The Gospel Coalition

To be a Christian is to be a person who cares about words. We care about definitions and implications. Our aim is not to be contentious or obstreperous. Our aim is to be true and to speak in a way that strengthens the truth. We care about words because words communicate ideas and ideas have consequences. We pay attention to language because God has revealed himself through it. Words matter to God. They should matter to us.

Having said all that, I'd like to suggest we think more carefully about one of our new favorite words: brokenness. I'm not on a crusade to ban the word from the evangelical lexicon. You don't have to apologize if you say the word in front of me. It's not a bad word. It's just not an adequate word.

What do we communicate with the word "brokenness"? It seems to me the word is a rough synonym for "messed-up-ness." Worship leaders ask us to confess our brokenness. Pastors tell us we all have brokenness. Sinners under conviction reveal their struggles with brokenness. Often I hear the word used with reference to sexual sin. Someone with a porn addiction may admit his sexual brokenness. Or someone speaking against homosexuality may be quick to assure his audience that we all struggle our own form of sexual brokenness. The word shows up in many delicate situations.

And yet, the word is inadequate at best and misleading at worst. On the good side, "brokenness" conveys an important truth about sin. When we develop an insatiable appetite for porn, when we long for same-sex partners, when we can't live without people's approval, we are not functioning the way God intended. God's Edenic design for human flourishing did not include addictions, unnatural lusts, and fear of man. Marred by sin, none of us is the way we are supposed to be. We are all broken.

But as a metaphor for sin, "brokenness" is seriously limited. The term does not convey a strong sense of moral culpability. If anything, it suggests a helplessness in the face of external forces and circumstances. It gets nothing of the Godward direction of sin. In fact, the term "brokenness" sometimes feels like a safer, less-offensive euphemism for sin. Instead of confessing rebellion, disobedience, guilt, or moral evil, we only have to acknowledge that somethin' ain't right. We don't work the way we should. We've been wounded before. We've had a hard go of it. I'm not suggesting those who use the term "brokenness" are trying to avoid their sins or the minimize the sins of others. But the language can have that effect.

In Reformed Dogmatics, Herman Bavinck examines the different Hebrew and Greek words for sin. The list of definitions is daunting: missing the mark, departure from the right way, twistedness, wrongness, deviation from the right direction, crossing a set of boundaries, breaking a covenant, apostasy, rebellion, deviant conduct, godless behavior, offense, unfaithfulness, infidelity, betrayal, disobedience, violation, lawlessness, guilt. "By far the majority of these names, Bavinck maintains, "describe sin as 'deviation, a violation of the law." In citing 1 John 3:4, he concludes that "Scripture consistently views sin as lawlessness" (3.129-30).

Granted, it is no violation of Scriptural truth to use non-biblical language and metaphors to describe our sin. But overtime it usually proves unwise. The biblical language for sin is stronger and more God-directed than makes us comfortable. The present Christian culture gravitates toward language that is inner-directed and therapeutic. We prefer the language of brokenness and woundedness, even though these words in the Bible tend to describe physical pain or divine punishment (Isaiah 30:26). Sin is almost never, if ever, described as personal malfunction. It is, instead, seen as an offense to God, a violation of his law, and liable to punishment. We may be broken, but that doesn't describe the half of it. We need a Savior, not just a Handy Man.


Comments:

[...] The Power of Words and the Nature of Sin. Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this.   Leave a comment [...]

[...] DeYoung in “The Power of Words and the Nature of Sin” writes, I’d like to suggest we think more carefully about one of our new favorite words: [...]

[...] By Kevin DeYoung. This article is from his Gospel Coalition blog [...]

[...] says Kevin [...]

Steve Cornell

July 15, 2012 at 12:48 AM

I think I get your point but it raises an even deeper problem with the way some in the reformed community think, speak and teach about sin. When we think about sin by starting with sin, we end up with problems that have negatively chequered the reformed tradition. To adequately understand sin, one must start with the Imago Dei. A failure to do this will result in a kind of trucated theology or perhaps, a forced and misguided theology.

Think of the superficiality in using of the word "total" when speaking about depravity. When we think about human depravity, it does not mean that we are always acting as badly as possible, but that we are always as bad off as we can be outside of God’s grace in Christ. Yes, the reach of depravity extends to every person and every part of every person. It’s pervasive -- without borders among us and in us. But God's image continues as a primary constitutional human reality after sin entered the world (see: Genesis 9:6; James 3:9). So we speak of dignity and depravity concerning humanity.

Sin is a falling short of glory -- the unblemished glory of original creation. We were made in the Imago Dei and have fallen from it.

