A Review: The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

By Timothy Keller

Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. New York: Penguin Group, 2008. 133 pages.

Timothy Keller

He “was born and raised in Pennsylvania, and educated at Bucknell University, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and Westminster Theological Seminary. He was first a pastor in Hopewell, Virginia. In 1989, he started Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan with his wife, Kathy, and their three sons. Today, Redeemer has nearly six thousand regular attendees at five services, a host of daughter churches, and is planting churches in large cities throughout the world.”1


Keller addresses the well known parable of the prodigal son in this new book “The Prodigal God.” Naturally he comes across as a very logical intellectual that consistently makes valid conclusions about the text. He addresses the younger and older sons with a fresh approach deriving meaning from the text. Keller uses illustrations and cultural and historical background to support his points about this well known parable. The chapters are telling as three, four, and six, all start with the word “redefining.” The focus of the parable in his argumentation is both brothers but primarily the older brother due to the audience. Both are lost and need to be found in Christ alone. The thesis of the book is that both brothers are lost and need to find righteousness and salvation in Jesus Christ the true older brother.

Main Supporting Arguments:

Keller elucidates the parable commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son. From the audience and the context Keller derives that the primary intended audience was the “religious elite.” “The crucial point here is that, in general, religiously observant people were offended by Jesus, but those estranged from religious and moral observance were intrigued and attracted to him.”2 With the context and audience of the parable would be best titled “the parable of the two sons.” The audience was both sinners (that he was commonly seen with) and the religious elite that looked down on Jesus.3

According to Keller there are two lost brothers in this parable but one of them does not know that they are lost. Clearly from the text and the audience he concludes that it is the older brother—the religious elite. “…the younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not.”4 Even further he makes this emphatic by saying, “If you know you are sick you may go to a doctor; if you don’t know you’re sick you won’t—you’ll just die.”5 The resulting conclusion is that being “the elder brother” is much more dangerous than being “the younger brother.”

Clearly Keller defends that there are two wrong ways to attain salvation and both brothers have a mistaken relationship with God. They have misconceptions of what is a right relationship with God. “Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery.”6

Logical Reflection:

Keller uses logic when he makes conclusions about the primary audience and uses the previous and following passages. With his understanding of the near-east culture of the first century, he easily supports his conclusions. Even the most generous of conclusions that Keller makes has the intellectual and logical fortitude to stand up to criticism.

Theological Reflection:

I will let Keller speak for himself.

“The message of the Bible is that the human race is a band of exiles trying to come home. The parable of the prodigal son is about every one of us.”7

“Jesus did not come to simply deliver one nation from political oppression, but to save all of us from sin, evil, and death itself. He came to bring the human race home. Therefore he did not comes in strength but in weakness. He came and experienced the exile that we deserved. He was expelled from the presence of the Father, he was thrust into the darkness, the uttermost despair of spiritual alienation—in our place. He took upon himself the full curse of human rebellion, cosmic homelessness, so that we could not be welcomed into our true home.”8

“We habitually and instinctively look to other things besides God and his grace as our justification, hope, significance, and security.”9


Keller makes a delightful contribution to the study of the parable of the prodigal son. He concludes that Jesus is the ultimate older brother, and that the older brother in the parable (not Jesus but the “religious elite”) is truly lost. Keller brings all of this back to Gospel living. “We can only change permanently as we take the Gospel more deeply into our understanding and into our hearts. We must feed on the Gospel, as it were, digesting it and making it part of ourselves.”10 The Gospel is central to the two sons and the father’s response to them. Bravo, Timothy Keller for a lifelong study of a commonly misaccentuated passage. I would recommend this to the pastor and layperson in the church as well as the biblical scholar.

In Christ alone, John


[1] This is from the “about the author” section in the book.

[2] Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 14-15. See also Ibid. 28. “It is because the real audience for this story is the Pharisees, the elder brothers.”

[3] Luke 15:1-2

[4]  Keller, Timothy. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith. (New York: Penguin Group, 2008), 66.

[5] Ibid. 66.

[6] Ibid. 29.

[7] Ibid. 97-98.

[8] Ibid. 101-102.

[9] Ibid. 115.

[10] Ibid. 115.


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