The Prodigal God

A review of The Prodigal God

In The Prodigal God (2010), Timothy Keller proposes to ‘lay out the essentials of the Christian message, the gospel’ and ‘to get to the heart of the Christian faith’.[1]  The book ‘is not just for seekers’, but for lifelong believers who think they understand the basics of the Christian faith. But Keller thinks, ‘one of the signs they you may not grasp the unique radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do’.[2] Toward this end, Keller interprets the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) wherein he claims to have unlocked ‘the true meaning of it’, and to have ‘discovered the secret heart of Christianity’.[3] He says that ‘Jesus is showing us the God of Great Expenditure… God’s reckless grace is our greatest hope.’[4]

Having accepted the psychological premise that we are all seeking ‘personal significance and worth’[5], Keller finds the ‘true meaning’ of the Parable to be ‘two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfilment’.[6]  Elder brothers follow the way of ‘moral conformity’ and younger brothers ‘the way of self-discovery’.  The younger son is on a quest for ‘self-actualization’,[7] he is ‘the one who connects with Jesus’.[8] In stark contrast, the elder brother is the ‘moral insider… blind, narrow, and self-righteous’.[9] Nowhere in the book does Keller give a clear explanation of the Gospel, the way of salvation.

Keller says the target of Jesus’ Parable is ‘not wayward sinners but religious people who do everything the Bible requires’.[10] One of his aims is to explain why churches are often so unpleasant. He writes: ‘I have explained in this book why churches—and all religious institutions—are often so unpleasant. They are filled with elder brothers…’[11]  The reader is left in no doubt that religious people, those who seek to obey Scripture, are the real target of Keller’s book.

 The younger brother

The younger son is described as ‘a free spirit’,[12] who is weary of the relationship with his father.[13] Having received his inheritance, he goes off to a far country and squanders everything through a wayward lifestyle, and ‘when he is literally down in the mud with the pigs, he “comes to his senses” and devises a plan’.[14] Keller tells us that the younger son had worked out a business plan for repaying his father the debt.[15]  But Scripture says nothing about a business plan, but that the rebellious younger son had made up his mind to confess his sin to his father. ‘I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.” ’ (Luke 15.18-19).

On his way home the younger son is surprised to see his father running to meet him. ‘Flummoxed, he tries to roll out his business plan for the restitution. The father interrupts him, not only ignoring his rehearsed speech, but directly contradicting it.’[16] In Keller’s account, contrary to Scripture, the father does not give the younger son a chance to confess his sin or express his repentance. The father says: ‘I’m not going to wait until you’ve paid off your debt; I’m not going to wait until you’ve duly grovelled. You are not going to earn your way back into the family, I am going to simply take you back.’[17]

So Keller sees repentance as grovelling, which he regards as unnecessary and demeaning. Keller presents the picture of a father who simply takes the son back. No mention of sin, no mention of confession, no need for repentance. Keller expresses it like this: ‘God’s love and forgiveness can pardon and restore any and every kind of sin or wrongdoing.’[18] Keller’s portrayal of what he calls ‘the freeness of God’s  grace’[19] is actually describing what German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer called ‘cheap grace’. In his book The Cost of Discipleship (1937) Bonhoeffer explains the distinction between ‘cheap’ and ‘costly’ grace. He writes: ‘cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance… Of course you have sinned, but now everything is forgiven, so you can stay as you are and enjoy the consolations of forgiveness…’ In contrast, ‘costly grace confronts us as a gracious call to follow Jesus, it comes as a word of forgiveness to the broken spirit and the contrite heart…’

 The elder brother

Keller’s main focus is the elder brother as he continues to add to Scripture. He describes elder brothers as the ‘bourgeois’, those who seek ‘legitimacy through an ethic of hard work and moral rectitude’.[20]  He claims that the ‘perceived bourgeois hypocrisy’ of elder brothers leads to the bohemian behaviour of younger brothers, like ‘the Bloomsbury Group of London, the Beats of Greenwich Village, and the indie-rock scenes of today’.[21]

He says the elder brother ‘disgraced the father’ publicly by forcing him ‘to come out to speak’.[22] Then comes the ‘denouement’. Keller puts these words in the father’s mouth: ‘My son, despite how you’ve insulted me publicly, I still want you in the feast. I am not going to disown your brother, but I don’t want to disown you either…’[23] Keller provides his interpretation: ‘Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God. He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved’.[24]

