Tim Keller’s The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith is a great book. In this short volume, Keller presents the gospel to his readers with a gentle integrity using the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). Building on the teaching of his mentor, Edmund P. Clowney, he notes that while the prodigal son is saved in the parable, the story ends with the father appealing to his older son to come in for the celebration of the younger brother’s return. Keller writes that this party was being paid for out of the older brother’s inheritance, since the younger brother had already taken and spent his part of the father’s property. Jesus’ target in this parable was the Pharisees and scribes (Luke 15:2), the “elder brothers” who criticized Jesus for associating with sinners, the “younger brothers.”
Keller argues that the two brothers represent the two ways that people sin against God: we can be younger brothers who pursue pleasure with disdain for tradition, or we can be moralists who try to earn favor with God and try to create their own righteousness. Both are in opposition to loving God for who He is and acting morally because of God’s love and grace to us. These two types of people often criticize each other, but each is missing God’s grace. Following the interpretation that the parable is mostly directed at Jesus’ self-righteous critics and counteracting the usual focus on the younger brother, Keller spends more time unpacking the elder brother’s attitude.
Keller discusses our sin and the resulting alienation from God, although he does not say much (if anything) about hell. This may be the one weakness of the book, although from this article you can tell that Keller considers the doctrine of hell important. On the other hand, the final three chapters of the book focus on how sinners are redeemed, and give a compelling description for the costly love of Christ and the hope and glories of salvation in its different facets: relationship with God and other believers, the restoration of the creation, and sanctification. One of the great parts about these chapters is that they point people to the wonders of salvation in a very deep and biblical way, which perform the important task of not simply scaring people away from hell but asking them to consider the joys of knowing God through Christ. I think that this is a great book for Christians to examine their own hearts for elder and younger brother tendencies and to remind themselves to look upon God’s great love for us. I also think that it is a fresh way to present the timeless gospel to someone who doesn’t believe in Christ.