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The Prodigal God, Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith by Timothy Keller, Penguin Books, 2008.

5 stars! This is actually more like a booklet. It is 150 pages but the book’s size is only about 4.5 x 6. The audience? I really think this book is appropriate for practicing Christians, no longer practicing Christians (who were turned off of faith by ill behaved believers), and non-Christians too. Yes, I think it can also serve as an evangelistic booklet! How many books can be so broad? Not many! Note the subtitle: recovering the heart of the Christian faith. Both believers and unbelievers need to grasp the heart of the Christian faith. Those who abandoned faith may find it helpful to better understand that their bad experiences may have been connected to Christians who missed the heart of the Christian faith.

This book is about the parable of the prodigal son, well known to many folks. Why is the book titled The Prodigal God?? Well, the word prodigal actually means extravagant, lavish, or reckless – not wayward. The parable of the prodigal son is so known that the word took on such a meaning, but God is not wayward; rather the love of the father in the story and our heavenly Father is extravagant.

While several different lessons can be learned from this story, more often than not, the main point and the main audience to whom this story is directed is overlooked or made secondary when it is actually primary. This parable was directed to the religious leaders (the scribes and pharisees) and it is the elder brother that should be given special notice.

TAKE NOTE: The original hearers of this story would not have responded by being overwhelmed by the great love of God welcoming the sinner home. No. The original hearers would have been annoyed, offended, even infuriated!

In this parable (that Keller says would be better titled “The Parable of the Two Lost Sons”) Jesus singles out religious moralism as a particularly deadly spiritual condition. One son rebelled by being very bad and the other son rebelled by being very good. “It’s a shocking message: careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.” (page 43)

Too many Christians are like the elder brother, and Keller cautions that genuine Christians can be elder brotherish – note ish – maybe not full blown elder brothers but leaning in that direction. Sadly, elder brother attitudes and behavior can drive others away from faith, turning them into younger brothers.

Are you puzzled, not quite getting this? In our focus on being good or doing what we are supposed to, we lose focus. It can end up more about us; pride and self-righteousness overtake us, without us realizing it. We can end up resentful or lacking compassion towards others, yet be blind to it, or justifying our attitudes as legitimate.

Christians need the gospel as much as non-Christians. Moralism or “religion” is the default mode of the human heart, so we need to deliberately and repeatedly set it to gospel-mode, reminding ourselves of the work of Jesus for us. (thoughts on pages 128-129)

Being a Christian is not about trying harder, but about our heart and motivations being transformed as we look to Jesus, going deeper in the gospel. Towards the end of the book (page 139) it says:

“If we say ‘I believe in Jesus’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.”

I highly recommend this brief book! I think you’ll find much that makes you go “hmmm” and challenges you. If my review leaves you with questions or uncertainty about certain points, you should find that Keller more clearly explains and flushes things out in the book.

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