 The Pharisees

Keller says that the Pharisees were represented in the Parable ‘by the elder brother. They held to the traditional morality of their upbringing. They studied and obeyed the Scripture. They worshiped faithfully and constantly.’[25] They are the religious people ‘who do everything the Bible requires’.[26] Here we see a fault-line in Keller’s theology. The Pharisees were not people who believed and obey the Bible, as Keller asserts. On the contrary, the Pharisees held to the tradition of men. Our Lord said to the Pharisees, ‘For laying aside the commandment of God, ye hold the tradition of men, as the washing of pots and cups: and many other such like things ye do’ (Mark 7.13). The Pharisees feigned obedience to God’s Word, but they did not really obey it—they were hypocrites who did not obey God’s moral law, they only kept the ceremonial rites, like hand washing. Jesus called them hypocrites seven times in Matthew 23.

And here Keller introduces a remarkable paradox. He says that the teaching of Jesus ‘consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible believing religious people of his day’.[27] Keller is telling us that Bible believing people were offended by the teaching of Jesus. But that cannot be true, for all Scripture speaks of Jesus Christ (Luke 24.27), so Bible believing people see Christ in the Scriptures, and are not offended by the teaching of Jesus.

Keller asserts that, ‘The elder brother in the parable illustrates the way of moral conformity. The Pharisees of Jesus’ day believed that, while they were a people chosen by God, they could only maintain their place in his blessing and receive final salvation through strict obedience to the Bible.’[28] But the Pharisees did not strictly obey the Bible. It is remarkable that a theologian of Keller’s standing can make such a false statement. As we have already seen, the Pharisees were hypocrites, who followed the tradition of men and did not obey God’s moral law.

 Fanatical Christians

Keller is certain that ‘the real audience for this story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers’.[29]  Keller’s purpose appears to be to convince his readers that Bible believing Christians, who seek to obey God’s moral law, are really elder brothers, just like the Pharisees. This is reminiscent of his stereotype of ‘born-again Christians’ in The Reason for God (2008).  There Keller labels ‘born again’ Christians as fanatics. ‘Many non-believers have friends or relatives who have become “born again” and seem to have gone off the deep end. They soon begin to express loudly their disapproval of various groups and sectors of our society – especially movies and television, the Democratic Party, homosexuals, evolutionists, activist judges… When arguing for the truth of their faith they often appear intolerant and self-righteous. This is what many people would call fanaticism.’[30]

Keller then makes his argument. ‘Think of people you consider fanatical. They’re overbearing, self-righteous, opinionated, insensitive and harsh. Why? It’s not because they are too Christian but because they are not Christian enough. They are fanatically zealous and courageous, but they are not fanatically humble, sensitive, loving, empathetic, forgiving or understanding – as Christ was.’[31] Keller has clearly forgotten Christ’s encounter with the unbelieving Jews. In John chapter 8, Jesus said to them: ‘You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do’ (John 8.44).

Keller characterizes ‘born again’ Christians as harsh, insensitive, self-righteous and intolerant, people who loudly expresses views on politics, homosexuality and evolution.  The very tolerant Keller is completely intolerant of born again Christians such as C. T. Studd who left Cambridge University to spend his life as a missionary in Africa saying, ‘Real Christians will always be called fanatics’.

 Keller’s political agenda

Keller now enlarges on the ‘desperate spiritual condition’ of the elder brother.[32]  We are told that ‘elder brother’s self-righteousness not only creates racism and classism, but at the personal level creates an unforgiving, judgmental spirit.’[33] He uses his flawed analysis of the Parable to promote his political agenda. He writes: ‘When we see the attitude of the elder brother in the story we begin to realise one of the reasons the younger brother wanted to leave in the first place… They have come to the conclusion that religion is one of the greatest sources of misery and strife in the world.’[34] Keller continues: ‘And guess what? Jesus says through this parable—they are right… The anger and superiority of elder brothers… can create a huge body of guilt-ridden, fear-ridden, spiritually blind people, which is one of the great sources of social injustice, war, and violence… Our big cities are filled with younger brothers who fled from churches in the heartland that were dominated by elder brothers.’[35]

