Book Review: The Prodigal God

The Prodigal God, by Tim KellerI was finally able to read through a book that’s had a lot of hype lately: The Prodigal God, by Tim Keller. I don’t have much background knowledge about Keller, other than what I’ve found with a google search. He’s the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, and a widely-acclaimed author and speaker. In fact, some have called him the “C.S. Lewis of the 21st century” – and that’s what first piqued my interest in his books.

So, about The Prodigal God. It’s a rather short book {139 pages} about what we usually call the “parable of the prodigal son.” Except Keller emphasizes that the parable is actually a lesson about both sons, and about the father’s reckless extravagant grace towards his sons. He states, in the very first sentence of his introduction, that the book’s purpose is “to lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel.” Thus, the book is written for both skeptics and believers alike, and actually does a decent job of reaching both groups.

Keller’s work highly emphasizes that the older brother in the parable was just as guilty, and lost, as the younger brother  was. And I have to agree with him. He makes the point that Christ was preaching this story to the Pharisees – who were themselves the picture of older brothers. They thought their goodness, morality, and adherence to laws would save them. But all that religion, all that doing right for the wrong reasons, left them just as unsaved as the younger brothers, who lived sensually and for their own pleasures. Keller describes the two groups as moral conformity and self-discovery. And he parallels these brothers to today – the one group who adheres to tradition and rules and, sadly, makes up much of our churches today; and the other who celebrates “liberty” to live however they want, regardless of the effect on others.

But then he goes on to describe the father in the story. The one who showed reckless, extravagant grace toward both sons. Because both were equally proud, and blind, and lost. The father approaches each of them with pure love. He literally runs to the first {and in that culture, grown men never ran} and lavishes affection on him. And he approaches the older son {who refused to show proper respect in his address to the father} and literally begs him to enjoy the feast. Through paralleling this part of the story to our lives today, Keller defines and describes true repentance for both “older brothers” and “younger brothers” – and how it is free for us, but so extravagantly costly for Christ. And hence comes the name of the book {The Prodigal God}, with the definition of prodigal being “reckless, extravagant; spending everything.”

In the final two chapters of The Prodigal God, Keller makes broader applications to our eternal home, and to the great marriage feast that will take place when we reach that home. In my opinion, some of his applications may be stretching it a little. For instance, he speaks of Christianity being the cure-all for the world’s problems of hunger, poverty, and death. He says “the inevitable sign that you know you are a sinner saved by sheer, costly grace is a sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor. Younger brothers are too selfish and elder brothers are too self-righteous to care for the poor.” Okay, I agree with his point about the younger and older brothers; but is social-awareness and championing social change really the hallmark of a true believer? I would have to say no. It is a good thing, and a sign of truly loving as Christ loves, but it is not the point of Christianity and it is not the sign of true salvation. Mother Teresa was a great woman, but just because she helped so many people does not mean she was truly trusting in Christ for salvation. He makes a few other points in those final chapters that gave me reason to pause… not saying they’re wrong, just things that are put differently than I’d heard before. But I’d have to study them out before I could say whether I agreed completely or not.

Overall, I would recommend The Prodigal God. The first five chapters are an excellent exposition of the parable, and provide a clear picture of our sinfulness {living our own way} and God’s extravagant love for us. It made me reflect on my own life, to see what ways I was living like either of the two brothers. It gave me insight into the current state of our churches. It helped me come to a greater understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ; and that, I think, is perhaps its greatest acclaim.

Have you read this book? What are your thoughts about its message?


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2 thoughts on “Book Review: The Prodigal God

  1. I haven’t read it, but it’s on my “to be read” list. (Along with a slew of others, so who knows when I’ll get to it.)

    I recently read Keller’s “The Meaning of Marriage” and thought it was excellent, and it made me want to read all of his other books.

    Thanks for the review – it does make me want to see about bumping this one up the list. 🙂

    1. I just got “Meaning of Marriage” out of the library. Looking forward to diving into it!

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