Parable challenges religiosity

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Timothy Keller

Dutton, 2008
160 pages

Christians commonly use the parable of the prodigal son to reveal the heart of the gospel – God’s love accepting back his wayward children. Typically, the parable is said to be about “them,” the sinners of this world. Tim Keller, in his book The Prodigal God, proposes a broader reading, one in which Jesus’ message is also for “us,” the religious folks.
Defining the book’s title, Keller describes “God’s reckless grace” as exhibited by the father in the parable – a grace available and needed for rebellious and religious people alike. But as the reader will see, the more religious you think you are, the more challenging the parable becomes.

Keller warns against the dogmatic religiosity Christians too often adopt, represented by the elder son in Jesus’ story. Keller’s honest critique is likely a reason for his own success in connecting with non-religious people in society. His descriptions of the elder son reflect a humility often lacking in Christian thought: “We must learn how to repent of the sin under all our other sins and under all our righteousness – the sin of seeking to be our own Saviour and Lord.”

In describing the sobering situation of the elder son, the book acted as a mirror to evaluate my own Christian identity. “Because [the elder son] does not see himself as being 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.” A sobering situation indeed, particularly if I ask, “How am I like the elder son?”

In an age of biblical illiteracy both within and outside the church, there are moments when Keller would do well to expand his theological definitions. At times, he seems to assume the reader carries the same definition as himself. And while some of Keller’s theological nuances could be questioned from an Anabaptist perspective (e.g. “God’s initiating love”), his theology remains broad enough to cross a wide spectrum of theological backgrounds.

With an apt blend of storytelling, cultural insights, and biblical exposition, Keller’s writing should appeal to many. Overall, The Prodigal God offers a dynamic, yet easily accessible discussion of the Christian faith, offering hope for Christians wrestling with how to understand and communicate the gospel in our world.

David Warkentin is community impact pastor at Hyde Creek Community Church, Port Coquitlam, B.C. He blogs at

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