Keller tells of the many young adults who come from more conservative parts of the US to study in New York. ‘Here they meet the kind of person they had been warned about for years, those with liberal views on sex, politics, and culture. Despite what they had been led to believe, those people were kind, reasonable, and open-hearted.’[36]

Keller argues that ‘elder brother types’ (conservative Christians), who come from the more conservative parts of the US, at a personal level are hostile bigots with an unforgiving and judgmental spirit. At a political level they are the cause of racism, classism, social injustice, war and violence. On the other hand, Keller says those with liberal views on sex, politics, and culture, are kind, reasonable, and open-hearted. So the reader is asked to believe that conservative Christians are hostile bigots, while unbelieving liberals are kind and open-hearted. What a travesty of the truth.

Another flaw in Keller’s theology is that he fails to distinguish Pharisees from true believers who are ‘zealous for good works’ (Titus 2:14) having been ‘created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance’ because they are ‘God’s workmanship’ (Ephesians 2:10).  Contrary to Keller’s view of the Pharisees as those who obey the Bible, Scripture presents the Pharisees as those who hold to the tradition of men and do not keep God’s law. The first Christian martyr Stephen, in his defence before the leaders of Israel, said: ‘You stiff-necked and uncircumcised in heart and ears… who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it’ (Acts 7.51-53).

Yet Keller’s church, we are informed, has been able to make a ‘clear distinction between the gospel and religious moralism… there is a way to know God that doesn’t lead to the pathologies of moralism and religiosity’.[37] What Keller really means is that he has created a loving and non-judgemental brand of Christianity that does not stand against liberal view on sex, politics and culture; a brand of Christianity that does not practice strict obedience to God’s moral law. But this is counterfeit Christianity.

 The Psychological Gospel

Throughout The Prodigal God, Keller relies on psychoanalytic theory to describe and explain the actions of the younger and the elder brother. Younger brothers ‘pursue their own goals and self-actualization regardless of custom and convention’.[38] Elder brothers seek happiness ‘by achieving moral rectitude’.[39] They ‘base their self image on being hardworking or moral… this inevitably leads to feeling superior’.[40] Keller concludes: ‘Underneath the brothers sharply different patterns of behavior is the same motivation and aim.’[41] Keller imagines he can read the heart of man and understand it via psychoanalytic constructs. He actually says that ‘elder brothers obey God to get things’.  And, ‘elder brothers are being moral only for their own benefit’.[42] How does he know this? And more: ‘If, like the elder brother, you seek to control God through your obedience, then all your morality is just a way to use God to make him give you the things in life you really want.’ How does he know what is in the heart of those who obey God?  Keller shows his ignorance, for our Lord said, ‘He who has my commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me’ (John 14.21).  According to Scripture, those who obey God’s commandments are those who love God (1 John 5.3). After pages of psychoanalysis, the reader is left with diagnosis and treatment rather than any understanding of sin and salvation.

 Redefining sin

Keller’s flawed approach lends support to his redefinition and deconstruction of sin, redemption and the very nature of God. Very much in keeping with the traditions of men and today’s counseling movements, The Prodigal God is filled with the author’s judgments of people’s hearts (motivations). In contrast to Scripture, the problem of Keller’s younger brothers is never inside; Scripture states clearly that man’s problem is not environmental but is rather a problem of the heart (Mark 7:17-23).  Following the tradition of men, Keller places the problem outside of man. He asserts that the attitude of the elder brother was one of the reasons the younger brother wanted to leave home.[43] He even says that the elder brother’s self-righteousness causes racism and classism.[44]

 The True Elder Brother

As noted above, Keller much embellishes the story of the father in the Parable. After describing both the ‘self-discovering’ younger son and the ‘moralistic’ elder brother, he then introduces his own version of Christ as ‘the true elder brother’, whom we ‘need to escape the shackles of our particular brand of lostness…’[45]  In developing this concept Keller says, ‘the first thing we need is God’s initiating love’.[46]  This love Keller describes as lavish, prodigal and absolutely free.[47]  Nowhere does he acknowledge the wrath of God upon sin, nor does he mention that man should fear the wrath and judgment of God. To Keller, ‘to truly become Christians we must also repent of the reasons we ever did anything right… Christians repent for the very roots of their righteousness, too.’[48] He continually emphasizes a psychological construct of sin and salvation asking, ‘How can the inner workings of the heart be changed from a dynamic of fear and anger to that of love, joy, and gratitude?’[49] Keller assures the reader that ‘honesty born of fear does nothing to root out the fundamental cause of evil in the world…’[50]  Scripture disagrees with Keller’s analysis. ‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways and to love Him…’ (Deuteronomy 10: 12).  Those who fear the Lord are describes as God’s treasured possession (Malachi 3: 16, 17).

