Timothy J. Keller was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has nearly six thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities around the world.
- This short book lays out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel.
- The foundation of it was a sermon first preached by Dr. Edmund P. Clowney at Westminster Theological Seminary.
- Over the years I have often returned to teach and counsel from the parable. 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.
- Chapters 1- 5 – I will unlock the meaning of the parable. Chapter 6 – I will demonstrate how the story helps us understand the Bible as a while. Chapter 7 – I will demonstrate how its teaching works itself out in the way we live in the world.
- The word “prodigal” in the dictionary doesn’t mean wayward, but recklessly spendthrift. It means to spend until you have nothing left.
- The father’s welcome to the repentant son was literally reckless, because he refused to “reckon” or count his sin against him or demand payment. The response offended the elder son and most likely the local community.
- In the story the father represents the Heavenly Father Jesus knew so well (2 Cor. 5:19.)
- God’s reckless grace us our greatest hope, a life-changing experience, and the subject of this book.
ONE – The People Around Jesus: “All gathering around to hear him.”
Two Kinds of People
- Most readings of this parable concentrate on the younger son, hence the name, The Prodigal Son, but there are really two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.
- It is crucial to take note of the historical setting of the parable. There were two groups of people who came to listen to Jesus: (1) the tax collectors and sinner who correspond to the younger brother and (2) the Pharisees and teachers of the law who were represented by the elder brother.
- To whom is Jesus’ teaching in this parable directed? It is to the second group, the scribes and Pharisees. It is in response to their attitude that Jesus begins to tell the parable. The target of this parable is not wayward sinners, but religious people who do everything the Bible requires. Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them. It is a mistake to think that Jesus tells this story primarily to assure younger brothers of his unconditional love.
Why People Like Jesus but Not the Church
- Both older brothers and younger brothers are with us today in the same culture, often in the same family.
- Jesus is on the side of neither the irreligious nor the religious, but he singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition.
- To most people in our society Christianity is religion and moralism. The only alternative (besides some other world religion) is pluralistic secularism. But from the beginning it was not so. Christianity was recognized as a tertium quid, something else entirely.
- In every case in the New Testament the outcast (Luke 7, John 3-4, Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder brother type does not.
- If our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think.
TWO – The Two Lost Sons: “There was a man who had two sons.”
The Lost Younger Brother
- In Bible days when a father died the oldest son received a double portion of what the other children inherited.
- Here the younger brother asks for his inheritance NOW, which was a sign of deep disrespect. To ask this while the father still lived was the same as to wish him dead. A traditional Middle Eastern father would be expected to respond to such a request by driving the son out of the family with nothing except physical blows.
- Most of Jesus hearers would never have seen a father respond like the father in the story did.
The Younger Brother’s Plan
- The son intends to say, “Father, I know I don’t have the right to come back into your family. But if you apprentice me to one of your hired men so I can learn a trade and earn a wage, then at least I could begin to pay off my debt.” That was his plan.
- As a general rule, a distinguished Middle Eastern patriarch would not run as the father in this story did.
- The best robe in the house would be the father’s own robe. This is the unmistakable sign of restored standing in the family. The father is saying, “I’m not going to wait until you’ve paid off your debts; I’m not going to wait until you’ve duly groveled. You are not going to earn your way back into the family. I am going to simply take you back. I will cover your nakedness, poverty, and rags with robes of my office and honor.”
- The first part of this parable challenges the mind of elder brothers with a startling message: God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any kind of sin or wrongdoing. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you’ve done.
- Nothing, not even abject contrition, merits the favor of God. The Father’s love and acceptance are absolutely free.
- Some would conclude that this parable contradicts Christian doctrine. “Look,” they say, “there is no mention of atonement for sin. There’s no need for a savior on a cross who pays for sin. God is a God of universal love who unconditionally accepts everyone, not matter what. … If that were the message, Jesus would have ended the narrative there. But he did not, because it is not. While Act 1 shows us the freeness of God’s grace, Act 2 will show us the costliness of that grace and the true climax of the story.
The Lost Elder Brother
- Now it’s the elder brother’s turn to disgrace the father. He refuses to go in to what is perhaps the biggest feast and public event the father has ever put on.
- The older brother is furious because by bringing the younger brother back into the family he has made him an heir again, with a claim to one third of their (now much diminished) family wealth.
