The parable of the prodigal son marvelously depicts Christ’s extraordinary patience and mercy toward those He came to save. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his series in the gospel of Luke, returning to this parable to reveal why we should rejoice every time a lost soul is found.
This morning, we will continue with our study of the Gospel According to Saint Luke. In the last session of our study, we were in the fifteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. I was dealing with the parable of the lost son, otherwise known as the parable of the prodigal son. I joined it with the earlier parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin and was only able to get through a portion of the beginning of that parable.
This morning I am going to read from Luke 15:14–32. I would like the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
“But when he had spent all, there arose a severe famine in that land, and he began to be in want. Then he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would gladly have filled his stomach with the pods that the swine ate, and no one gave him anything.
“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 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Make me like one of your hired servants.”’
“And he arose and came to his father. But when he was still a great way off, his father saw him and had compassion, and ran and fell on his neck and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight, and am no longer worthy to be called your son.’
“But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. 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.’ And they began to be merry.
“Now his older son was in the field. And as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and because he has received him safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.’
“But he was angry and would not go in. Therefore his father came out and pleaded with him. So he answered and said to his father, ‘Lo, these many years I have been serving you; I never transgressed your commandment at any time; and yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might make merry with my friends. But as soon as this son of yours came, who has devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.’
“And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad, for your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found.’”
This parable is one of the most popular ever given by our Lord, for good reason. It is filled with the poignancy of compassion, forgiveness, and love. You recall the context it was given in was when the Pharisees complained that Jesus was spending time with sinners.
In response to those complaints, the Lord told this parable and two shorter ones to speak of the joy in heaven when that which is lost is found. This is the teaching of Jesus. Please receive it as such and be seated. Let us pray.
Father, whenever we begin to think about the breadth, width, and depth of Your grace and tender mercy, we are overwhelmed. We are journeying into areas that we cannot fully grasp or understand. As we hear this story given by Jesus, we need Your help to really understand it, that this Word may pass through our minds into our hearts and souls. Give us ears to hear what our Savior has said. For we ask it in His name. Amen.
The Turning Point
There is a principle of hermeneutics, of interpreting the Bible, that parables are generally to be interpreted because of one central point. The one point that links together these three parables in chapter 15 of Luke’s gospel is the point of rejoicing when that which is lost is found. Though I will look briefly at the rejoicing that takes place when the lost son returns home, that will not be my chief consideration.
Each one of the parables in Luke 15—the parable of that lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the parable of the lost son—has a critical turning point within them. In the parable of the lost sheep, after the shepherd had searched far and wide looking for one sheep, a moment came when he heard the bleating of the frightened lamb in the distance. He found it, tenderly picked it up, put it on his shoulder, and brought it home to the sheepfold.
The turning point in the parable of the lost coin was when the woman, frightened at the loss of 10% of her net worth, swept the house clean until she saw a tiny glimmer of silver. That made her realize she had found the coin.
If there is a turning point in the parable of the prodigal son, I believe it is in these words in verse 17: “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 I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’”
The Son Hit Bottom
According to Jesus, the son’s crisis moment came when it says, “He came to himself.” That is a strange way to put it. We read that he had gone through his inheritance, wasting it in extravagance and lawless living in a far country where he was anonymous. We learn that suddenly he was penniless, and at the same time a severe famine came upon the land, and he began to be in want.
The lost son was out of money. He had no job. He had no food. The only position he could secure was from a swine herder, who had him go into the pigpen to watch after the swine. Even there, he was so hungry that he yearned even to have one bite of the slop being fed to the pigs: “Just let me have one of the pods that you feed the swine.”
In his state of ruin, he had come to the end of himself and hit bottom. Last time, I mentioned that we all are aware of people whose lives go down a destructive path where it gets worse and worse. We pray for them, counsel them, and try to encourage them, but we sometimes get the sense that nothing will change until they hit bottom. Sometimes the bottom is bankruptcy. Sometimes the bottom is prison. Sometimes the bottom is not reached until they lie at the bottom of their graves. In this case, this prodigal son hit bottom.
Came to Himself, Not by Himself
When the lost son hit bottom, the text says of him, “He came to himself.” My question is, How did he come to himself? What I would like to consider this morning is that the young man came to himself, but not by himself.
The son had no resources left to arouse himself from his dogmatic slumber, his torpid state. There was no alarm clock powerful enough to wake him up. He was moribund, already spiritually dead, but now biologically close to physical death. Despite this, strength was left in his bones, and he came to.
How do we use the phrase “he came to” in our English language? Of whom do we say it? We think of people who have been knocked unconscious or slipped into a coma. In that comatose state, they do not speak. They barely move at all. Then, sometimes, their eyes will open and they regain consciousness. Then, we say, “They came to; they woke up.” This man in the pigpen came to. He woke up from his almost fatal slumber. He came to himself, but not by himself.
A Divine and Supernatural Light
Many of us are aware of the man the Encyclopedia Britannia calls America’s most brilliant intellectual and philosopher, the eighteenth-century Puritan preacher and writer, Jonathan Edwards. If you know nothing else of Jonathan Edwards, you know his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”
Edwards did not preach “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” at his parish in Northampton. His congregation would probably have perished from hearing it. He preached it, rather, at Enfield, Connecticut. When people heard it for the first time, they were passing out in the pews, so vivid was the imagery Edwards used of God’s judgment.
“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is the sermon for which Edwards is most famous. He preached it in 1841. Seven years earlier he preached another sermon, which catapulted him into the public eye in New England and throughout the colonies. That sermon was an exposition of the great confession given by Peter and was titled “A Divine and Supernatural Light.”
In Edwards’ magnificent sermon, which I encourage you to get ahold of and read in its entirety, he commented on the confession of Saint Peter at Caesarea Phillipi in Matthew 16:13–17, when Jesus asked His disciples, “Who do men say that I am?” Some of them answered, “Some say you’re Elijah, some say you’re the prophet, some say you’re this, some say you’re that.” Jesus said: “Who do you say that I am? You’ve been with Me. You’ve heard the things that I’ve said. You’ve beheld with your eyes the things that I’ve done. What do you think? Who do you say that I am?” You might recall Simon’s reply: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Do you remember what Jesus said to him? He pronounced a benediction on Simon. He said, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
When Edwards talked about a divine and supernatural light, he distinguished sharply between the divine and the human, between the supernatural and the natural. There are things we can learn through the exercise of our own intellects, as severely hampered by sin as they may be. Even in our fallen condition, we can still add two and two and come up with four. We can still work simple syllogisms.
Anybody watching Jesus during His earthly sojourn should have been able to recognize naturally and humanly who He was. They should have said: “We’ve been doing our detective work, Jesus. We’ve been studying the Scriptures. We watched what you did at Cana. We’ve heard your teachings, as profound as they are, and logic has driven us to the conclusion that you must be the Messiah, the Christ. You must be the Son of the living God.” They did not get there.
Jesus said to Simon: “Blessed are you, because you haven’t learned this, seen this, and understood this by your flesh and blood or by your natural brilliance, but My Father has opened your eyes. He’s awakened you. He has given you light that nature does not afford. He has provided illumination that the power of the intellect cannot create. So, Simon, because of this divine and supernatural light, you’re blessed, because you see Me for what I am.”
Nobody ever comes to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ without that divine and supernatural light. You may study theology and make A’s in the course. You may have a profoundly correct, theologically accurate understanding of the person and work of Jesus. But a saving knowledge that you not only know with your head but also fills your soul and burns your heart cannot happen unless God Himself visits and awakens you by that divine and supernatural light.
Awakened to Truth
The parable of the prodigal son was probably a fictitious story that Jesus used for illustration. I doubt He was recalling an event that took place in space and time. Let us assume for a moment that there was such a person as this prodigal son, who had wasted his life, his father’s money, and his own soul until he was living with pigs. Suppose that happened and he came to himself. At that moment, instead of being the most destitute man in all the world, he would have been the most blessed man in the world. He came to himself, not by himself, but by a divine and supernatural light that awakened him to the truth of God and to the truth of himself.
It was said of Martin Lloyd-Jones, the great preacher of Great Britain in the early part of the twentieth century, that when he preached, it was logic on fire. Lloyd-Jones used to say that he preached while praying God would use the power of His Word and join it with the Holy Spirit, so that people sitting under his preaching would be awakened to the sweetness, loveliness, and excellency of Christ. Lloyd-Jones went on to say that there is no awakening without the Spirit first bringing conviction of sin that drives people to Christ. They must hear the law before they will hear the gospel. Good news is not good news until you understand its antithesis, until you’re aware of the bad news.
You do not need a divine and supernatural light to know that you are a sinner. Even in your fallen condition, even though your conscience may be calloused, it has not been annihilated. You know that you have sinned against God. The worst sinner will admit that to err is human, to forgive is divine.
There is a mighty difference between a natural awareness of your shortcomings and sin and a spiritual conviction in your soul, brought by the immediate power of God the Holy Spirit. There are many people who know they are sinners who are not born again. No one can be born again without knowing that he or she is a sinner. With an awakening to the beauty and sweetness of Christ also comes a profound conviction of sin.
He Went to His Father
We see conviction with the prodigal son because, as soon as he came to himself, he said: “I will arise. I’m getting out of this pigsty. I’m done with this lifestyle that brought me here. I will go to my father, and when I go to my father, I’ll have something to say to him.” Here is what he resolved to say: “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.”
Notice the order of the words that the son resolves to say: “I’m going to go to my father. I’m going to apologize to my father. I’m going to confess to my father that I’ve sinned against him, but my sin against my father is not an isolated thing on this terrestrial ball. No, first and primarily, my sin is against God. So, I will say to my father: ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you, and I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Whatever it takes, Father, forgive me. You don’t need to restore me. Make me one of your servants. I’ll work for you like I worked for the man who put me into the pigsty. I’ll be your slave, but I want to be home. I want to be reconciled with you.’”
He arose, and Luke tells us that Jesus said, “He came to his father.” First he came to himself, now he came to his father. How he got to his father, we do not know. He did not have the money to buy a donkey, camel, or horse. We know that he was in a far country. Presumably, the only way this young man could get home was by walking.
His tattered clothes held the stench of the pigs. His shoes had disintegrated. As he stunk, he walked and walked with no shoes on his feet and his clothes being filthy, tattered rags. Every step was painful. He could have stopped and decided to go back to his comfort with the pigs, but he kept on going.
The Father Recognized His Son
Unlike the woman who turned up heaven and earth to find her coin and the good shepherd who searched far and wide to find the lost sheep, there is nothing in this parable about the father sending out a search party to find his son. He waited and he prayed that the prodigal son would someday come home.
One day, in the distance, the father saw somebody approaching. It was too far away to see the face or the hair features, but instantly he knew that the one coming was his son. How did he know it? Jesus does not tell us.
I remember my father’s funeral. When our preacher gave the funeral sermon and eulogy, he mentioned in the sermon: “Whenever I was in my study in the church and would hear footsteps coming up the stairs, I always knew when it was Bob Sproul. I could tell by the sound of his footfall.” My mother burst into tears next to me. After the funeral, I said: “Mom, what was all that about? I don’t know anything distinctive about the way my dad walked.” She smiled and said, “Son, it’s just the way it was.” He had a characteristic gait in the way he carried himself, and our minister knew it by the sound of his feet.
I think it must have been something similar to that the father observed at a distance. He could see the way the boy was walking. He could see the way he carried himself. He could see his gait. He knew it was his son.
Broken and Dependent on Grace Alone
When the father saw his son, immediately he hiked up his robe and buckled it to gird himself around the waist. On his weak and elderly legs, he started running down the road. He did not run with his finger outstretched, saying, “Where have you been, young man?” Rather, when he got to his son, the text says that he “fell on his neck and kissed him.”
The son said: “Father, wait a minute. I’ve sinned against heaven and in your sight. I’m no longer worthy to be called your son. Look at me. Smell me. Look at my feet. Look at the filthy rags I’m wearing on my body. Does this look like one of your children? I’m not worthy to be called your son.”
Nobody ever entered the kingdom of God saying: “Here I am, folks. Heaven wouldn’t be right without me.” This is the only way you get to heaven: broken and dependent on grace and grace alone.
Covered in Righteousness
The father said to his servants: “I want you to do a few things for me. The first thing I want you to do is cover these filthy rags. Go get the best robe you can find in the house and put it on him.”
No one has ever entered the kingdom of God without wearing the robe of the righteousness of Christ. All our own righteousness, the Scriptures tell us, is as filthy rags. Just as God knelt and covered His shameful sinners, Adam and Eve, the first thing that happens to us when we are born of the Spirit is that He covers us with the robe of Christ and its righteousness.
Then the father said: “Don’t forget the family ring. Give him the ring that signifies he is not a servant or slave, but that he’s my son. Put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet. Then, go into the cow field and find the one cow that we’ve saved for a special occasion. Find the one to which we’ve fed the best food, fattening him up for a party that won’t quit. Bring it here and kill it because we’re going to eat and be merry. My son was dead and is alive again. He was lost and is found.”
The sad part of this story is that as we hear these words, there are people listening who are dead and lost. I pray that God the Holy Spirit, with the divine and supernatural light, will quicken their souls to newness of life and awaken them from their sleep, that they may be found and lost no more.
It Is Right to Rejoice
The older son, who represents the Pharisees and their complaints, was in the field. He was coming in from the field, and as he came close to the house, he heard the music and dancing. He knew that there was a party going on, but he didn’t know why. He called one of the servants and asked: “What do these things mean? What’s this all about? Why the music? Why the dancing?”
The servant could not wait to tell him. He said: “Your brother came home. Because he’s been received safe and sound, your father has killed the fatted calf.” The older brother thought: “What? He’s throwing a party for him?” He was so angry that we are told he would not even go in and join the party. So, the father came to him. He did not just talk to him, but begged him: “Son, come in. Rejoice.”
Instead of rejoicing, the son said to his father: “How many years have I been serving you? I never transgressed your commandment. You never gave me a young goat to party with. But as soon as this son of yours”—not this brother of mine, but this son of yours—“came, who devoured your livelihood with harlots, you killed the fatted calf for him.”
The father said: “Son, you are always with me, and all that I have is yours. It was right that we should make merry and be glad.” It is right that we rejoice when someone who is lost is found. It is right that we celebrate when one who is spiritually dead is made alive again by the supernatural and divine light of God. “For your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found. While we’re eating the fatted calf, the angels are having a party in heaven.”
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.