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Review: The Prodigal God

The Prodigal GodHave you ever been punched in the stomach? About half way through reading The Prodigal God by Tim Keller, I felt as though someone ran up behind me and smacked me upside the head. I’ve always read the parable of the prodigal son and thought the lesson from the older brother was something along the lines of: “Make sure you extend grace to those who repent” or “Don’t be angry when prodigals turn to Christ.” I had never stopped to think that perhaps the older brother committed an error just as grievous as the younger brother’s.

Both brothers begin the parable with a problem. Keller says,

The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented the father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled—but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons. (p. 35)

However, by the end of the parable, the younger brother has entered the feast, but the older brother refuses to go in. Keller illustrates how many, many times Christians (or unconverted Evangelicals) who resemble the older brother struggle with legalism. He shows how it is so easy to fall into the trap not just of trying to please God, but of trying to earn our salvation by our good deeds.

When I first read that, I thought, “I’m not trying to earn my salvation. I know that’s not the way things work.” But Keller continues,

You can avoid Jesus as Savior by keeping all the moral laws. If you do that, then you have “rights.” God owes you answered prayers, and a good life, and a ticket to heaven when you die. You don’t need a Savior who pardons you by free grace for you are your own Savior. (p. 37)

Ouch. It’s not that I have ever intentionally decided to earn my own salvation, but being a stereotypical oldest child, I do tend to follow the rules, and I have learned that following the rules can reap certain benefits. Just ask my parents. They know that I know how this system works.

I have been very upset in the last few years that certain aspects of my life haven’t turned out as I wanted them to turn out. And while I recognized that this frustration came as a result of not trusting fully in God’s good, sovereign hand, I had not considered yet that it was because I felt like God owed me something. I think my subconscious logic went something like, “Well, I’ve done everything I was told to do to be a good Christian, so why doesn’t my life look any better? Why do I have to suffer? What did I do to deserve this?” Imagine then how I felt when I read,

If, like the elder brother, you believe that God ought to bless you and help you because you have worked so hard to obey him and be a good person, then Jesus may be your helper, you example, even your inspiration, but he is not your Savior. You are serving as your own Savior. (p. 38)

Uffff. Keller describes how younger brothers clearly recognize their separation from God. They don’t pretend. But older brothers, or Pharisees, usually do not recognize that they need God. They intentionally or unintentionally manipulate him and think they have the system all figured out.

"The Return of the Prodigal Son," by the French artist James Tissot
"The Return of the Prodigal Son," by the French artist James Tissot

Keller concludes The Prodigal God by describing how the father invited both of his sons home with open, forgiving arms. He also reminds us of how God the Father invites us all to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Older brothers and younger brothers alike need to recognize their needy state, enter into his rest, and find their satisfaction in Him.

The question for you today is this: Do you find yourself asking God, “I’ve been so good. Why can’t you just give me a goat so I can leave you and feast with my friends?” or do you thank God for freely inviting you to his feast?

Grace & Peace,
Anna J.

Hebrews 4:9-10 “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.”


Published inBook Reviews


  1. Interesting take on the parable. As you might guess, I’ve had a different application since I’m a father with a prodigal child, struggling with extending forgiveness. I’m still not sure how I would react if he were to show up at our door, claiming to have repented. I know what is expected to, but I’d also be very skeptical and with very good reason. In any event, it is interesting how a simple story can produce so many different applications. As an oldest child, I will have to think about that one now.

  2. Don


  3. Leslie

    I’ve got to read this book!

  4. Roxanne

    I’ve read this book. I throughly enjoyed it. The question is do we really believe the good news of the gospel, that we are sinners in need of a Savior, or have we become bewitched into following the moral code inorder to prove our faith and be blessed by God? It’s something any long-time Christian is bound to be tempted by and yet another reason we need to hear the gospel continually. Like Satan’s point in testing Job, we need to ask ourselves if we’d be willing to follow Christ for nothing.

  5. Jessica

    Thanks for the book review and your convictions … sounds like a good read!

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