A Book Review: “The Prodigal God”



The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, published by Dutton, 2008, 139 pages, clothbound.


I am not a big fan of writing a negative book review, but in this instance I am making an exception. The book Prodigal God is very popular in Calvinistic circles. And since I live in those circles I feel compelled to say a few words about the book. Tim Keller is a PCA (Presbyterian Church in America) pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in downtown New York city. He is an excellent writer who is easy to read. He is a good communicator. He understands the necessity of the new heart in the life of a real believer. But having said all this I must now share my thoughts regarding his book


Prodigal God is a short book about the parable of the lost son or “prodigal son” in Luke 15:11-32. Tim Keller misses the point of the parable and spends the rest of the book addressing issues that have nothing to do with the parable. Let’s first discuss his handling of the parable. Parables are folksy stories from everyday life that all of Jesus’ hearers would understand. Every parable teaches something about the kingdom of God. In response to a question from his disciples as to why he taught in parables Jesus says that he taught in parables to hide these truths about the kingdom from the Israelites and fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 6:9-10. It was God’s plan that Israel not believe (except for a remnant) and parables had a role to play in fulfilling that prophecy. Parables tell us something about the kingdom. The details of the parable are not relevant except that they do tell a story. Each parable has something to say about the kingdom. Unless Jesus interprets the details, as he does in two of the parables (sower and weeds) we cannot read into the details for we would only be guessing as what they might mean for us today. Scripture interprets itself, or to say it another way, God is his own interpreter.


The parable of the prodigal son is all about God rejoicing over one sinner who repents. In Luke 15 we have three parables that follow the criticism of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law regarding the time Jesus spent with tax collectors and “sinners.” Jesus response is to give three parables, the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Each of these parables says the same thing through three different stories. The point of the parables is that the repentance of one sinner causes all of heaven to rejoice and therefore that would explain why Jesus spent his time with those who knew that they were in great need. The Pharisees and the teachers of the law did not see their need.


Tim Keller seeks to show that the parable of the lost son is all about two different types of unbelievers, and he spends the bulk of this time on the “religious” unbeliever as represented by the elder brother. He then seeks to find signifcance from all of the various details of the parable. To try to get something from the details of the parable is to guess as to what the parable might be trying to say. There is no way to verify his conclusions. They are just guesses. He then goes on discuss various issues regarding the church that have no relevance to the parable of the lost son.


The book Prodigal God is a book that seems to be a forum for Tim Keller to share his views and is looking for a text to justify his conclusions. I cannot recommend the book. Tim Keller is a very good guy but his handling of Scripture is not very good. As I close I would encourage you to let God be his own interpreter and to resist the temptation to guess as to what a particular Scripture is saying. The parable of the lost son is a wonderful parable to remind us of that most important truth, that of entering the kingdom of God by saving faith, and this is what causes all in heaven to rejoice. That is why it says, For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost. (Luke 19:10)