Prodigal Exegesis: A Book Review of Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God

Timothy Keller is a celebrity Christian if there ever was one. When he visits a country, Korea as a recent example, thousands of Christians come to listen. He can be winsome and witty with his responses, and he has written many books that have encouraged followers all over the world. His impact on recent crops of PCA leadership needs not be mentioned.

All of the above can be read in glowing write-ups on Keller all across the Internet, but marveling at his global reach is not the point here. This is a review of Prodigal God. Let’s examine it.

Timothy Keller & Category Errors

Even if one or two category errors are in a book, it can still be beneficial and prove its main thesis. However, if the book premise is based on category errors, like Keller’s, then it either becomes irrelevant of dangerous. In The Prodigal God, Timothy Keller gets two major things wrong, the character of the Pharisees and the content of Christian life.

Who the Pharisees were

The second group of listeners was the “Pharisees and the teachers of the law,” who were represented by the elder brother. They held to the traditional morality of their upbringing. They studied and obeyed the Scriptures. They worshipped faithfully and prayed constantly.

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, pp. 10.

Keller’s teaching in this book finds his footing on this characterization of the Pharisees. If he gets it right, then the exposition can stand. If it is wrong, his book has no legs and his thesis falls over. That thesis being, people who uphold moral obedience to God’s Law are Pharisees.

The Pharisees and their posses were the institutional “teachers of the law.” They sat in the seat of Moses (Matthew 23:2). Both of these are historical realities. The crux of the matter is Timothy Keller’s interpretation of their character, “They studied and obeyed the Scriptures. They worshipped faithfully and prayed constantly.” Essentially the author teaches that the Pharisees were faithful to God’s Law.

This is dead wrong. Jesus calls them lawless (Matthew 23:28). They sat in the seat of Moses, but they did not obey the Law of God. They did not support their aged parents like they were required to, instead they obeyed their man-made rules, which even Jesus says is rejecting the commandment of God (Mark 7:9-12).

Faithful saints in the Church who teach obedience to God’s commands could not be further away from being a Pharisee.

Flipping goals: A new standard for the Christian life

It’s a shocking message: Careful obedience to God’s law may serve as a strategy for rebelling against God.

The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, pp. 43.

This is another error that flows out of characterizing the Pharisees wrongly. Sanctification is villainized. “Careful obedience…” to the Law of God can be “…rebelling against God…”? Now that is nonsensical, but the connection makes sense if you think the Pharisees practiced “careful obedience to God’s law…”

Recovering the categories

If Keller’s caricature is wrong, and thus his careful obedience comment, should we strive to obey God’s Law?  Are we to teach the law to believers as the required moral code? What do we do with the category errors made in this book?

Who we are

As Christians, we are in Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:30), have “put on” Jesus (Galatians 3:27), and we are a “new creation” in Jesus (1 Corinthians 5:17). These truths also have ethical ramifications. Do not be proud of your wisdom, do not divide the body via ethnic distinctions, and “put off” the “old man” (our sinful behavior). These come from the context of the verses cited. Besides being told who we are, the Bible also gives us what are to do.

Understanding our goals: The true standard of the Christian life

Matthew 5:17-19 is where Jesus tells us what our morality is to be.

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

This means that the law is not abolished but fulfilled. Jesus says he came to “fulfill” the law, which does not mean to “do the law,” but to “enforce the law.” Remember, Jesus will not abolish the Law. Instead, He will enforce it until all is accomplished. That is, “until heaven and earth pass away.” When will that time come? When all of Christ’s enemies are defeated and put under His foot in history, and finally death dies:

Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.

1 Corinthians 15:24-26

Gate archway against a cloudy sky

Since Jesus was careful to obey God’s Law and commands us to do and teach it, it’s clear to see that “…careful obedience to God’s law…” is anything but rebellion against God. Careful obedience to the Law is just that, obedience. On the other hand, any departure from God’s Law is rebellion. Keller should be careful to not relax “one of the least of these commandments,” and teach “others to do the same,” otherwise he will be “least in the kingdom of heaven!”

Careful with Keller

So here is the takeaway: be careful with Keller. With category errors that could only be had if you are not familiar with the teaching of Jesus, his exegesis must be at least little suspect. If you’re wrong about who the Pharisees were, you’ll get most of Jesus’ teaching wrong, since His teachings were often polemically against them.

The other word of warning is in regards to the constant distancing of the Christian life and God’s Law in modern teaching. Sanctification has become very ambiguous. For many long-time Christians, sanctification is measured by the length of one’s quiet time and the emotional response received from it. Effectively, sanctification has been neutered. We should instead measure sanctification by our maturity in God’s Law and our obedient response to His Word.

A helpful resource

I would recommend reading B.B. Warfield’s exposition of Matthew 5:17-18 in his article called Jesus’ Mission, According to His Own Testimony, which can be found in his book Biblical Doctrines. In attacking the liberal interpretation of Jesus ministry, he also addresses the topic of God’s Law in the New Covenant. Here is a little sampler:

On the one hand it is asserted with an emphasis which could not easily be made stronger, that the law in its smallest details remains in undiminished authority so long as the world lasts. Jesus has not come to abrogate the law-on the contrary the law will never be abrogated, not even in the slightest of its particulars-the dotting of an “i” or the crossing of a “t” -so long as the world endured.

He also helpfully addresses when the Law shall “pass” in the same article.

He means to say not merely that they should be accomplished, but that they shall be accomplished. The words are very emphatic. The “all,” standing in correlation with the “one” of the “one jot” and “one tittle,” declares that all the jots and all the tittles of the law shall be accomplished. Not one shall fail. The expression itself is equivalent to a declaration that a time shall come when in this detailed perfection, the law shall be observed.

This amounts to a promise that the day shall surely come for which we pray when, in accordance with Jesus’ instruction we ask, “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done as in heaven so on earth.”