- When he speaks to his father, he does not show respect. He says, “Look” which is the equivalent to “Look, you!”
- A man of his time and place might have disowned his son on the spot. Instead he responds again with amazing tenderness. “My son,” he begins, “despite how you’ve insulted me publically, I still want you in the feast. I am not going to disown your brother, but I don’t want to disown you either. I challenge you to swallow your pride and come into the feast. The choice is yours.”
- The story then ends. Why doesn’t Jesus finish the story and tell us what happened?! It is because the real audience is the Pharisees, the elder brothers.
- Jesus is pleading with his enemies to respond to that message. What is that message? The answer to that question will emerge as we take time in the next chapters to understand the main points Jesus is seeking to drive home here. In short, Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God. He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.
THREE – Redefining Sin: “All these years I have been slaving for you.”
Two Ways to Find Happiness
- Two ways to find happiness: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery. Each acts as a lens coloring how you see all of life.
- The elder brother, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, illustrates the way of moral conformity. The younger brother illustrates the way of self-discovery. In the ancient patriarchal society some took this path, but there are far more who do today.
- Though there are some variations, there are still only two primary approaches to living The message of Jesus ‘parable is that both of these approaches are wrong. His parable illustrates the radical alternative.
Two Lost Sons
- In this parable we have two sons, one “bad” by conventional standards, the other “good,” but both alienated from the father. The father has to go out and invite each of them to come to the feast of his love. So there is not just one lost son in this parable – there are two.
- At the end of the parable comes to an unthinkable conclusion. Jesus the storyteller deliberately leaves the older brother in his alienated state. The bad son enters the father’s feast, but the good son will not.
- The older brother will not go – he gives this reason, “Because I’ve never disobeyed you. The elder brother is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it. It is not his sins that create a barrier between him and his father’s, it’s his pride he has in his moral record; it’s not his wrongdoing but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.
- Both brothers resented the father’s authority and sought different ways from getting out from under it.
A Deeper Understanding of Son
- With this parable Jesus gives us a much deeper concept of “sin” than any of us would have He didn’t supply it. Most people think of sin as failing to keep God’s rules of conduct, but while not less than that, Jesus’ definition goes beyond it. Jesus is pointing out in this parable that 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.
- There are two ways to be your own Savior and Lord. One is by breaking all the moral laws and serving your own course, and one is by keeping all the moral laws and being very, very good.
Both Wrong: Both Loved
- Jesus does not divide the world into the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys.” He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves. We are just going about it in different ways.
- The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches shown in the parable. In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change. By contrast, elder brothers divide the world in two, “The good people (like us) and the bad people, who are the real problem in the world. Younger brothers, even if they don’t believe in God at all, do the same, saying,: “No, the open-minded and tolerant people are in and the bigoted narrow-minded people, who are the real problem with the world, are out.”
- But Jesus says, “The humble are in and the proud are out “ (Luke 18:14.
- Though the older brother stayed home, he was actually more distant and alienated from the father than his brother, because he was blind to his true condition.
- Because the elder brother is more blind to what is going on, being an elder-brother Pharisee is a more desperate condition. “How dare you say that?” is how religious people respond if you suggest their relationship with God isn’t right. “I’m there every time the church doors open.” Jesus says, in effect, “That doesn’t matter.”
- No one had ever taught anything like this before.
FOUR – Redefining Lostness: “The older brother became angry and refused to go in.”
Anger and Superiority
- In this parable Jesus wants us to discern another, more subtle, but no less devastating form of lostness. Once we have Jesus’ deeper definition of sin we should be able to recognize it, and it is crucial that we do. We will call it “elder-brother lostness.” It brings as much misery and strife into the world as the other kind. A closer look at the elder brother helps us discern its features.
- We see that the elder brother “became angry.” All of his words are dripping with resentment. … Elder brothers believe if they live a good life, they should get a good life – that God owes them a smooth road if they try very hard to live up to standards.
- What happens then if you are an elder brother and things go wrong in your life? Elder brothers inability to handle suffering arises from the fact that their moral observance is results-oriented. The good life is lived not for delight in good deeds themselves, but as calculated ways to control their environment.
