Thursday, February 16, 2012

Turning from one lostness to another

    “But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
(Luke 15:17-20 ESV)

I know Tim Keller has brought new life to many insightful ideas surrounding the story of the prodigal son. Not the least of these is the fact that both the younger brother (at the beginning of the story) and the elder brother (at the end of the story) are lost and outside of fellowship with the father.

But as one who holds a more reformed position, one part of the parable always bothered me even after Keller's wonderful work. The younger son, after losing all and ending up in a pig sty, decides to return to his father and plead for an employed position. Yet this seemed to portray the son as the one initiating repentance and forgiveness. And this seemed to be at odds with the reformed teaching that God initiates salvation and reconciliation. But as I read closer, I realized something that not only made sense of the story but also perfectly fit with the reformed position.

The younger brother isn't turning back to his father in repentance, he's merely turning from younger-brother lostness to elder-brother lostness. He hadn't had a change of heart, he had just realized that his rebellion had dead-ended and the only way to survive was to adopt the elder brother's approach of obedient service to the father. He doesn't consider being brought back into the family (not even in his self-speak), only brought on as a hired servant. He wasn't approaching his dad for forgiveness and grace, just a job!

If the sin of both the younger and older brother was that they loved and wanted the father's stuff more than the father, then the younger brother's return and plea to the father is no different. So while the younger son returns in worldly sorrow (and a prepared speech with sufficient self-flagellation) in order to gain employment, it is the father alone who initiates and extends grace, forgiveness, and a place back in the family.

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