Brokenness and Holiness

According to Merriam-Webster, broken means “violently separated into parts: shattered, damaged or altered by or as if by breaking: such as a: having undergone or been subjected to fracture a broken leg, not working properly.”[1] The world and humanity are certainly broken. In fact, God will not despise those who are broken who come to Him. As in context of David’s prayer of repentance, he wrote, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17). The Hebrew word used here is shabar. As Steven Lawson notes,
“This word (Heb. shabar) occurs 147 times in the Old Testament. It means “to bring destruction,” “to break, shatter, or ruin.” It was used of the breaking of nations and peoples in divine judgment (Jer. 28:2,11; Ezek. 30:21; Amos 1:5) and destroying, or dashing to pieces, certain objects or idols (Exod. 32:19; 34:1; 2 Kgs. 11:18; Jer. 43:13). Here it is used metaphorically to describe a condition of the heart in which a person is shattered by sin or by the scorn of others (Ps. 69:20).”[2]
Indeed, Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is for those who recognize their “damaged status” and utter need. He preached “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:3). But our ultimate need is to have our sin removed and the wrath of God averted, so that we can be reconciled to Him.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the only antidote to our condition. It is about the Triune, holy God who has created a human race to glorify Him. We have rejected Him as our King and rebelled against Him by seeking to rule ourselves, committing treason against the most loving, glorious, righteous, and holy God. God, in His infinite wisdom and abundant, steadfast love and mercy, sent Jesus, the Son of God, to become the God-man to live the life we couldn’t, to die the death we deserve by bearing the punishment of God’s wrath we merited, to rise from the dead to vindicate all He did, to sit down at the right hand of the Father to rule and reign, and to promise a second coming to make all things new and usher in the new heavens and the new earth. Now God commands everyone everywhere to repent of sin and put our trust in Jesus Christ alone. By the power of the Holy Spirit enabling faith in Jesus (1 John 5:1; Ephesians 2:1-9), broken and damaged beings are made new and whole. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
Three important truths must be extrapolated from our brokenness and God’s gospel. The first truth is brokenness is the effect of sin, not sin itself. Everyone is certainly born in this shattered state post fall (Psalm 51:5; Ephesians 2:3; Romans 5:12ff), but it is the result of sin, not sin. It may be described as the condition, but not the act. Three main words used in the Bible (all three are used in Psalm 51) to describe sin are expressed in English as sin, transgression, and iniquity. The Hebrew word for sin is ḥaṭṭāʾt meaning “missing the target, failing, falling short of the norm or goal (Judg. 20:16; Job 5:24; Prov. 8:36).”[3] The word transgression is pešaʿ “usually rendered ‘transgression’, ‘revolt’ or ‘rebellion’.”[4]  The word iniquity is ’awônmeaning “has a root meaning ‘bending, twisting’ (as in Is. 24:1; ‘distorts its surface’, nasv).”[5]  As Don Williams noted in commenting on Psalm 51,
“Sin has “broken” him; judgment has “broken” him. But even more than this, when we discover God’s mercy in His incredible love for us in our sin—here is the final breaking. As our heart sobs, the Lord puts His arms around us. When we see Jesus expelling demons, forgiving sins, cleansing lepers, and hanging on the cross—then we are finally “broken.” We are among those who are forgiven much and who therefore love much (Luke 7:47).”[6]
The Spirit opens the mind and heart to sin that causes the breaking that drives David (and us) to repentance.
The second truth is that while we are progressively being sanctified in this life to be ultimately glorified in the next, our primary status is defined by our union with Jesus. A quick glance at the New Testament letters would reveal that Paul, Peter, and John affectionately address the recipients as saints, elect, and children. The reason is because our identity is found in this new relationship to which God has given birth. Martin Luther is right to use the phrase simul justus et peccator (simultaneous is righteous and sinner). Paul himself recognized his continuous struggle as a sinner (1 Timothy 1:15; Romans 7). However, sanctification is by the Spirit enabling us to fight by growing into who we already are in Jesus Christ. Paul also wrote, “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). We are not to glory in our brokenness (i.e. “I’m so glad I’m the humblest person) or our sinfulness. We ought to hate sin, seek to mortify it as John Owen wrote extensively, and run to Jesus. As Charles Haddon Spurgeon wrote,
“A Christian must never leave off repenting, for I fear he never leaves off sinning.”[7]
The third truth is that the Christian’s aim isn’t brokenness but holiness. Scripture never says, “Be broken, for I am broken” or “Strive for brokenness.” Rather, the Old and New Testaments both declare “but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16; See Leviticus 11:44-45; 19:2). Paul wrote, “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (1 Thessalonians 4:3). The author of Hebrews commanded “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Hebrews 12:14). May God grant us power by the Holy Spirit indwelling us to constantly pursue God in Christ. “Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:13-14).
For Further Resources
Alistair Begg, “Beacon of Holiness.” Tabletalk Magazine, October 1, 2004,
Kevin DeYoung, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012.

Dan Doriani, "Broken, Authentic, Surrender: The Problem of Christian Jargon,"

J.I. Packer, Keep In Step with the Spirit: Finding Fullness in Our Walk with God. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005.

[1] “Broken,”
[2] Steven Lawson, Holman Old Testament Commentary - Psalms: 11 (pp. 270-271). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
[3] H. A. G. Blocher, “Sin,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 782.
[4] H. A. G. Blocher, “Sin,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 782.
[5] H. A. G. Blocher, “Sin,” in New Dictionary of Biblical Theology, ed. T. Desmond Alexander and Brian S. Rosner, electronic ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 782.
[6] Don Williams, The Preacher's Commentary - Vol. 13: Psalms 1-72 . Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.
[7] Steven Lawson, Holman Old Testament Commentary - Psalms: 11 (p. 264). B&H Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

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