Objective GUILT or therapeutic “brokenness”?

“Brokenness” is a widely used word today in some trendier reformed circles.  What’s in a word?  This word is often used as a synonym for “sinfulness.”  Everyone can relate to feeling “broken,” that is, we say or do things we are ashamed of, we fail, we’re selfish, we damage those closest to us, we are anxious, depressed, etc.  We are “broken” and in need of fixing.

And this is the appeal for a culturally sensitive gospel minister to label “sinfulness” “brokenness” and to offer the “gospel” as a means of fixing our brokenness, or at least helping us deal with our brokenness.  You know you are broken – and I’ve got the answer for your brokenness:  Jesus.  This approach is certainly less offensive and apparently more effective than those old, irrelevant but rather God-centered, biblical, and objective categories of sin and guilt, grace and justification.

So what’s the problem?  “Brokenness” is not the same thing as “sinfulness.”  The former is our felt, subjective experience.  “To err is human,” as the timeless cliché says.  Sinfulness is objective – it refers to the fact that we ARE sinners, and therefore guilty before a holy God.  Our brokenness is at best a presenting symptom of our sinfulness.

If we preach “brokenness” as our primary problem, instead of our sinfulness and objective guilt before God, the “gospel” we preach will be “not a gospel.”  We will preach another Jesus.  Our “gospel” will be therapeutic – either a transformative treatment for healing our “brokenness” or a coping mechanism to help us deal with it.  Jesus is not so much a Savior as a deified cosmic therapist.

Certainly we can trace our “brokenness” to which most everyone will admit back to its source:  sin.  And we can present the true Gospel as the means by which we are delivered from the objective guilt of our sin before God.  And yes, as a result of that, we can find true comfort from the true Gospel for our “brokenness.”  But if we never go beyond the category of “brokenness” to the deeper problem of our actual sinfulness and guilt before God, our preaching is broken and needs to be fixed, that is, reformed according to the Scripture.

Repentance (not recovery) and the forgiveness of SINS (not therapeutic healing) is the Christ-given preaching mandate of the Church (Luke 24:47).  Pastor, you may have to sacrifice a degree of ministry “success,” i.e., some people may actually be offended by the Law and the Gospel you preach.  You may lose some “nickels and noses”!  But you need not be ashamed in the Last Day, and will rejoice when your crucified & risen Savior says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Published by pastor tony phelps

Pastor of Christ Our Hope PCA in Wakefield, RI

9 replies on “Objective GUILT or therapeutic “brokenness”?”

  1. Therapeutic Moralism = Functional Deism!
    In this view, God serves me as a function, especially when I want His help (while punching the clock on Sundays). When I do not percieve a need for His help, then I do my own thing (usually outside the Church building on Monday to Saturday).

    This is assumes a unobservant God as the Psalmist wrote,
    “The ungodly is so proud, that he careth not for God, neither is God in all his thoughts. His ways are alway grievous; thy judgments are far above out of his sight, and therefore defieth he all his enemies. For he hath said in his heart, Tush, I shall never be cast down, there shall no harm happen unto me” (Psalm 10:4-6 BCP)

    ” He hath said in his heart, Tush, God hath forgotten; he hideth away his face, and he will never see it. Arise, O LORD God, and lift up thine hand; forget not the poor. Wherefore should the wicked blaspheme God, * while he doth say in his heart, Tush, thou God carest not for it?” (Psalm 10:12-14 BCP).

    However, God is observant!:
    ” Surely thou hast seen it; for thou beholdest ungodliness and wrong, that thou mayest take the matter into thy hand. The poor committeth himself unto thee; for thou art the helper of the friendless. Break thou the power of the ungodly and malicious; search out his ungodliness, until thou find none. The LORD is King for ever and ever” (Psalm 10:15-18 BCP).

    In the lamb,


    1. Hey Samwise – meant to reply to your comment, and realized I hadn’t. Apologies! Exactly right, I agree with that formulation: therapeutic moralism = functional deism. God is there to serve my needs – as I define them. That’s the vain idolatry of our flesh. The fact is, God did come in the flesh to serve our real need – and gave His life as a ransom, to redeem us from sin. Thanks be to God, He justifies the ungodly. He sees us now in Christ, so we can live before His face with gratitude, and serve our neighbors in love, to His glory.


