I 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.