Book Review: The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Tim Keller

3116205The Savior from Both “Spiritual Dead Ends”

Tim Keller sheds light on his paradoxical title, “The Prodigal God”, in his introduction: “prodigal”, (a term usually applied to the wayward younger son in the parable of Luke 15), literally means “recklessly extravagant” and thus applies equally well to the Father’s great love for sinners. “Ahh,” we say – “a great treatment of grace…for seekers and new Christians!”

“The Prodigal God” is that, but Keller goes much deeper. While not justifying or condoning the obvious rebellion of the world’s “younger sons”, Keller zeroes in on the heart issue of the self-righteous elder brother – and how pervasive that attitude is in the Church today. Like Henri Nouwen in “The Return of the Prodigal Son”, he notes that the parable might be called “The Parable of the Two Lost Sons” – the Elder Brother’s “lostness” being more insidious and dangerous than that of the Younger. Unlike Nouwen’s open theism (God is “powerless” to do certain things), however, Keller staunchly upholds the Sovereignty of God – and the depravity of man.

God’s Love for the Elder Brother

Keller brings us through the usual historical observations (what the Younger Son’s request would have signified in the ancient Near East; the significance of the Father’s response;)and reminds the reader that legalistic rule-keeping, condescension and forgetfulness of God’s mercy is essentially an attempt at self-salvation. This “anti-Pharisee” theme is often written and preached about, but Keller goes deeper….exposing the insecurity (fear of man) that often drives a judgmental, condescending attitude in moralistic rule-keeping:

“The last sign of the elder brother spirit is a lack of assurance of the father’s love. The older son says, “You never threw me a party.” There is no dancing or festiveness about the elder brother’s relationship with his father. As long as you are trying to earn your salvation by controlling God through goodness, you will never be sure you have been good enough for him. You simply aren’t sure God loves and delights in you.” (page 63; emphasis mine.)

The Feast of the Father is Eternal

This is not a message just for new believers; but for hardened or cynical long-time Christians on their way to becoming “elder-brotherish“, as Keller so tactfully puts it. The solution, of course, for both “brothers” (and their counterparts in the modern Church) is, of course, the same – to recognize their need for a Savior, and accept that grace that will change their lives from the inside out.

Keller puts into simple terms what many biblical counselors have explained, exegeted and diagrammed over the years: true, lasting inner heart-change is not catalyzed by a “just try harder” attitude. The grace-infused life does not come about by behavior modification; rather, by gazing on and appreciating the beauty and all-satisfying love of Jesus Christ. Like John Piper, Keller illustrates plainly the necessity of believing, experiencing, “tasting-and-seeing” that the Lord is good.

“You must sense, on the palate of the heart, as it were, the sweetness of his mercy. Then you will know you are accepted. If you are filled with worry and anxiety, you do not only need to believe that God is in control of history. You must see, with eyes of the heart, his dazzling majesty. Then you will know he has things in hand.”

Keller makes the reader feel and empathize with the soul-sickness and insecurities of each brother, including the common human longing for “home”. The desire, hard-wired into the human race since the original exile from Eden, is designed to help us find our way back to the Father. While we may know He stands at the threshold waiting to welcome us back, our desire to be our own “savior” (either through self-fulfillment or moralistic piety) tends to keep us away from the Father’s house longer than necessary…and we never “outgrow” the need for welcoming, lavish, “prodigal” grace. This small book is a convicting, yet encouraging reminder of why we run – and that Jesus, the perfect, redeeming “Elder Brother”, has paid our way back into the family.

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