on November 1, 2008
"This short book is meant to lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel." So begins Timothy Keller's new book The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. Keller targets both seekers who are unfamiliar with the gospel and longtime church members who may not feel the need for a primer on the gospel.
Keller's book, as the provocative title suggests, is built on one of Jesus' most famous stories: the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15). Keller consents that "on the surface of it, the narrative is not all that gripping." But, he contends 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." Keller has taught from this passage many times over the years, and says, "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."
The book is laid out in seven brief chapters which aim to uncover the extravagant (prodigal) grace of God, as revealed in this parable. Keller shows how the parable describes two kinds of "lost" people, not just one. Most people can identify the lostness of the "prodigal son," the younger brother in Jesus' story, who takes his inheritance early and squanders it on riotous living. But Keller shows that the "elder brother" in the parable is no less lost. Together, the two brothers are illustrations of two kinds of people in the world. "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." Both brothers are in the wrong, and when we see this, we discover a radical redefinition of what is wrong with us. "Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated nothing on the list of moral misbehaviors may 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." As these quotes hint, Keller's exposition of the two sons lays the groundwork for a penetrating analysis and critique of both moral relativists on the liberal left and religious moralists on the conservative right, showing that the latter are just as lost as the former. What both need is Jesus, whom Keller presents as "the true elder brother," the one who comes to our rescue at his own expense. Through his grace, we are given hope and invited to the great feast of the Father.
As with Keller's preaching, this book is intelligent and winsome, combining thoughtful reflection on both text and culture with searching heart application. Keller's book is effectively illustrated with a liberal use of stories and quotations from literature, movies, and the arts. Most imporantly, the book orients the reader's heart to the hope of the gospel of God's grace revealed in Christ.
One more note: for readers who may have felt intimidated by Keller's recent book The Reason for God, don't shrink away from The Prodigal God. It is probably only 1/3 of the length and much easier to read. I highly recommend it to unbelievers, seekers and established Christians.
on October 30, 2008
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 beleive 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 teh 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 beleivers 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.
After the publication of The Reason for God, Newsweek hailed Tim Keller as "a C.S. Lewis for the twenty-first century." That is a lofty comparison and one I'm sure must make Keller quite uncomfortable. Yet at some level the comparisons are becoming undeniable. Keller's ability to communicate to believers and unbelievers alike and to do so on an intellectual level clearly parallels that of Lewis. Where Keller's first book offered an explanation as to why we should believe in God, his second, The Prodigal God, focuses on Jesus' best-known parable (and arguably the best-known and most-loved story of all-time) to challenge both believers and skeptics.
In this book Keller makes no claim to originality. He states forthrightly that the message he conveys here is based on a sermon first preached by Dr. Edmund Clowney. That simple sermon, a fresh take on the parable of the Prodigal Son, changed Keller's life and in many ways shaped his ministry. Over the years he has often taught from this parable, both at his church and elsewhere, and he has seen God's hand of blessing in this message. And here he offers it in the form of a short book.
Traditionally, readings of the parable of the Prodigal Son have focused on the younger son and his reconciliation with his father. We learn from such readings that God is willing to receive all those who wander from him. Yet too often we overlook that third character--the older brother. Were the story only about the father and the younger son we would expect that the Pharisees, among those who first heard Jesus tell this parable, would react with joy. Yet we know from Scripture that they walked away in disgust and disbelief. Why? Because the parable pointed to them as examples of the older son. As Keller says, Jesus' purpose in this parable "was not to warm our hearts, but to shatter our categories."
He begins by ensuring the reader has a sense of Jesus' original audience as he taught this parable. There were two groups near Jesus at the time. The first was tax collectors and sinners while the second was composed of Pharisees and teachers of the law. The tax collectors and sinners correspond to the younger brother--people who left the traditional morality of their families and social groups and engaged in what others would consider wild living. The religious leaders, on the other hand, correspond to the older brother, representing the moral and obedient who have never turned from the traditions of their culture and religion. Where the first group seek God through some kind of self-discovery, the second group seeks him through a type of moral conformity. Jesus' message is that both of these approaches are wrong and in this parable he offers his radical alternative. "There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord," says Keller. "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."
