Brokenness and the Geneva Catechism / by Hans Saunders

A theology of brokenness is vital for the follower of Christ. We cannot hope to understand our need for a Savior apart from an admission that we are hopelessly broken in sin before a holy God. David models this in Psalm 51, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” 

We must “acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins” consistently. The more we are made aware of our sinfulness, the more the grace of God, His goodness and mercy towards us in His Son, is made manifest in our lives. By the work of the Spirit according to the Word, we are further conformed to the image of Christ, living our lives in a manner worthy of the calling of the gospel.

There is a temptation, however, to exalt brokenness, to glory in it. To define ourselves by it. And this is shameful. 

This distortion of brokenness is the subject of many bestsellers. Conferences. The theme of contemporary “liturgy” (we gather as broken people, we worship as broken people, we fellowship as broken people, we leave as broken people.) It’s even being touted as a “way” of life.  The root might have good intentions, but the fruit is death. 

What benefit is there to defining our unity in the body of Christ by brokenness? Better yet, where do we find permission to do so? We would do well to heed Calvin’s words from the catechism on the holiness of the Church,

96. M. But why do you call the Church Holy?
C. Because those whom God elects, he justifies, and purifies in holiness and innocence of life, to make his glory shine forth in them. And this is what Paul means, when he says that Christ sanctified the Church, which he redeemed, that it might be glorious and pure from every spot (Romans 8:30; Ephesians 5:25).

Notice here that Calvin does not define the Church by the sinfulness of those gathered. He points us to the Word itself, how God defines His Church. He acknowledges a few questions later that the Church militant will “labor under infirmities” until it is completely united to Christ, but at the core of such a statement is faith that with the Lord enthroned,

"we are enabled to live pious and holy lives in liberty of conscience, [we] are endowed with his spiritual riches, and also armed with that power which enables us to overcome the flesh, the world, sin, and the devil, those perpetual enemies of our souls.” (Q. 42)

This is not what our celebration of brokenness accomplishes. David did not come to the conclusion that God desires a broken heart and a repentant spirit because He really and truly delights in broken, messy people who revel in how broken and messy they are. He delights in those who are robed in the righteousness of His Son. The fixation on living as broken people does not spur us on to see sin mortified in our flesh, to overcome the world, sin, and the devil. It excuses us. We’re broken, have been broken, will always be broken. 

We might be quick to abominate the prosperity gospel, the false promise that if we just have enough faith, God will bless us with whatever we ask for, that we’ll live the true, abundant life He desires for us.

We are still guilty of the sins of this system though we couch it in different language:

If we are authentic with those around us, totally transparent and open about our brokenness, we’ll live the true, abundant life He desires for us.

It isn’t a challenge we should undertake. It’s a yoke that we cannot bear.

True brokenness is described by Calvin as such,

128. M. What is Repentance?
C. It is a hatred of sin and a love of righteousness, proceeding from the fear of God leading us to a denial and mortification of the flesh, so that we may give up ourselves to be governed by the Holy Spirit, and perform all the actions of our lives in obedience to the will of God.

Our Lord’s mercy and kindness are meant to lead us to repentance, and what joy there is to grow more and more in the likeness of the Son in whom all His delight is found!

If we are to glory in our weakness, as Paul says, let it be because this is our desire.