Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on the parable of the “prodigal son” was entitled ‘Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son,’ which sums up well all the senses of the word “prodigal” in one sentence.
The word ‘prodigal’ is an English word that means recklessly extravagant, spending to the point of poverty. The dictionaries tell us that the word can be understood in a more negative or a more positive sense. The more positive meaning is to be lavishly and sacrificially abundant in giving. The more negative sense is to be wasteful and irresponsible in one’s spending. Some people think prodigal means ‘wayward,’ but there is no dictionary that indicates that the word means ‘immoral.’ The negative sense obviously applies to the actions of the younger brother in the Luke 15 parable. But is there any sense in which God can be called ‘prodigal’? I think so.
First, the elder brother is offended by the father’s extravagant and (to him) irresponsible welcome of his younger brother. The father, of course, represents God, and legalists are always offended by the gospel of free grace. They see it as wasteful and unfair. After all, they worked for their acceptance. These are the people to whom Jesus was telling the parable in the first place—the Pharisees who objected to Jesus’ lavish grace to tax collectors and sinners. They certainly thought Jesus was being far too free and irresponsible with the love and favor he was promising them from God. Jesus depicts them in the parable as the elder brother upset with his father’s prodigality.
Second, the positive meaning of the term ‘prodigal’ is definitely true of God. He spent himself to the uttermost on the Cross. He did so ‘recklessly’ in the sense that he did not reckon the cost to himself. Jesus was someone who spent himself into helpless poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9) and was ‘in want’ in the most extreme way.
So the phrase ‘Prodigal God’ as popularized by Tim Keller, calls attention not only to the mistaken way that legalists regard God’s gospel of grace, but also to how Jesus, though he was rich, spent everything without thought for himself, that we might be saved.
Our obedience does not produce God’s blessing; his blessing enables our obedience. Because we were not capable of obeying, Christ obeyed for us so we could obtain his inheritance. Paul says in Romans 8:3-4,
“For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us.”
If there was a law we could keep or a righteous act we could perform that could earn God’s favor toward us, then that law would be decreed and that righteous act would be commanded. But as it is, no such law or righteous act exists. As a result, God, on his own initiative and under his own compulsion had to move and act on our behalf if there was to be any hope for a sinful human race. Thereby making salvation totally and completely dependent upon grace. As Ephesians 2:8-9 states,
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.”
Because sinful man had nothing to add to Christ’s sacrifice to make himself more acceptable to God, he cannot boast in anything he has done make God act more favorably toward him. God’s favor toward people rests entirely upon the merit of Christ and what he accomplished on the cross.
No one can ever say that God acts favorably toward them or pours out his grace on them because of some act they performed or some law they kept. Because the law and good works could never make us righteous enough before God, Christ had to die to allow God’s favor rest on us. To claim that we can in anyway do anything that earns God’s favor is to render Christ’s death as pointless. As Paul argues in Galatians 3:21, “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” And again he writes to Titus, “He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit” (Titus 3:5).
When our minds are armed with this truth, that Christ is our righteousness and we can do nothing to earn God’s grace, and we embrace it by faith, our hearts respond in love and affection toward God for his incredible grace, and our lives live out this love in obedience to his commands.
Our heavenly, knowing, perfect, and good Father has given us immeasurable blessings, but those blessings are for certain people and came at the expense of a certain person. Not everyone ever born has or will receive the Father’s blessing. In fact, everyone ever born was born not under blessing, but under a terrible curse. Moreover, the Father’s blessing cannot be imparted through anyone, but only through the one who purchased it, his Son. As Paul says, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” The Father’s blessing has particular recipients through a particular person. Only those who are in Christ can receive the blessing that Christ has purchased for them.
I’m not humble. Few of us actually are. But the crazy thing about the gospel is that when God looks at us through Christ, he sees us as perfectly humble. In Philippians 2 Pauls says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Christ is the ultimate model of humility. He was God, yet became a human. We are human, and we strive our hardest to be a god, to be worshiped and adored by others. But Christ, who was God, did not come demanding to be served and worshiped (even though he had every right to). Christ came to serve and give the glory he deserved to his Father. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “As long as you are proud you cannot know God. A proud man is always looking down on thing and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down you cannot see something that is above you.” If we perceive ourselves to be the lowest, then we can look up and see and serve everyone.
As Christ himself said, “He who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
In Psalm 19:7-8a, David echoes the very same truths of the Apostle Paul. He says, “The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart.” God’s Word is perfect. It does not contain any errors or mistakes. Whenever it speaks it speaks the truth. God’s Word is trustworthy and reliable. We can put our trust in it and it will never steer us wrong. God’s Word is just. It is authoritative on everything is speaks about. It is fair and final in everything. Because of all this, God’s Word revives our soul and gives us strength. It opens our eyes to behold the glory of God and savor it. It gives us the grace and wisdom we so desperately need to live our daily life. It causes our hearts to rejoice in soul satisfying joy. Knowing and experiencing God comes through knowing His Word. David trusts the Lord because he trusts His Word.
