A Particularly Disturbing Question

ProdigalI have just finished reading Tim Keller’s book, The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith (Dutton, 2008, 138 pages).

In it he presents a treatment of the familiar story of the prodigal son in Luke 15. He is inclined to rename the parable The Two Lost Sons. He believes that Jesus takes aim in the story at both irreligious outsiders and moralistic insiders. Both, Keller claims, are lost and in need of salvation. Jesus, in particular, he argues, targets moralists in telling the story to show them their need for the gospel as much as the younger brother types who give themselves to profligate waste.

Early on Keller tips his hand where he is headed with all this by offering his answer to the question why people like Jesus but not the church.

Jesus’ teaching consistently attracted the irreligious while offending the Bible-believing, religious people of his day. However, in the main, our churches today do not have this effect. The kind of outsider Jesus attracted are not attracted to contemporary churches, even our most avant-garde ones. We tend to draw conservative, buttoned-down, moralistic people. The licentious and liberated or the broken and marginal avoid church. That can only mean one thing. If the preaching of our ministers 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 our churches aren’t appealing to younger brothers, they must be more full of elder brothers than we’d like to think (p. 15-16).

When I first read that I put a question mark in the margin. I am not entirely sure I agree with the logic behind Keller’s argument. I’ve learned to do that over time rather than just take everything that comes down the pike from a respected author (and make no mistake, I highly respect him – I just purchased copies of his book The Reason for God for several members of my family for Christmas).

My question to his question is does the conclusion in the last sentence from that quote hold water? I’ve been thinking about it on and off ever since. Is the church in corporate worship as an entity of God’s called out ones supposed to be inherently attractional to either kind of brother? It seems to me that rightly done the church gathered may be offensive to either crowd and only attractive to the gospel enthralled given its unique purposes.

I haven’t come near to the end of my reflections on this question but I wonder if we simply need to be more concerned with taking the gospel of our extravagantly gracious God “without” to the lost (that seems to me to be the thrust of the story in Luke 15 as far as Jesus’ aim is concerned) and “within” the church more consistently rebuke both the wayward and the legalistic who think they know Jesus but deny hin by their actions until they do come to grips with the heart of the Christian faith which is gazing upon the glory of the grace of Jesus.

What do you think?

By the way, I recommend the book. Definitely a worthwhile read.

4 responses

  1. Yeah, at first blush it strikes me as an oversimplification, too. The younger brother was not only licentious, liberated, broken and marginal. He was repentant, rushing back to his father and ready to declare, “I have sinned against heaven and against you”.

  2. He seems to be making an incorrect comparison between Jesus and our pastors. There are many differences politically, culturally etc…
    1.) Jesus was performing signs and wonders, healing in particular. If you, Pastor Curt, were legitimately healing people guess who would be flocking to you and putting up with the scandalous Gospel you preach until they could bare it no longer.
    2.) Who are you stealing thunder from? By preaching the way Jesus preached he was stealing the thunder of the supposed religious leaders of the day causing them to take notice and if they took notice, others would too and so on.
    3.) Were the religious leaders really Bible-believing? It seems to me they were Rabbinic-writings-believers with an obligatory nod to the Scriptures. Even Nicodemus, THE teacher of Israel, completely missed Him.
    4.) Nominal Christians (or false converts) are not Bible-believing regardless what Pew or Barna say.
    5.) The culture in which he writes, America (I’m assuming), is saturated with Christianity (to churchianity) from Reformed to non-denominational “worship centers” and a Bible for every type of person out there. The situation is very different in Iran or Saudi Arabia which is more similar to the Israel of Jesus’ time than America.
    6.) What was I before G-d graciously saved me and brought me to OGC? Broken, marginal and licentious. Paul seems to think the same way:
    “Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived; neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor [a]effeminate, nor homosexuals,nor thieves, nor the covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers, will inherit the kingdom of God. **Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God**.”

    Is he wanting the unsaved to come to churches that preach the whole counsel of G-d, including the offensive Gospel? Then I hope he’s advocating Biblical evangelism to get people craving that very thing. The church service isn’t an evangelistic event primarily. It is for believers to fellowship and hear from G-d through the preaching and teaching of fellow fallen men.

    Solid, Biblical churches aren’t attractive to the unsaved false converts who flock to ear-tickler churches with rocking sound systems and a Jesus concert every week for the very reasons the Bible says. Is this shocking?

    I believe if we focused on sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ (the real one) with the world in which we live perhaps more people would get saved, crave sound teaching and seek out the solid churches. Sheep hear His voice. We shouldn’t be confounded that goats don’t run to the Shepherd they don’t know.

    My $0.02, which in this economy is more like Zimbabwe cent…

    Merry Christmas all!

  3. Thanks all three of you for your comments. While disturbing, the question is important. Thanks for thinking with me about the ramifications of the question.

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