Human depravity is not adequately understood if the image of God is not the starting point for how we think about humanity. The Imago Dei is the shared reality of all people without exception or distinction. God singled out humans when He said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness…” ”So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27; James 3:9).

At the beginning, God “saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Gen. 1:31). Humans (by God’s intention) had a very good and noble beginning (and, we intuitively know it). But those intended for greatness have fallen. Sin is a tragic and culpable falling short of this glory – “for all have sinned and fall short (???????) (present/passive) of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). A universal and continuous condition.

“Near the beginning of our history, we human beings broke the harmony of paradise and began to live against our ultimate good… As Genesis 3 and Genesis 4 reveal, we rebelled against God and then we fled from God. We once had a choice. We now have a near-compulsion—at least, that’s what we have without the grace of God to set us free. (Cornelius Plantinga).

When sin became part of our experience, it required the addition of prefixes and suffixes to negate otherwise good qualities. Dis-obedience, dis-able, dis-agree, dis-advantage… faith-less, hope-less, etc…

“Creation is the stage and first act of the world’s drama. In the second act, sin enters the picture, but only as a spoiler of God’s good creation. Creation is original; sin is only a parasite on it."

“The real human predicament, as Scripture reveals, is that inexplicably, irrationally, we all keep living our lives against what’s good for us. In what can only be called the mystery of iniquity, human beings from the time of Adam and Eve (and, before them, a certain number of angelic beings) have so often chosen to live against God, against each other, and against God’s world.”

When we start where Scripture starts, we realize that we were meant for so much more. It should not be surprising or unexpected that most people feel like something significant is missing from their lives. We have moments when life feels whole, full and satisfying but at a deeper level, we know that we’re not what we’re supposed to be.

* Something great has fallen from its greatness.
* Something amazing has lost its amazement.
* Something beautiful has lost its beauty.
* Something whole is broken.
* Something healthy is sick and in need of healing.
* Something peaceful has been disturbed.

As a result of this fall of humanity, those who were whole are broken, partial and fractured.

Taking a full theological perspective, a sad (yet realistic) set of terms are fitting to us: lost, wayward, drifting, restless, fallen, broken, fractured, alienated, separated, partial, incomplete, sinful and dying.

And a vocabulary of salvation is what we need. We need intervention, rescue, redemption, forgiveness, reconciliation and restoration.

"In the third act God’s spectacular intervention through Jesus Christ is the story of creation restored, maybe even surpassed by the end of the drama. The world’s big story is not just about sin and grace, but about creation, sin, and grace" (Plantinga).

To think sufficiently about sin, one must also look to the center piece of the theme of Scripture.

“At the center of the Christian Bible, four Gospels describe the pains God has taken to defeat sin and its wages. Accordingly, Christians have often measured sin, in part, by the suffering needed to atone for it. The ripping and writhing of death on a cross, the bizarre metaphysical maneuver of using death to defeat death, the urgency of the summons to human beings to ally themselves with the events of Christ and with the person of these events, and then to make that person and those events the center of their lives-these things tell us that the main human brokenness is desperately difficult to fix, even for God, and that, while annoyances, regrets, and miseries trouble us in all the old familiar ways, none of them matters as much as sin” (Not The Way It’s Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin, by Cornelius Plantinga, Jr.).

Yes, the words we use matter when talking about sin. But the starting point also matters and should define our thoughts and refine our articulation. Some squabble over use of the term "dysfunctional" but it is actually a useful term if one begins where Scripture begins. We expect dysfunction when one breaks from the way God intended things to be. Sin? Yes. Dysfunction? Yes. Each word has a role but it takes more than one word to convey faithfully the full account of Scripture.

Another word that receives unwarranted reaction is “holistic.” I used it on a blog discussion and some readers encouraged me to stick with Bible terms for talking about issues. I gently reminded these folks of the fact that even the great words of our salvation used in the New Testament (redemption, propitiation, sanctification, justification, reconciliation, etc…) came from the world of that time and had prior meanings and associations ranging from the market place to the temple, to the courtroom etc…. I would rather recapture good words and give them their rich and full meaning in God’s truth.

Plantinga also gave a helpful example in the use of "tragedy."

“When one observes the rifts and scars of children whose parents took turns slapping, deriding, ignoring, bullying, or, sometimes worse, simply abandoning them; when one observes the wholesale life mismanagement of grown-ups who have lived for years in the shadow of their bereft childhood and who have attempted with one addictor after another to fill up those empty places where love should have settled, only to discover that their addictor keeps enlarging the very void it was meant to fill — when one knows people of this kind and observes their largely predictable character pathology, one hesitates to call all this chaos sin. The label sounds smug and impertinent. In such cases, we want to appeal to some broader category, perhaps the category of tragedy.”

