The Prodigal God has received much notice and praise in the evangelical community. The editors of World Magazine even proclaimed it their “Book of the Year.” The accolades are understandable given Timothy Keller’s helpful apologetic approach (see his Reason for God), his winsome evangelism methods and his ability to turn a phrase, causing some to compare him favorably to C. S. Lewis. Keller is on the mark throughout much of the book. He is correct, for instance, that the story of the prodigal son is about two boys who are lost, not one. Both the rebellious, obviously sinful younger brother and the self-righteous, legalistic older brother were disobedient to their father and needed to repent and “come home” (pp. 10-11, 18, 36). Both brothers wanted their father’s possessions but sadly not their father (pp. 18, 36). Keller rightly points out that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation (p. 44), but just take different approaches. The author understands the gospel message is that of Jesus Christ paying for our sin-debt on the cross (p. 87) to deliver us from evil and death (p. 101), that we are saved by faith alone (p. 123), and that saving faith will either change the way we live or is not genuine (pp. 123-124). Concerning sanctification, Keller is deeply afraid of legalism (as I will detail below) and he is correct when he writes, “Religion operates on the principle of ‘I obey—therefore I am accepted by God’” (p. 114). Keller is also a strong supporter of the local church and believes a Christian cannot live the spiritual life well without being part of the church (p. 125). And finally I believe Keller does a good job exposing the heart of the father (who obviously is a picture of God) in the story. His love and willingness to forgive his sons comes across clearly in The Prodigal God.
At best, however, Keller is a very careless exegete of Scripture. While (rightly) claiming we cannot press every detail of the parable (p. 76), he not only presses far too hard but also invents and incorporates many details into the story, providing explanations that have no basis in the scriptural account. In short Keller is simply wrong in many ways. He is especially wrong about:
• Calling God “prodigal.” By Keller’s own definition, prodigal means “recklessly spendthrift…to spend until you have nothing left” (p. xiv). Never mind that the word “prodigal” always carries a negative connotation, even using Keller’s definition there is no sense in which God is prodigal. He is not reckless and, while He gave His best (His Son) to save us, He did not spend His all nor did the father in the parable. Entitling the book The Prodigal God is an attempt to shock and gain attention to the volume; in this Keller succeeded. But the trade-off is maligning the person of God and bordering on blasphemy.
• The Pharisees. Like many others who have zeroed in on the error of legalism, Keller uses the Pharisees as “Exhibit A” and like many others he misunderstands their true problem. Keller views the Pharisees as “religious people who do everything the Bible requires” (p. 10), religious people who were “Bible-believing” (p. 15), who thought salvation came “through strict obedience to the Bible” (p. 30, cf. pp. 37, 76). To see the Pharisees in this light is to misrepresent Jesus’ clear teaching concerning this religious sect. Jesus did not condemn the Pharisees for keeping the law or following the Bible, but for adding their own traditions to God’s Word and thus invalidating the Word of God (Matt 15:1-9). Keller misses this vital point and then characterizes the elder brother as a self-righteous Pharisee, thus missing not only the central truth found in the parable but also side-stepping the true dangers of legalism.
• Use of psychobabble. Keller spends much of the book engaged in various forms of pop-psychology in his attempt to explain the behavior of the sons, especially the eldest. He stereotypes older siblings, as if all first-borns behave alike (p. 11). He lays out two arbitrary ways people try to find happiness (pp. 29-30) and then attempts to implant them into the story. He claims the elder brother’s “spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performances, so that he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault” (p. 77). There is no basis for any of this in the parable.
• Reading too much into the elder brother (pp. 48-72). Keller believes that churches are full of elder brothers and he wants to expose them. While he makes some good points he moves far beyond the text by claiming that elder brothers have a dry prayer life (p. 64) and the reason the younger brother wants to leave home in the first place is partly because of the attitude of the elder brother (p. 66), just as many are leaving the church today (pp. 67-69). He almost dismisses the prodigal’s sin of defiance, blaming it on his brother: it is the “elder brothers [who] turned them into younger brothers” (p. 69). Elder brothers are even responsible for social injustice, war and violence in the world (p. 67). What Keller seems to miss most of the time (there are exceptions, see p. 70) is that neither boy in the parable is originally depicted believers. Therefore, the elder brother is not a hard-hearted, legalistic Christian; he is a self-righteous true Pharisee who has invented his own gospel and is not saved. This was the point Jesus was making concerning the older sibling.
