Against Brokenness Theology

Replacing Sin with Victimhood

A popular, contemporary evangelical song opens with these words: 

O come, all you unfaithful
Come, weak and unstable
Come, know you are not alone

A few verses later we read:

O come, bitter and broken
Come with fears unspoken
Come, taste of His perfect love

A subtle, yet devastating error is found in such sentiments, one that is causing great mischief in evangelical churches. It is, at its most basic, a substitution of the language of brokenness for the biblical language of sin.

It is subtle, as much false teaching is, because it sounds on the surface very biblical. Has not the fall introduced disorder into the world? Has it not wrecked human relationships, destroyed families, churches, and nations, and brought about the dissolution of God’s good design for human life? It has done all of these things and more.

Is brokenness, then, such a bad way of describing the human predicament? It is indeed. Brokenness theology is, in fact, a denial of the Bible’s teaching on sin, a perversion of the Bible’s teaching on salvation, and a theology that leaves fallen sinners without hope.

What are the components of brokenness theology? First, it must be said that brokenness theology may give lip service to orthodox tenets of Christian theology. It may not deny that the Fall has corrupted human nature outside of Christ, or that we all are guilty sinners as a result. It does not, however, as a matter of routine patterns of speech (seen in sermons, songs, conference talks, articles, books, etc.) emphasize fallen human nature and individual acts of sinful rebellion as the most fundamental problem facing humanity. Instead, it emphasizes brokenness, which can be defined as disordered aspects of human existence. Brokenness, however, is not the same thing as sinfulness. Brokenness happens to a person. It comes from outside of him. The song I opened this article with gives a representative sample of the kinds of things one finds in brokenness theology: weakness, instability, loneliness, weariness, barrenness, bitterness, fear. But note that all of these states are framed in this song as if they were caught like the common cold; they are things that happen to you.

The biblical picture is far different: yes, we are weak in ourselves; yes, we face manifold temptations to give in to disordered instability in our lives, to succumb to self-pity and despair in the face of loneliness, to become bitter when God’s providence is hard, to rage against God for our barrenness, to succumb to fear and anxiety in moments of stress. But all of these responses are sinful. They are not neutral things that happen to us. Brokenness theology turns humans into passive victims of forces outside their control, rather than sinners who chose to rebel against God and who are therefore in desperate need of forgiveness and spiritual transformation.

In short, brokenness theology gives sinners a false understanding of the fundamental problem they face (God’s wrath), obscures the solution (repentance, faith, sanctification), and leaves them without hope (they’re simply broken victims). As such, it is a narcissistic, therapeutic perversion of the gospel. Sinners outside of Christ are indeed slaves to sin (Rom 6:17–21), but those savingly united to Christ are not helpless victims of forces outside their control. The grace of God has pulled us out of ourselves, to turn us to the savior in whom we find forgiveness for our rebellion, anxiety, fear, bitterness, grumbling, and doubts, and to find daily strength to fight against these sinful states of heart and mind. Brokenness theology teaches that God’s grace merely gives us help to endure all of these states, which are taken as characterizing the normal Christian life. These states, however, are sinful and must be repented of, not endured as so many unfortunate things that simply happen to us.

The biblical picture of the human predicament, and God’s solution, is radically different than that held out in brokenness theology, despite deceptive ways in which brokenness theology seems to use biblical language.

The fundamental problem is human rebellion against God and his law. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things” (Rom 2:1). “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). “We have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin” (Rom 3:9). “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom 3:19–20). Every person is a sinner who stands by nature, and by personal action, condemned for his or her transgressions of God’s law.

The solution is God’s redeeming grace in Christ. First, his redeeming grace that makes us right with him through justification:

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom 3:21–26).

Our sins, including our willful and sinful “brokenness,” are forgiven solely by the blood of Christ (“propitiation by his blood”) and his righteousness counted to our account (“justifier [aka “one who declares righteous”] of the one who has faith in Jesus”).

Second, his redeeming grace which rescues us from bondage to sin, including our willful and sinful “brokenness”: “For when you were slaves of sin, you were free in regard to righteousness. But what fruit were you getting at that time from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death. But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life.” (Rom 6:20–22).

