Updated: Aug 26, 2022
In Luke 15 we have a story of two sons, neither of which loved their Father, both rebelling against Him. Not only did they not love their Father, they in fact hated Him. In this chapter Jesus tells one parable in three parts (“parable” in v. 3 is singular), all of which reveal the love of God the Father for the lost, unlike the religious leaders in Israel. He searches for them like a lost coin, lost sheep, and lost son. That reflects the correct view of God the Father and, therefore, also the view of every true believer toward the lost. Tucked into this story are the issues of sin, shame, disgrace, desperation, and then repentance, faith, atonement, grace, forgiveness, reconciliation, sonship, and blessing to the repentant sinner who flees to Him for salvation.
In this single parable of Lk 15, Christ gives three illustrations of heavens reaction to the conversion of “publicans and sinners” (v. 1) by the restoration of a lost sheep, a lost coin, and a lost son, while the unconverted and self-righteous “Pharisees and scribes” (v. 2), who thought they did not need to repent (v. 2), are illustrated by another son who wasn’t willing to enter his father’s house but greatly dishonoured him because of his perceived superiority to his brother (vv. 25-32; cf. De 10:16; Ac 7:51; Rom 9:6-8). This third illustration in the parable (vv. 11-32) has three characters: the Father, the younger son, and the older son.
Jesus was teaching the "Pharisees and scribes" (v. 2, who represent the older son) of their need for conversion, by contrasting them with publicans and sinners (v. 1, who represent the younger son), who do come to Him for salvation (v. 1, “Then drew near unto him all the publicans and sinners for to hear him” after Jesus had said “He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.” — 14:35b). The Pharisees and scribes represent the (self) “righteous” of Lk 5:31-32 and 19:7-10, while the Publicans and sinners are the sinners and publicans of those passages. The same contrast is also represented in Matt 21:28-32.
Many preachers when preaching through this chapter, focus almost exclusively on the younger son, whom is called "the prodigal." In light of the historical and larger textual context of the flow of the gospel, attention should be given to both sons. The parable itself starts with these words: “A certain man had two sons.” The analogy composed is that God is the Father. This is about the relationship of God to all human beings, for every human is lost and fits into one of the two son’s: non-religious sinner or religious-sinner. In one sense, God is Father of all (1 Cor 8:6, Eph 4:6), not in a saving sense, but in the sense that God cares for all humanity and provides for every man and is the Creator of all. This is not the "universal Fatherhood of God and brotherhood of men” heresy but it is God as the source of all blessing for both the evil and the good, which is the witness of God's goodness towards all mankind (Ac 14:17). It is the goodness of God that leadeth sinners to repentance (Rom 2:4).
Jesus shows the Father cares for both his sons in how he has treated them. He had an inheritance set apart for both of them, working to support them both (v. 12). He treated his sons much better than servants (v. 17). He wanted to give his sons great things, even though they didn't deserve what he gave them (vv. 22-23). He wanted to be with his sons (vv. 20, 24). He was very concerned about the well-being of his sons (v. 24). He intreated his sons when they confronted him and treated him in an angry way (v. 28). He was willing to give all he had to his sons (v. 31) and was glad for his sons' well being (v. 32).
When Christ spoke of saving repentance, he spoke of the attitude expressed by the words of the younger son that was lost but then found: "And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father's have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. And he arose, and came to his father. . . . And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants” (vv. 17-21).
This is the humble repentance of an ungodly sinner who recognized his desperate condition, turned from his sins and self, and came to the Father by faith, for the forgiveness of his sins. This reminds me of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount: "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 5:3). Unless we recognize our spiritual poverty, we cannot be saved. As the angels of heaven sang for joy when our Saviour was born (Lk 2:9-15), so they sing for joy when a sinner is born again: “there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner that repenteth. . . . For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.” (vv 7-10, 14). Heaven celebrates the salvation of a sinner from the clutches of Satans bondage and eternal hell fire.
The elder brother was sadly a different affair. He couldn’t see why the repentant younger son and sinner should be instantly ransomed, redeemed and restored. He knew nothing of Calvary's love, blinded by his self-righteousness. "He was angry," Jesus said, "and would not go in" to celebrate the new birth of his brother (v 28). He didn’t rejoice like the heavens rejoice when one sinner repenteth (vv 7,10). He was a mean-spirited religious hypocrite and Scripture’s crystal clear that hypocrites are always unregenerate (Matt 23:1-33; 24:51; Lk 6:23-29; 7:30; Rom 2:1-29). Christ’ dealing with the elder son was clearly pointed at the scribes and Pharisees, whom He was contrasting with the publicans and sinners (vv 1-2).
