Last Update - 2/2015
"Are you living to justify yourself, or are you living because you are justified" - Tim Keller
The Parable of the Two Sons
Mormonism, along with many other religions, teaches essentially the better or the worthier you are (works, obedience to laws, morality, etc.), the better chance you have of getting into heaven or a higher level of heaven. In fact, many people who sit in the pews at wonderful Christian churches probably share in this same belief. The Gospel though, is saturated with pictures, parables and examples that demonstrate eternal salvation in heaven is not merited by the works, obedience and morals of man, but by Christ’s work alone given to believers as a free unmerited gift.
Many see the Bible as a compilation of disconnected books and stories that provide good morals and laws to abide by in order to be reconciled to God. The Bible though, is a compilation of connected books revealing pictures, types, foreshadows and parables that all point to Jesus Christ and what he has done for us to bring reconciliation and righteousness. The Gospel is not good advice, it's good news; the proclamation to the world of God's profound love and amazing grace on full display at the cross. When we transfer our trust from our works to the work of Jesus Christ, he not only takes the punishment for our sin, but he freely gives us his perfect record of righteousness so God sees us as he sees Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 5:18-19).
Old Testament stories and people that point to or are pictures of Christ include Adam in the Garden of Eden, Noah's Ark, Abraham and Isaac, Israel and the Passover, Moses, the Exodus from Egypt and Jonah. Page after page in the New Testament demonstrates our eternal salvation rests not in our work, but in the finished work of Christ alone. You see it in simple commands of Jesus, encounters people had with Jesus (Nicodemus and Zacchaeus) and in parables (the Pharisee and Tax Collector). For example, in John 8:11, Jesus responds to the woman caught in the act of adultery and gives her first, a promise (neither do I condemn you), and second, a command (go and sin no more). We (especially the religious) tend to reverse the order by believing if we can get our sin under control, God will accept us. J.D. Greear says "God, however, motivates us from acceptance, not toward it" (Greear, Gospel, p. 53).
One prime example worth unpacking is found in Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, which is the parable of the two sons. Many refer to this as the parable of the prodigal son, but this name leads you to miss the critical message of the story.
To best understand the parable, we need to first identify who is Jesus’ audience. In Luke 15:1-2, we find out Jesus is speaking to two groups of people, the "publicans and sinners," and the "Pharisees and scribes." Jesus is speaking to these two groups because each brother in the parable represents one of these two groups. The publicans and sinners represent the younger brother - those who are irreligious. The Pharisees and scribes represent the elder brother - those who are religious, bible-believing, morally upright and law-abiding. The Father in the story represents God.
The Younger Brother
From the story we see that the younger brother requests and receives his one-third share of the Father’s estate (essentially wishing his Father was dead), and leaves to live a wild and lavish life-style until the money runs out. Then the disgraced, but repentant younger brother desires to come home and earn his way back into the family by working for his Father.
When his son journeys home and is in the Father’s sight, the Father runs to his son, embraces and kisses him. The Father puts the best robe on the son and requests a feast with a fattened calf for a celebration for his son’s return.
We learn so much based on what Jesus has revealed in the story so far. We see the Father does not wait for the son to earn his way back into the family, but is welcomed back instantly. The Father sees not the sin, nakedness and poverty of the son, but righteousness as he is covered by the robe of the Father. This is a picture of what Jesus does for us in covering us in his perfect robe of righteousness in reconciling us to the Father (Isaiah 61:10). The Father is reckless with his grace toward his son before he cleaned up his life or displayed any real change of heart.
The younger brother’s side of the story is intended to capture the hearts and minds of the publicans and sinners, displaying that no matter what you have done in life, no matter how far sin has drawn you away from the Father, his free gift of grace is always greater bringing reconciliation and righteousness.
This is a beautiful story by Jesus, so full of love and amazing grace that many tend to stop there, not realizing there is so much more to this parable (remember, there are two sons).
The Elder Brother
When the elder brother saw what his Father had done for his younger brother, he did not share in his Father’s excitement. In fact, he was downright furious. He refuses to participate in the celebration feast. The elder brother sees this as an unconscionable act by the Father in bringing the son back into the family as an heir as this, plus the cost of the feast, further dilutes the elder brother’s future share of the estate.
The elder brother then shows off his track record and righteousness to the Father by saying that he has for years been his servant abiding by the law so if anyone has earned these rights and privileges, it should be me! He is thinking, “where is the justice?!”
Two Lost Sons
There are several things we learn from this amazing parable Jesus has just shared with these two groups of people. This is a story Jesus shared to show that not only was the younger brother lost, but the elder brother was lost too. The younger brother was lost in disobedience, while the elder brother was lost in obedience. We learned neither wanted to be with the Father for his love and relationship, but instead wanted what the Father could give them; they wanted his stuff.
