Are Brokenness and Sinfulness the Same Thing?

My sense is that the Bible doesn’t use the language of “brokenness” for the human condition the way we do.

While the words “broken” and “brokenness” resonate with us all and have some explanatory power, they’re not enough to describe the human condition, and don’t deserve to be our dominant go-to vocabulary for it. In fact, I’d go further and say that if “broken” and “brokenness” become our dominant vocabulary, we will lose gospel clarity and effectiveness, rather than gain it. At worst, we lose the heart of the gospel itself and end up with a God who is, at best, domesticated or, at worst, unkind, unjust, and uncaring.

 

I’ve noticed something of a cultural shift in the way we evangelicals talk about the human condition: more and more, we are “broken” rather than “sinners”—people who act out of our “brokenness,” not our “sin,” “rebellion,” “disobedience,” or “rejection” of God. And I’m not convinced this shift is all good.

Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the frequency with which actual words are used—as if there’s a bingo card with words on it and the winning sermon or church service is one that ticks each box. What we communicate is about much more than the individual words we use. I don’t have to mention the water, waves, sand, and sunshine for you to know they’re included when I say, “The beach was nice.” So I’m not advocating a slavish adherence to a particular script or lexicon.

Nor am I advocating a slavish adherence to biblical vocabulary. My sense is that the Bible doesn’t use the language of “brokenness” for the human condition the way we do. Scripture mostly uses it for God’s acts of judgment against sinful people or nations (e.g., Ps. 2:9; 51:8; Isa. 1:28), and occasionally for the humbled and broken stance of true repentance (e.g., Ps. 51:17). In addition, the language of “brokenness” may be a culturally appropriate way to capture the meaning of words the Bible does use. Language changes, and we need to use language our hearers will understand.

As it happens, I think “broken” and “brokenness” are good terms to use with unbelievers, in public evangelism, and in preaching to the flock. They make sense of how people feel about the world and their lives. Relationships are broken. Sleep is broken. Hearts are broken. Laws are broken. Families are fractured. Hopes are shattered. And our strength and will are broken by it all.

And yet while the words “broken” and “brokenness” resonate with us all and have some explanatory power, they’re not enough to describe the human condition, and don’t deserve to be our dominant go-to vocabulary for it. In fact, I’d go further and say that if “broken” and “brokenness” become our dominant vocabulary, we will lose gospel clarity and effectiveness, rather than gain it. At worst, we lose the heart of the gospel itself and end up with a God who is, at best, domesticated or, at worst, unkind, unjust, and uncaring.

An overstatement? Perhaps. But here are ten things to consider:

  1. The words “broken” and “brokenness” do not have an obvious moral or ethical element, unlike the older terminology of “sin,” “rebellion,” and “disobedience.”
  2. “Broken” and “brokenness” do not convey a relational framework—at least, not in the way we commonly use them. We speak of us being broken, not our relationship with God. On the other hand, rebellion, rejection, and disobedience clearly happen in a relational context, and damage and even break relationships (as we all know). They explain why we are enemies of God, alienated from him and objects of his wrath.

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