Book Review: “The Prodigal God”

“The Prodigal God – Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith” by Timothy Keller.  Riverhead Books

  • Critical read
  • Must read
  • Good read
  • Read if you want
  • Read something else

Why: When I first came across this book, a recommendation from one of the men I regularly hang out with, the title intrigued me.  Many people have mistaken the idea of “prodigal” as meaning out of control or reckless.  Being one of those people, the idea of a book about God as out of control or reckless sounded like it ought to be interesting at least.  As Keller points out in the opening of his book, the word “prodigal” means “recklessly extravagant” or “having spent everything.”  After reading that in the opening, I knew this book had potential, for who is more recklessly extravagant than our God in how He loves and grants mercy to people?  Who else could be the ultimate example of having spent everything to win people to Himself?  The book did not disappoint.

Point: Most readings of this parable found in Luke 15 have concentrated on the flight and return of the younger brother – the “Prodigal Son.”  That misses the real message of the story….”  So starts Keller down this approachable journey into the greater meanings found in the famous parable.  He does a good job of exploring not only the younger, more famous brother but also the equally selfish yet unrepentant older brother.  That discussion is worth the read by itself, for it unpacks the harmful attitudes of both brothers.  Along the way, Keller does a good job of gently yet clearly illuminating how those attitudes infect so many in the church today.

The third chapter, “Redefining Sin,” is both pointed and appropriate for the modern church, as it tackles just how much like the religious leaders of Jesus’ day we so easily become.  I will not spoil the chapter here.  Read the book.  Don’t stop with the third chapter.  Chapter four (“Redefining Lostness”) will be equally difficult and therefore valuable, and chapter five is no slouch, either (“The True Elder Brother”).  Again, I will not spoil the content for you.  Read the book.

Keller finishes out the book with two more chapters on our true hope and the lavish love and acceptance of our God for each of us, regardless of which brother looks like us.  In his careful unpacking of this story, Keller has painted a clear picture of us, of religiosity with all its shortcomings, and of course, of our God and His prodigal love and mercy for us.

Impact: The importance of this book to the church today is clearly in the identification of our most common and erroneous attitudes toward life and our God.   And beyond that, the identification of just how our God really loves both the lost and the found.  One cannot help but see how the lost are in no greater need than the found of this prodigal love, for we in our supposed righteousness are often surprisingly far from the example of our God.  For me, the exposure of how much I look like both brothers was striking and humbling.  At the same time, exploring how much our God really loves us and how that love is expressed was an encouraging gift.

For those involved in the Christian faith, this book is a critical read.  It will challenge you in any area of your faith life where religiosity has come to define what should be a relationship of deep communion with your God.  For those not involved in the Christian faith, here is a great explanation of the love of our God.  You will find Him to be both prodigal and winsome in this book.  And for any who might be wondering just what “salvation” is all about, the last chapter is a great explanation without much Christian cultural language to cloud it over.

Quotes: “The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him.  We wee this throughout the new Testament accounts of Jesus’s life.  In every case where Jesus meets a religious person and a sexual outcast (as in Luke 7) or a religious person and a racial outcast (as in John 3-4) or a religious person and political outcast (as in Luke 19), the outcast is the one who connects with Jesus and the elder-brother type does not.” (page 17-18).

Similar: “The Pursuit of God” by A.W. Tozer.  Any book by John Eldredge

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