Sunday, September 01, 2013

Why Doesn't Tim Keller Include the Younger Son?

Jesus tells three parables in Luke 15, all about losing -- losing a coin, a sheep, and then a son.  The third is the most popular, what has most been called The Prodigal Son, which is actually the story of two sons, a rebellious older one who stays home and a rebellious younger one who turns to the wild side.

Tim Keller founded and pastors the large Redeemer Presbyterian in New York City (NYC).  Evangelical churches have struggled to grow in NYC, but Keller found a working formula he explains in Center Church.  In interviews, I've heard him say the philosophical basis is found in his book, The Prodigal God, which is Keller's take on the third parable of Jesus in Luke 15, of which Keller says the right understanding revolutionized ministry in NYC.  Before I explain Keller's strategy out of Luke 15, I think it is important to say that Keller believes there is a younger son.  He doesn't exclude him from the story.  He excludes him from application of the story.   Keller believes there are two types of sinners in the story.  OK.

Keller says the problem is the older son, and targeting him changes everything.  It goes like the following.   People, like even Keller's parents, think that coming home, getting Christianity, is becoming like the older son.  And if they're already like him, they don't see the need for change.  Keller's strategy has been to deal with everybody like they're the older son.  We actually, according to Keller, have got to get everyone to turn from legalistic religion.

Keller is very popular with a young crowd.  He acts bemused and stupefied at his popularity with the singles and young couples.  After all, he's just a dry lecturer, completely bald and out of touch.  That's just an act, he knows.

When you leave alone the younger son, the actual prodigal, because he's the one who repents in the story, you are not touching the biggest problem in NYC.  Lots of singles in NYC are actually the younger son, who run away from their parents and their "religion."  What they find at Keller's church is something different than back home.  That stuff back home is a problem like the older son was.

Young people today -- evangelicals, fundamentalists, Protestants, and others -- think that the problem is what Keller says it is.   According to them, these groups look down at everyone else -- the homosexuals, the fornicators, the rockers, the liberals, the environmentalists, civil rights people, whoever, like those -- and think they're better than everyone else like the older son.

What has in part made this older son syndrome work is the new, second definition of legalism.  Legalism isn't just works salvation.  The second part of it is assumed upon these older son churches, which are just culturally conservative, or as I would like to call them, biblical and right.  Their standards must be assumed to be legalistic, extra-biblical, and judgmental.  And if you've been saved from that, because of this new view of Jesus, then you're almost (ironically) required to be culturally liberal, i.e., love rock music, short shorts, mixed swimming, the movie theater, booze, and worse.

Keller, and others like him, who have gravitated to the above successful formula, say that everyone is the older son.  They think they're good, and yet they're all bad.  The older son was just as bad as the younger son, just that he stayed home and thought he was better because of it.  But everyone is bad.  That resonates with a particular crowd.  The bad people are those who act good, which is just acting like they're good, when they're bad.  The prodigal did not put on an act, like the older son did, elevating him to an exalted status.

With only one bad son, you open up a world of not judging, like the older son did, prodigal living.  Prodigals feel welcome because they are not going to be judged particularly.  They are going to find out that they aren't that bad.  The bad people are those who think they're so good, and those are especially those who take stands on cultural issues.  They are all falling right into the older son category.  Those happen to be the people that were judging those young people who fled to NYC.

Lots of singles live in NYC.  When Keller came to NYC, Friends was a hit series.  People who watched the show, according to Keller, wanted to be in a group like that.  Keller's church in a certain sense is a place of Friends.

A lot of churches are taking this Keller tack.  They are differentiating themselves from all these other churches.  The talks that Keller gives in his meetings are like college or graduate lectures.  He weaves in philosophy and history and humor and is very non judgmental.  It's all very inductive.  It's mostly condemnatory of the older brother style judgmentalism.  The opposite of that is toleration.

Keller, of course, would say he wants these people to be saved, to be converted, and that they have accepted Jesus.  When they do, they see that the most thriving lifestyle, the best explanation for what's going on with their troubles, is with what Jesus taught.  And it is cool to be a Christian.  You can keep up your expensive taste in wine.  Your jazz collection is good.  Church can be like a big starbucks, where you can sit and keep an eye on your digital technology, find a caring group, and still keep most everything that anyone else in the world has.  And if you say otherwise, well, you're probably again just the older son.

It's at this point that Keller's intellectual, very mitigated talks come in.  He comes at doctrinal and practical issues like it isn't his place to tell anyone what to do.   He mainly if not only leaves the conclusion up to the listener by making it seem like the best thing for a thinking person.   He presents it as a reasonable alternative, something worth thinking about, something worth considering or giving a try.  Most younger sons won't be offended by any of that.

The problem here is that these people actually were not the older son.  They were definitely the younger son.  The lifestyle they wanted in NYC was actually wrong.   And it wasn't because it was self-centered, like the older son was self-centered.  No.  There were two very bad sons.  Both were very bad.  They represent two types of sinners in the Bible, for sure.

The older son is the self-righteous religious person, the Pharisee, the scribe.  The younger son is the Corinthian, those pagan Gentiles, who were fornicating and idolatrous.  Jesus talked about both.  There was the man who was totally materialistic, pulling down his barns and building greater.  But that day his soul was required of him.   It could be the person into the euphoria and the ecstasy and sensuality.  And then Jesus warned severely of the religion of that day, that would take the last two mites from a poor widow.

To Keller, the welcome home to the prodigal is that he doesn't have to be the older son.  Conversion is not being an older son.  If you're not the older son, you're saved.  It's wrong.  The grace that saves does bring you home, and bringing you home means that you're not living it up in the world any more.

