Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 1)

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.


Introduction
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.

Keller writes:

“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.

8 thoughts on “Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 2) | Renewing Truth

  2. Anne

    Thank you for such a clear delineation of truth! It is so alarming how Keller can concoct a teaching that distracts from the actual words of Scripture. Keller has vilified walking in obedience with God. Thank you for pointing out the very words of Jesus–“My son you are always with me and everything I have is yours.” It is SO obvious now to me that the eldest son was not lost. You also made the point clear by pointing out the three similar parables with the same meaning. Again, the words of Jesus drive home this point saying the 99 righteous persons who do not need to repent. My heart is sickened by how popular Keller’s false gospel has become. Hebrew 5:9 teaches that Jesus “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him.”

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Timothy Keller’s False Gospel in “The Prodigal God” (Part 3) | Renewing Truth

  4. Pingback: Test the Spirits and Hold Fast to the Faith | Renewing Truth

  5. John Orchard

    You haven’t engaged with the context that Keller uses to explain his approach. Jesus tells the three parables to “the Pharisees and the teachers of the law”, and the story ends on a cliff-hanger; the older brother is outside the father’s feast, full of self-righteous anger and refusing to go in, while the father holds out his offer of love to him. This fits the earlier stories where the friends of the protagonists are commanded to join in the celebration. The logic of your interpretation is that the the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were not lost, when I’m sure you would agree that they were.

    Reply
    1. Michael Post author

      Thanks for the comment John.

      I have dealt with both the context and the internal evidence of the parable itself. There is clear parallelism between the three different parables in Luke 15. In each, there is great rejoicing when a lost person repents. This is contrasted with “the righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 15:7)

      The same applies to the third parable as well. The older son represents those righteous persons who have no need to repent. We know this because the father, representing God, tells the older son, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.” (15:31) This older son continues to have communion with the father (unlike the self-righteous Pharisees who did not know God) and the entire remaining inheritance of the father now belongs to the older son.

      The older son was, is, and continues to be a legitimate heir. All born-again Christians are likewise legitimate heirs, being co-heirs with Christ. As Paul writes, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs — heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:16-17)

      I agree that many of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law were lost, which means they were truly lost just like the “sinners” they despised. And that’s the irony. They too were prodigal sons in need of repentance and God’s mercy, the same mercy God shows towards all who are lost from the Father.

      The assumption that since the Pharisees are presumably lost, the older son must also be lost is faulty. Jesus makes a clear contrast in the parables themselves between the lost in need of repentance and the righteous who need no repentance. If the Pharisees are lost, then they’re lost, regardless of what they personally think their spiritual condition is.

      Jesus’ whole point in response to the Pharisees’ grumbling was to show God’s heart for sinners. Keller hasn’t honestly dealt with Jesus’ words in the parable, but rather is inserting his own ideas that are foreign to the text and simultaneously contradict Jesus’ words in the parable itself.

      Reply
  6. Musa

    You seem to be dragging Keller dangerously close to the line of “one who preaches a different gospel” and while I am inclined to agree that he may have misused the parable as Christ intended it, he seemed only to superimpose the spirit of a Pharisee onto the elder brother, wich, from a less careful reading of the text is not hard to do. he did not rearrange, or even come close to attempting the rearrangement of the foundations of the gospel of Christ. He simply interjected the warning Christ gives concerning Pharisees into, or onto the parable. He is, even if mistaken on the nature of the character of the older brother in the parable, biblically sound as far as foundational scriptural principles are concerned.
    I think your accusations are more false than his teaching on this parable.

    Reply
    1. Michael Post author

      Musa, I would agree that I am saying that Keller in The Prodigal God is preaching “a different gospel.” That is why I wrote this and the other two follow-up posts. Keller’s reinterpretation of this parable is not just a simple exegetical error. He uses this interpretation as a means to an end, and that end is redefining the key parts of the gospel. I’ve shown in the post that Keller, by his own admission, talks about his ideas in this way–that it changes the way he “viewed Christianity” and reveals “the secret heart of Christianity.” He basically uses his faulty argument as a jumping off point to change the truth of the gospel as I’ve shown.

      Two absolutely central aspects of the gospel are sin and our response to the gospel for forgiveness of sins. If you redefine sin, you’re thereby redefining the gospel. If you redefine our response to God for forgiveness, you’re redefining the gospel.

      Keller redefines both sin and our response for God’s forgiveness. This is very serious.

      He redefines sin itself. According to Keller, sin is no longer just disobedience, but also obedience (see my second post). This is completely contrary to scripture. Obedience to God is never the problem, disobedience is the issue.

      Keller also redefines our proper response in light of our sin and the gospel. He writes that repentance is not needed for forgiveness, but rather comes after forgiveness (see my third post). As a consequence of Keller’s argument, if any unsaved persons believe that they don’t need to repent for forgiveness, they’re not going to repent. And if they don’t repent, they won’t be saved. Satan may rejoice at this, but I won’t and God certainly does not. He wants all men to repent and turn to Him for salvation.

      You say that “he did not rearrange, or even come close to attempting the rearrangement of the foundations of the gospel of Christ.” Redefining sin and denying the need for repentance are absolutely critical components of the gospel. Keller is not only rearranging, but saying the opposite of the truth! Disobedience, not obedience, is sin and repentance is necessary. If that isn’t taught, the gospel isn’t being taught.

      Woe to those who call evil good
      and good evil,
      who put darkness for light
      and light for darkness,
      who put bitter for sweet
      and sweet for bitter. (Isaiah 5:20 NIV)

      Reply

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