of Christ. It is with a sense of lightheartedness that one comes before the mercy seat of God, but none can understand this until the light of grace dawns upon them. The light of Christ reveals sin by the brightness of the redemption already accomplished.
The South African novelist and Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee writes: “There is always something unmotivated about conversion experiences: it is of their essence that the sinner should be so blinded by lust or greed or pride that the psychic logic leading to the turning point in his life becomes visible to him only in retrospect, when his eyes have been opened.”
The church has always been tempted to recast the Christian story in terms of individual fault and guilt that can be overcome by a decision to repent. This undermines the gospel at its heart. The liturgy for the Jewish high holiday Yom Kippur contains these words: “Repentance ...
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