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Influential Books: The Prodigal God

Over the next few weeks, I want to share brief reviews and quotes from books that have influenced my thinking, especially my walk with God. I plan to post these recommendations on Friday.

A brief review

In 2009, our church read and discussed Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God. I had been a Christian for many years and knew the story of the “prodigal son,” but God used Keller’s informative text to open my eyes to truths I had not seen before. Early in the book, Keller writes, “Jesus’s purpose is not to warm our hearts but to shatter our categories” (p. 10). That’s what happened to me! 

I loved this verse about the father – “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Notice the father’s actions and feelings – I love the picture of God’s compassion for His lost children! Our God is compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, and abounds in love and faithfulness.

I could see myself in the wayward son. While I didn’t wander to the far-off land, I know the sins that easily beset me.

But I had not noticed how easily I could relate to the elder brother. Keller writes, “If like the elder brother, you seek to control God through your obedience, then all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want” (p. 39). He makes the point that neither brother loved the father for himself!

Three significant truths

  1. Our God is a God of lavish expenditure, a reckless spendthrift, pouring out His grace in my life.
  2. Neither brother loved the Father for Himself – such a significant lesson for me!
  3. I can easily fall into the self-salvation trap: “elder brotherishness!”

The following quotes from Keller’s book resonate deeply with me.

About the meaning of prodigal

“The word ‘prodigal’ does not mean ‘wayward’ but… ‘recklessly spendthrift.’ It means to spend until you have nothing left” (p. xvii).

“St. Paul writes: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, not reckoning to them their trespasses’ (2 Corinthians 5:19 — American Standard Version). Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children. God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book” (p. xvii-xviii).

Comparing two sons, the elder and the prodigal

“Neither son loved the father for himself. They were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means you can rebel against God and be alienated from him by breaking his rules or keeping them all diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God” (p. 36-37).

“There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and setting your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good. … Jesus shows us that everyone is dedicated to the project of self-salvation, to using God and others to get power and control for themselves. We are just going about it in different ways. Even though both sons are wrong, the father cares for them and invites them back into his love and feast” (p. 44).

The Elder brother

“Elder brother self-righteousness not only creates racism and classism but at the personal level creates an unforgiving, judgmental spirit. … Because he does not see himself as part of a common community of sinners, he is trapped by his own bitterness. It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel superior to him or her” (p. 55).

“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 differs from moralistic elder brotherness” (p. 67).

“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” (p. 77).

Our salvation

“This world is not simply a theater for individual conversion narratives to be discarded at the end when we all go to heaven. No, the ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering, and death. The climax of history is not a higher form of disembodied consciousness but a feast” (p. 110).

“We habitually and instinctively look to other things besides God and his grace as our justification, hope, significance, and security. We believe the gospel at one level, but at deeper levels, we do not. Human approval, professional success, power and influence, and family and clan identity serve as our heart’s “functional trust” rather than what Christ has done. As a result, we continue to be driven to a great degree by fear, anger, and a lack of self-control. You cannot change such things through mere willpower, learning Biblical principles, and trying to carry them out. We can only change permanently as we take the gospel deeply into our understanding and hearts. We must feed on the gospel, as it were, digesting it and making it part of ourselves. That is how we grow” (p. 119).

“Jesus says, ‘I am the Bread of Heaven.’ Jesus tells us that both the sensual way of the younger brother and the ethical way of the elder brother are spiritual dead ends. He also shows us there is another way: through him. And to enter that way and to live a life based on his salvation will bring us finally to the ultimate party feast at the end of history. We can have a foretaste of that future salvation now in all the ways we outlined in this chapter: in prayer, in service to others, in the changes in our inner nature through the gospel, and through the healed relationships that Christ can give us now. But they are only a foretaste of what is to come” (p. 148-149).

A Song of Praise, the Prodigal to His God

“My son, give me thy heart,” I hear the Savior say; 
The idols thou has loved, O cast them all away!
I hear the loving call, “Thy love, I want it all,”
And in these solemn courts, I pay my vows today.

An undivided heart the Savior asks of me,
That all my powers to him shall consecrated be.
I own the claim divine and bring this heart of mine,
And covenant to serve him with fidelity.

My purest, warmest love I consecrate to thee;
I long have served the world, its sin, and vanity;
Henceforth my life shall show the love to thee I owe,
My heart shall be thine own to all eternity.

My body, soul, and spirit, with their ransomed power
Shall hence to thee belong, my moments and my hours;
I counted them as mine; they shall be wholly thine;
Thou has a rightful claim upon these hearts of ours.

Jesus, I bring it now; I bring an undivided heart;
I give it in consecration unto thee; Take it, O Lord divine.
I call it no longer mine; It shall be thine,
It shall be thine to all eternity.

E. A. Hoffman

Next week, A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle …

Reference: Keller, T. (2008). The prodigal God. United States: Penguin Publishing Group.

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