- Elisabeth Elliot recounts an apocryphal story about Jesus that conveys the difference between a results-oriented selfishness and a faithfulness born of love:
- One day Jesus said to his disciples: “I’d like you to carry a stone for Me.” He didn’t give any explanation. So the disciples looked around for a stone to carry, and Peter, being the practical sort, sought out the smallest stone he could possibily find. After all, Jesus didn’t give any regulations for weight and size! So he put it in his pocket. Jesus then said: “Follow Me.” He led them on a journey. About noontime Jesus had everyone sit down. He waved His hands and all the stones turned to bread. He said, “Now it’s time for lunch.” In a few seconds , Peter’s lunch was over. When lunch was done Jesus told them to stand up. He said again, “I’d like you to carry a stone for me.” This time Peter said, “Aha! Now I get it!” So he looked around and saw a small boulder. He hoisted it on his back and it was painful, it made him stagger. But he said, “I can’t wait until supper.” Jesus then said, “Follow Me.” He led them on a journey, with Peter barely being able to keep up. Around supper time Jesus led them to the side of a river. He said, “Now everyone throw your stones into the water.” They did. Then he said, “Follow Me,” and began to walk. Peter and the others looked at him dumbfounded. Jesus sighed and said, “Don’t you remember what I asked you to do? Who were you carrying the stone for?”
- Like Peter, elder brothers expect their goodness to pay off, and if it doesn’t, there is confusion and rage. If you think goodness and decency is the way to merit a good life from God, you will be eaten up with anger since life never goes as we wish. You will always feel that you are owed more than you are getting. You will always see someone doing better than you in some aspect of life and will ask, “Why this person and not me? After all I’ve done!”
- Elder brothers base their self-images on being hardworking, or moral, or members of an elite clan, or extremely smart and savvy. This inevitably leads to feeling superior to those who don’t have those same qualities. In fact, competitive comparison is the main way elder brothers achieve a sense of their own significance.
- If a group believes God favors them because of their particular true doctrine, ways of worship, and ethical behavior, their attitude toward those without these things can be hostile. Their self-righteousness hides under the claim that they are only opposing the enemies of God. When you look at the world through these lenses it becomes easy to justify hate and oppression, all in the name of truth.
- Elder brother self-righteousness not only creates racism and classism, but at the personal level creates an unforgiving, judgmental spirit. This elder brother cannot pardon his younger brother for the way he has weakened his family’s place in society.
- If you can’t control your temper, and you see someone losing their in exactly the same way that you do, you tend to forgive them, because you know you are no better a person than they. How can I hold this against them when I am just as bad? You think.
- However, because elder brothers’ sin and antipathy to God is hidden deep beneath layers of self-control and moral behavior, they have no trouble feeling superior to just about anyone.
- If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, “I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.” Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making.
Slavishness and Emptiness
- Another sign of those with an “elder brother” spirit is joyless, fear-based compliance. The older son boasts of his obedience to his father, but lets his underlying motivation and attitude slip out when he says, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you.” He is showing that his obedience to his father is nothing but duty all the way down. There is no joy or love, no reward in just seeing his father pleased.
- An illustration of doing good to benefit oneself: Once upon a time there was a gardener who grew an enormous carrot. So he took it to his king and said, “My lord, this is the greatest carrot I’ve ever grown or every will grow. Therefore, I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” The king was touched and discerned the man’s heart, so as he turned to go the king said, “Wait! You are clearly a good steward of the earth. I own a plot of land right next to yours. I want to give it to you freely as a gift so you can garden it all.” And the gardener was amazed and delighted and went home rejoicing. But there was a nobleman at the king’s court who overheard all this. And he said, “My! If that is what you get for a carrot – what if you give the king something better? So the next day the nobleman came before the king and he was leading a handsome black stallion. He bowed low and said, “My lord, I breed horses and this is the greatest horse I’ve ever bred or ever will. Therefore I want to present it to you as a token of my love and respect for you.” But the king discerned his heart and said thank you, and took the horse and merely dismissed him. The nobleman was perplexed. So the king said, “Let me explain. That gardener was giving me the carrot, but you were giving yourself the horse.”
- Elder brothers may do good to others, but not out of delight in the deeds themselves or for the love of people or the pleasure of God. They are not really feeding the hungry and clothing the poor, they are feeing and clothing themselves.
- 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.