While Keller focuses attention on both of the brothers, he gives more time to the elder brother. He wants the reader to know that a self-imposed standard of morality is not the same as truly knowing and following Christ. He wants those who are outwardly religious to search their hearts to see if there is an inner faith that goes along with the outward conformity. He challenges Christians with the fact that churches tend to be havens for the older brother kind of believer. "Jesus' teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsiders Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners doesn't have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren't appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we'd like to think."
It is rare that a book effectively spans an audience of both believers and skeptics, but Keller bridges that gap. For skeptics this is a presentation of the gospel message of human sin and God's extravagant grace; for believers it is a recounting of a story that never grows old. For skeptics it is an encouragement to be like the younger son by turning to the loving father who welcomes all who come to him; for believers it is a means of examining hearts to see if we have become like the older brother, so secure in our position that we take the Father's love for granted and even resent it when that love is extended to those whom we feel are less deserving of it.
Though it is unlikely that The Prodigal God will achieve the same level of numerical success as The Reason for God, it remains an exceptionally useful and valuable contribution. While the book's audience is broad, it may well prove most beneficial to Christians. It will set the gospel before them in a fresh way, forcing them to do some difficult but necessary heart work.
on November 1, 2008
I can not recommend highly enough Tim Keller's The Prodigal God, which was just published this past week. The book is both easy on the eyes at 160 pages (an easy afternoon's read) but challenging to the heart. Keller takes us back to Jesus telling the story of the Prodigal Son, but he reminds us that "prodigal" does not mean "rebellious" or "wayward" but rather lavious and "recklessly spendthrift". As such that definition fits the father in the story as much as the son. Keller, helps each of us relate to either the younger son (as those who rebel against God in outright and outward rejection of God), or to the older son (as those who rebel against God by trying to manipulate Him by our moral behavior). As he does he shakes our understanding of what it means to be lost and helps us all see how we have run away from home. While we might not consistently express the attitudes and actions of one brother or the other, Keller explains: "Are we to conclude that everyone falls into one or the other of these two categories? Yes and no. A great number of people have temperaments that predispose them to either a life of moral conformity or of self-discovery. Some, however, go back and forth, trying first one strategy and then the other in different seasons of their lives. Many have tried the moral conformity paradigm, found it crushed them, and in a dramatic turn moved into a life of self-discovery. Others are on the opposite trajectory."
Keller, thus, uses Jesus' story to help explain the culture wars we are experiencing today and to challenge each of us to examine how we approach God. His use of contemporary illustrations are remarkable, but most impressive is his helping us see the Gospel anew and know and feel the need for us to be refreshed in it continually. This book is a must read for both new and mature Christians as it does rediscover the heart of the Christian faith.
on October 30, 2008
The parable of the prodigal son, found in Luke 15, is one of the best known stories of Jesus. In short, a son leaves home and squanders his inheritance. When things get bad, the son decides to return home to work as a servant. To his surprise, his father welcomes him back and throws a lavish feast to mark his return to the family. The father in this story represents God, and the son represents sinners who are forgiven and embraced despite their past.
But this isn't the full story. There are, of course, two sons in the story, and the targets of this parable are not the "'wayward sinners' but religious people who do everything the Bible requires." Jesus told this story "not to warm our hearts but to shatter our categories," writes Tim Keller.
In The Prodigal God, Keller helps us understand:
* There are two ways to rebel against God: the younger brother way (openly rebelling) and the elder brother way (keeping moral laws and never rebelling). Both are self-salvation projects, but the second is more dangerous.
* The gospel is radically different from religious moralism. The gospel is for the rebellious, but it's also for the righteous and their "damnable good works."
* The gospel provides what we need to change, and it provides us with all that we truly hope for.
"During the years I was working on these two books, my provisional titles were 'The Gospel for Non-believers' (The Reason for God) and 'The Gospel for Believers' (The Prodigal God). This second book is my way of doing what Martin Luther directed us Christian ministers to do. 'This...truth of the gospel...is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consists. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.'"
In some ways, The Reason for God expanded on Keller's approach to apologetics. You got more than you would encounter just listening to his sermons. The Prodigal God, on the other hand, is more like a distillation of his preaching. You get less than you'd get in a year of listening to his sermons, but you get at the heart. It's a much smaller book too, by the way.