• Adding to the story. Keller informs us that Jesus deliberately left someone out of the parable. Inexplicably Keller is not only going to add a character to the story, he is going to wax eloquent about him. This character is the “true elder brother” (pp. 72-89). First it is obvious even to the beginning reader of Scripture that Keller is no longer explaining the parable, he is adding to it. This is both dangerous and condemned by the Lord (Rev 22:18). If Jesus wanted another actor in His story He would have supplied one, but He obviously did not. In Keller’s imagination the true elder brother (Jesus) would go looking for the prodigal and bring him home (pp. 81, 84-85). The truth is that Jesus is neither brother. He came to earth to seek and save the lost and that included both the outwardly rebellious and the self-righteous.
• Distorting Scripture. In the vein of adding to the Scripture Keller informs us that God tells Cain he is his brother’s keeper (p. 81). This fits well with the “social gospel” that I will address next, but God said no such thing to Cain. In Genesis 4:9 Cain asks this question and God does not respond.
• The social gospel agenda. Since Keller teaches that Jesus was bringing in the kingdom of God (p. 100) (rather than that the kingdom was at hand, as Jesus stated in Mark 1:15), he also believes that part of the Christian mandate is solving social problems (pp. 110-113): “The ultimate purpose of Jesus is not only individual salvation and pardon for sins but also the renewal of this world, the end of disease, poverty, injustice, violence, suffering and death” (p. 110). While Keller is strictly correct in this statement, Jesus Himself will accomplish all of this through creation of a new heaven and earth, not through social programs. Keller goes so far as to say, “The inevitable sign that you know you are a sinner saved by sheer, costly grace is a sensitive social conscience and a life poured out in deeds of service to the poor” (p. 112). Not only is this whole discussion completely foreign to the parable, being implanted by Keller, but also nowhere in Scripture are the people of God, either Old Testament Israel or the New Testament church, given a mandate to attempt to solve the social problems of the entire planet. As the citizens of earth we are to be responsible caretakers of God’s creation, but nowhere in Scripture, including Matthew 25 which Keller uses out of context (pp. 111-112), are Christians specifically given the assignment of serving the poor. For more on this see my articles, “The Social Agenda” Part 1 and 2 at www.svchapel.org/ministries/think-on-these-things-ministries.
• The gospel. Keller is not so much wrong about the gospel as confused. As mentioned above, Keller does give the gospel clearly, however he muddies the water in two ways. He writes, “The difference between a Pharisee and a believer is inner-heart motivation” (p. 86). Throughout most of the book Keller has depicted Pharisees as legalistic Christians but here he rightly demonstrates that the Pharisees were not saved. Yet the author teaches that it is inner-heart motivation that distinguishes the believer from the non-believer. Scripture says it is faith, not inner-heart motivation, that is the mark of a true Christian. (Eph 2:8-9). While motivation is important if we must discern our motives to have certainty of salvation, our assurance of redemption is unattainable. Even Paul said he was not always sure of his motives (1 Cor 4:1-4) and the same is true of all of us. The second area of concern has to do with his use of Roman Catholics as examples of believers. Flannery O’Conner is an implied believer (p. 37) and G. K. Chesterton is explicit (p. 46). As staunch Catholics both of these authors rejected the gospel of Christ. In fact both would be accurate examples of Pharisees who add their own message to God’s Word, yet Keller uses them as those who understand and teach the gospel. This is surely a problem.
As can be discerned, I view The Prodigal God as a mess. There are, to be sure, portions that are helpful, but overall Keller misses the point of the parable at almost every turn. If the reader wants a good book on this great parable I suggest he scrap this one and read John MacArthur’s excellent work, The Tale of Two Sons.