- What are the signs of this lack of assurance? We have already mentioned one sign: Every time something goes wrong in your life or a prayer goes unanswered, you wonder if it’s because you aren’t living right in this or that area. Another sign is that criticism from others doesn’t just hurt your feelings, it devastates you. This is because your sense of God’s love is abstract and has little power in your life, and you need the approval of others to bolster your sense of value.
- But perhaps the clearest symptom of this lack of assurance is a dry prayer life. Though the elder brothers may be diligent in prayer, there is no wonder, awe, intimacy, or delight in their conversations with God. Elder brothers may be disciplined in observing regular times of prayer, but their prayers are almost wholly taken up with a recitation of needs and petitions, not spontaneous, joyful praise. In fact, many elder brothers, for all their religiosity, do not have much of a private prayer life at all unless things are not going well in their lives. Then they may devote themselves to a great deal of it, until things get better again. This reveals that their main goal in prayer is to control their environment rather than to delve into an intimate relationship with a God who loves them.
Who Needs to Know This?
- Why is it so important to know that Jesus exposes elder-brother lostness as being wrong and destructive as younger-brother lostness? The elder brothers of this world desperately need to see themselves in this mirror. Jesus aimed this parable primarily at Pharisees, to show them who they were and to urge them to change. As we said, the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why elder brother lostness is so dangerous. If you know you’re sick, you’ll go to the doctor; if you don’t know you’re sick you won’t – you’ll just die.
- There are many people today who have abandoned any kid of religious faith because they see clearly that the major religions are simply full of elder brothers. They have come to the conclusion that religion is one of the greatest sources of misery and strife in the world. And guess what? Jesus says through this parable – they are right. The anger and superiority of elder brothers, all growing out of insecurity, fear, and inner emptiness, can create a huge body of guilt-ridden, spiritually blind people, which is one of the greatest sources of social injustice, war, and violence.
- 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.
- Our big cities are filled with younger brothers who fled from churches in the heartland that were dominated by elder brothers. When I moved to New York City in the late 1980s to begin a new church, I thought I would meet many secular people who had no familiarity with Christianity at all. I did, but to my surprise I met just as many people who had been raised in churches and devout families and had come to New York City to get as far away from them as possible. After about a year of ministry we had two or three hundred people attending services. I was asked, “Who is coming to your church?” Upon reflection, I answered that it was about one-third non-believers, one-third believers, and one third recovering believers – younger brothers. I had met so many younger brothers who had been hurt and offended by elder brothers that neither they nor I were sure whether they still believed the Christian faith or not.
- The most common examples of this I saw were the many young adults who had come from more conservative parts of the U.S. to take their undergraduate degrees at a New York City school. Here they met the kind of person they had been warned about for years, those with liberal views on sex, politics, and culture. Despite what they had been led to believe, these people were kind, reasonable, and open-hearted. When the students began to experience a change in their own view, they found that many people back home, especially in the churches, responded in a hostile and bigoted way. Soon they had rejected their former views along with their faith. The elder brothers had turned them into younger brothers.
- We discovered, however, that younger brothers were willing to come to our church because they saw that we made a clear distinction between the gospel and religious moralism, and that provided an opportunity in which they could explore Christianity from a new perspective.
- It is natural for younger brothers to think that elder brotherness and Christianity are exactly the same thing. But Jesus says they are not. In this parable Jesus deconstructs the religiosity that is one of the main problems in the world.
- There is a third group of people who need to understand elder brother lostness. There is a big difference between an elder brother and a real, gospel-believing Christian. But there are also many genuine Christians who are elder brotherish.
FIVE– The True Elder Brother: “My son, everything I have is yours.”
What we need
- What do we need to escape the shackles of our particular brand of lostness, whether it be younger-brother or elder brother? The first thing we need it God’s initiating love. Notice how the father comes out to each son and expresses love to him, in order to bring him back in.
- Jesus is not a Pharisee about Pharisees; he is not self-righteous about self-righteousness. Nor should we be. He not only loves the wild-living, free-spirited people, but also hardened religious people.
- Let me be careful to avoid a misunderstanding here. This story is a great metaphor of sin and salvation, but we can’t press every single detail literally.
- When Pharisees sin they feel terrible and repent. They may punish themselves and bewail their weakness. When they finish, however, they remain elder brothers. Remorse and regret is just part of the self-salvation project. Pharisaical repentance doesn’t go deep enough to get at the real problem.