As God’s Word becomes more and more a part of our life, the more we appreciate the words of Jonathan Edwards:
“There is a difference in believing that God is holy and gracious, and having a new sense on the heart of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. The difference between believing that God is gracious and tasting that God is gracious is as different as having a rational belief that honey is sweet and having the actual sense of its sweetness.”
We don’t want to just know that God is lovely; we want to experience His loveliness. We don’t just want to know about God, but experience his him. In experiencing God we experience his love, and in return, we love him more. Love for God will overpower any desire for status or stuff that the world has to offer. We experience God’s overpowering love by faith as we renew our minds with the Word of God.
I loved playing with train sets as a kid. I remember clearly one Christmas when I was 10 years old getting my first train set. When I took it down to the basement I opened the box to set it up, and much to my horror, I couldn’t find the instructions. Somehow this box had made it to the shelves of our local retail store without a set of instructions. My insides panicked. How was I going to play with this train set and enjoy all the excitement and pleasure from it if I didn’t know how to make it work?
Much like that train set, if we know that true worship is finding our satisfaction in God and we earnestly desire to find it in him but are never told how, we can easily be tempted to panic. Fortunately for us, Paul wrote for us Romans 12:2:
“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.”
There are actually two commands in this verse and we will take them one at a time. Paul’s first command is “Do not be conformed to this world.” This is a summation of the first part of this chapter. Conformity to the world is living like they live. Paul is not saying we can’t wear the same clothes or listen to the same music. He is saying we can’t find our ultimate joy and satisfaction in the things that the world does. The world says sex, money, popularity, position, friendships and recognition will make you happy. Paul tells us not to believe a word of it.
However, there is also a second command. Paul says, “Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” What is that? To be transformed is to move from pursuing ultimate joy in the world to pursuing ultimate joy in Christ. How do we do that? Through retraining our thinking with the word of God. Renewing our minds means strengthening our faith in God. Fortunately Paul shows us how in Romans 10:17: “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” Just like the world lies to you, the Word of God speaks the truth. We combat lies with God’s truth; His Word. Through the prayerful reading and meditation on God’s Word we renew our minds and transform our hearts.
In essence, we could say that Paul’s message is, “Do not be like this world that tries to find ultimate joy in status and stuff, but become like Christ by finding your ultimate satisfaction in all that God is for you in Christ. Discover who God is and what he has done through his Word.”
Continue with part 2 tomorrow . . .
The clearest example of how this is true (what you treasure and look to for satisfaction and joy will be what overtakes the affections of your heart) can be seen in Mark 10:17-27.
“As he was setting out on his journey, a man ran up and knelt before him and asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: “Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.”’ And he said to him, ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, and said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. And Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, ‘How difficult it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!’”
Notice something here. The rich young ruler wants to know what he must “do” to inherit eternal life. He comes to Jesus with a question loaded with assumptions. He assumes that eternal life is attained by something he must do. Jesus immediately takes aim at his heart. He exposes the man’s self righteous, self-reliant heart using the law by quoting him the Ten Commandments. But the rich young ruler, blinded by his self-righteousness, defends his moral prowess by proudly declaring that he has perfectly kept the law.
Jesus is not fooled by the young man’s reply, he presses in further by challenging the young man to act on what he has professed to be true. In essence Jesus is saying to the man, “If you have kept all the commandments, you must have kept the first one that says not to have any other gods besides Yahweh. So then, since you do not love all the stuff in your life more than God, go sell it all and come follow the Son of Yahweh.” Of course we all know what happened next. The young man goes away very sad “for he had great possessions.” The truth is, this rich young ruler was putting his faith in himself (status) as being able to “do” something to inherit eternal life, and, as a result, his heart grew to treasure his “stuff.
Jesus summarizes this seen in Matthew 6:24 when he says, “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and money.” The young ruler didn’t just love his stuff more than God, he loved himself and his stuff so much that it made his love for God look like hatred. His treasure was his himself and his wealth; he valued and treasured them as more satisfying than anyone or anything else.
In Psalm 115:8 the psalmist says: “Those who make them become like them; so do all who trust in them.” We’ve all heard the phrase, “You are what you eat.” While I’m not sure whether or not that is true, the Bible clearly says, “You are what you worship.” Whatever your heart treasures the most will consume your thoughts and life. You will do everything and anything to have what you treasure. The psalmist is making the point that the idols cannot speak, hear, feel or walk. They are lifeless, foolish lumps or clay. All who trust in them will become like them, lifeless and foolish. This is an echo of Paul’s words in Romans 1:21-23:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.”
You are what you worship. Worshiping things that will never do what only God can do makes you foolish. Jesus addresses the problem of worshiping stuff in Matthew 6:19-21. In his sermon on the mount, Jesus says:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”
At first glance we may think that Jesus has it backwards. Shouldn’t he say that where your heart is, there your treasure will be also? But Jesus does not make a mistake here. His point is exactly that, whatever you treasure, whatever you prize, whatever you value, whatever you believe will bring you ultimate satisfaction will inevitably rule the affections of your heart. Laying up treasures is equivalent to pursuing joy in material stuff. A person who pursues joy in God as his greatest treasure will have a heart that is ruled by Christ.
Continue with part 3 tomorrow . . .