What Justified the Prodigal Son?

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When we consider Jesus' parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:11-32, we usually think about the father's love for his son. We less often think of the second major point of the parable, the older son's refusal to accept his brother back. One element of the first part that I think we think about even less is the reason for the father's love. He doesn't love this son and accept him based on what the son has done. That much we do think about. Why does he do it, then? He loves him because it's his son.

Now consider this not in terms of what the son has done but in terms of what the son believes. Does he love him because his son has the correct view on what the father's character is like? Hardly. The son thinks the father will perhaps allow him to become one of his slaves so that he can work his way back into his father's good favor. He doesn't think he'll welcome him the way he does with no works to earn it. The father's welcome for the prodigal son is thus not based on the son's works or on the son's theology. The son's theology is in fact very much like the theology that many Protestants consider heretical. He thinks that he might be able to earn his father's good favor back. What is the import of this?

I don't mean to say that theology is unimportant. It certainly is. Bad theology can be dangerous. It can have a serious impact on our relationship with God. It can have a detrimental effect on how we live out our faith. I also don't mean to say that there are no requirements on coming to God. The prodigal son didn't remain in Gentile territory feeding unclean animals. He returned to his father repentant. He acknowledged that the only one who could help him out of his problem was his father. Furthermore, I'm not denying that there's such a thing as heresy or that some views are so far from the Christian gospel that people who believe them must not be Christians. (You can't be a Christian and not believe in God, for instance, and I'd go much further than requiring mere theism.) What I'm interested in for this post is not what the positive requirements for being geninely in Christ are. I'm interested in a particular requirement that is often given for what someone must do to be saved. Some people insist that you can't be saved unless you believe in justification by faith. I think that view is biblically untenable, and the prodigal son is one place I think this shows up.

The prodigal son believed that his father would save him. What he didn't do is believe that such a belief would earn him a place at his father's table. It's not as if he thought that holding the right belief would win his father over. I get the impression that some Protestants, particularly those who emphasize justification by faith the strongest (and thus condemn those who don't believe what they believe about justification by faith), can hold their own version of works theology. The work in question is the work of believing that justification by faith is true. That's the one thing that can earn your salvation, according to these people. This means that anyone who is or might seem to be denying it, whether N.T. Wright, the pope, or some average person who hasn't thought carefully about theological issues, must not be a genuine son of the father. These people in fact are in some ways much like the older brother. They want to add a requirement to be saved. In their case, the additional requirement is the belief in a very specific theological formulation that as far as we know wasn't even around until Paul.

The prodigal son had faith in God. He was justified by the grace of God, through his own faith. He did not believe that his faith is what made him accepted. I do see some statements in scripture that describe justification in terms of our faith. I do not see anywhere that we are justified by faith in justification by faith. The object of our faith is not that theological position. The object of our faith is Christ.

Some people do indeed seem to be denying justification by faith (or something that entails such, even if they can't see the connection). Does that mean they do not have justifying faith? I can't see why that follows. They may well not, but there's no necessary connection between believing that someone is justified by faith and having justifying faith. Someone can believe that people are justified by faith without having justifying faith. The demons, presumably, believe that that's how people are saved. I think this is part of what James meant when he said the demons believe.

Also, someone can have justifying faith without believing that it is faith that justifies. The prodigal son isn't the only example. The centurion at the cross had no developed theology, but Jesus considered his belief sufficient. Most of the early Christians had no such formulated view, and most new believers have at best undeveloped and misunderstood views on the matter. What I want to suggest is that perhaps sophisticated people who think they understand things intricately may not believe justification by faith for a variety of reasons, and in some of these cases they may actually be trusting Christ for their salvation. They may actually be one of the father's children, and the older brother wants to push them out, not thinking that someone who holds the wrong theological views should deserve being a son. Well, theology isn't what saves. Faith is. Having the wrong propositional beliefs isn't necessarily a sign that someone is not a genuine follower of Jesus Christ and thus a genuine son of God.