- What is the problem? Pride in his good deeds rather than remorse over his bad deeds, was keeping the older brother out of the feast of salvation. The elder brother’s problem is his self-righteousness.
- To find God we must repent of the things we have done wrong, but if that is all you do, you remain an elder brother. To truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right. Pharisees only repent of their sins, but Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Savior and Lord.
Who we need
- A true elder brother should have gone out to look for his younger brother, but he didn’t.
- Over the years many readers have drawn the superficial conclusion that the restoration of the younger brother involved no atonement, no cost. They point out that the younger son wanted to make restitution but the father didn’t let him – his acceptance back into the family was free.
- However, the point of the story is that forgiveness always involves a price – someone has to pay. There was no way for the younger brother to return to the family unless the older brother paid the cost himself. Our true elder brother (Jesus) paid our debt on the cross, in our place.
- When we see the beauty of what Jesus has done for us it attracts us to Hm. We realize that the love, the consolation, the honor we have been seeking in other things is here.
- We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ.
SIX – Redefining Hope: “He set off for a far country.”
Our Longing for Home
- The story has an even larger context. If we read the narrative in light of the Bible’s sweeping theme of exile and homecoming we will understand that Jesus has given us more than a moving account of individual redemption. He has retold the story of the whole human race, and promised nothing less than hope for the world.
- “Home” exercises a powerful influence over human life. Foreign-born Americans spend billions to visit the communities in which they were born, etc.
- There is a spiritual homesickness. The German word “Sehnsucht” gets at the concept. There is no English equivalent. The writer who spoke most of this “spiritual homesickness” was C.S.Lewis, in his famous sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”
- There seems to be a sense in which we are all like the younger brother. We are all exiles, always longing for home. We are traveling, never arriving. The houses and families we actually inhabit are only inns along the way, but they aren’t home. Home continues to evade us.
- In Genesis we were told we were created to live in the garden of God, hence our spiritual homesickness. The Bible says that we have been wandering as spiritual exiles ever since.
- We may work hard to re-create the home that we have lost, but, says the Bible, it only exists in the presence of the heavenly father from which we have fled. This theme is played out again and again in the Bible. After Adam and Even’s exile from the ultimate home, their son Cain was forced to restlessly wander the earth because he murdered his brother Abel. Also the exodus under Moses, David as a hunted fugitive, the whole nation of Israel in the exile, etc. It is no coincidence that story after story contains the pattern of exile. The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us.
The Difficulty of Return
- All the mini-exoduses and mini-homecomings of the Bible in the end to deliver the final and full homecoming the prophets promised and everyone longed for. Why? One reason was the brokenness within human beings. The second reason is the brokenness around human beings. There is more to the state of evil than just human moral evil. According to the Bible, we live in a natural world that is now fallen. We were not made for a world of disease and natural disaster, a world in which everything decays and dies, including ourselves. This world, as it now exists, is not the home we long for. A real, final homecoming would mean a radical change not only in human nature but in the fabric of the material world. How can such a thing be accomplished.
- Jesus declared that he was bringing in “the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:15). Jesus had not come to simply deliver one nation from political oppression but to save all of us from sin, evil, and death itself. He came to bring the human race Home.
The Feast at the End of History
- Jesus not only died, but rose from the grave on the third day. He broke the power of death (Hebrews 2:14.) Because Jesus paid the penalty for our sin with his death, he has achieved victory over the forces of death, decay, and disorder that keeps the world from being our true home. Someday he will return to make this victory complete (Is. 35.)
- At the end of the story of the prodigal sons, there is a feast of homecoming. So too at the end of the book of Revelation, at the end of history, there is a feast, the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19.)
- Jesus, unlike the founder of any other major faith, holds hope for ordinary human life. Our future is not an ethereal, impersonal consciousness. We will not float through the air, but rather we will eat, embrace, sing, laugh, and dance in the Kingdom of God, in degrees of power, glory, and joy that we can’t at present imagine.
- Jesus will make the world our perfect home again. We will no longer be living “East of Eden” always wandering and never arriving. We will come, and the father will meet us and embrace us, and will be brought into the feast.
SEVEN – The Feast of the Father: “He heard music and dancing.”
Salvation Is Experiential
- A feast is a place where our appetites and our senses of sight, smell, sound, and taste – are filled up. Jesus’ salvation is a feast, and therefore when we believe in and rest in his work for us, through the Holy Spirit he becomes real to our hearts. His love is like honey or like wine. Jesus offers access to the presence of the Father. It is only a foretaste now, and it waxes and wanes over the years as we pray and seek his face with the help of the Spirit.