The younger brother’s way of life is more obvious to most as being lost or separated from the Father. But what about the elder brother, and why was he lost too? The elder brother thought strict obedience, personal righteousness and moral conformity was what earned the favor, love and grace of his Father. Tim Keller describes the elder brother’s situation like this, “His spiritual problem is the radical insecurity that comes from basing his self-image on achievements and performance, so he must endlessly prop up his sense of righteousness by putting others down and finding fault” (Tim Keller, The Prodigal God, p. 77).
The danger is greater for elder brothers because they are certain their religiously strict, bible-believing, law-abiding, morally upright ways are the way to earn God’s favor and eternal life in heaven. They repent of their sin but continue in their pride, trusting in their righteousness unaware this deadly sin of seeking to become their own Savior is the very thing separating them from God. Tim Keller continues that when we place “our ultimate hope and trust in things other than God, and that in both our wrongdoing and right doing we have been seeking to get around God or get control of God in order to get hold of those things [salvation]” (Ibid., p. 78).
What this story exposes to the Pharisees and scribes (elder brothers) is the prideful and self-righteous heart that is developed when we try to earn our way into God’s grace. When we use this method of self-salvation, our hearts are never transformed as we never love God to get God and his love and personal relationship; we really only love ourselves and want what we believe we have rightfully earned from God. Elder brothers have an outward appearance of righteousness and repent of their sin, but still continue to be Pharisees at heart.
Tim Keller succinctly summed it up by stating, “Jesus is redefining everything we thought we knew about connecting to God. He is redefining sin, what it means to be lost, and what it means to be saved” (Ibid., p. 28).
Unveiling Our True Elder Brother
Someone has to bear the cost for sin, either the sinner or the person who was sinned against. If someone breaks your window, you have two options. Either you demand they pay for it, or you can forgive them and bear the cost yourself. Jesus shares this story with these two groups showing that mercy and forgiveness are always a free and unearned gift to the sinner. If the sinner bears the cost, then there is no real mercy and forgiveness, but the cost of real mercy and forgiveness is always borne by the person who was sinned against.
Many people oversimplify this parable by Jesus and believe that the Father’s forgiveness of the younger son was free, which shows love and forgiveness are always unearned and free, period, end of story. The younger brother’s story, indeed, does reveal forgiveness is unearned and free, but the elder brother’s story reveals the expensive cost of forgiveness. In this story, forgiveness comes at the cost of the elder brother as his share was further diluted when the younger brother was welcomed back. This elder brother is unwilling to bear the cost of seeking and saving the lost younger brother.
Jesus inserts a flawed elder brother in the story to invite his listeners to be drawn to a true elder brother, one who is willing to bear the full cost of seeking and saving the younger brother. We have this true elder brother in Jesus who paid the infinite cost with his life’s blood on the cross to bring unmerited and permanent forgiveness and restoration with God. With Jesus' sacrifice on our behalf, the demands of justice were filled and true mercy was given.
This is what causes a radical motivational transformation to our hearts, when we recognize the expensive cost of God’s mercy, forgiveness, love and grace. The difference between a Pharisee and those who are in Christ lies in the driving motivation of our hearts. If we recognize the immeasurable cost of our eternal salvation, our hearts are filled with a selfless motivation to love others and share this amazing grace because Christ did for us what we could never do for ourselves. But if we perform and obey to earn the favor of God, then our motivations are rooted in a love for us and not God. Our hearts are never truly transformed because we never acknowledge the expensive cost of God’s mercy, forgiveness, love and grace that are freely lavished on us.
A Popular Mormon Parable on Justice and Mercy
The 2011 LDS Gospel Principles manual (p. 63-66) provides a similar parable on justice and mercy in chapter 12 called "The Atonement." Preceding the parable it states: "Elder Boyd K. Packer of the Council of the Twelve gave the following illustration to show how Christ's atonement makes it possible to be saved from sin if we do our part."
The parable given by LDS Apostle Packer is about a man who wanted something so bad he incurred a great amount of debt to pay for it. He signed a contract with the creditor and made token payments here and there. Though the due date was far off, it eventually came due and he did not have the ability to pay the creditor in full. Since the creditor had the power to take his possessions and cast the man into prison, the debtor begged for mercy by requesting the term be extended or the debt forgiven. The creditor says there will be no justice if he shows the debtor mercy. One pleads for justice and the other for mercy and neither could prevail but at the expense of the other. The two laws, justice and mercy, seemingly could not be fulfilled. Then, the debtor's friend shows up and pays the balance of the debt in order that his friend be able to keep his possessions and not go to prison.
If the story ended here we would have the demands of justice met with mercy and forgiveness, though not a great example or completely biblical. No big deal.