When the younger son got home, how was he going to live?  Interestingly enough, very similar to the older son.  He would take responsibility.  He wouldn't be about gratifying himself any more.  He knew that he wasn't a good person.  He knew he was a son only because of the grace of God.  He would respect his dad.   The problem for the older son wasn't his standards.  It wasn't that he didn't allow himself to live it up.  You can have people going through the motions in churches, unsaved.  There are older sons in churches, it's true.  But I haven't seen that as the big problem in churches.  No way.

The dismissal of the younger son is the true change in professing Christianity today.  Not including him is tell-tale in the tale of two sons.  It's no wonder that Keller's message has been popular.  But it misrepresents Luke 15.  There is a reason you hadn't heard that particular take on Luke 15 before.  It wasn't because everybody was missing the keen insight.

I get how when people hear Keller's angle, they salivate over what he's saying.  He sounds great!   So many want that to be true.  In a sense, they're getting support from Jesus Himself for being tolerant and left winged or weak on cultural issues.

"I'm not any good.  I'm no older son.  I can't make it on my own.  I'm no older son.  I can't get saved by my own efforts.  I'm no older son.  The gospel saves me, not my lifestyle, not my music, not my dress standards, not my political party.  All of that is just veering off the central point -- Jesus!!"

Leaving out the younger son is turning the grace of God into lasciviousness.  It uses grace as an occasion to the flesh.  Grace becomes the basis for the worldly lifestyle.  You actually do sin that grace may abound.   The Keller teaching glove fits our culture all right.  It's no revival in NYC.  It's playing right into the hands of the father of this world.

It's no wonder Keller excludes the younger son.  Excluding him works.


Anonymous said...

Isaiah 5:20-21, " Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil; that put darkness for light, and light for darkness; that put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter! Woe unto them that are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight!"

Joshua said...

Just confirming my interpretation of this Scripture is correct:

The context seems to indicate that the older brother represents the Pharisee's who were upset at Jesus seeking the publicans and sinners of their society, as referred to in verse 1.

The younger brother appears to represent the publicans and sinners, who being born into a society that knew the Word of God, had chosen instead a life of wickedness, and squandered that spiritual inheritance.

The older brother is upset at the chance of redemption the younger brother is receiving, and the celebration of the Father at his return. This signifies the Pharisees (older brother) being upset with the Father (Jesus/God) for redeeming and rejoicing over the repentant publican/sinner who had repented of his wickedness (younger brother).

Based off this, I deduce the following.

1. A man is not a younger brother unless he has repented of his wickedness, and left it behind him to return to God.

2. An older brother is one who does not wish to see the Gospel go to someone else, and resents others being given an opportunity to hear and repent. For example, someone who does not wish to see Mexicans, Democrats, the poor, murderers, prostitutes, homosexuals, welfare bludgers, the rich, black people, arabs, Jews etc saved is an older brother. He would get upset at God seeking them out because "they don't deserve it!"

3. If all the above is correct, then my experience in IB churches in Australia (even IB churches that I wouldn't actually attend) is that "older brother" type people are few and far between, and that we are instead characterised by a passion to see all people come to know Jesus Christ. In that we have the Father's heart, and not the older brother's.

To torture the analogy, that does point to "The Prodigal God" painting the real younger brothers who've already gone home as older brothers, and is selling to potential younger brothers some herbs and spices for their husks, while advocating the superiority of porcine husbandry against a repentant journey home.

Kent Brandenburg said...

You've got it right Joshua. I didn't read anything there that I saw as wrong.

Anonymous said...


I just came across your post and must say I've listened to Dr Keller teach on this passage multiple times. In one off sermons, in sermon series, I've read the Prodigal God book, I've listened to him lecture at Reformed Theological Seminary, I've seen him deliver addresses at conferences and I cannot see in any of that Dr Keller "dismissing" the younger brother. I know of at least a half a dozen places in each of the above where he explicitly calls younger brothers to repent. To repent of their rejection of God, to repent of living life their own way, to return to the Father because He is waiting with open arms to welcome you home.

BUT, and this is where you've missed his point and misrepresented his views, he ALSO calls the Older Brothers to repent. To repent of "slaving away" serving the Father not because you love Him but because you want his stuff. You want your goat to celebrate with your friends. You wont go in to the feast when the younger brother comes home and you sure as heck wont go out into the countryside at great expense to yourself, at the expense of your position in the family, to redeem your younger brother from the bondage of slavery that he is in. The Older Brother AND the Younger Brother both need to repent of their attitudes towards the Father.

I hope that you might do some more research, listening to Dr Keller's teaching in this area because it is obvious to me that you have not done a deep review of this material.


Kent Brandenburg said...

Hi Richard,

Thanks for coming by and reading. I've also read a lot of Keller and watched his interviews. I'm open to your and other's critique. From what I read of you, it didn't seem that you read me very well. I know that Keller preaches the younger son, but his emphasis is different than others, which is why it is so acceptable to a NYC crowd. The younger son left the hog trough. You're saying that Keller preaches against homosexuality -- I was wrong on that? He points out that the shacking up is sin? He goes after abortion? That's easy for him to preach at his church? No, don't be the older son, that's not what repentance is -- it's the acceptance of the Father, His lavish love. I think you are choosing not to see what I'm talking about, Richard, and I'd be glad to discuss it with you.

I have preached through very slowly through that chapter and I preached it as two sons, as you can read in this post. That Keller recognizes two sons is not what I'm dealing with here.