As is always the case when man is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a rebel against his Creator, the Cross becomes quite irrelevant. In keeping with this, Keller describes the human race as ‘a band of exiles trying to come home’.[51] Scripture describes fallen man is as those who continue to run and hide. ‘There is none who seeks after God’ (Romans 3.11). Keller says, ‘When we see the beauty of what he has done for us, it attracts our hearts to him… to the degree we see his beauty we will be free from the fear and neediness that creates either younger brothers or elder brothers.’[52]

 Four Ways

In the closing chapter of The Prodigal God, Keller asks, ‘How will our lives change as we live them based on Jesus’ message about sin, grace and hope?’[53]  He reminds us that Jesus ‘left a meal—what we today call the Lord’s Supper or Eucharist—as a sign of his saving grace. And of course, Jesus’ parable of the lost sons ends in a party-feast that represents the great festival of God at the end of history.’[54] Here we should note that he equates the Protestant ordinance of the Lord’s Supper with the Eucharist of the Roman Catholic Church, which is based on the Real Presence or transubstantiation. He then outlines four ways to enjoy such a feast.

First, Keller says, ‘Jesus came to bring festival joy’.[55] He follows that with, ‘If you are filled with shame and guilt, you do not merely need to believe in the abstract concept of God’s mercy. You must sense, on the palate of your heart, as it were, the sweetness of his mercy. Then you will know you are accepted. If you are filled with worry and anxiety, you do not only need to believe that God is in control of history. You must see with the eyes of the heart, his dazzling majesty.’[56] Thus salvation must be a pleasant sensual experience, only ‘then you will know you are accepted’.[57]

Second, Keller moves from insisting that one’s salvation must be a pleasant sensual experience to insisting that it must produce a pleasant material earthly kingdom as well. Thus he attempts to inform the reader as to how man can accomplish ‘a radical change… in the very fabric of the material world’.[58] He says, ‘the ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins, but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering and death’.[59] He carefully avoids any mention of Peter’s description in which ‘the earth and everything in it will be laid bare’ and ‘the elements will melt in the heat’ (2 Peter 3:10-13). Instead of Peter’s sure and certain word that we are looking for ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, Keller points the reader to ‘the renewal of this world’.[60]

Again, Keller diverts the readers from the Cross to their own good works as he states emphatically, ‘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’.[61] He embellishes this with ‘God hates the suffering and oppression of this material world so much, he was willing to get involved in it and to fight against it’,[62] concluding that ‘Christians therefore can talk of saving the soul and of building social systems that deliver safe streets and warm homes in the same sentence. With integrity.’[63]  In his book Generous Justice (2010), he warns his readers that ‘if you are not just, you’ve not truly been saved by faith’.[64]  And by this Keller is not speaking of justification but rather of so-called just works.

Third, Keller correctly describes salvation as ‘individual’, saying that ‘we must personally appropriate’ the Gospel ‘making it more and more central to everything we see think and feel’.[65] He says a meal fuels growth. ‘The Lord’s Supper, also called Communion or the Eucharist, represents ongoing growth in God’s grace.’[66] Keller again shows his ecumenical ambitions as he places the Roman Catholic Eucharist alongside the Protestant Lord’s Supper. He asserts that ‘we must feed on the gospel, as it were, making it part of ourselves’.[67] He then suggests that ‘you may wish to become more generous with your money’.[68]

Fourth, Keller explains why churches are often so unpleasant—because they are filled with elder brothers.[69]  Nevertheless, to grow spiritually Christians need ‘a deep involvement in a community of other believers. You can’t live the Christian life without a band of Christian friends, without a family of believers in which you find a place.’[70]  He adds, ‘you must be deeply involved in the church, in Christian community, with strong relationships of love and accountability. Only if you are a part of a community of believers seeking to resemble, serve, and love Jesus will you ever get to know him and grow into his likeness.’[71]  Thus Keller promotes the idea of so many comfortable Christians enjoying the social life at church. There is no admonition that Christians should deny them selves and take up their cross daily; that Christians should be prepared to suffer for the cause of Christ; that Christians are engaged in a spiritual war against the forces of darkness (Ephesians 6).

