The parable of the prodigal son is oft explored as an affirmation of God’s love, particularly toward those who have been reckless but now recognize Him as the source of salvation and fulfillment. Keller, then, opts not to repeat and rehash the exposition of other teachers. Rather, he looks at the character often ignored: the elder brother. In his book, Keller makes the case that the elder brother necessarily deserves at least equal emphasis as the younger brother, particularly in light of the fact that with this parable Jesus was addressing the Pharisees, whom the elder brother represents. From this he teaches about the elder brother’s role in the story, his heart, his response to the father, and the applicability of the elder brother to Christian life.
Keller spends the first five of seven chapters diving into the younger-elder brother contrast in detail. He shows the error of legalism, how it is a symptom of pride, and how it leads to a sense of entitlement. Elder brothers adhere externally and joylessly to the law in exchange for favors owed. But God is prodigal—that is, “reckless”—and He is merciful to save worldly younger brothers and moralistic elder brothers alike.
But the final two chapters are where I think this book truly comes into its own. After talking about the problems—sins, really—of the two sons, Keller finishes his book with a look at the father. He looks at the parable’s relation to the gospel, as well as a look at what a believer’s life should look like in light of the gospel and this parable. God the Father sent His Son to pay the price for our homecoming. He crushed His Son on the cross so that we might be welcomed into heaven, and eventually the new earth, to live in an eternal home with God. And in that eternity, there will be great feasting (Rev. 19, Is. 25, Matt. 8:11). His last chapter, focusing on the “Feast of the Father,” shows how we ought to live in experiential enjoyment of God. Keller does a good job of tying all the previous material back to applicability and how it works for God’s glory. I found that these two chapters helped me understand more the grace of God, our subsequent gratification in God, and how they glorify God.
Who is this book for? I think this book is best suited for non-believers and new believers, to correct any misconceptions they have about how to live the Christian faith. It clearly demonstrates the folly of legalism and introduces how we ought to live in enjoyment of God and the gospel. This book contains a good presentation of the gospel, which will be of great benefit for non-believers. For believers who are older and more mature in the faith, this book is a welcome reminder of why God does not accept legalism. I do have to note that I don’t think this will be as substantive for older, more mature believers. Since the final chapter of this book covers, briefly, the same material as John Piper’s “Desiring God,” I find that they pair very well together. I happened to be reading “Desiring God” at the same time as “The Prodigal God,” and I found this book’s final chapter to be an excellent introduction to the principles explained in “Desiring God.” More mature believers may benefit from the greater extent to which Piper discusses the enjoyment of God. Still, this book is helpful at causing us to search ourselves to see if we have become complacent and legalistic in our faith.
This book is not dense. It is not a multi-hundred page exposition and exploration of this parable. It is a concise look at the tale and its implications for the life of a true Christian. Neither is any of the material particularly groundbreaking, but it is solid teaching and a good reminder of the fact that elder brothers in the church, proponents of pride and legalism, are wayward sons. “The Prodigal God” is a quick and helpful read examining and denouncing pride and legalism and exalting the all-surpassing love of the Father.