Salvation Is Material
- A meal is a very physical experience. Jesus left a meal, the Lord’s Supper, to be remembered by, and the final goal of history is a meal, the wedding supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19.) The resurrected Christ ate with his disciples when he met with them (Luke 24:42-43; John 21:19) What does this mean? It is a sign that, for Jesus, this material world matters.
- The book of Genesis tells us that when God made this world he looked upon the physical creation and called it “good.” He loves and cares for the material world.
- 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. God made the world with all its colors, tastes, lights, sounds, with all its life-forms living in interdependent systems. It is not marred, stained, and broken, and he will not rest until he has put it right.
- Christianity is perhaps the most materialistic of the world’s faiths. Jesus’ miracles were not so much violations of the natural order, but a restoration of the natural order. God did not create a world with blindness, leprosy, hunger, and death in it. Jesus’ miracles were signs that someday all these corruptions of his creation would be abolished. Christians therefore can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence. With integrity.
- Christianity teaches that God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was wiling to get involved in it and to fight against it.
Salvation Is Individual
- Religion operates on the principle of “I obey – therefore I am accepted by God.” The basic operating principle of the gospel is “I am accepted by God through the work of Christ – therefore I obey.”
- We must not think that once believing in the gospel, the Christian is now finished with the gospel messagt. A fundamental insight of Martin Luther was that “religion” is the default mode of the human heart. 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.
- The gospel is therefore not just the ABCs of the Christian life, but the A to Z of the Christian life. Our problems arise largely because we don’t continually return to the gospel to work it in and live it out. That is why Martin Luther wrote, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.”
- To keep growing in Christ you keep telling yourself how graciously loved and accepted you rare. The wonderful beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had two edges to it. On the one hand it cut away slavish fear. God loves us freely, despite our flaws and failures. We are bought with a price.
- In the end, Martin Luther’s old formula still sums things up nicely: “We are saved by faith alone (not our works), but not by faith that remains alone.” Nothing can merit God’s grace and favor, we can only believe that he has given it to us in Jesus Christ and believe it by faith. But if we truly believe and trust in the one who sacrificially served us, it changes unto people who sacrificially serve God and our neighbors.
Salvation Is Communal
- Feasting is communal by nature.
- We live in a culture in which the interests and desires of the individual take precedence over those of the family, group, or community. As a result a high percentage of people want to achieve spiritual growth without losing their independence to a church or to any organized institution. This is often the meaning behind the common protestations “I am spiritual, but not religious” and “I like Jesus, but not Christianity.
- I have explained in this book why churches – and all religious institutions – are often so unpleasant. They are filled with elder brothers. Yet staying away from them simply because they have elder brothers is just another from of self-righteousness.
- You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place. C.S.Lewis was part of a famous circle of friends called the Inklings, which included J.R.R. Tolkien and Charles Williams. Lewis believed that it took a community to know the individual.
- You will never get to know Jesus better by yourself. You must be deeply involved in the church, in Christian community, with strong relationships of love and accountability. Only if you are part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.
- Jesus’ great Parable of the Prodigal Son retells the story of the entire Bible and the story of the human race. Within the story, Jesus teaches that the two most common ways to live are both spiritual dead ends. He shows how the plotlines of our lives can only find a resolution, a happy ending, in him, in his person, and work.
- Isak Dinesen’s beloved story “Babette’s Feast” also ends with a feast, and also teaches us about two common ways to live that are inadequate, and the reality of another path. Both the worldly life of sensual pleasure and the religious life of ethical strictness fail to give the human heart what it is seeking. Kierkegaard called these two ways the “aesthetic” and the “ethical” and in his writings he shows that neither approach to life is adequate. What is the alternative?
- Jesus parable answers the question that Dinesen’s story poses so skillfully. Jesus says, “I am the Bread of Heaven.” Jesus tells 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 and feast at the end of history. We can have a foretaste of that future salvation now in all the ways outlined in this chapter: in prayer, in service to others, in the changes in our inner nature through the gospel, and through the healed relationship that Christ can give us now. But they are only a foretaste of what is to come. See the feast that is prepared for us one day in Isaiah 25:6-8.