Just last fall I wrote an article in the newsletter telling you that “Yes, I wrote a book,” The Reason for God, which came out in February 2008. It has been bought and distributed much more widely than I had ever imagined it would be. This is to tell you that I’ve got another volume coming out this fall. (I’m not as prolific as that might seem; both manuscripts were finished at the same time, after years of work!)
The new book is entitled The Prodigal God and it should be out October 30. It is an expansion of my sermon on the Prodigal Son parable in Luke 15. Kathy and I have long felt that this was the clearest and best single exposition of the gospel I’ve been able to do over the years. My interpretation of the parable was originally based on a sermon called “Sharing the Father’s Welcome” that I heard preached by Dr. Edmund P. Clowney over 35 years ago. That sermon had a profound impact on how I preached for the rest of my ministry. In some ways the teaching of this sermon is at the very foundation of Redeemer’s ministry. I have preached on the text three times at Redeemer over the years. The initial time was in the first several weeks of our church’s life in 1989. The second was about ten years later, and the last time was to start off the 2005 Vision Campaign. Each time I felt God helping me get deeper into the meaning of the story. After the 2005 sermon, I began to turn it into a short book.
What’s the book about? It’s about being ‘prodigal.’ The word ‘prodigal’ is an English word that means recklessly extravagant, spending to the point of poverty. The dictionaries tell us that the word can be understood in a more negative or a more positive sense. The more positive meaning is to be lavishly and sacrificially abundant in giving. The more negative sense is to be wasteful and irresponsible in one’s spending. (Some people think prodigal means ‘wayward,’ but there is no dictionary that indicates that the word means ‘immoral.’) The negative sense obviously applies to the actions of the younger brother in the Luke 15 parable. But is there any sense in which God can be called ‘prodigal’? I think so.
First, the elder brother is offended by the father’s extravagant and (to him) irresponsible welcome of his younger brother. The father, of course, represents God, and legalists are always offended by the gospel of free grace. They see it as wasteful and unfair. After all, they worked for their acceptance. These are the people to whom Jesus was telling the parable in the first place—the Pharisees who objected to Jesus’ lavish grace to tax collectors and sinners. They certainly thought Jesus was being far too free and irresponsible with the love and favor he was promising them from God. Jesus depicts them in the parable as the elder brother upset with his father’s prodigality.
Second, the positive meaning of the term ‘prodigal’ is definitely true of God. He spent himself to the uttermost on the Cross. He did so ‘recklessly’ in the sense that he did not reckon the cost to himself. Jesus was someone who spent himself into helpless poverty (2 Corinthians 8:9) and was ‘in want’ in the most extreme way.
So the title ‘Prodigal God’ calls attention not only to the mistaken way that legalists regard God’s gospel of grace, but also to how Jesus, though he was rich, spent everything without thought for himself, that we might be saved. Charles Spurgeon’s sermon on this text was entitled ‘Prodigal Love for the Prodigal Son,’ which sums up well all the senses of the word in one sentence.
During the years I was working on these two books, my provisional titles were “The Gospel for Non-believers” (The Reason for God) and “The Gospel for Believers” (The Prodigal God.) This second book is my way of doing what Martin Luther directed us Christian ministers to do. “This…truth of the gospel…is also the principal article of all Christian doctrine, wherein the knowledge of all godliness consists. Most necessary it is, therefore, that we should know this article well, teach it unto others, and beat it into their heads continually.”