Book Review – The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

I keep a list, at the back of my journal, of books I want to read. I don’t always stick to it when I visit the library or go to a bookstore, but it helps me remember titles I think sound interesting. If someone recommends a book to me that I think I would want to read, I add it to the list with a note about who recommended it. (When I worked at the bookstore, customers would often tell me I should read books like The Power of Now or The Da Vinci Code. I would smile and tell them, “I’ll add that to my list.” That was a lie. I didn’t add those books to my list.)

I read Timothy Keller’s The Reason for God on the recommendation of a philosophical friend and before I had finished it I was adding Keller’s The Prodigal God to the list. Keller has a gift for succinct and wise writing. I believe he truly has his finger on where society currently is spiritually, and where it might be going. In The Reason for God, Keller says that our society is both more spiritual and more secular than it has ever been. The book is a great look at the Christian faith – why it matters, how it differs from other belief systems, and why it is the truth. If you have enjoyed or benefited from the theological writings of C.S. Lewis I think you would also enjoy Timothy Keller.

The Prodigal God is a much shorter, simpler book. It reads like an elongated sermon, probably because that’s exactly what it is. Keller renames the Biblical story that many know as “The Prodigal Son” to “The Two Lost Sons” (which makes a lot of sense when taken in the context of Luke 15, where Jesus also tells the parable of the lost sheep and the parable of the lost coin). Keller explains that there are actually two lost and rebellious sons in this story, not how the story is usually taught. There are two sons who want something from their father and two times that the father goes out of his house and humbles himself for his child. Jesus tells this parable to the tax collectors (represented by the younger son) and the Pharisees (the elder son) and there is a lesson for both. It’s also a lesson that, I think, many of us can and should take to heart. There’s a lot of modern day application here.

It’s a simple, written sermon, only seven short chapters, but the teaching is profound and unlike any sermon I’ve heard before on this passage. It encouraged me to re-examine my motivations in serving God. I see some of those “elder brother” tendencies in myself. Keller draws attention to the fact that serving God for the sake of some earthly reward or honour is worthless but that instead we serve a God who loves us and wants to be close to us. A God who leaves the party to find us and beg us to come in when we are at our most selfish and stubborn. (Luke 15:28) Definitely worth a read.

Did you know that a prodigal is one who spends lavishly? I didn’t. The word can be attached to the younger son who wastes his inheritance, but Keller attaches it to our Lord, who loves us lavishly. Pretty cool.

As I read a book and enjoy it, I copy down quotes that strike me and stick with me in my journal. Here are some of my favourites from A Prodigal God.

Here, then, is Jesus’ radical redefinition of what is wrong with us. Nearly everyone defines sin as breaking a list of rules. Jesus, though, shows us that a man who has violated virtually nothing on the list of moral misbehaviours can be every bit as spiritually lost as the most profligate, immoral person. Why? Because sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Saviour, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.

 This really nails down what’s behind so many of the flaws in our church and our culture. Displace authority and a sinful, selfish desire.

 The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid the church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our minsters and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did.

If that’s not convicting, I don’t know what is.

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