  2. Pastor – this is an excellent point and it doesn’t seem to be as recognized nearly as much as it should be! I can only wonder what is in the mind of those who preach this “gospel” regarding the judgment. If our problem is our brokenness and not our objective guilt, then what in the world is the basis for God’s judgment? Our self-esteem? What if we always feel broken, even after becoming Christians – will we find ourselves condemned by God on the last day for our poor emotional performance?

    It reminds me of the story that William Willimon tells of how he, after being raised in the liberal UMC church, visited the local conservative evangelical church that had a reputation for Biblical preaching. He showed up on Sunday morning only to discover that the Pastor was preaching about how Jesus can deliver us from depression. One of my favorite lines of all time was when he described how shocked he was because from what he could tell from the Scriptures, Jesus was the cause of a lot of depression, not the cure! He left discouraged because he found that the conservative evangelicals were preaching essentially the same message as the liberal mainline that he was used to.


  3. Ken – thanks for your comment, and AMEN. A few years ago, I found a confession of “sin” written by a PCA minister that was overtly therapeutic. Wish I still had it. Brokenness, failure, and basically failing to live up to our potential, but absolutely no sin or guilt. “We feel bad about ourselves, Lord” rather than “Have mercy on us, miserable offenders”! How can the absolution of the Gospel be spoken to that drivel? I actually did LOL at the Willimon quote: “Jesus was the cause of a lot of depression, not the cure!” Hilarious and true!


  4. I am not opposed to the word “brokenness” in some contexts. It cannot replace “sin” in many contexts. But there is an aspect of people that we can say is brokenness in addition to sin. Brokenness conveys that we are damaged, by our own sin and by that of others. Sometimes it is hard to tell whether our own sin or that of others was the main problem. So, for example, a person comes to church whose parents are divorced and who was the victim of sexual abuse as a child, and is also an alcoholic. This person is “broken”. Does this person have a sin issue? Of course. But it is not necessary for us to sort out all the tangled threads of what was their own sin and what was the sin of others, before we can say Christ can heal your brokenness. Part of the Gospel is that Christ can rescue the victims as well as the perpetrators.


  5. Thanks, dwsnoke. I see what you’re saying – especially the difficulty involved in sorting out particular sins in a pastoral context. One thing is for sure. All involved are sinners, and Christ’s grace is sufficient for the complete forgiveness of all who look to Him in faith. Will “healing” result from that forgiveness? As in a complete deliverance from all the negative memories and pain caused by another person’s evil actions? Not necessarily. Jesus doesn’t promise that – until He comes back and makes all things new. In the mean time, He promises forgiveness. He promises peace with God. He promises grace to strengthen us to extend forgiveness to others – in light of His great forgiveness of us. “Healing” is always only partial in this life, but justification is now and forever. To imply total or even substantial “healing” for “brokenness” before the Last Day may create a false expectation that might result in a despairing disillusion with the Gospel. That’s my concern.


    1. I agree that complete healing is not promised to us in this life. But I do think that “shame” is entangled with guilt in our experience– “shame” comes when someone sins against us (I know this from personal experience). I would say that “shame” is also completely and presently covered by the Cross (e.g. Romans 10:11, 1 Peter 2:6). Shame can come from either our own sins or those of others– it seems to be a sense of knowing that something is terribly wrong with the world. So I would counsel a “broken” person that both their guilt and shame are once and for all covered by Christ. That can be helpful when which is which is not certain– for example, sexual abusers often say “if you enjoyed this, it is your sin, not mine.” A person who is robbed may feel foolish in not taking enough precautions.
      I think some of the appeal of the “brokenness” language in our culture is for those from “broken homes”. Those from intact homes who rebel often feel much more that their sin is something they knowingly did in rebellion, and may not resonate with the language of brokenness. Those from broken homes often just feel that everything is broken and can’t sort it all out.


  6. Thanks, David. I agree, sin makes an utter mess of things. I also think the Bob Dylan song, “Everything Is Broken,” is absolutely right. As I mentioned in my OP, brokenness may be a presenting symptom of sin. And I don’t have a problem with starting with that presenting symptom. I think it’s always necessary to (eventually) move from the subjective to the objective. Our ultimate comfort is in the objective reality of Christ crucified and risen for us. As Jesus said in John 16, “In this world you will have tribulation; but take heart, I have overcome the world.”


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