Brokenness theology is not only unbiblical and spiritually damaging. It is also the gateway drug to a whole host of other heresies and errors. By teaching people that they are primarily helpless victims of forces outside their control, rather than willful sinners in need of salvation, it opens the door toward seeing every difficulty or challenge in life as an incapacitating force over which they have no control. Christians who have come to see life through the lens of brokenness theology, and thereby to believe that their primary problem is that they are victims of forces outside of themselves, rather than the active agents causing those problems (anxiety, doubt, whatever), will then begin to define everything else in similarly extrinsic terms.

This is happening all across the evangelical church. “My pastor won’t agree with me no matter how many times I talk to him: I’m a victim of spiritual abuse.” “I’ve gone through a very hard time: I’ve been traumatized irreparably.” “I’ve likely been traumatized by events I don’t even remember.” Brokenness theology even leads naturally to accepting homosexuality, transgenderism, and other perversions within the church. What is homosexuality, or gender identity, in this way of thinking, other than yet another unchosen, unavoidable aspect of our brokenness? Many in the evangelical world are already making such arguments, and many more are leaning in that direction. Brokenness theology must be purged from the church. We must eliminate its patterns of speech from our sermons, songs, writings, and even our everyday speech. This will be difficult and painful, since the disease has progressed very far.

So I won’t be singing “O come, all you unfaithful” because I know that God has not left me “weak and unstable.” I know that my union with the risen and ascended Jesus Christ means far more than that you can “know you are not alone” as you continue to wallow in self-pity, perpetually “bitter and broken.”

No, I’ll stick with the old hymns: “Come, ye sinners, poor and needy, weak and wounded, sick and sore; Jesus ready stands to save you, full of pity, love, and pow’r.” Weak and wounded, sick and sore, yes, but such things because of my sinful rebellion against God, from which I’ve been saved by Christ’s almighty power. We’re “lost and ruined by the fall,” as the hymn also says, yet brought near to God through “true belief and true repentance,” and by “the merit of His blood.”

Image Credit: Unsplash

Print article

Share This


Ben C. Dunson is Founding and Contributing Editor of American Reformer. He is also Visiting Professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary (Greenville, SC), having previously taught at Reformed Theological Seminary (Dallas, TX), Reformation Bible College (Sanford, FL), and Redeemer University (Ontario, Canada). He lives in the northern suburbs of Dallas with his wife and four boys.

23 thoughts on “Against Brokenness Theology

  1. While I agree the error of using ‘brokenness’ as a substitute for ‘sin’ is bad theology, I think the song is a poor example that doesn’t actually make the point. In fact, when taken as a whole, the song has some pretty good theology about guilt and forgiveness–including use of the word ‘guilty.’ In fact, ‘guilty and hiding ones’ takes us right back to Adam’s original sin in the garden of Eden.

    O come, all you unfaithful
    Come, weak and unstable
    Come, know you are not alone
    O come, barren and waiting ones
    Weary of praying, come
    See what your God has done
    Christ is born, Christ is born
    Christ is born for you
    O come, bitter and broken
    Come with fears unspoken
    Come, taste of His perfect love
    O come, guilty and hiding ones
    There is no need to run
    See what your God has done
    Christ is born, Christ is born
    Christ is born for you
    He’s the Lamb who was given
    Slain for our pardon
    His promise is peace
    For those who believe
    He’s the Lamb who was given
    Slain for our pardon
    His promise is peace
    For those who believe

    1. The first line is “come all you unfaithful”, which does imply a sinful nature. Broken can be taken to mean different things. Fallen man is certainly broken from what we would have been without sin, after all.

      That said, I agree with the general tenor of the article. There is a tendency in the church to treat sin as something that happens to us than something we willfully engage in. Accountability is a key component in sin, after all.

  2. Jesus saves us from our own sin not necessarily from the sinful actions of others. Our greatest and really only need is to be saved from our own sin and its just outcome, which is eternal death. How true this article is and thanks be to God for providing such salvation in our precious Savior Jesus!

