Recently The Gospel Coalition ran an article by Randy Newman, expressing concern over the use of the term “brokenness.” While I agreed in part with Mr. Newman, he presented too broad a condemnation of the idea. I would argue that the language of brokenness is an important part of our vocabulary, not for avoiding deeper topics, but for the sake of faithful explaining God, sin, redemption and other Biblical ideas.
In our culture, the word sin is often misunderstood or simplified. Rarely does it describe the human condition of which the Bible speaks. It would be wrong to assume that most people have a proper understanding of sin. Because of this, sin is no longer a quick idea. It might have been true that at others times when a teacher spoke of sin, it was a simple way to include a number of varying thoughts in a punctuated fashion. It might have been possible that when someone mentioned sin, a listener might recall the many perspectives that Mr. Newman referred too, but that’s no longer the case (at least in most North American contexts). This doesn’t necessitate that we retire the word, but it means that it always needs further explanation.
Other ideas and images have to be used in concert when talking about sin. Ideas of rebellion, debt, and brokenness frame the idea of sin so that it is understandable. This does not mean that we should speak about sin exclusively in one framework. Different passages of Scripture and different audiences will need different explanations, but we must always be somehow framing the topic for the sake of clarity.
Rather than reducing the topic of sin, the framework of brokenness conveys a deep spectrum of Biblical thought that is very helpful for explaining God, the Gospel and our sin.
The framework of brokenness communicates God’s patient care.
We live in a society that almost never fixes anything after it has broken. The idea of a God who would take the time and attention to fix his creation speaks to God’s Covenant faithfulness, and his patient care for us.
The framework of brokenness explains the cost of our redemption.
Mr. Newman is concerned that “When people hear that our biggest problem is that we’re broken, the gospel seems like a strange fix. Jesus’ death on the cross seems extreme and unnecessary, the maniacal overreaction of an overzealous deity.” I would argue that we live in a world where restoration is incredibly rare, and perceived as incredibly expensive. How many times in life have we been told that it would be cheaper to get a new one than to fix something that is broken? Because of this, the idea that Christ is willing to pay the expensive price to repair us speaks to the immeasurable value of our redemption. This also means that the Father’s willingness to send his son, and Christ’s willing to come to fix us, helps communicate God’s heart for his people and his desire for redemption.
The framework of brokenness focuses on our identity problem, rather than our activity problem.
It is important today to understand that outside of Christ sin defines us. Likewise when something is broken the expectation is that it will not work properly or at all. When we declare that people are broken we are saying you will not work the way you should. This allows us to speak about sin not simply after it comes to the surface, but even when things seem to be going fine in life.
The framework of brokenness and restoration helps communicate the slow and painful process of sanctification.
Often Christians feel defeated when they continue to struggle with sin. At our church we often talk about the car that is up on blocks in the front yard, the car that is running but still needs work, and the car that has been totally restored. This allows us to talk about the differences and similarities between Christians and Non-Christians, and explain why Christians still struggle with sin.
The framework of brokenness speaks to the effects of sin in the entire world.
People understand that when any part of system breaks down it almost always has effects on the rest of the system. This is true in electronics, and vehicles, and structures. Trying using a computer without a monitor, or driving a car without an engine, or living in a home with a cracked sewage pipe. People need to understand that the world does not work the way that it should because it is broken. Using this framework allows us to explain that sin has damaged every part of creation.
My intention in writing this was not to simply be a contrarian. I share Mr. Newman’s concern for reduction, but we also need to understand how important it is to craft biblically faithful frameworks that can be used to unpack the deep truths of Scripture in culturally approachable language.