And the son said to him; “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” – Luke 15:21
The Parable of the Prodigal Son reflects some of the most outrageous aspects of the grace of God. Wretched living cannot void it and it’s gifted-ness never assumes a shred of individual merit or virtue. Even the most offensive behaviors on our part cannot cancel or diminish God’s desire to treat us with nothing but pure grace. Moreover, while you can walk away from His covenant of grace to live rebelliously separated from it, His grace remains secure awaiting your return.
We could perhaps rename this the Parable of the Ungrateful Brothers. The younger brother seeks to cash in the inheritance of his sonship and his older brother resents that he was not successful. We all know the story. The younger of two sons has become progressively disenchanted with life in their father’s household. He demands his inheritance to find a more fulfilling life on his own indulging in sinful worldly pleasures. After becoming destitute and discovering that the pigs he must feed have a better life, he realizes that in his current state, he is as good as dead. His remedy is to go back home, eat humble pie, and beg his father to become the household’s slave.
His father will have no such thing. He is joyous over the return of his lost son and a great occasion to party. The older son, however, does not see things that way at all. He is put out by his father’s the joy and celebration. He resents the restoration of his returning rebellious brother and considers his own continued service to the household more deserving of a good party.
Exemplified here are two misunderstandings about the forgiveness and graciousness of God among some Christians. The first is very popular and is represented by the younger son. It is the belief that the sufficient prevalence and the magnitude of your sin can cancel or void God’s grace. The younger son is convinced that his sins have forfeited his sonship and father’s favor and therefore negotiating for slavery is his best option.
Yes, tragically you can walk away from the inheritance of God’s righteousness and baptismal covenant, but no, you cannot cancel them.
The second faulty understanding is reflected in the reactions of the older brother. Life-long Christians who have served the Lord through thick and thin are not more deserving of God’s favor and commendation than wretched sinners who leave the fold like this guy’s younger brother (Note the same kind of thinking by the day-long laborers in the vineyard—Matthew 20:11-12).
Lurking behind the reactions of both brothers when the younger returns home is the faulty understanding that God’s grace is offered to make up for our weaknesses and failings. It is there to fill the gap between the flawed people we are and the people we ought to be. However, if a person decides to turn his back on doing his best at godly service, then all bets are off. If we are not going to do our part, we forfeit God doing His part. God’s grace covers a multitude of sins, but it does not cover a lack of good effort on our part to avoid them.
Both brothers are operating with this same misunderstanding of how to remain a son in the household. They must be as faithful as they can in order to retain their inheritance. The prodigal believes he cashed in that inheritance when he left to make his own way in the world and his older brother thought the same. They both were wrong, and it is the father who must set them straight—much to the joy of the younger and the indignation of the older.
The parable has a happy ending for the younger brother. He learns that life itself is what flows from living in the father’s household. This life exists only by the utter outrageous grace of God in Christ Jesus.
You do nothing to get it and do nothing to retain it.
Your good works do not preserve this grace, and your sins do not void it. You can tragically walk away from it and Hell is the final exile if you refuse to return. But what you do can never affect its reality. God has and always will reckon you as forgiven and righteous for the sake of the saving work of Christ. And that is the outrageousness of God’s grace represented by the father in the parable. If you are a return-back-home child of God, you can celebrate that reality. And, if you are a stay-at-home child of God, you can celebrate that reality, too. In any case, it is always a reason to party in the Kingdom of God for God’s grace has been, is, and always will be sufficient for you.
Dr. Steven A. Hein currently serves as Director of The Concordia Institute for Christian Studies, an organization that offers auxiliary educational services to pastors and church gatherings across the country and in West Africa. He also serves as an affiliate professor at The Institute of Lutheran Theology and Colorado Christian University.
This book offers a radically different perspective from that of many best-selling authors concerning how the Christian should measure and evaluate travel along God’s path of righteousness.