  3. Did it ever occur to Dunson that we can be both sinners and broken victims? All we need to do is to think about the suffering in the world today. Do we really think that Ukraine has no victims and that the Russian invasion has not broken some of the people there? Do we really think that the Hamas and Israeli fighting has created no victims and that there are no broken people there? Has Dunson ever looked at the effects that broken homes have on the children? For some, traumas do break people while for others it partially incapacitates them. And part of the incapacitation involves adopting irrational thinking patterns as well as experiencing emotional scars.

    But victims can also be victimizers too. Society has seen that with some children who have been abused. There is a tendency for abused children to become abusive themselves. To say that our sinful actions cannot either partially or totally break people is to minimize significance of our sins against others. If none of our sins can either partially or totally break anyone, then our sins against others are never actually harmful to them. Is that how the Scriptures describe sin?

    The Scriptures talk about broken people. Psalms 34 for example talks about how God cares for the broken hearted. Paul warns Fathers in his letter to the Ephesians not exasperate their children. If fathers can’t break their children, why the warning? Jesus warns us against being stumbling blocks to others. Aren’t some of the ways by which we can become stumbling blocks is by harming people?

    The logic that drives Dunson’s article is called exclusive-or logic–in this case, one can only be a sinner or broken, one cannot be both. Such logic contributes to having a black-white worldview. And such a worldview sees people as George W. Bush and young Darth Vader perceived people: they are either with us or against us. There is never an in-between. People are either good or bad and when we are tribal, we view those in our tribe as good and all others as enemies. And that is the kind of worldview that authoritarian leaders depend on to groom and control their followers.

    1. Dunson clearly did not use common sense or logic. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a worse argument in Christian media. It is like clickbait from MSNBC. This is the sort of thing that turns people away from the faith for no reason. Sin is real and an essential part of the gospel, but so is people’s pain. Jesus healed broken people. Sometimes he told them “go and sin no more.”

    2. Not only is this correct, but brokenness can elicit similar feelings of shame as sinfulness. Seeing ourselves in the light of our God’s grace is a necessary step from our healing from brokenness just as it is for our sanctification.

      Failing to teach about how God’s grace touches on both the realities of our sinfulness and our brokenness will leave a congregation with an incomplete view of God’s work.

    3. I’m not sure that Dunstab’s perspective leads to the conclusion Russia’s actions have created no victims in Ukraine. Surely he would say they were victims of the sin or war? Similarly he would say that in many cases the effect of a broken home on children, tends to be an effect of parental sin? And I’m not sure that he’s saying there is no such thing as brokenness, but that there is a problem in perceiving brokenness in the cases where is is better perceived as sin?

    4. I’ve subsequently noticed lines from Dunstan such as “Brokenness theology must be purged from the church.” My apologies to Curt. I take back much of what I wrote immediately above.

    5. Tom,
      The reason I gave war victims as being broken because of the rigidity in Dunson’s choice between being sinners or being victims. But suppose he acknowledged that war victims are broken, are war victims the only ones who are experience brokenness? His article seems, at least to me, to say to ‘YES!

      The exclusive-or nature of believing that one is either a sinner or a victim but cannot be both is what is troublesome in his article. Instead, we should look at how being broken can sometimes amplify our sinful nature rather than to declare that we are sinners rather than broken people. That is why I wrote what I did in my first comment.

      Can you give quotes from his article that would indicate that he recognizes that we can be both sinners and broken?

  4. Ben, this is tremendous. I always wondered why this kind of stuff didn’t sit right with me. I think you’ve nailed it. I’ve experienced some people in my family who are infected with this, and think it’s Christianity. It isn’t. I pray for them.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with Philip Rieff’s, The Triumph of the Therapeutic. This is the Evangelical fruit of the the trends he saw as the end of Christendom, in so many words, in the 1960s.


  5. I don’t know if I’ve ever agreed with someone so much and so little at the same time. Your main point is clearly true.

    But why can’t you find sound examples for criticism? As Jill points out, the song you reference does not prove your point. It bears a striking resemblance to the hymn you quote at the end. And for context, O Come, All You Unfaithful, is a Christmas song – its on a Christmas album. Christmas songs typically don’t reference sin much, even the classics like Hark the Herald Angels Sing and Angels We Have Heard on High. Why are you applying a higher standard to this song?

