Book Review: ‘The Prodigal God’ by Timothy Keller

Based largely on Jesus’ famous parable in the Gospel of Luke, ‘The Prodigal Son’, this book is surprisingly titled ‘The Prodigal God’. The author, Tim Keller, says that it would be appropriate to use the adjective ‘prodigal’ for God because the parable shows Him to be a Father who is ‘literally reckless’ in welcoming home his repentant children. Because He spent everything on His children, till He had nothing left. The book attempts to lay out the essentials of the Gospel to both unbelieving outsiders and believing insiders, who are personified by the younger and older brother in Jesus’ parable.

The book runs on one basic proposition, that there are two major ways in which people have strayed away from God. One is the way of self-discovery, which believes that individuals must be free to pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention. That was the way of ‘the tax-collectors and sinners’ during Jesus’ time and of ‘the younger brother’ in the parable. It is also the way of many liberal thinking individuals in our society today.

The second way is of moral conformity which believes in putting the will of God and the standards of the community ahead of individual fulfilment. That was the way of ‘the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law’ during Jesus’ time and of ‘the elder brother’ in the parable. It is also the way of the conservative, often religious people, in our society today. Both kinds of people try to get the things of God but they don’t want God Himself, and in that sense, both kinds of people are equally lost.

But Keller says that the first way of lostness is quite obvious and people on this way know that they are alienated from God. But the second way of lostness is more dangerous because such people don’t know they are also alienated from God. And then the book takes an extended look at this second category of people. It says that people with the elder-brother spirit, because of their self-righteous attitude, (1) are generally angry and bitter, (2) have a strong sense of their own superiority, (3) are joyless and provide fear-based compliance to God and society and (4) suffer from a lack of assurance of God’s love for them. And Keller goes on to make an incredibly true claim, that many genuine Christians also are ‘elder-brotherish’ because they also have not grasped the Gospel fully and deeply. And that is why I believe this book will speak not only to unbelieving outsiders but also many Christians who have not truly understood the Gospel and see the elder-brother’s traits in themselves.

So, the author feels that the self-discoverers are better placed than the moral-conformists, because at least they are aware about their own alienation from God. The author says that the pre-requisite for receiving the grace of God is to know you need it. And probably that is why Jesus talks about tax-collectors and prostitutes getting in to the Kingdom of God before the chief priests and the elders (Matt. 21:23, 31).

The book says that in order to enter in to the joy of God’s salvation, we need a true elder-brother. The elder brother in Jesus’ parable was not willing to pay the price of welcoming the younger brother back in to the family, because he believed that the rest of the property rightfully belonged to him. But Keller says that we have a true elder brother in Jesus Christ who paid “the infinite cost of his own life to bring us into God’s family”. From there on the rest of the book tells us how the whole of humanity, like the younger brother, is in an exile and waiting to come back to its true home. And how Jesus brings us back and what it means to be part of the true feast of salvation.

To conclude I will say that this book presents the Gospel accurately to all those have not heard it so far. To the self-discoverers and especially to the moral conformists around us. But this book will really probe your heart, if you claim to be a true Christian who has already understood the Gospel. This book is especially for you. It would be tough to read this book and not be humbled before God. So, go ahead and buy this book, and read it for your own sake, before you gift it to someone else. There is a good chance that it will drive the Gospel deeper in to your heart.

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