Does “Brokenness” Lead to Christian Moral Relativism?

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I started getting Kevin DeYoung’s blog delivered via email, and I wanted to repost and comment on his blog today. Words do matter, and communicate ideas, and those ideas do have consequences. I suggest you read it here.

DeYoung focuses on the word “brokenness” in a way that is extremely illuminating. I have always thought of this word as describing our sinful nature, and I think it still does. But DeYoung has helped me to see that, when used to describe sin, the term appears to fit in more with the deterministic and naturalistic worldview that I have been learning about lately from Francis Schaeffer’s works—that man is merely machine, a product of random natural forces. The word in this context suggests that “I am not responsible; I sinned because of my fallen nature. Yeah, I did it…but it’s not my fault.” If we blame the sinful nature, it becomes the cause, not the individual. At that point, I cease to be the cause, or at least I have far less culpability.

“…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).”

So, this must be the question: is sin something I actually decide to do, or not? Am I in control of my body, or not? Am I really taken off guard, seemingly all the time, by lust and pride and anger and envy…? Am I really just a reed in the wind, blown this way and that? If it is habitual sin, am I responsible for making effort to break this habit, or not? It is either my nature doing it, or I am doing it. Which one?

“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.”

This is a scary thought. Is that what we have today in the church? Are we looking for a first aid kit, a fix it kit, or a true relationship with the Creator? I know that I have thought like this—God, please just fix me! Those are the times I felt as if I am just trying to impose my will on God’s, like I was just using Him. It is also tempting to blame my sinful nature for the despair and hopelessness that sin produces, and in essence blame God. Those are the times I don’t want to be asked about my sin, nor do I want to ask anyone else. Those are the times I feel locked in determinism, the ultimate instance being my life before Christ. Then, there was only a prison of habit and a life devoid of love and meaning. DeYoung is so correct in saying we need a Savior to unlock this determinism.

I have read that Richard Dawkins, evolutionary biologist and atheist, has said that criminals should not be held morally responsible for their crimes because of this determinism in the natural world. Actions are only a result of chemistry and socio-economic factors. Humans are not to be blamed; it’s our environment and DNA. I am not saying Christians go that far in our thinking…but if we really extend this logic of “brokenness” to its final conclusion, it leads to a world without any fault or responsibility, as DeYoung said in his article. It leads to world of “I’m ok, you’re ok,” a church of Christian moral relativism.

Here is an example of what I am thinking, using 1 Cor 13:4 “Love is patient”:

Using the concept of antithesis, there is the law (love = patient) and it’s opposite (hatred = impatience). If I say I hold to God’s view on sin, I will realize that when I am impatient, I am sinning against God and probably another person (i.e. my kids). I can choose to take moral responsibility, apologize to God and child, and think through the reasons for my impatience. In repentance, I should then be on my guard against those factors may cause this impatience.

If is simply attribute my impatience to my sinful nature (“I am broken”), or just nature (“I was just hungry.”), and go no further in repentance, I destroy God’s law. There is no longer an absolute right (patience) and an absolute wrong (impatience). The two are mixed so that the average becomes the standard. Now it is ok if you are somewhere in the middle of patience/impatience. In this way, thinking of oneself as “broken” can lead to Christian moral relativism.

3 thoughts on “Does “Brokenness” Lead to Christian Moral Relativism?

    Kirk Lowery said:
    July 10, 2012 at 6:17 pm

    As for the meaning of “brokenness”, in my was always used in a context of repentance. That is, “brokenness” is the opposite of “refusal to acknowledge guilt”. I think “brokenness” is a very problematic descriptor for sin.

    How do we know what the “nature” of something is? Is it not defined by statistical consistency of behavior? Or, to put it subjectively: at the point of every moral choice, there is a part of my emotions that wants to make the evil choice.”

    I think we agree. 🙂


    Kirk Lowery said:
    July 10, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    “… in my was…” should be “…in my experience it was…”


    kwlowery responded:
    July 11, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    I’m not sure I understand what you are asking in your question: “How do we know what the “nature” of something is?”

    And I am glad we agree! Now, if I had compared brokenness to a city-state, that might be a different matter… 🙂

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