    As I said, your main point is spot on but it seems you’re arguing against a straw man. You criticize “brokenness theology” but you can’t provide examples of it. What the heck is this?
    “My pastor won’t agree with me no matter how many times I talk to him: I’m a victim of spiritual abuse.” “I’ve gone through a very hard time: I’ve been traumatized irreparably.” “I’ve likely been traumatized by events I don’t even remember.”

    So statements like that are wrong? How so? You fail to argue against them, you just paint them as wrong and all of a sudden equate them to accepting homosexuality (which you also fail to define). Sheesh.

    And then it gets even worse when you close. You claim that God hasn’t left you “weak and unstable,” and then sing a hymn that says that you’re “weak and wounded.” That’s the same thing!

    Ben, I believe that you’re a brother in Christ. This post is not Christlike. It is a sin to slander works by Christians without properly addressing their claims. You do not abide by the laws of logic here. That’s a violation of God’s law. Repent, friend.

  6. I don’t see how, quote; “Brokenness theology even leads naturally to accepting homosexuality, transgenderism, and other perversions within the church.”

    Granted Dunstan attempts to explain his claim, writing “What is homosexuality, or gender identity, in this way of thinking, other than yet another unchosen, unavoidable aspect of our brokenness? Many in the evangelical world are already making such arguments, and many more are leaning in that direction.” But even with this explanation, I don’t see how or why a theology of brokenness leads to naturally accepting perversions in the church. Why would homosexuality be more accepted if it’s a result of brokenness?

    Those who refer to homosexuality as involving brokenness, still generally regard gay marriage and gay relationships to be sinful. It tends to be those who refuse to regard homosexuality as a form or brokenness, that argue for the approval of gay marriage etc.

    Regarding homosexuality simply as a problem of sin and not of brokenness, actually seems mean to me, and unfair. I speak from the point of view that same-sex attraction is not a chosen experience. To regard same-sex attraction as being all about sin, implies that it’s something that the person can turn from. But they can’t. They can turn from homosexual sex, but they can’t turn from the attractions. Sexual relations between men, for example, is a wilful act and a sin. But it seems to me that homosexual attraction is best explained as a brokenness.

  7. A good book for this discussion, as a primer would be “Lusts Of The Flesh” by Dr. Jared H. Moore. He explains the historical Christian doctrine of concupiscence, and why those of you who object to this essay might want toexamine yourselves for the Semi-Pelagian heresy.

    1. No. Have you read the comments to which you refer? We aren’t objecting to the main point. We’re objecting to the slander. The horrible example that’s used.

      Get out of here with your irrelevant history and theological nonsense. Engage in the discussion. You didn’t think about this at all. Your education is worthless because you refuse to apply logic. Your comment is exactly what’s wrong — and ungodly — about this website.

    2. FaceToFace,
      Seriously? Objecting to the exclusive-or logic used in the article means that someone has fallen semi-pelagian heresy?

      Can you explain how that is the case?

  8. This is one of the most ignorant articles I’ve ever read. If you know anything about the group that put this song out, if you knew anything about the beautiful Christian lady that wrote and sings this song, then you would know it is ALL about the consequences of sin and the deaths and separations that sin causes.
    The Christian orthodoxy of the group and lady putting this song out is above reproach, and if you read the lyrics carefully you would see sin as the CAUSE of everything sung about.
    I’m personally broken over an event in my life caused BY SIN, I personally have to fight bitterness, resentment and anger, sins themselves, because of this, and many times I come crawling to our great and gracious God in repentance of my sins.
    Are you serious with this article?
    You teach in seminary?!
    May God enlighten your heart and soul of the effects sin can have in our lives so you are more sensitive to the effects of sin in people’s lives!

    1. Ben can’t be bothered to read this before writing an article about the song. He’s too busy.

      Guess what, Ben. When you die, God will have plenty of time to judge your actions. We all do things wrong. But the rest of us try to refrain from slandering other believers. We also admit it and ask for forgiveness. Just because your main point is right doesn’t mean you can pick any example you choose. Repent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *