Lost Son, Not Lost Sonship
Repentance in Luke 15:11-24
By Zane C. Hodges
Luke 15 is the classic NT chapter on repentance. Here, if anywhere, we should meet the fundamental teaching on NT repentance. As we saw in our study of Luke 15:1-10 (last issue), the first two parables of the chapter—The Lost Sheep and The Lost Coin—very clearly refer to the repentance of a born-again person who has wandered away from God's flock and become "lost" in the sense of being out of touch with the Lord and His people.
A Son before He Repented
But if this is evident in the first two parables, it is even more evident in the third parable, The Prodigal Son. Indeed the very title by which this parable is known in the church declares the parable's clear intent. This is the story of a son who has wandered away from his father! The NT does not disclose any sense in which unregenerate people may be considered as "sons of God." It follows, therefore, that the reference is to a Christian who has gone astray, just as the lost sheep and the lost coin have exactly the same reference.
It is notable that even in the far country where the Prodigal squanders his resources, he is fully conscious of his sonship. We are told: "But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father's hired servants have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am no longer worthy to be called your son, Make me as one of your hired servants'" (Luke 15:17-19; emphasis added). Are these the words of an unsaved person? Hardly.
Even after squandering the resources that his father had placed in his hands, the Prodigal is still fully aware that he is his father's son. He is also aware of the lofty privilege of being a son, but he now feels that his conduct makes him unworthy of such a status. He intends to tell his father to reduce him to the level of a hired servant, not because he is not a son, but because he feels "no longer worthy to be called your son." We hear an echo of these words in the lovely statement of 1 John 3:1, "Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon us, that we should be called children of God!" The Prodigal feels he has fallen far below the privilege of being called a child or son of his father.
The repentant Prodigal now goes back home and is welcomed unconditionally by his father who "ran and fell on his neck and kissed him" (v 20). The son's confession is genuine but he underestimates the fullness of his father's forgiving grace. So he not only says, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight," but he also adds, "and am no longer worthy to be called your son" (v 21).
The father brushes such an idea aside, and he says, "Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet" (v 23, emphasis added). This is not the treatment accorded to hired servants! And the father also says, "And bring the fatted calf here and kill it, and let us eat and be merry; for this my son was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found" (vv 23-24; italics added). Both in terms of his treatment of the Prodigal, as well as by his direct announcement, the father proclaims the returning young man is his son.
But it should be noted carefully that he is not just now becoming his son. On the contrary this same son previous to this had been "dead" and "lost," but is now "alive" and "found." These words of course do not mean that this son had somehow literally lost his life. Instead they describe his period of separation from his father. On the level of the entirely human experience in this parable, the father has felt the absence of his son as deeply as if he had died, because he had totally lost contact with him. Their reunion is like a glorious coming to life and a joyful rediscovery of the shared father-son experience. Any father who has long been separated from a son whom he loves dearly can fully relate to these words.
An Enormous Waste
Once this parable is properly understood as applying to the restoration of a straying Christian, its vital lessons leap to life. To begin with, just as the Prodigal "wasted his possessions with prodigal living" (v 13), so also the straying Christian wastes the resources God has placed in his possession. Time spent out of touch with God is an enormous waste of time, energy, strength, ability, and opportunity. When such a Christian is restored to the Lord, he often experiences profound regret for what has been wasted during his period of separation from God. This is especially true when the separation has lasted for years, as it sometimes does. I actually know fellow Christians who have expressed exactly this idea to me.
A Deep Sense of Unworthiness
In returning to God, particularly after a long separation from Him, repentant Christians are likely to experience a deep sense of unworthiness. They may feel that they have disgraced the Christian name and they may be all too aware of bringing disrepute to God their heavenly Father. Such Christians need to be reassured of the full and gracious acceptance God extends to them when they return. Their forgiveness is complete and they need not feel as if they are forever second-class Christians, as if they now served God as mere hired servants. Instead they should be encouraged to enjoy all the privileges of sonship, symbolized by the robe, the ring, and the sandals.
But as is transparent from the story, though the Prodigal returns to the full experience of sonship, he does not get back the possessions he has foolishly squandered. Restoration for the straying Christian is real, but the loss of time, potential, and opportunity is equally real. The portion of any Christian's life that is spent away from God, as well as the rewards that might have been earned during that time, are permanently lost.
A Time to Rejoice
But though all this is true and sobering, it does not destroy the reality of the joy that should always be a part of the "home-coming" of a repentant son. The parable assures us that God our Father always rejoices when one of His sons comes home. And if He does, so should we (this issue will be addressed, Deo volente, in the next article).
No Grounds to Doubt
Finally, as this story shows, if the gospel is properly understood, the backsliding Christian will have no grounds to doubt his salvation, even when he is in the far country of sin. Like the Prodigal himself, he will still know that he is a son of the Father whose fellowship he has left. Needless to say, this assurance can be a powerful incentive for the backslider to "go home!" Years ago, I heard a young man in a Baptist church up north give his testimony about returning to God from a deeply backslidden condition. But he assured us that he always knew he was a Christian because he had learned with regard to salvation that "there was nothing I could do to earn it, and nothing I could do to lose it!" If all churches taught the gospel that clearly, they would lay a solid foundation for the return of more than a few prodigal sons!
Next issue: The Self-Righteous Older Brother: Repentance and Christian Joy in Luke 15:25-32