I’m currently reading Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God, one of the most profound books I’ve read in a while. He takes the parable of the prodigal son but spends as much time [if not more] on the elder son’s problem , and then directs both sons to the extravagant, celebrating, feast-giving father.
Keller points out that the elder son is just as lost and sinful because being religious, the life of doing good, is a dead end. And that’s my problem with being a Christian. After being deeply aware of my need for God’s love and grace, after acknowledging that I’m being completely unable to save myself, and then accepting the free gift of Jesus, I slip back into my default pattern.
Most of the time this isn’t the younger brother, do-what-you want mode, but the elder brother, rule-keeping mode. I change slowly from having a relationship with Jesus to a religion about Jesus, where good behavior and moral purity and doing the right thing are what count. I lose sight of God’s grace. I lose sight of my brokenness. I slip back into a focus on righteousness rather than on an experience of God’s redeeming love.
As I thought about this, I realized that many hymns talk about the experience of the younger son coming to Jesus. But few address the problem of the elder son: pride and trusting in my own righteousness. Going from the pig pen to the father’s house makes for a good testimony. Being angry and bitter and selfish in the father’s house doesn’t.
Thankfully, we have Paul as an example of a Pharisee/elder son turned grace-saved follower of Jesus. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for it righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing. [Galatians 2:20-21]
That’s something I need to remind myself of over and over again. I need to run a self-righteousness check. I need to remember every day that the gospel is not about good behavior or spiritual perfection. And it’s not about personal freedom and self-discovery either. It’s about going home to the Father and being welcomed back with open arms and invited in for the celebration of a lifetime.
The Prodigal God is a short book, maybe 20,000 words at most. But don’t let that fool you. It’s not a quick read or a bedtime snack. You’ll want to savor how Keller redefines sin and lostness and hope. I find myself reading a paragraph or two and then stopping to reflect. If you were only going to read one new book this year, this is the one I’d recommend. And then I’d suggest reading it again next year.
You can also listen to the sermons Keller preached at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, which formed the basis for the book. All seven are available for free mp3 download.