This is one reason I think it's stupid to try to analyze which propositions are the gospel and which are not, and then if someone denies one of the ones that we consider the gospel, they're out, and if they affirm all the ones we consider part of the gospel, they're in. That's not what it's about. Salvific faith is a commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. It's a surrendering of one's life to his purposes. It's an acknowledgement of sin and repentance. It's a belief that salvation can only come from him. The detailed theology explains what goes on when someone makes such a commitment. It isn't a measure of who is close enough (no one is fully there) to the most careful biblical formulations of the gospel (not even all biblical formulations are equally precise, e.g. justification by faith vs. justification by grace through faith).

The prodigal son was accepted because he was a genuine son. Sonship is the basis. Sonship is a gift of God. Those who are his heirs are sons. He has selected who those will be. There's a process of coming to be like him, as we seek to be perfect as he is perfect. This isn't just in our outward moral life and in our inner emotional life. It's also in the correctness of our thinking. Expecting someone to have exact theological correctness is in some ways like expecting someone to have moral perfection. Thinking salvation is based on it is basing salvation on works and thus does exactly what the people I'm talking about say you can't do and be a genuine Christian. I think this calls for a serious rethinking of how we deal with questions of heresy.

Where does Galatians fit into all this? I'm less sure of what follows here, but here are some thoughts on putting these two things together. Paul makes it clear that you don't need to be circumcised to be saved. What saves is faith. God treats faith as if it's a righteousness that wouldn't otherwise be there. (I'm leaving aside the metaphysical nature of what that reckoning is. Paul states it as a reckoning by God of one thing as something else, at least on the surface.) It's clear that no one is justified by the law or by the works of the law. Does he say that someone who tries to earn God's approval the way the prodigal son wanted to is not saved? He says that their view commits them to following the whole law. He says they might as well go the whole way and emasculate themselves rather than just trying to win God's approval by getting circumcised. That's testament to his insistence that such actions are worthless. They don't earn God's approval. Does he say that such people are destined for hell, though?

He criticizes the teaching of those who insist on these things. Are such teachers not themselves justified? He describes the Galatians as serving the weak and worthless things of the law, such as observing certain days as sabbaths or festivals as more holy than others, something they simply don't need to do anymore. He wonders if his speaking the freedom of the Christian life was in vain if they weren't going to recognize that freedom and live in a free way. Does this mean they weren't saved? Well, he says they have come to know God just before this. He also says in Romans 14 that people who do such things should have their conscience respected, even if they are wrong. If they think it's a sin to work on the Sabbath, then they will be sinning if they do so, even though their premise is false. So obviously he doesn't consdier this viewpoint endangering of salvation. He considers it a dangerous teaching. He thinks it's worth arguing carefully and emotionally for the truth. I don't seem him declaring the purveyors of it unsaved.

Now maybe someone will come along and point out something in Galatians I'm missing, or maybe someone will be able to put Galatians together with Luke 15 in a way that I hadn't thought of, but it seems to me that the most obvious way to put these together is to say what I said before. Theology doesn't save you. Christ does. Trusting in him as the only one who can save you is compatible with false thinking about how that salvation is achieved. If Christ is doing to work to save you, and somehow you think that the works he will produce in you will save you, but he is producing them, then it seems to me to be repentance and faith in Christ. It's even close to getting it right than the prodigal son was. Yet that seems to me to be perfectly compatible with the best expressions of the New Perspective on Paul or Roman Catholic theology.

The fact that I can't see anything amidst the admittedly harsh statements in Galatians declaring any of those people unsaved or not truly in Christ makes me think that there is indeed something bad about this kind of theology but not on the level of forfeiture of salvation. Maybe this theology is exactly what Galatians condemns. I'm just not sure at this point that Galatians is condemning a theological view as necessarily unChristian in the sense that no real believer could hold it. That means, I think, that we should be very careful about declaring people heretics (in the sense of not being true brothers or sisters) on this ground.

3 Comments

"Theology doesn't save you. Christ does. " amen!

It seems to me that one of the reasons people fall into the trap of believing theology saves us, is a wrong definition of faith. If we equate faith with belief in a certain set of propositions than theology saves us. There is no way around this.

The question to ask then is... What is faith?

Extremely convicting. Thank you.

Dear Lord Jesus Christ,
You give us chance to come back to the Father's Will as long as we got breath in our bodies. Seek ye the truth and the truth shall set you free.

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