Brokenness is not sinfulness

  • Joel Creek
  • 3 May 2021

“The world we live in has serious issues. There is suffering everywhere, in our families and in our countries; there is grief and despair. This world is broken.”

In the past year, have you heard the world we live in described in such a way? It seems commonplace now for this reality to be in the forefront of people's minds; both the Christian and the non-Christian understand and see that the world is broken.

Maybe that’s why it preaches so well. The paraphrased quote above is from a sermon a few weeks ago at my church. And it’s true, isn’t it? The world is broken; there is suffering, death and decay. And—maybe because for the first time in a while both society and the church see eye-to-eye on something—brokenness has become a common way to explain the problems with the world.

In fact, it is now often used as the reason that someone should come to Christ: “Are you suffering? Come to Christ and receive hope and new life. Are you lonely? Find a family where you belong.” These statements are true—but they don't address the fundamental problem in our lives. Our crisis is sin, our rebellion against God. We are enemies of God, hostile in mind, children of wrath (Col 1:21; Eph 2:4). Let’s get this straight: brokenness is not sinfulness. Brokenness comes from sinfulness but it’s not the same as sinfulness.

What does the Bible say?

In Genesis, we see that God created the world and humans and calls them “good”, “very good” (Gen 1:3-31). This all changes in Genesis 3; through Adam and Eve, sin enters the world. They reject God’s authority and put themselves in his place. God then judges sin—but notice what’s involved. In the judgement of sin, the world is corrupted. The relationships between men and women are filled with strife, the natural processes of life cause pain, the ground is cursed and will not produce easily; we have the first recorded instance of death (Gen 3:16-21) . So clearly here, the brokenness of the world is a direct consequence of sin but not the same as sin (i.e. the curses are not what make Adam and Eve guilty). We see this trend continue: the Egyptians suffer the plagues for not letting Israel go; Israel suffers snake bites after their complaining and impatience; the exiles, etc.

This is described in the New Testament as well: Ananias and Sapphira die on the spot for their sin (Acts 5), and Paul talks about many in Corinth being sick and dying because of taking the Lord’s supper in an unworthy fashion (1 Cor 11:27-30).

And yet, we must be careful not to link all sickness and brokenness directly to a person’s sin. Jesus clearly rebukes this line of thinking in John 9 when his disciples ask “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” and Jesus answers “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him” (vv. 2-3). Paul explains that all creation has been subjected to futility, that it is groaning until Christ’s second coming (Rom 8:19-23).

So what is the relationship between brokenness and sinfulness? The brokenness of this world is a direct result of sin, a judgement on the sin of Adam that we all share in.

So what is the key issue for us: the brokenness or our sin? Quite clearly from the New Testament it is our sin, the problem underneath the problem. Otherwise it’s like a doctor treating the symptoms and not the virus.

Take for example the paralytic man in Mark 2. Jesus is shown a man who can’t walk, and it seems clear that his most important need is healing, as this affects his livelihood. Yet Jesus looks at him and says, “Your sins are forgiven” (v. 5). Jesus’ priority is this man’s standing before God: his sin. This is true of all the sermons through Acts; the call is always to repent, dealing with sin first. After all, there will always be another virus, another disaster, more suffering. People will die. They will stand before God. They need Christ’s substitutionary death for their sin.

What a great Saviour we have! He has dealt with our sin. In Christ, the wrath of God is taken and we are forgiven and are given Christ’s righteousness.

But why does the distinction matter? Because we must be faithful to the truths God has explained to us and present his gospel with clarity and transparency. If this distinction is lost, I believe our gospel will fall prey to both a culture of victimhood and the therapeutic gospel.

Firstly, within broader Western culture, the idea is spreading that someone identified or self-identified as a victim bears no responsibility and is without agency. This is not referring to those who have experienced wrongs like domestic or sexual abuse, but instead to the people claiming external causes for their actions and decisions rather than assuming the appropriate levels of personal responsibility. Therefore, if the message we present to them is that they are a victim of a broken world, it’s a message that is pleasing and accepted. However, the Bible doesn’t say that we are solely victims of a broken world; it says we are also the perpetrators. Our sin against God is the root cause of the world’s brokenness. We are responsible for our sin and God’s righteous judgement against it.

If we tell people that they are merely victims of a broken world, there then is no call for repentance or opportunity for forgiveness. As Martin Luther said, “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, ‘Repent’ (Matt 4:17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance”. If we lose the truth of personal responsibility for our sin, we lose the reason for Christ’s sacrifice. Our gospel becomes a nice add-on to someone’s life rather than its core centre. Our message becomes “you are a good person who has experienced a hard life; come to Christ and he will make your life better” rather than “come to Christ because you need forgiveness; you are an enemy of God but the relationship can be restored”.

Secondly, the therapeutic gospel is structured around people’s ‘felt needs’; it gives people what they want, not change what they want. General statements like “You are known and loved”, “You are valued and special” and “Your life has meaning and purpose” epitomize this gospel. This attracts those who feel that life is hard and painful and who want to feel better. This isn’t a prosperity gospel—there is no promised healing—but it is basically positive vibes and self-esteem building encouragement without teaching on sin or repentance.

It is very easy for us to slip into the therapeutic gospel; it is easy to say, easy to preach, easy to teach. We just talk about all the benefits of the gospel and never get to personal sin and Jesus’ death and resurrection for it. However, both Christians and non-Christians alike need to hear and be reminded of the true gospel. Let us never assume people know it and ‘move on’. Do we want people standing on the last day who felt loved and valued and built up in this life but to whom Christ will say, “Away from me, I never knew you” (Matt 7:21-23)?

What are the implications of all this? Must every conversation always include personal sin? Not at all. Christianity has the best explanation for the brokenness of this world; it is right and good to point out to a non-Christian that this world is broken. In my experience, they will agree! However, at some point, every person needs to realize their own sin. It is the difference between someone thinking they are a good person who has experienced bad/hard things and comprehending that they are a sinful person that needs Christ. This is where the gospel brings life or brings offence. Being told you aren’t a good person—no-one is—and that there is nothing you can do to be good apart from accepting Jesus’ goodness paid by the cross is offensive. That is foolishness to both the good-aholic and the victim, but this gospel is where life is found.

I am concerned about the number of people who come to our churches and go to our Bible studies but who still think they are a good person, or that Jesus is someone who just wants to make their life a little better and help them through hard times. I was that person . When I was ‘good’ and life was good, I didn’t think I needed Christ. I see this same thing in many others now. So, Bible study leaders, make sure you talk about sin. Our growth groups shouldn’t be places where people aren’t regularly called to repent and trust Christ. Preachers, let it never be said that you stopped short of the gospel and people were just encouraged to feel special. Friends, let us season our conversations with salt, pointing people to the true Saviour and Lord who laid down his life in sacrifice for our sin that we might be forgiven and called sons of God. The desert of sin makes the fountain of grace look that much more glorious.