Preaching on the Prodigal Son

            The fifteenth chapter of Luke gives three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. William Hendricksen commented on this chapter: “The three have one central theme, namely, The Father’s Yearning Love for the Lost. . . The shepherd seeks the one lost sheep. The woman searches carefully until she has found the one lost coin. The father’s heart goes out to his lost son. When he sees him, he welcomes him back to his heart and home.”[1] Another way to state the main truth of these three parables is that God rejoices with great joy whenever a sinner repents and turns back to Him. The sheep was lost but now is found. The coin was lost but now is found. The son was lost but now is found.

            This is the message of the Scripture. In Ezekiel 18, the Lord lays out several scenarios which manifest both His justice and His mercy. In verses 22 and 23 of that chapter, the Lord says, “All his transgressions which he has committed will not be remembered against him, because of his righteousness which he has practiced, he will live. ‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?’”

            If the parable of the prodigal son is interpreted to primarily focus on the ‘other Son,’ then the main message of the Scripture is missed. It is certainly true that Christ’s redemption is the foundation of our salvation without which no one can be saved. If Christ had not taken our sins on Himself and imputed to us His perfect righteousness, then all of us would be guilty before the throne of God with no remedy for our salvation. Praise God that Christ died, the just for the unjust, to bring us to God. Yet, Christ’s accomplishment of salvation does nothing to bring us to God until it is applied to us by the Holy Spirit through what is called subjective grace. The application of redemption includes several things—regeneration, repentance, saving faith, justification, adoption, and sanctification. Until or unless all of those graces have been bestowed on us by the Spirit, then Jehovah Tsidkenu means nothing to us, as McCheyne wrote in his poem.

            Not every part of Scripture is about the accomplishment of redemption. Many parts of Scripture are about the application of redemption. One of the problems which can arise with Redemptive-Historical preaching, and which often does, is that the application of redemption is narrowed down to saving faith only. The true gospel includes regeneration, justification, and sanctification.

            Luke 15 is a great passage to show the difference between the wrong model of Scriptural preaching, Redemptive-Historical preaching, and the true model. The difference starts with Biblical interpretation. An example of a Redemptive-Historical interpretation of this parable is Tim Keller’s view that the key to the interpretation of it is to “see” that the key is the ‘other brother.’ Luke 15:11-32 clearly sets forth the elder brother, the younger brother, and the father. There is no mention of Jesus, as the assumed ‘other brother’, who goes out searching for the lost son.  There are three people mentioned in Luke 15 as those who lost something or someone—a man, a woman, and a father. The first parable is about the lost sheep and it is certainly true Christ is the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), but is the main point of these three parables about Christ seeking the lost? It is certainly true that Christ seeks the lost. The Son of man came to seek and to save that which is lost. But not every passage has the same message. In Luke 15, the message is clearly about another matter. It is about how the heart of God rejoices at the conversion of every sinner, no matter how lost or how wicked they were before they repented.

            The true preaching of the gospel must stick closely to the text and bring out the exact meaning of that particular passage. Only in that way will the wise scribe bring forth both new and old things from his treasure chest (Matthew 13:52). Only in that way will the preacher of the gospel be able to place the appropriate Scriptural emphasis on every truth.

            Here is another problem with the Redemptive-Historical preaching of this parable. By finding some mysterious ‘other brother’ in the text, even though there is no mention of such, that school has nullified what is the natural imperative of the parable. The parable is about the necessity of repentance (the younger brother finally ‘came to his senses’) and the necessity of making that confession to God. If Christ is somehow ‘seen’ in this parable as the ‘other brother’ who has searched for the lost son and found him, then the imperative becomes that sinners should rejoice in Christ because He found them. Rejoicing in our salvation is a truth of Scripture, but it is not the primary truth that these parables set forth. In fact, that Redemptive-Historical interpretation of the parable of the lost son completely reverses the main message. Instead of the parable being about the joy that the father has in receiving back his lost son, it becomes about the joy that the lost son has in being found by Christ. And the importance of repentance is sacrificed in so doing. Certainly, it is true that “a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5d) when a sinner realizes how great the forgiving love of God is, but that joy does not come until the sinner also experiences that “weeping may last for a night” (Psalm 30:5c). Without repentance unto life, the wound of sinners is healed superficially.

            There are so many ways and so many places in the Scripture that Christ is set forth in types, in theophanies, in prophecies, and in clear statements. We should preach Christ in all the parts of Scripture, but we should not artificially try to find Him where He is not to be found. We can find Him in the book of Job where Job expresses his faith in his Redeemer who lives (Job 19:25-27). We do not need to and should not allegorize the whole book of Job into a proclamation on the sufferings of Christ.

            There are many places where Christ is set forth in the Scriptures, but not every verse or passage is about Him. Some passages are about the sufferings of God’s people. Some passages are about the need of repentance or regeneration or saving faith or growing in grace. We must be careful to preach the exact meaning of the passage which God intended when He gave us the Scripture. Only in that way shall we preach the whole counsel of God.

Dewey Roberts, Pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church in Destin, FL and Moderator of Vanguard Presbytery

Contributions may be made to: PO Box 1862, Destin, FL 32540.  

[1] William Hendricksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke (Grand Rapids, Baker Book House, 1981), 743.

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