This is the first post of several, evaluating the teachings found in “The Prodigal God” by Timothy Keller. “The Prodigal God” is based off of the well known parable found in Luke 15:11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Despite being a very popular author and teacher, in this book, Keller attempts to redefine the gospel and in the process severely distorts scripture. His arguments are so contrary to the truth, that I felt the need here to correct some of his more egregious errors.
I explain below how the entire foundation of Timothy Keller’s teaching is based on a wrong interpretation of the parable, thus invalidating his entire reinvention of the Christian gospel. In the second post, I expose specific errors of Keller that are a part of his newly invented “gospel.” The final, third post corrects Keller’s false teaching regarding repentance and concludes the series.
Timothy Keller opens The Prodigal God by making it clear that his short book is meant to present the Christian gospel. However, he immediately clarifies this by saying, “Nevertheless one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do.” (XI)
It’s a strange statement. Logically, the correctness of one’s beliefs regarding the gospel are not dependent upon how certain we are, but if we are in agreement with scripture. Why then does he begin with this misleading statement?
The answer is simple. This initial assertion by Timothy Keller in The Prodigal God is designed to convince us to change our understanding of the gospel. He’s telling us to forget anything we’ve ever learned in the past. The goal of The Prodigal God is to “correct” (or subvert) the teaching of the gospel with Keller’s own teaching, a unique perspective (or perversion) that we haven’t heard before.
That Keller aims to change something as central as the gospel should set off alarm bells. A godly, biblical teacher should aim to reinforce what was handed down by the Jesus and the Apostles, rather than introduce some novel teaching almost two thousand years later.
Timothy Keller’s teaching is entirely focused on the Parable of the Prodigal Son found in Luke 15:11-32. He’s taken this parable and reinterpreted it to present a completely new teaching. This new interpretation will redefine, not only how we understand Jesus’ parable, but also how we understand sin and salvation itself. This isn’t speculation. Keller himself writes on page 10 of The Prodigal God that, “Through this parable Jesus challenges what nearly everyone has ever thought about God, sin, and salvation.” Later, in chapter 3, he again repeats this assertion, “He [Jesus] is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved.” (28) The “redefining” of the Gospel is unashamedly and clearly evident in The Prodigal God. Even two of the chapters are entitled, “Redefining Sin” and “Redefining Lostness.”
Timothy Keller claims this redefinition of the Gospel reveals “the true meaning” of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. He says that it changed the way he “viewed Christianity” and it reveals “the secret heart of Christianity.” (XIII). Both are quite bold statements. The only issue is that this supposed “true meaning” doesn’t agree with scripture or even a careful reading of the parable itself.
How can we know if Timothy Keller’s new version of the “gospel” is correct? Do we take him at his word? Of course not. We study the scripture, and compare it directly against what Keller writes in The Prodigal God. We’ll use the light, the word of God, to expose the darkness and deception in Keller’s teaching.
Keller’s False Teaching: Both Brothers Are Lost
Keller summarizes his new interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son in this way:
“Most readings of this parable have concentrated on the flight and return of the younger brother–the “Prodigal Son.” That misses the real message of the story, however, because there are two brothers, each of whom represents a different way to be alienated from God, and a different way to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven.” (Keller, 7)
He believes that both brothers represent two different ways to be “alienated from God.” Timothy Keller teaches that both the younger and elder brother are “lost,” although for different reasons. The younger brother is lost because of his rebellious, disobedient behavior towards the father. The elder brother is lost for the opposite reason, by being completely obedient. According to Keller, each is trying to gain salvation through these different paths.
As one reads through The Prodigal God, it becomes abundantly clear that Keller is far more concerned about the obedient “elder brothers” than the rebellious “younger brothers.” He writes, “While both forms of the self-salvation project are equally wrong, each one is not equally dangerous.” (46) And a page later, “Being an elder-brother Pharisee is a more spiritually desperate condition.” (47)
As we see, Keller believes that the elder brother is more lost than the younger brother.
Biblical Truth: The Elder Brother Was Never Lost
Is this true? Is the elder brother in Jesus’ parable lost? Is he in a “spiritually desperate condition?” Of course not. The elder brother has always been with the father, unlike the younger brother. He has no need to return in repentance and remorse, simply because he isn’t lost. This is based on scripture, so let’s take a look.
