The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

Quite a bit of buzz surrounds The Prodigal God, the latest release by Rev. Tim Keller.

Perhaps, like me, you are uncertain of the title. How could God be prodigal? I’ve only heard the word used in a certain context — the parable of the prodigal son. I have also heard many adults refer to wayward children as prodigals. I assumed that prodigal described a child who rejected his parents’ way of life, more specifically their religion.

Then, I decided to read a little about the book.

And I learned something: the definition of prodigal.

Here’s how Rev. Keller explains it:

The word ‘prodigal’ does not appear in the Greek text. It is an English word that has become attached to the parable of the two lost sons in Luke 15. But it is a good, suggestive word that helps us understand the parable’s teaching.

The word ‘prodigal’ is an English word that means recklessly extravagant, spending to the point of poverty, of ‘being in want’ (Luke 15:14.) The dictionaries tell us that the word can be understood in a more negative or a more positive sense. The more positive meaning is to be lavishly and sacrificially abundant in giving. The more negative sense, is to be wasteful and irresponsible in one’s spending. The negative sense obviously applies to the actions of the younger brother in the Luke 15 parable of the two sons. But is there any sense in which God can be called ‘Prodigal’?

First, the elder brother is offended by the father’s extravagant and (to him) irresponsible welcome of his younger brother. The father, of course, represents God, and legalists are always offended by the gospel of free grace. They see it as wasteful and unfair. After all, they worked for their acceptance. These are the people to whom Jesus was telling the parable in the first place—the Pharisees who objected to Jesus’ lavish grace to tax collectors and sinners. They certainly thought Jesus was being far too free and irresponsible with the love and favor he was promising them from God. Jesus depicts them in the parable as the elder brother upset with his father’s prodigality.

Second, the positive meaning of the term ‘prodigal’ is definitely true of God. He spent himself to the uttermost on the Cross. He did so ‘recklessly’ in the sense that he did not reckon the cost to himself. Jesus was someone who spent himself into helpless poverty (2 Cor 8:9) and was ‘in want’ in the most extreme way.

So, in summary, the title ‘Prodigal God’ calls attention not only to the mistaken way that legalists regard God’s gospel of grace, but also to how Jesus, though he was rich, spent everything without thought for himself, that we might be saved.

Rev. Keller later added: “I forgot to reference a very famous sermon by Charles Spurgeon on Luke 15 entitled ‘Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son.’ There you see the negative and positive senses of the word nicely summarized in one memorable sentence.”

Almost all of the blurbs I’ve read about this book say that it will make you see Christianity in a whole new way. Sounds like too much praise for a book, but it’s probably true of this one simply because this is a book about the incredible grace of God. I don’t want to project my experience onto everyone else, but I didn’t hear much about the grace of God the first ten years I was a believer. Then, in my early twenties, I started learning how to study my Bible. I picked up some good books and my understanding of Christianity began to change. I remember the first book about grace I read and how it did make me see Christianity in a whole new way. An apprehension of God’s grace is life-changing. I’m sure this book will do the same for so many others. I’m looking forward to reading it.

One Comment on “The Prodigal God by Tim Keller

  1. I’m not a big fan of Keller (shock!) I did a Keller study on Galatians in which he majored on the Prodigal Son. I was not impressed. I probably won’t be buying this book but I will be interested in reading your take on it.


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