If you are familiar with Keller's preaching, then the material in this book will not be new to you. But don't underestimate its power. The gospel is for both the irreligious and the moralistic. It may just be what we moralistic elder brothers need to join the Father's feast for the very first time.
on November 10, 2008
I am unable to weave words the same way that the other reviewers are, such as Tim Challies, so I will keep this short. Keller has written a book that could not have come at a more perfect time for the church. During a distinct, marked growth in Reformed Denominations, it is essential that we take this book on the parable of the two lost sons and take a fresh look at God's grace and what it means for both 'types' of people discussed. It is far too easy to feel right in our reformed dogmatics, as if we have some sort of special revelation, basically a form of gnosticism. And a the same time we can so easily complain that 'we' have been right all along and we do not get this or that while our younger brother returns and receives a party. Moving through this book it is easy to see how I am both the prodigal son who came back home and the elder brother who stayed behind. I encourage everyone to read this book and hear the message of God's Grace given in a unique and quite refreshing way!
This week I gladly received The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith through the mail. What a blessing. The book arrived yesterday during the 9:00 o'clock hour and I read through it in one sitting. Written in a warm and engaging style, Timothy Keller's reflection on the story traditionally known as "The Parable of the Prodigal Son" contains a challenging message for individuals and the church corporate as followers of Jesus Christ.
Keller's book opens with a brief word on the popularity of this short parable and a justification for the author's preference to title this story "The Two Lost Sons." Keller explains the power of this narrative as he has experienced it in his own life. He tells of his hearing Edmund P. Clowney preach this text some thirty years ago and awakening him to a new and deeper understanding of the Christian faith, coming to find that within this short story the abundant grace of God is revealed not just to the younger brother, but to the older brother as well. This grace did not only come at a cost to the younger brother, who carelessly wasted his inheritance, but cost the father as well. The older brother was not exempt, either, as humbly welcoming the younger brother back home would have cost him a great deal. The insight gained by reflecting on this passage has greatly informed Keller's ministry at Redeemer Church in Manhattan, helping their community better embody the message of grace which is found in this famous utterance of Jesus.
Following a translation of the parable, Keller's book is divided in to seven parts. First, Keller explains the biblical and cultural context in which this story takes place, helping the reader to better recognize the finer nuances of Jesus' storytelling. Keller points out the type of people who had come near to hear this story, showing that the crowd consisted of religiously devout and religiously marginal persons. He demonstrates how each segment of the crowd would have identified with a different brother in the story. Here Keller muses on "why people like Jesus but not the Church," pointing out that Jesus seemed to draw unto himself all kinds of people-particularly those in his culture of the lowest piety who are depicted as the "younger brother" in Jesus' story. Keller muses, "If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did. If our churches aren't appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we'd like to think."
Keller's discussion then moves to the Two Lost Sons. He explains the way in which each son had developed a wayward relationship with their father. Both elder and younger son are fair game for critique. Keller questions why this passage has not received a more well rounded treatment, noting that many times this story is told in a way that emphasizes how the younger son was welcomed home by the father to the neglect of the father's appeal to the elder brother. From here, Keller explores how Jesus' story redefines both sin and lostness, noting that the text is revolutionary in this regard. In his discussion of sin, Keller notes how each son had rebelled, "but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good...It's a shocking message: Careful obedience to God's law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God." Keller moves us to a deeper understanding. Rather than regarding sin as a list of wrongs, Keller points out that rebellion takes many forms, including those who in the tradition of the elder brother seek to be obedient for their own gain rather than for the glory of God. Keller sees the older brother's obedience in the story as undertaken for the purpose of controlling the father. How often we also fall in to a similar pattern of behavior.
Keller's chapter on redefining lostness was perhaps the most poignant, bringing forth a deep sense of emotion in my own soul. Here he explores the anger and superiority of the elder brother and the "joyless, fear-based" faith which can come to typify religious belief when one seeks to control God rather than express love and devotion for the Divine. This chapter, which stands at the heart of the book, may be the most important for those of us who stand within the church, and perhaps have obtained the attitudes and posturing of elder brothers. Keller's reminder that elder-brother lostness is just as wrong and destructive as younger brother lostness is important.
