Review: The prodigal God

Timothy Keller is fast becoming one of my favourite authors. Apparently he has resolved to write a book a year and I wouldn’t mind telling him to up his production levels somewhat if it wasn’t clear that much of the value in what he writes comes from the patient consideration he gives to both his topic and his reader.

The prodigal God is much shorter than its predecessor The reason for God but is written in a similar vein, combining reverence for God and passion for the gospel with genuine concern for the enquirer. A big part of Keller’s gift is the way in which he takes you on a journey from your questions to God’s answers. This makes him both instructive to non-believers and edifying to Christians.

Here he deals with Jesus’ famous parable in Luke 15, commonly (but rather erroneously) called ‘The prodigal son’. As the book’s title suggests, Keller thinks the focus should be elsewhere. He presents the behaviour of elder brother as being more dangerous than that of the younger. In doing so he shows the real root of sin: not as simply younger-brother pleasure-seeking but elder-brother self-righteousness: “Sin is not just breaking the rules, it is putting yourself in the place of God as Saviour, Lord, and Judge just as each son sought to displace the authority of the father in his own life.” From this he is able to explore what being lost really is all about, and what being saved is all about: being with our loving Father.

Amongst the many interesting insights he gives, one that has stuck with me is the subtle implication of the cost of forgiveness in the story. Because the father split his property between his two sons (verse 12), the fattened calf and everything else that he lavishes on the younger brother technically belonged to the older brother. The idea of a father forgiving a sinner at the expense of his son was one that Jesus was intimately familiar with.

His treatment of the elder brother is far more extensive than usual. Despite some youthful ‘younger-brothering’ I know this is my predilection and so I’m grateful for his challenging words. If you think this could be an issue for you I would strongly advising reading this book – and at less than 150 pages it won’t take too long for you to do so! And as this book really is all about God, I would eagerly recommend it to anyone.


Another the fascinating aspects of Keller’s writing is how he explores America’s “culture wars” (his term). Here the two sides – conservative heartland and liberal fringe – are simply and compellingly presented as the two brothers, both of whom have sinned against the father and need his forgiveness. It got me thinking about what analogy could describe the situation in the UK. Thus far the only one I’ve thought of is the mournful conclusion to Judges: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” (21:25).