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Everyone needs the gospel. That’s probably the most basic Christian sentence you can utter. It’s so basic that we forget what it means. In Keller’s The Prodigal God, he reminds us with one of Jesus’s parables, the parable of the prodigal son. In this parable, Jesus confronts us with a striking truth: The two approaches to God that we often take—rebellious sensuality or achievement-based value—are equally damning and selfish. Jesus calls us away from both paths. There’s a third way: salvation and acceptance by grace for those who truly love God. Jesus’s parable points out not the prodigality of the reckless younger son, but the prodigality of God in spending more than we could fathom to bring back all the younger and elder brothers in the world. This book is a call to return to the pure, heart-changing love of God, the love that redeemed a worldly spendthrift and a legalistic rule-follower. What sticks out in the book, however, is that the latter is more dangerous, both in Jesus’s day and in our own. People can feign love for God with moralism, but that may be hiding what they really want: something other than God himself.

What I Loved

On social media, I once saw Jackie Hill Perry laugh at how Tim Keller says the most profound things in the most casual way. I’d say that’s true, though this takes nothing from his sincerity. What I loved most about this book is how refreshingly it presents the loving good news of God, assaulting false religion in the process. The parable of the prodigal son is as much (perhaps even more so?) about the elder brother as it is about the younger brother. While we’re quick to judge the reckless younger brother and praise his forgiving father, we’re slow to see the selfishness and worldliness of the elder brother. The elder brother, it turns out, was never really interested in obeying his father out of love; he obeyed out of a desire to receive something. He obeyed because he wanted his father to owe him. That is a far more dangerous spiritual condition. If we know who we are and what we really want, our need for God will eventually rise to the surface. But if we hide who we are and what we really want, we’ll go deeper into the darkness of self-fulfillment. Transparency is the best medicine for the soul.

Favorite Quotes

  • “Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure, who is nothing if not prodigal toward us, his children” (xv).
  • “Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders” (10).
  • “The younger son was saying, essentially, that he wants his father’s things, but not his father. His relationship to the father has been a means to the end of enjoying his wealth, and now he is weary of that relationship. He wants out” (18).
  • “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. Each acts as a lens coloring how you see all of life, or as a paradigm shaping your understanding of everything. Each is a way of finding personal significance and worth, of addressing the ills of the world, and of determining right from wrong” (29).
  • “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 the barrier between him and his father, it’s the 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” (35).
  • “The hearts of the two brothers were the same. Both sons resented their father’s authority and sought ways of getting out from under it. They each wanted to get into a position in which they could tell the father what to do. Each one, in other words, rebelled—but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons” (36).
  • “Everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change” (45).
  • “It is impossible to forgive someone if you feel superior to him or her” (55).
  • “We have been living in a world that no longer fits our deepest longings” (96).
  • “Jesus hates suffering, injustice, evil, and death so much much, he came and experience it to defeat it and, someday, to wipe the world clean of it” (113).

What I Would Have Liked

Though I know he believes this, I would have liked to see a bit more emphasis on the Spirit being the agent who produces change in our hearts, who draws us into living out the gospel. That’s the only place where I feel more nuance was needed. This wasn’t too much of a concern, since I know Keller believes this, but I wouldn’t want readers to think that their internal change was anything but a work of God.

Should You Read It?

Definitely. It’s a paradigm-shifting book, especially for understanding this parable. I love Jesus, and I love how he shatters our categories of superficial holiness and shows us something deeper. Keller draws readers to this trait of Christ with ease and winsomeness. Enjoy it!

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