But unfortunately, the story does not end here. It continues: "The mediator turned then to the debtor. 'If I pay your debt, will you accept me as your creditor?'" The debtor agrees to these terms. "'Then,' said the benefactor, 'you will pay the debt to me and I will set the terms. It will not be easy, but it will be possible. I will provide a way. You need not go to prison.'" Packer then suggests that both justice and mercy have been met under these revised terms.
This parable informs us that Jesus refinanced our sin debt so we don't have to go to hell so long as we are obedient to the "not easy, but possible" terms. Our debt has not been forgiven at all, we just have a new creditor with revised terms. There are so many problems with the view.
Adding obedience to laws, moral conformity and personal worthiness as requirements to "do our part" so that we can merit eternal life is completely unbiblical. If this were the case then the Pharisees would be the first into the Celestial kingdom of heaven, but we know that is not the case. The book of Galatians was written for this very purpose. This view shifts the glory from being completely in Jesus to some mix of humanity and Jesus.
Jesus' payment on our behalf is a gift, and a gift cannot be earned, it can only be received. 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Romans 5:18-19 state that Jesus not only paid our sin debt, but he freely gives us his righteousness so that when God sees us he sees Jesus. This means we have freedom and can rest and abide in Christ without fear of consequences. Our motivations are transformed as we can selflessly love and obey because we have been saved and not to be saved. We recognize Christ did not just refinance the debt, he paid it in full with his life's blood, and when we trust in him as our sin bearer, we not only receive forgiveness of our sins, but we receive his perfect righteousness. This is radical grace and what transforms the deepest motivations driving our hearts.
Also, there is no true mercy in the parable as the debt is just refinanced to a new creditor. This means the debtor still bears the cost for the debt, but we know the cost of true mercy is NEVER borne by the sinner (debtor).
Mormonism teaches you if you want to be accepted and approved by God, you need to be religious; you need to be worthy; you need to be busy; you need to be obedient to a list of "do's and don'ts." All of these are well intended, but they are external changes that will not change your heart and its deepest motivations. The Pharisees were near perfect at all of these and Jesus rebuked them telling them they only focus on external change, not heart change.
Only by recognizing who we are (used correctly, the law condemns us as sinners) and what Christ has accomplished for us (justification and righteousness apart from the law), will our motivations and hearts begin to be transformed. God wants to change our hearts so we can have a personal relationship and love God to get God, not just what he can offer us. This is one of the main points of the parable of the two sons. This can only be accomplished by coming to the Father through Christ and his work alone on our behalf, not a combination of our sin tainted works plus Christ. Christ either does everything for us or he does nothing for us (Romans 11:6). This is radical, life changing grace and the heart of the Gospel.
This Parable’s Impact on My Life
As a Mormon, I was taught my personal worthiness, morality and obedience to laws and ordinances were what earned my rights and privileges into higher levels of heaven. As I reflect back, I now recognize I was an elder bother at heart as my motivations were tainted because I was attempting to lay before God my imperfect worthiness instead of the perfect worthiness of Christ.
I was not taught my identity and self-worth were secure in Christ’s finished work alone, who earned the Father’s blessing for me so he sees me as he sees Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21; Romans 5:19). I was taught my identity and self-worth were in my worthiness and the LDS church, which inherently produced a selfish motivation in doing things for me and not out of gratitude for what Christ had completed for me.
The feeling of playing a role in my salvation only boosted my self-righteousness and pride, which further blinded me from the Gospel. I was rejecting the perfect work Christ had performed for me, instead trusting in my own works. Because I had to at least share in the cost of my sin debt, I never received true mercy and forgiveness. I never experienced life-changing radial grace because I was overvaluing my goodness and undervaluing God's amazing love displayed on the cross.
I am forever changed because of the radical grace freely given by God through trusting in Christ alone for my eternal life in heaven. The biblical Gospel sets us free from the curse and slavery of the law (Galatians 3:13, 5:1) so we can center our lives on Christ, allowing his radical love and grace to transform our hearts and be obedient because we have been saved and not out of religious duty to be saved.
Whether we are “younger brothers” or “elder brothers,” we are lost all the same until we set our gaze upon the cross and recognize our true elder brother, Jesus Christ, took upon himself the punishment for our sin and freely gives us his perfect righteousness so the Father sees us as he sees Jesus. Then, and only then, will you begin to experience the radical love and grace that will forever transform your heart.
I want to thank Tim Keller for his work in unpacking this parable in his book, The Prodigal God. I take no credit as much of what is written here on the two sons parable are the thoughts and ideas from this amazing book. I encourage you to read this book and hope it impacts your life as much as it has mine.
THE CROSS UNVEILED