From this point Keller explores the nature of the gospel. Keller uses this parable to demonstrate God's relationship to us and how we might repent in a well-rounded way. In the story we are often reminded of how the younger brother turned from those things that he did wrong, and we feel compelled to do the same. Keller reminds us of the other extreme, saying, "To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons that we ever did anything right." The gospel calls us to acknowledge all that God has done for us freely and by grace. Christ has accomplished all things necessary for our salvation. Even the faithful need a reminder that our hope ultimately rests in God; we should not seek to become our own Savior and Lord. According to Keller it is Jesus, our true elder brother, who leaves us in a state of awe and wonder concerning the grace of God.
Keller's book closes with a two part reflection on the nature of our longing for home and an eschatological vision for the redemption of individuals and for all creation which will be celebrated in a heavenly banquet described in this parable and elsewhere in Scripture. Keller is very clear in presenting a view of the atonement consistent with his heritage (Presbyterian), and does an excellent job of painting a picture of the experiential nature of salvation in the here and the hereafter.
Keller's book is a gift for those of us longing for deep reflections on Scripture. This book is worthwhile reading for those seeking insight in to one of Jesus' most well known parables, and will serve as a challenge to your faith. I would recommend this book.
on November 25, 2008
Others have reviewed this book in some detail - thoughtfully and eloquently - so my comments will be brief...
This is a deeply significant book from Tim Keller. I found it to be a profound read and one that speaks to Christians and seekers in both a challenging and hopeful way.
I have listened online to Keller's preaching over the last couple of years and The Prodigal God highlights 2 helpful aspects of Keller's approach that have been consistently present in much that he speaks and writes:
* he is able to connect the ancient truths of the gospel to the contemporary secular world
* he is able bring these same ancient truths alive in fresh and powerful ways for long term believers who may have grown jaded in their faith.
Highly recommended. This will be a Christmas gift to all my friends.
on April 2, 2010
Great lessons throughout this book & I recommend it... Although I did think the author embellished on some of the biblical principles... I could be wrong and perhaps he is simply more insightful than I. I tend to get "bothered" when I think anyone is adding more to the scriptures than was has been clearly and perfectly stated.
on December 17, 2008
I wouldn't say that this book radically changes my view of the gospel, I have been on a journey of discovering the true gospel for a few years now, and I assume that this journey will continue my entire life. However, The Prodigal God, Tim Keller's latest, definitely sharpens my view of the gospel.
Keller clearly gets at the heart of the Christian faith using Jesus' parable of the Prodigal Son, or as Keller calls it, the Story of Two Lost Sons. Keller chooses to aim much of his attention towards the "elder brother," who is equally as lost and unworthy of the father's love as the openly rebellious younger brother. The younger brother and the older brother are archetypes that Jesus uses to point out the route to spiritual fulfillment taken by all people. They either follow the quest for fulfillment in personal discovery and the pursuit of passions or they follow the road of moralism and duty. Neither is the answer, according to Christ, and both are worthy of the wrath and disinheritance of the father, yet the gospel is that the father goes to each one and initiates restoration.
Keller describes why each son, and why everyone who seeks happiness through either spiritual path, is lost. He writes, "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." The younger brother sought to find salvation for himself through seeking external pleasure and satisfaction through self-discovery. The older brother sought to find salvation through personal morality and effort. He was was angry because he felt he was owed the inheritance of the father. When the father invited the younger brother back into the family it came at great cost to the older brother, a cost he was not willing to pay since he felt he has earned his inheritance. The older brother attitude, to Keller, is more dangerous than that of the younger since the younger knows he is lost, while the older thinks he is saved by his own merits.
One of the most important contributions of Keller's book is the idea of the "True Elder Brother." Keller notes that commentators and teachers of this parable often say that the forgiveness of the father was free and use it as an offer of free grace to all who would believe. While the grace was free to the younger brother, it was costly indeed to the older brother. All that remained of the fathers wealth rightfully remained to him, so it was at his expense that the younger brother was brought back into the family. Keller writes that although the older brother resented this, Jesus point in telling the parable was to point to the "True Elder Brother," himself. Jesus is the older brother who paid the price for the inheritance of sinners. That is a truly beautiful picture of the gospel.
This is a short (133 pages) and easy to understand book. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in the Christian faith, to new believers and to long-time Christians who think they have the gospel figured out. It would be equally beneficial at clarifying the heart of Christianity for all three parties.