I (Nick) recently read a book entitled The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller. The book is an extended exposition of the Parable of the Prodigal Son from Luke 15:11-32. In short it is one of the best explanations of this parable that I have ever read. The explanation of the prodigal’s fall, repentance, and reception by the Father is often the focal point of many expositions of this passage. However, the group that Jesus is addressing most pointedly is not the sinners and tax collectors represented by the prodigal son, but the Pharisees and scribes that are represented by the older brother.
The crux of Keller’s argument is that most interpretations focus on the difference between those who have lived lives of license like the younger brother versus those who have lived morally upright lives like the older brother. However, Keller points out that in fact both brothers have missed the heart of God. Both are living for themselves. The younger has wished his Father dead, took his inheritance and squandered it on reckless living. The older brother, less obviously but no less sinfully, was equally living for himself.
The older brother lived an upright life. But when confronted with the Father’s forgiveness of the Prodigal, his motives for obedience were quickly revealed as selfish and self-seeking. His obedience was not out of love for the Father, but to serve his own ends. Unlike the prodigal fate, Jesus leaves the parable open ended, the fate of the older brother still in question. Jesus is confronting the works-righteousness of the Pharisees and scribes and is presenting them with a choice; will they humble themselves as the younger brother has? Will they confess that their ‘moral’ lives have looked good, but have in no way been lived for the glory of the Father, but for the their own selfish ends? Or will they perish because they believe their righteous acts merit the grace and forgiveness of God?
In a unique way, Keller brings to the fore that the lesson of the parable is about just how perilous and blinding our self-righteousness can be. He shows that, while we may focus on the sins of the wayward son, it is the equally sinful moral son whose blindness might prove the more dangerous enemy. The wiles of the world are easy to spot, but evils of self-righteous moralism may slip by us unnoticed. From the outside we may have the appearance of humble obedience, all the while our hearts toward the Father may be cold.
Keller’s explanation of the parable goes on to wonderfully tie in the redemptive work of our true ‘older’ brother, Jesus Christ. I will not spoil your read by explaining it here. However, I will give you a quote to wet your appetite for the book.
A member of Keller’s congregation approached after a message to inform him that she was scared by the message of the gospel that proclaims that we can be accepted by God by sheer grace through the work of Christ regardless of anything we do or have done. Keller, intrigued, inquired as to what she meant. Here was her response.
“If I was saved by my good works—then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with rights. I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if it is really true that I am a sinner saved by sheer grace—at God’s infinite cost—then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
Keller goes on to say
“She could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. Yet she also knew that if Jesus really had done this for—she was not her own. She was bought with a price.”
In short, I would highly recommend this book to you. It is a mere 133 pages of easy to read and understand exposition. You can buy it here or find it in our bookstore by the end of September.
I would also recommend a recent post on Al Mohler’s blog entitled Why Moralism Is Not the Gospel — And Why So Many Christians Think It Is.