The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) is the last of three consecutive parables Jesus gives that all teach the same lesson. Jesus makes essentially the same point in each of the parables, so we can compare them to clarify Jesus’ true message and intent.
The First Parable. Jesus begins with the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). We’ve all heard the story:
“What man among you, if he has a hundred sheep and has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open pasture and go after the one which is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that in the same way, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. (Luke 15:3-7)
Jesus clearly explains what the parable means in the last sentence. Just as the lost sheep that was found resulted in great rejoicing, in the same way, “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (v. 7) The lost sheep symbolizes a sinner who repents.
But what about the ninety-nine sheep that were not lost? Are they considered by Jesus as sinners too? Not at all, Jesus says they are “righteous persons who need no repentance.” So there are both sinners and the righteous in Jesus’ parable.
The Second Parable. Reading on, Jesus gives a second parable about the lost coin that reflects the same basic teaching:
“Or what woman, if she has ten silver coins and loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin which I had lost!’ In the same way, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:8-10)
The parallels to the first parable are obvious. Once again, there is great rejoicing over the lost being found. Just as in the first parable about the lost sheep, the lost coin here represents the “sinner who repents.” Because the second parable closely mirrors the first, we know that the coins that were never lost represent “the righteous persons who need no repentance.”
The Third Parable. The final parable is the Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32). It is in this parable that Keller incorrectly asserts both sons are lost and alienated from the father, who represents God. Although the third parable is longer than the previous two, it has the same structure and message. We’ve already seen how the first and second parables have both lost sinners and also the righteous who were never lost. We’ll see the same here in the third parable.
To summarize the story, the younger son takes his share of the fathers inheritance and wastes it in sinful living. After a severe famine, the son is starving and returns to the father with a repentant heart. The father welcomes his lost son with open arms and great joy, giving him a celebratory feast. Jesus concludes the parable by repeating the theme of being lost and found. This is expressed through the father’s words to the elder son.
The father answers the elder son who questions why he has never received a feast:
“Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours. We had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” (Luke 15:31-32)
Jesus is clear that the older son has (1) always been with the father (thus never lost), and (2) is a legitimate heir. He is enjoying the full rights as a true son. He is not lost at all, but “with the father” in every sense. Just like the older son, Christians are co-heirs with Jesus, being born again into the family of God. As Paul writes to the Romans, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8:17) The elder son represents those who are heirs of God, true spiritual children of the Father.
So, to recap, the younger son represents sinners who repent (paralleling the lost sheep and lost coin), and the older son represents the “righteous persons who need no repentance” (paralleling the ninety-nine sheep and nine coins).
Implications of Keller’s Error
Keller’s reinterpretation of this parable in The Prodigal God hinges completely on the idea that the elder son is lost, just as the younger son was lost. In fact, Keller argues that Jesus concludes the story with the elder son still being lost.
“Although the sons are both wrong and both loved, the story does not end on the same note for each. Why does Jesus construct the story so that one of them is saved, restored to a right relationship with the father, and one of them is not? (At least, not before the story ends.)” (Keller, 46)
Keller is saying the younger son’s relationship is restored with the father, while the older son remains unsaved, distant from the father. But as I’ve shown, the Bible is clear that the elder son was never lost at all! He has “always” been with the father, which means he hasn’t wandered away like his younger brother. All that the father has is his. He is already in relationship with the father. Jesus couldn’t have said it any clearer.
This is a plain, almost elementary reading of the text. It does not require a sophisticated exegete to understand what Jesus is teaching in his simple stories. The fact that Keller has misinterpreted this parable is, frankly, both embarrassing and deeply concerning. The entire foundation of The Prodigal God is based off a complete twisting of scripture.
As I wrote in the introduction, Timothy Keller is attempting to redefine the true gospel with this teaching. The Prodigal God is written to convince us to reset our beliefs about sin and salvation. But Keller’s redefinition is based on a completely perverted interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Keller has sought to find a deep and hidden meaning in it that will “reveal the secret heart of Christianity,” but instead he has only introduced false teachings based on an obvious distortion of a simple parable.
In the next post, I’ll cover several of the most serious false teachings in The Prodigal God. Keller incorrectly tries to redefine sin, so we’ll correct that error. He also distorts biblical repentance to fit his already flawed teaching, which I’ll address in the final post. Each of these issues are key to correctly understanding the true gospel, so we’ll systematically address all of these falsehoods by comparing his teachings with scripture itself.