THE PRODIGAL SON: A CASE STUDY IN PRE-JUSTIFICATION CONFESS AND CALL
In Luke 15, Jesus answers an accusation of the Pharisees with three stories---a story of the lost sheep, then the lost coin, and finally the lost son. The third of these three parables is the tale of two sons. I want to explore the Lord's illustration of man's salvation by looking at this parable as a case study.
Part of the confusion about the conditions for justification is the understanding of faith itself. Saving faith certainly occurs at a point in time, but at the consummation of a time of repeated believing. This is how it is presented in the NT. Before a man obeys the Lord in saving faith, he will exercise faith that still falls short of saving faith. He must, however, exercise that faith in order to participate in saving faith.
You can see this starting in Romans 1, when man first sees God's revelation as a means of manifesting God to man. Through creation, man knows God. Is that enough to save Him? No. But it is necessary for Him to believe that revelation or He won't continue on to saving faith. To be saved, someone needs faith based on a deep knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Peter 1:1-4). Romans 10 itself backs this up. Paul quotes Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18, right after writing, "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God." What is the "word of God" from which faith comes? In Psalm 19:4, it is God's general revelation, His creation that speaks to mankind, that gives man the saving message. Only "open theist" and unitarian types have I heard say that saving faith could come from general revelation without the Bible. And yet, this is the start of man's knowledge of God and he must receive that by faith, if he will ever get the rest of what He must know to be justified.
What is the confession with the mouth of Romans 10:9? Thomas Ross says that it must be a verbalized, worded confession. And yet in Romans 10:18, God's Word is not a verbalized, worded confession. There His Word is found in creation. Still, man often arrives at saving faith from that. Thomas Ross says that it must be lipped and uttered with the mouth because God says that the Word (rhema, same as Rom. 10:18) is found in Romans 10:8. Romans 10:8 is obviously metaphorical. God hasn't put actual sounds or even written Words in people's mouths. The metaphor, just like the one's previous to it ("descend to the deep"), is to teach accessibility. God's Words were accessible. Nothing is as available as something that is as intimate as in one's mouth.
The way of salvation is available to Israel, unlike what they had argued with Paul (and with Isaiah in the OT). They couldn't use accessibility of the message as an excuse not to receive the Lord. Someone who confesses is someone who agrees with God. In Romans 10:9, He agrees that Jesus is Lord. This agreement must be real. He must agree with the available message of Jesus' Lordship and Deity. When someone confesses His sin (1 John 1:9), He is agreeing with God about His sinfulness. He doesn't have to use lips to actually say those words. He can say them in heart.
This is what the Prodigal Son did when he came to himself in Luke 15. Here's the text:
17 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! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee, 19 And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. 20 And he arose, and came to his father.
The son recognized his desperate condition. He said it. This reminds me of the Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Mt 5:3)." Unless we recognize our spiritual poverty, we can't be saved. Is this pre or post justification? Of course, it's before and it isn't a pre-justification work. It's part of the grace of God. It was akin to the prodigal coming to himself through a string of providential circumstances. Then he said that his father was good and that he himself was helpless and hopeless. He decided that He would go to His Father and confess something. He planned a confession. In that confession he would admit his sinfulness and submit himself to the authority of his father as a servant.
Later when he gets to his father, this is exactly what the son does. He makes a confession to the Father. Did faith proceed this confession to the Father? Yes. He believed the truth about his condition. There was faith. He believed that His father was good. There was faith. Did his confession come out of faith? Yes. But he did confess and confession was part of the plan. Was it a work? No. All of it was God's grace. He didn't come to the end of himself except by the grace of God. He recognized His hopeless condition by the grace of God. He believed all this by the grace of God. He confessed by the grace of God. He arose and went to the father by grace too. All of this is a beautiful picture of repentance.
A man sees God is good. He sees he himself is sinful. He comes to a confession of his sinfulness and submission to the authority of the Father. Is admission of guilt a work? No. It is part of saving faith. The Father welcomes home the son based upon these terms. He also confesses himself to be worthy only to be the Father's servant. This is a confession of the Lordship of Christ. If confession wasn't important, then why is it included in this story?
Confession of Lordship of Christ is what we see in Romans 10:9. The same grammatical construction we also see in 1 Corinthians 12:3, which says: "No man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost." This statement is axiomatic. Thomas Ross says it is something that relates to speaking in tongues and is in a totally different context, so it has nothing to do with Romans 10:9. The context of 1 Corinthians 12:3 is that the Corinthians were carried away and led of dumb idols before they were saved. Then they were led by the Spirit of God, supernaturally enabled, to confess Jesus is the Lord. It shows us that this confession, the same one as Romans 10:9 and that of the prodigal, are of the grace of God.
The prodigal represents every man away from God, going his own way, doing what he wants to do, looking for fulfillment in his own way. He's rebellious. He is spending the good things that God has given him, like we see in James 4, where it says that the friend of the world consumes these things, spends them, for his own pleasure. This worldly chase leaves him in charge. He goes after it on his own terms. Like Solomon explained in Ecclesiastes, he comes up empty. For him to get saved, allegiance must be transferred from himself to God. The prodigal confesses that he is better off with the Father in charge and not himself. This too is the confession of Romans 10:9.
