When I received a copy of The Prodigal God I was greatly intrigued by the title. To be honest I thought the author was trying to be a little too cute in his choice for a title. As a result I jumped right in and in effort to figure our where he was going, could not put the little book down.
Author Tim Keller recently wrote the bestselling book The Reason for God to reach out to skeptics. Here in The Prodigal God it seems as though he is reaching out to both those who are flagrantly irreligious and to those who are by common estimation, morally and religiously together.
Keller helpfully reminds us (me) of the definition for prodigal: “recklessly extravagant, having spent everything”. Many of us may have a definition that centers on a returning wayward son rather than the reasons why he was actually returning. Keller aims to remind us of the God-centeredness of this parable and by application the stinging rebuke that it is intended to have upon the Pharisees and all of their self-righteous grandchildren.
Throughout the book Keller deals with the characteristics of the younger brother (morally bankrupt), the older brother (morally upright) and the Father (representing God who is abundant in grace to the contrite and opposed to the proud).
A strength of this book is the way in which the author keeps the gospel out of the commonly constructed religious categories. The gospel is never about what you and I do but about what God does. Therefore to try to put Jesus and his message into some sort of parallel religious system simply does not work.
It is typical for people who have turned their backs on religion to believe that Christianity is no different. They have been in churches brimming with elder-brother types. They say, ‘Christianity is just another religion’ But Jesus say, no, that is not true. Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realize that it also differs from moralistic elder brotherness.
The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness, the way he uses his moral record to put God and others in his debt to control them and get them to do what he wants. His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault. As one of my teachers in seminary put it, the main barrier between Pharisees and God is ‘not their sins, but their damnable good works.’
Keller reminds us that what we really need is a true elder brother who will go and retrieve wayward, reproachable brothers:
We need one who does not just go to the next country to find us but who will come all the way from heaven to earth. We need one who is willing to pay not just a finite amount of money, but, at an infinite cost, bring us into God’s family, for our debt is much greater. Either as younger brothers or elder brothers we have rebelled against the father. We deserve alienation, isolation, and rejection. The point of the parable is that forgiveness always involves a price–someone has to pay…Our true elder brother took and paid our debt, on the cross, in our place….There Jesus was stripped naked of his robe and dignity, so that we could be cloted with a dignity and standing we don’t deserve. One the cross Jesus was treated as an outcast so that we could be brought into God’s family freely by grace. There Jesus drank the cup of eternal justice so that we might have the cup of the father’s joy. There was no other way for the heavenly father to bring us in, except at the expense of our true elder brother.
In the chapter entitled “The Feast of the Father” Keller reminds us that salvation is experiential, material, individual and communal. The gospel is to transform our individual lives from the inside-out and then transform our communities.
Throughout the book Keller seems to continually reset the need to properly understand the gospel. He even says on occasion that if you think you get it you probably don’t and if you are amazingly overwhelmed by the complexities of grace then you are probably beginning to get it. The burden then is for believers to continually find themselves tasting and seeing that God is indeed glorious.
He quotes Luther,
A fundamental insight of Martin Luther’s was that ‘religion’ is the default mode of the human heart. Your computer operates automatically in a default mode unless you deliberately tell it to do something else. So Luther says that even after you are converted by the gospel your heart will go back to operating on other principles unless you deliberately, repeatedly set it to gospel mode.
I really enjoyed this book. Keller is a terrific writer. His illustrations are extremely well thought out and culturally relevant. The book has a lot of very helpful things to say about the nature of God’s grace and the nature of modern day Phariseeism. For this purpose this book is highly recommended. I need books like this and so do my friends. Keller makes a lot of brief, succinct statements that warrant your further consideration. It is these types of pregnant statements that help a little book like this to make a very large impact for a long time.
The Prodigal God goes on sale today and is available at a discounted price at the following locations:
Listen to Keller’s sermon The Prodigal Sons