Keller leaves his readers believing that salvation is a pleasant sensual experience in which we restore the creation and end poverty while joined to a church involved in similar pursuits. For Keller, this is authentic Christianity.

 Conclusion

In The Prodigal God Keller uses the image of the elder brother to caricature conservative Christians as judgemental, hostile bigots. In Keller’s mind, the reason that conservative churches are so unpleasant is because they are filled with elder brothers (conservative Christians), who speak out against liberal, immoral values on sex and politics. Keller is profoundly hostile towards conservative Christians, whom he regards as the major cause of most problems in the world. So we have the remarkable paradox of a leading Presbyterian theologian who is vehemently opposed to the Reformed Christian faith. Even more amazing is the fact that he is the leader of The Gospel Coalition.

Keller redefines sin using all-too-familiar psycho-analytic constructs like insecurity, anger, poor self-image, incapacity for attachment and suppression of feelings. Salvation is redefined as a pleasant experience with no need for ‘groveling’ or fear. The Christian life is redefined as pouring one’s efforts into correction of social injustice. God is redefined as the Great Expenditure, recklessly lavishing his unconditional grace on those drawn to his ‘beauty’. Clearly, Keller offers a Christianity in which ‘everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change’.[72] Enjoy the feast, no questions asked, no price to be paid.

Surely it is a modern-day Pharisee who would teach the doctrines of men and term it ‘recovering the heart of the Christian faith’.

You can learn more about Dr Tim Keller, Pastor Mark Driscoll’s and Pastor John Piper in the book, The New Calvinists (2014), published by The Wakeman Trust and Belmont House Publishing. The book is available from belmonthousebooks.com/

[1] Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, Hodder & Stoughton, 2010, ppxi and xii

[2] Ibid. pxi

[3] Ibid. pxiii

[4] Ibid. pxv

[5] Ibid. p29

[6] Ibid. p29

[7] Ibid. p30

[8] Ibid. p15

[9] Ibid. p10

[10] Ibid. p10

[11] Ibid. p125

[12] Ibid. p11

[13] Ibid. p18

[14] Ibid. p20

[15] Ibid. p21

[16] Ibid. p22

[17] Ibid. p23

[18] Ibid. p24

[19] Ibid. p25

[20] Ibid. p12

[21] Ibid. p12

[22] Ibid. pp25-26

[23] Ibid. p27

[24] Ibid. p28

[25] Ibid. p8

[26] Ibid. p10

[27] Ibid. p15

[28] Ibid. pp29-30

[29] Ibid. p28

[30] Tim Keller, The Reason for God, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, p56

[31] Ibid. The Prodigal God, p57

[32] Ibid. p47

[33] Ibid. p55

[34] Ibid. p66

[35] Ibid. p67

[36] Ibid. pp68-69

[37]  Ibid. pp69-70

[38] Ibid. p30

[39] Ibid. p30

[40] Ibid. p53

[41] Ibid. p38

[42] Ibid.p60

[43] Ibid. pp66-67

[44] Ibid. p55

[45] Ibid. p73

[46] Ibid. p73

[47] Ibid. p24

[48] Ibid. p78

[49] Ibid. p85

[50] Ibid. p60

[51] Ibid.p97

[52] Ibid. p88-89

[53] Ibid. p105

[54] Ibid. pp105-106

[55] Ibid. p107

[56] Ibid. p108

[57] Ibid. p108

[58] Ibid. p100

[59] Ibid. p110

[60] Ibid. p110

[61] Ibid. p112

[62] Ibid. p113

[63] Ibid. p112

[64] Tim Keller, Generous Justice, p99

[65] Ibid. The Prodigal God, p114

[66] Ibid. p113

[67] Ibid.p115

[68] Ibid. p115

[69] Ibid. p125

[70] Ibid. p125

[71] Ibid. p127

[72] Ibid. p45