And it's not just patterned in Luke 15. In the account of Paul's justification in Acts 9, it doesn't say that Paul believes. He confesses (Acts 9:6), "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" Does Luke 23 say that he believed in Jesus? No. He pleads (Luke 23:43), "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." The publican in Luke 18:13 said, "God be merciful to me a sinner." Jesus said afterwards that he went away "justified." It says nothing about his faith. Should we assume that faith wasn't involved? Of course not. We should assume there was faith, especially in light of all the Scripture says about faith for salvation.
These were all confessions that preceded justification that tell us about salvation even as we see it described in Romans 10. In Romans 10:9, "confess" comes from homologeo. The same word is used in this text in John 10:42, 43:
Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: For they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God.
It says some men among the chief rulers believed on Jesus. Were they saved? No. Why not? They would not confess Him. Someone who will not confess Jesus Christ is not saved. Why wouldn't they confess Him? They had worldly hearts. They were more concerned about what men thought of them than what God did. They had faith that fell short of saving faith because it wasn't mixed with confession. This praise of men was the thorns that choked out a genuine faith.
Until Thomas Ross, I had never met anyone who believed that "confess" and "call" in Romans 10 were post-justification, except for him and his anonymous scholars. I still haven't met anyone that believes that. One of his chief contentions is that later in Romans 10:14 that we can't call until we believe. I agree with that. That's found in the picture of the prodigal Son. He didn't consider confession until after He believed that the Father was a good Father, one when even took good care of his day labourers. He had to have belief before confession. Romans 10:18 talks about faith that comes out of general revelation. This surely precedes later faith that comes from hearing the written Word of God preached. The so-called "ordo salutis" of Romans 10:14 doesn't debunk pre-justification confession and call.
Faith must be mixed with repentance. The confession of Christ as Lord is a denial of self. Jesus said that to follow Him, one must deny self and take up one's cross (Matt. 16:24). Obviously, this isn't a literal cross any more than confession with the mouth is a particular proclaimed mantra. Still, however, pre-justification, someone must take up the cross. This is all part of faith and repentance. The confession is part of saving faith and repentance. It is an agreement with God.
Thomas Ross, asks how this is prayer. John Owen writes it this way in his book on justification:
The whole is confirmed by the exercise of faith in prayer; which is the soul’s application of itself unto God for the participation of the benefits of the mediation of Christ. And it is called our "access through him unto the Father," Ephesians 2:18; our coming through him "unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need," Hebrews 4:15, 16; and through him as both "a high priest and sacrifice," Hebrews 10:19-22. So do we "bow our knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," Ephesians 3:14. This answers the experience of all who know what it is to pray. We come therein in the name of Christ, by him, through his mediation, unto God, even the Father; to be, through his grace, love, and mercy, made partakers of what he has designed and promised to communicate unto poor sinners by him. And this represents the complete object of our faith.
He says that we don't participate in the benefits of the mediation of Christ until after this prayer, so Owen says pre-justification. The rest of this paragraph says the same. He says it comes after faith. Great. I believe the same, but still pre-justification.
I have more from commentaries, but let me end with what Gill writes about Luke 18 and the prayer of the publican, after which he was justified:
Thomas Ross claims that Charles Finney originated the "sinner's prayer." I'm safe to say that Owen and Gill came before Finney. Neither are either of these Pelagians, Arminians, or Roman Catholics. Of course, none of these name-calls, these ad hominems, really add to his argument. I'm not sure what they do for anyone. I'm pretty sure that Owen was death on Roman Catholicism and confessing sins to a priest. So was Gill. Yet Gill talks about a prayer that is a confession, something that prodigal son did in a story that Jesus told that illustrated the terms of justification.
This is his prayer; a short, but a very full one, and greatly different from that of the Pharisee: in which is a confession that he was a sinner; a sinner in Adam, who had derived a sinful nature from him, being conceived and born in sin; and a sinner by practice, having committed many actual transgressions, attended with aggravating circumstances; a guilty and filthy sinner, a notorious one, deserving of the wrath of God, and the lowest hell: he speaks of himself, as if he was the only sinner in the world; at least, as if there was none like him: and there is in this prayer also a petition; and the object it is put up to, is "God", against whom he had sinned; with whom there is mercy and forgiveness; and who only can forgive sin; and who has promised that he will: and has proclaimed his name, a God, pardoning iniquity, transgression, and sin; and has given instances of his forgiving grace and mercy; and therefore the publican was right in addressing him by confession: the petition he makes to him is, to be "merciful", or "propitious" to him; that is, to show mercy to him, through the propitiary sacrifice of the Messiah, which was typified by the sacrifices under the law: the first thing a sensible sinner wants, is an application of pardoning grace and mercy; and forgiveness springs from mercy; and because the mercy of God is free and abundant, therefore pardon is so: but this is not to be expected from an absolute God, or God out of Christ. God is only propitious in Christ: hence it may be observed, that God pardons none but those to whom he is propitious in his Son; and that he forgives sin upon the foot of a reconciliation, and satisfaction made to his law, and justice, and so pardon is an act of justice, as well as of mercy; and that there is no pardoning mercy but through Christ.