Israel as a whole represented the elder brother. Israel occupied a special place in the purposes of God (Rom 3:1-2; 9:4-5; 11:25-29) and no reason existed why these special blessings should not continue. But Israel was about to shut itself out because of pride, meanness of spirit, ungratefulness, unbelief and rejection of true salvation while embracing the religion of self-righteousness (Rom 10). The last we see is the father still pleading and the elder brother still pouting and rejecting. The die wasn’t yet cast when Jesus gave the story. The Jews had not yet finally and irrevocably rejected Christ. The door was not yet shut, but soon it would be (Mt 23:33-39). Paul expounded the end of the story later in Rom 11:7-27 and Ac 28:25-28.
Unfortunately this parable, along with the ongoing context of Lk 14:15-35 (its all the same sermon by Jesus that continues on to the end of Lk 15) is very commonly twisted from the truth and taught as something post-salvation. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many teach this parable as a Christian who is in a “backslidden” state and in need of rededicating their life to God. Twisting this powerful parable and salvation sermon of Christ into something else besides salvation produces major confusion, contradiction and corruption of God’s plain Word on salvation. This dangerous and false narrative is usually driven by some underlying agenda of “carnal Christianity” persuasion. Descriptors are used to describe these “prodigals” as “backslidden” or “carnal Christians” or “lukewarm” or Christians in “unbelief,” whereas all these expressions only apply to the lost in scripture. Jesus wasn’t teaching the lost multitudes (14:25) which included “publicans and sinners” (15:1) and “Pharisees and scribes” (15:2), how to be better Christians or disciples. He was preaching His Gospel of salvation. Since Gods Word is perspicuous with one primary interpretation and all true believers are taught the same truth by the indwelling Spirit of truth (Pr 8:8-9; 22:20-21; 1 Jn 2:20-21, 27), there can only be one interpretation here. Teaching it as anything else denies true salvation, what scripture teaches about unconverted professing Christians, and the evidence of true conversion.
Every sinner is dead in their sins (Eph 2:1,5), whether they are religious or non-religious. The repentant sinner is quickened (made alive) by the Triune God forever (Eph 2), never to die again (Jn 11:25-26). He is never dead again and never lost again. He is delivered forever from both the penalty and power or dominion of sin (Rom 6). He has been found and freed for all eternity and has an eternal relationship with the Triune God (Jn 17:2-3). This represents the non-religious lost rebellious and openly sinning son who repented. He surrendered to Jesus Christ. He denied himself and lost his life for Christ. It is at this point he is truly converted and becomes true salt of the earth that hasn’t lost its savour (vv 34-35).
Jesus is emphasizing repentance and faith in Lk 15:3-32, which corresponds to many other passages of Scripture: Matt 10:32-29; 16:24-26; Lk 9:23-26, 57-62; 18:9-32; 19:1-10; etc. Jesus would later tell the lost rich young ruler the exact same thing (Mk 10:21), but he wouldn’t repent and submit himself to God (Mk 10:22-25). The earthly cost was too great. The apostles however had done that, minus one (Mk 10:26-31).
“They that are whole need not a physician; but they that are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Lk 5:31-33).
How does man repent? Many passages tell us (e.g. Lk 13:1-5; Matt 21:28-32; Mk 8:34-38; Ac 3:19; 20:21) but right here Jesus had just told that audience (which again is predominantly lost, Lk 14:25; 15:1-2) how to repent, in the very same sermon—Lk 14:15-35—by describing how a man becomes a true disciple of Christ, by “coming to [Christ]” and “hating his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and his own life also,” (v 26), by “bearing his cross, and coming after [Christ],” (v 27), by “counting the cost,” (vv 28-30), by seeking after peace with the King of kings (vv 31-32), and by “forsaking . . . all that he hath,” (v 33). This is describing repentance, particularly the volitional faculty—it is man’s will that must turn (Rom 1).
“Oh that men would praise the Lord for his goodness, and for his wonderful works to the children of men!” (Ps 107:8).
God is very good! To take an ungodly, wicked, and vile sinner, one of His very own creatures of creation made in His own image but yet so far from His image, to forgive him and wash him and cleanse him forever from all his transgressions and iniquity and make him a brand new creature in His Son, to "Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry" (vv. 22-24), and all this after squandering half the family inheritance in riotous and ungodly living — how can words be truly put to such great and merciful love! It’s almost unbelievable. But it must be believed to be received. Indeed, His gift is unspeakable, His riches unsearchable, His love immeasurable, His kindness impalpable. And it’s available to all, irregardless how depraved and how vile a man may be!
And then the sinner turned saint can proclaim with the Psalmist,
"Come and hear, all ye that fear God, and I will declare what he hath done for my soul.” (Ps 66:16)