This is the second of several posts, 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.
In the first post, I explained how the entire foundation of Timothy Keller’s teaching is based on a wrong interpretation of the parable, thus invalidating his entire reinterpretation of the Christian gospel. Here, I address one of Keller’s more serious falsehoods, his redefinition of sin to include obedience to God, which in turn subverts the gospel. The final, third post corrects Keller’s false teaching regarding repentance and concludes the series.
Introducing Additional Errors in Keller’s Teaching
In The Prodigal God, Keller seeks to redefine the gospel by revealing “the secret heart of Christianity.” Keller bases his teaching solely on a false interpretation of the Parable of the Prodigal Son, found in Luke 15:11-32.
He argues that not only was the younger brother lost, but the elder brother was lost as well. Keller’s reinterpretation regarding the elder son is unequivocally wrong (this is discussed in the first post). Jesus is abundantly clear that the elder son has always been with the father and is a true heir, just as Christians are heirs of God.
Timothy Keller uses this misinterpretation of the parable as a springboard to support even more serious errors. He (1) changes the definition of sin, thus subverting the message of the gospel, and (2) twists the biblical understanding of repentance.
At the very beginning of His ministry, Jesus began to proclaim the good news saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” (Matthew 3:2) To accurately understand the full gospel, one must realize their own sin and their need to turn away from their sin towards God. Thus both sin and repentance are indispensable. Any alteration to this foundation perverts the gospel’s truth and power, rendering it ineffective.
In this post, I’ll correct Keller’s redefinition of sin, which undermines the gospel. The final, third post will deal specifically with Keller’s error regarding repentance.
Keller’s Redefinition of Sin and the Gospel
The main focus in The Prodigal God is on the elder son. Keller describes him as dutifully obeying his father in every sense. He is “fastidiously obedient to his father and, therefore, by analogy, to the commands of God,” while also being “completely under control and quite self-disciplined.” (34) Yet, Keller still incorrectly insists that “there is not just one lost sinner in this parable–there are two.” (34).
Keller justifies his tenuous position by redefining sin. Keller argues that even though the elder son is completely obedient, this goodness is actually sin(!). Keller writes on page 37:
The hearts of the two brothers were the same. […] Each one, in other words, rebelled–but one did so by being very bad and the other by being extremely good. Both were alienated from the father’s heart; both were lost sons. (Keller, 37)
The word rebellion, as Keller uses here, is simply another term for sin. Keller is stating that the older brother sinned—“rebelled”—by being extremely good, by being obedient.
This redefinition of sin—from disobedience to obedience—is stated repeatedly in The Prodigal God. On page 35, he writes that the elder brother “is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.” And also that, “It’s not his [the elder brother’s] wrongdoing, but his righteousness that is keeping him from sharing in the feast of the father.” (35)
This faulty reasoning—that obedience is the real problem, not just disobedience—continues to be reinforced:
This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently. It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience of God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God. (Keller, 37)
Since “careful obedience of God’s law” is supposedly a form of rebellion “against God,” Keller’s false gospel naturally condemns moral behavior:
Everybody knows that the Christian gospel calls us away from the licentiousness of younger brotherness, but few realize that it also condemns moralistic elder brotherness. (Keller, 67)
Keller teaches that obeying God is sin, and that—as a result of this premise—“the gospel” condemns the obedient. Apparently Keller believes his “secret heart of Christianity” involves bringing condemnation upon the righteous, rather than calling sinners to repentance.
This absolutely mutilates any semblance of biblical teaching, so let’s address what scripture actually says.
Scripture vs. Keller’s False Teachings
Is obedience sin, like Keller says? As I’ve shown, Keller believes that you can “rebel against God and be alienated […] by keeping all of them [God’s rules] diligently.” (37)
This couldn’t be more wrong. The Apostle John defines sin for us. He writes, “Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.” (1 John 3:4)
So scripture defines sin as lawlessness. Lawlessness means a complete disregard for the rules (the Greek noun is anomia; without law). That one can break the rules (or sin) by obeying the rules is complete foolishness. Just as light doesn’t equal darkness, neither does rule keeping equal rule breaking. One rebels against God by breaking His rules, not keeping them. Only lawlessness is sin, not law keeping.
The Apostle John couldn’t have said it better. “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous.” (1 John 3:7)
Does obedience alienate us from God’s love? Keller asserts that the elder brother who carefully obeyed the father was “alienated from the father” and excluded from “the feast of his love.” (34) The elder brother “is not losing the father’s love in spite of his goodness, but because of it.” (35) Essentially, Keller is arguing that obedience to God separates us from God’s love, which again is false.
Jesus plainly refutes this in the gospel of John:
Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them. (John 14:21)
The one who keeps and obeys Jesus’ commands “will be loved” by God the Father. Obedience to God does not cause us to “lose the father’s love” as Keller suggests, but unites us with His love.
Rather than being alienated, the obedient believer abides in God. As John writes, “The one who keeps His [God the Father’s] commandments abides in Him, and He in him. We know by this that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us.” (1 John 3:2) Those doing God’s will are members of His family, enjoying His presence and love. As Jesus said, “Whoever does the will of God, he is My brother and sister and mother.”(Mark 3:35)
Does the gospel condemn the righteous? Keller writes that Jesus’ gospel “condemns the moralistic elder brotherness.” (67) Does the gospel really condemn those who are living morally?
First of all, the gospel was not a message of condemnation, but rather a call of reconciliation. Yes, God will one day condemn the world for its sin, but Jesus came not “to condemn the world, but to save the world.” (John 3:16)
Secondly, this call of reconciliation was not aimed at the righteous who were already with God, but for the lost sinners. That’s not to say the righteous never previously sinned, but rather they repented at some point and were now reconciled with God. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” (Luke 5:32) All of heaven rejoices when someone repents of their sin and returns to the Father. Jesus came to earth for this exact purpose. The Parable of the Prodigal Son so beautifully illustrates God’s love for a lost humanity and His desire for true reconciliation.
Clearly, the gospel does not condemn the righteous at all. Scripture teaches that (1) the gospel is not a message of condemnation, but of reconciliation and (2) this reconciliation is for the sinners, not the righteous who have no need of repentance.
Keller argues that the older brother is lost (and continues to be lost), which is completely erroneous. He redefines sin to include obedience to God, teaching that this obedience separates us from the Father—clearly another serious perversion of truth. And as a consequence of this redefinition, Keller’s gospel falsely condemns those who obey God.
The truth is Jesus came to graciously call the sinners to repentance, not bring condemnation upon the righteous. You’ll be hard pressed to find any biblical support in The Prodigal God. And it’s no wonder, since scripture consistently teaches the opposite. Even a little light goes a far way in exposing the darkness.
Next I’ll reveal where Keller deviates from scripture in regards to repentance and salvation. Repentance cannot be ignored or perverted if the true gospel is to be preached.