‘Tragedy’, however, “implies the fall of someone who is responsible and significant. It refers to someone whose significance has been ‘compromised and crushed by a mix of forces, including personal agency, that work together for evil in a way that seems simultaneously surprising and predictable, preventable and inevitable.’ A tragic figure is, in some intricate combination, both weak and willful, both foolish and guilty” (Cornelius Plantinga Jr., Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be).

Transformation is the return to glory.

? A glory we had at the beginning (Genesis 1:26-27).

? A glory we fell from in disobedience (Romans 3:23; 5:12; James 3:9).

? A glory being restored in us (through God’s gift of salvation and the indwelling Spirit (Rom. 6:23: II Cor. 3:18)

? A glory fully restored (despite our present suffering, Romans 8:18; Revelation 21:1-5).

Steve Cornell

re:gen | Posts well put – July 15, 2012

July 15, 2012 at 10:37 PM

[...] The Power of Words and the Nature of Sin To be a Christian is to be a person who cares about words. We care about definitions and implications. Our aim is not to be contentious or obstreperous. Our aim is to be true and to speak in a way that strengthens the truth. [...]

Sarah

July 15, 2012 at 05:04 AM

Thank you both Kevin & Steve.

It is such a challenge today to be faithful to the Word of God, to call things what He calls them in order to think & live in truth (and therefore freedom & power!) and to use God-given language humbly and intelligently in an effort to convey the multi-dimensional nature of God and life under Him.

I so often come away from a sermon feeling that the layers of scriptural truth, depth & relevance have been poorly represented - and therefore God Himself has been poorly represented (not that we ever do it perfectly!). I particularly appreciated Steve's approach to the use of both biblical and contemporary language, defined correctly, in an effort to present a more fully-orbed picture of our position before God, the huge array of sin's consequences and the many (joyous!) implications of restoration through Christ.

Sarah

yankeegospelgirl

July 14, 2012 at 02:06 PM

Wow, and here I thought I was the only person who was annoyed by the over-use of this word. Go Kevin.

Mike Leake

July 13, 2012 at 09:43 AM

Randy Newman made a similar point awhile back in an article as well as in his book. While I heed the caution and often pair brokenness with the word rebellion, I think the word brokenness can actually be helpful. I wrote a response to Newman awhile back and I think it might be helpful here as well:
http://www.mikeleake.net/2011/06/yes-were-worse-than-broken-but-i-still.html

rc sproul jr

July 13, 2012 at 09:29 AM

Excellent piece brother. Because we are rebels we are wont to minimize our rebellion by calling it brokenness. Because we are broken, we are wont to forget that our rebellion has been overcome by His death, and our brokenness made whole by His life

Robert Sakovich

July 13, 2012 at 01:35 PM

Great post, Kevin. I definitely think we need to learn how to use words correctly and the power that is involved with their use...both for good and bad. We should be looking for what God is saying in the Bible, not what works best for us. People seem to have a serious problem with language in this regard...words seem to be misused and misinterpreted all the time.

[...] http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2012/07/10/the-power-of-words-and-the-nature-of-sin... Share this:TwitterFacebookLike this:LikeBe the first to like this. This entry was posted in KFD. Bookmark the permalink. ← Human Origins and the Fossil Record: What Does the Evidence Say? [...]

[...] past couple of days I’ve been in off and on discussions over this post here by Kevin DeYoung.  He takes issue with the word brokenness citing an overuse that leads to an [...]

[...] Using “Brokenness” to Describe Sin – Kevin DeYoung makes an excellent point about our propensity to use the word “brokenness” as a pseudonym for sin and suggests why we may want to reconsider our word choice. [...]

Jon

July 10, 2012 at 10:32 AM

Kevin,

I'm very grateful for your blog. Thank you, brother.

I appreciate the caution today with the use or overuse of the word brokenness.

In essence, what I took your thesis to be is: Sin is rebellion, not brokenness. This is true, as far as it goes.

However, I have heard thoughtful pastors and teachers use this word, not only to describe sin, but to describe the effects of sin. Sin is rebellion and what such rebellion has wrought is a world of broken people. Yes, rebellious, broken people.

To me, 'broken' is a synonym for 'sick,' and Jesus used this word to describe his spiritual healing work as the great physician. He called us lost, rebels, and sick. Not every description of the sinful condition of humanity in Scripture gets at it from the rebellion, lawlessness side.

