Review of The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

Tim Keller is the founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City, and the author of several popular Christian books. In my circle, his books and sermons are frequently quoted and praised. The Prodigal God, however, is the first of his books that I have read in full. It was recommended to me by a friend who strongly rejects the penal substitution theory of atonement and who feels that The Prodigal God provides a good springboard for dialogue about the subject. Though Keller is a firm believer in substitutionary atonement, his discussion of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son is designed to make the reader take a fresh look at what the Gospel is all about. In the introduction, Keller writes:

I believe … that if the teaching of Jesus is likened to a lake, this famous Parable of the Prodigal Son would be one of the clearest spots where we can see all the way to the bottom. Many excellent studies have been written on this Biblical text over the last several years, but the foundation for my understanding of it was a sermon I first heard preached over thirty years ago by Dr. Edmund P. Clowney. Listening to that sermon changed the way I understood Christianity. I almost felt I had discovered the secret heart of Christianity. Over the years I have often returned to teach and counsel from the parable. I have seen more people encouraged, enlightened, and helped by this passage, when I explained the true meaning of it, than by any other text.

In the first four chapters of the book, Keller gives an exposition of the parable that focuses on the elder son as much as, or perhaps even more than, the younger son. Indeed, Keller says that he will not refer to it as the “parable of the prodigal son” (though he slips up a couple of times near the end of the book), saying instead, “The parable might be better called the Two Lost Sons.” He writes:

Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery. … The elder brother in the parable illustrates the way of moral conformity. … In this view, we only attain happiness and a world made right by achieving moral rectitude. We may fall at times, of course, but then we will be judged by how abject and intense our regret is. In this view, even in our failures we must always measure up. The younger brother in the parable illustrates the way of self-discovery. … This paradigm holds that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization. … The message of Jesus’s parable is that both of these approaches are wrong. His parable illustrates the radical alternative.

Keller says that Jesus redefines what it means to sin and what it means to be lost. The younger brother is obviously sinful and lost. It is less obvious that the elder brother is sinful and lost, and that actually puts him in a more dangerous situation, because he fails to recognize his need for repentance and reconciliation, and may indeed be offended by the suggestion.

Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Savior, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.

Keller spends a long time discussing the elder brother because he is eager to counteract a common misconception about the gospel.

The younger brothers of the world … have come to the conclusion that religion is one of the greatest sources of misery and strife in the world. And guess what? Jesus says through this parable—they are right. … 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 says, 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 condemns moralistic elder brotherness.

So far Keller’s interpretation of the parable, though perhaps eye-opening for some, runs along lines that are familiar to me. In Chapter 5, however, he introduces a new twist (new to me, at least). He leads up to it with a cliffhanger of sorts:

It is only when you see the desire to be your own Savior and Lord—lying beneath both your sins and your moral goodness—that you are on the verge of understanding the gospel and becoming a Christian indeed. When you realize that the antidote to being bad is not just being good, you are on the brink. If you follow through, it will change everything: how you relate to God, self, others, the world, your work, your sins, your virtue. It’s called the new birth because it’s so radical. This, however, only brings us to the brink of Jesus’s message, not to its heart. This tells us what we must turn from, not what, or whom, we must turn to. We have seen that we need the initiating love of the father, and this deeper, gospel repentance. But there is one more thing we need in order to enter the festival joy of salvation.

Keller then points out that in the two other parables in Luke 15, someone goes out seeking: the shepherd seeks the lost sheep, and the woman seeks the lost coin. But in the parable of the Two Lost Sons, nobody seeks out the younger brother. Keller says that Jesus is thereby inviting us to ask, “Who should have gone out to seek the younger brother?” And Keller’s answer is that it should have been the elder brother. This would, of course, have been costly; not only would the search have been expensive, but if the younger brother were restored, he would presumably once again be entitled to one-third of the (now much diminished) estate of the father.

The younger brother’s restoration was free to him, but it came at enormous cost to the elder brother. The father could not just forgive the younger son, somebody had to pay! The father could not reinstate him except at the expense of the elder brother. There was no other way. But Jesus does not put a true elder brother in the story, one who is willing to pay any cost to seek and save that which is lost. It is heartbreaking. The younger son gets a Pharisee for a brother instead. But we do not. By putting a flawed elder brother in the story, Jesus is inviting us to imagine and yearn for a true one. And we have him.

In this way, Keller argues that the parable does not teach that restoration and reconciliation are completely free, involving no atonement or cost. They are indeed free for the recipient, but “behind the scenes,” as it were, there is a huge cost being paid by Jesus, our True Elder Brother.

In the last two chapters of the book, Keller elaborates on two ideas: that what Jesus really does for us is to bring us home, and that salvation is like a feast. Keller list four aspects of salvation: salvation is experiential, salvation is material, salvation is individual, and salvation is communal. In these two chapters, Keller goes beyond the parable itself and quotes liberally from other parts of the Bible to support his points.

Keller’s book is beautifully written. It is short, not because he skimps on detail, but because he stays focused on the message and does not waste words. The message, especially about the elder brother, is as urgently needed today as it was two thousand years ago when Jesus first told it.

I will say, however, that I am still not sure what I think about Keller’s suggestion that the parable points towards Jesus as the True Elder Brother who would have sought the younger brother, and who is willing to pay the full price for the younger brother’s sin. Afterwards, I looked up Edmund Clowney’s sermon for comparison, and discovered that Keller did indeed borrow many ideas from Clowney, who noted that the elder brother could have sought after the younger brother (as the shepherd and woman did in the other two parables), and that the parable therefore points to Jesus. In Clowney’s sermon, we read:

We do not understand this parable if we forget who told it, and why. Jesus Christ is our older Brother, the firstborn of the Father. He is the seeking Shepherd who goes out to find the lost; he is the Resurrection and the Life who can give life to the dead; he is the Heir of the Father’s house. To him the Father can truly say, “Son, all that I have is yours.” He who is the Son became a Servant that we might be made the sons and daughters of God. This parable is incomplete if we forget that our older brother is not a Pharisee but Jesus. He does not merely welcome us home as the brother did not; he comes to find us in the pigpen, puts his arms around us, and says, “Come home!” Indeed, if we forget Jesus, we do not grasp the full measure of the Father’s love. The heavenly Father is not permissive toward sin. He is a holy God; the penalty of sin must be paid. The glory of amazing grace is that Jesus can welcome sinners because he died for them. Jesus not only comes to the feast, eating with redeemed publicans and sinners; he spreads the feast, for he calls us to the table of his broken body and shed blood.

Keller goes a little further by emphasizing that in the parable itself, the forgiveness of the younger brother comes at the direct expense of the elder brother. This interpretation is intriguing, but I wonder if too much is being read into the parable. If one did not already accept the substitutionary theory of the atonement, would this parable suggest it? I do not think so. If the elder brother had behaved as Clowney and Keller say he should have, then I think a good case could be made that it would be a parable about penal substitution. But as the parable stands, I do not see it as saying anything about the atonement one way or the other. The younger brother’s action is costly to the elder brother, but in the parable, the elder brother is just another human being.

Whether or not you agree with this last part of Keller’s reading of the parable, however, the book is a pleasure to read. It is also an excellent choice for a book to discuss with those who have become disillusioned with Christianity or who have lost sight of the true meaning of the gospel.

Posted February 2014

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