Rebellion gets at the issue from the standpoint of the one committing offense. Brokenness sees it from the standpoint of the one sinned against. A child that is continually abused is a rebel by nature and choice, but also broken, or sick, through the acts of others.

The good news of our redeemer is that his cross breaks the power of sin so that we can cease to be rebels, and it heals our wounds so that we are not broken victims.

Thanks, again.
Jon

Cameron Lee

July 10, 2012 at 10:16 AM

Like Phil above, I love the pithiness of that last phrase: "We need a Savior, not just a Handy Man." At the same time, I wonder whether what we need, as JR suggests, is a rehabilitation of the language.

I completely agree that the term "brokenness" carries its own associations, and that culturally, this tends toward a kind of lite version of sin. But I would also suggest that the word "sin" itself carries its own connotations that don't give the full biblical picture either.

I personally speak of brokenness when teaching about sin, to convey the idea that part of what people suffer is not only the moral culpability of their own actions, but the practical consequences of the sinful actions of others. Creation itself participates in the brokenness that results from sin; isn't the restoration of creation also part of God's larger plan of redemption?

I fully agree that we must retain the full biblical sense of personal culpability for our sin; at the same time, we need to make sure that people don't think that all that matters is saving people from eternal punishment. I will, in all likelihood, continue to use the word "brokenness" in my own teaching--but having read your post, I will now be careful to be more circumspect and critical about its pop culture associations. Thanks!

JR

July 10, 2012 at 09:54 AM

Kevin,
Excellent post and a great point about our the words we use and intended meanings. It is often a popular and prevalent idea to co-opt words, to appropriate them for our own purposes and benefit, which obscures communication. If I use a word based on its origin or traditional understanding, but someone else uses it based on a postmodern interpretation, we often come to an impass in our ability to dialog effectively.

Why do I mention this? Because the post here lends itself toward throwing the baby out with the bathwater -- which is what we often do when we react to false beliefs. Just because ppl are using the word broken inappropriately, I don't think we should abandon it. Instead, we need to use it correctly.

Correctly, like the Psalmist:
"The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51:17 ESV)

When I read Psalm 51, I never walk away feeling that the Psalmist has minimized or misrepresented sin.

The examples that you use are examples of how some have misappropriated the word broken to mean something that God does not mean. The broken and contrite spirit are not descriptions of the sin itself, but rather a description of our inward reaction when we feel the weight of the sin against a Holy God.

Instead of decrying the use of the word broken, I believe we need to re-emphasize its original intended use, in the context of scripture --- which is quite powerful!!!!

paul

July 10, 2012 at 09:22 AM

Kevin, I love your blog, but I did you know your church's website doesn't use the word "sin" in it's story section - but instead uses "broken" and "curse." I went there to find your blog, and clicked on the wrong link. Than I read the right link, and realized the difference. I hope this helps.

Phil Long

July 10, 2012 at 09:17 AM

"We need a Savior, not just a Handy Man." Perfect.

Derek McKinnon

July 10, 2012 at 09:12 AM

Mr. DeYoung,

Thanks for this post. Originally, I heard "brokenness" used as meaning that man must be broken - his pride, self-reliance, etc. must be broken - before he can realize his actual need of Jesus Christ. It appears that modern secular psychology has changed the meaning of the word (as with most other words?) to be in line with modern psychology about "human frailty" and "errors" rather than with what sin actually is: an affront to God holiness. Your post is a helpful reminder of what sin truly is, and I thank you for that.

Lois W

July 10, 2012 at 07:33 PM

Thank you for this blog. The word-choice of your last sentence is cogent. But it is this earlier sentence, in regard to calling sin, "brokenness," that touches on what is behind the current word-fashion: "It gets nothing of the Godward direction of sin." Precisely. There is, in the current theological climate, a humanistic Gospel that focuses on the results of sin, on what it does to us, not on the offense it is to God. This theology conflates sin with its results. It is appealing--we can sidestep thinking about judgment. If we are only broken, messed-up, not enjoying life as it was meant to be, we just need healing. (Of course, we do often need healing, and we get that, with Christ.) My question: What happens to our understanding of the Cross when sin, is re-defined as "brokenness."? Did God need to deliver up the Son to the torment of enduring the wrath we deserved, in order to fix us? All Glory to God, we do have a Savior, who who addresses our guilt, and offers salvation.

JR

July 10, 2012 at 04:56 PM

Again, we should simply use the word broken Biblically -- the way God does:
“The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” (Psalm 51:17 ESV).

Also, let's not forget that Christ's body was broken and given for us, for our healing --- by His wounds we are healed. There is a necessary brokenness and healing involved, which we practice in remembrance, each time we break bread with one another. Thanks.