The Prodigal Son is not about backsliding

A Sunday School class I was helping out with went through the parable of the Prodigal Son but the interpretation that the teacher gave to the students troubled me and I would like to tell you what concerned me and why. I also found out that the interpretation that the teacher gave seems to be a pretty popular one.

I have been told that the first rule to interpreting scripture is that if you have a different understanding of the text than the original hears would have had, then your interpretation is wrong. This parable is a perfect example of how the meaning can get twisted based on the current culture and viewpoints of people today. So what is the view of today’s Christianity and how does it shape the meaning of the Prodigal Son?

Today’s Christianity says that you can be a child of God and “backslide” for a period of time, and not have to question the sincerity of your salvation. You can go off and live in a lifestyle of sin and say, “I backslid for a few years, but I was saved the whole time”. Ted Haggard was an example of this mindset, when he was exposed for having a homosexual affair with a prostitute and taking meth-amphetamines for three years and lying about it, many said, “Don’t question his salvation!” Even though it is likely that he would have continued in that lifestyle for as long as he could.

Now don’t get me wrong, I do not believe that anyone can “lose” their salvation by falling into sin, but when you knowingly live in a lifestyle of unrepentant sin, then you need to question your salvation. Ray Boltz, who says he is still a Christian after admitting he is living openly as a homosexual, is another example.

So, FINALLY, here is the interpretation the teacher gave- The father represents God and the two sons represent Christians. The one child ran away from God and live apart from him for awhile, but came running back to open arms. He was still a child of God but he had to realize that God knew what was best for him. And we need to realize that if we run from God, he is always there ready to take us back.

The Prodigal Son Returns

The Prodigal Son Returns

The first problem was, that Jesus was talking to a crowd of Jewish leaders. They were self righteous Jews who thought that just because they were born as children of Abraham, and were “faithful” Jews, they were children of God already. They would not have understood this “backsliding” concept. They would have believed that the rebellion of the second son was worthy of death.

The second was that the second son, the prodigal, HATED his father. Wanting his inheritance immediately was paramount to saying, “Dad, I wish you were dead so I could get what belongs to me now”. Does that sound like something a true Christian would say, or does that sound like a rebel who shakes their fist at God? The fact that Jesus called him a child does not mean that he was in a right relationship with the father. God created us, so in that sense, he is our father, but this parable shows us that it is not about our heritage, but about our relationship.

The fact that Jesus started the story off where he did tells us a lot too. Jesus did not start off by giving us a son who honored his father and fell away, he started the story off with a son that rebelled against his father.

The third problem I had was that the son went off to live in a lifestyle of open, unrepentant sin. Jesus told us that the son wasted his livelihood on prostitutes and riotous living. There is a saying that goes something like, “you cannot call yourself a Christian and live like the Devil”. If you live in a manner that betrays what you say you believe, then you are a hypocrite, a pretender, you are a false Christian.

One other thing to notice about this story is the first son, the “faithful” son. If you carefully read the story, you can tell that by his attitude, he was not in a right relationship with the father either.

This parable is not about what to do if you backslide, but about true repentance and God’s willingness to forgive.

If you want to dive deeper into this parable, I suggest John McArthur’s book, “A Tale of Two Sons“. The book goes through the culture of the time and the audience that would have heard this story for the first time. It also takes a look at the two parables leading up to the Prodigal Son.



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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hi Danny,
    Good post. I came out of a mainline deomnation that taught and believed in the “once saved always saved” thing. The problem is, they didn’t focus on the real meaning of the “Born Again” experience and the teaching became deluded to something like this “it’s ok, you can do what you want to now, you are saved and the devil can’t snatch anyone out of Jesus’ hand”.
    Danny, If that was the case, Jesus would have never told us that it “would have been better for a man to have not known The Truth, than to have known {Him} and fall away from it” [paraphrase mine] Jesus likened it to “a dog returning to it’s vomit”.
    Paul gives us clear instruction in Gal 5:13 to not take our [liberty,grace,salvation] for granted.
    In Romans, Paul ask the question, “what then, shall we continue in sin?”. He wasn’t talking to the lost, he was talking to those who were taking their salvation too light hearted.
    I could go on and on with this subject, but you can read about some of my stances on this subject at my blog;

    I also have one there titled, “A Sinner Saved By Grace, Well, Which one are you? “.

    Love in Yahushua, Christ Jesus
    Pastor Jake Kilgus

  2. I understand the perspective of this post, and it does make sense. But one thing is that in Scripture, the only people who are called sons of God are genuine believers. Jesus came and died *that* we might become God’s true children. Jesus never tells the Pharisees that they are children of God–rebellious, hypocritical or otherwise. They frequently tell him that they are children of Abraham, but He tells them that they are children of the devil. Also, at the end of the parable, the older son is reprimanded, but still counted a son. This would not be true of the Pharisees at all.

    I think the more important point, though, is that criticism of “once saved always saved” a lot of times ends up obscuring the Gospel message. The Gospel is always a call to repentance. I really do understand the concern, and while I don’t necessarily believe in “once saved always saved,” I think that to spend time telling people that if they had a period of time where they were not living for God that they must not be a believer is a spiritual hindrance *if* that person has since turned from that sin.

    It seems clear that people are able to know well the Gospel and turn, sin, but repent. King David was very much “backslidden” when he committed adultery and murdered an innocent man, and yet there was never any question that he genuinely knew the Lord.

    The message for everyone is always repentance. No man can know who the Lord will and will not regenerate or has and has not regenerated before the time.

    Also, if it were not possible for genuine believers to live in sin, then the warnings in the New Testament epistles would have no purpose. If becoming “saved” automatically meant that falling into serious sin were no longer a possibility, then the Apostles would not have had to warn against it so much. What I hear in this argument is the idea that a genuine believer would not become a prodigal, if a “Christian” backslides, then they were never really a Christian at all. But if it is possible for a Christian to sin once, or twice, or three times and confess, then it’s possible for a Christian to fall into a pattern of sin.

    That does NOT mean that one can be “saved” and perpetually sin. But I believe that the Scriptural perspective is that one must repent, confess, and be forgiven. True repentance is no easy thing and itself is a work of the Spirit, and no one looking from the outside can say what the spiritual reality was when that person sinned and/or turned back toward God.

  3. There is a difference between falling and diving into sin. How would you feel if I came to you and said, for the past three months, I have raped a different woman every two weeks. You would probably say I was diving into sin… the parable is repentance, not “salvation”. Read Psalm 51 and see if David thought he was in a right relationship with God.

  4. Paul said He ran the race so as not to be disqualified…
    If Paul could be disqualified…
    Only 5 of the virgins enter in to joy of the marriage feast.
    There will be those who will say Lord Lord, but He never knew them.
    To struggle with sin is one thing but to choose to ignore or reject truth is another.
    Those who are faithful to the end will be saved.
    Implies some were faithful for a time, but failed to make it.
    God Has the only say.

  5. Colin, thank you for your reply. Paul was very clear that we are not saved by our own works. So, if your works don’t get you saved, then how can they keep you saved? 1st John points this out when he wrote that those who departed from their group were never in their group to begin with.

    There are people out there who think they Christians and they are not. President Obama is a perfect example. He is a universalist. He believes that his grandmother is in heaven but he admits that she didn’t believe that Jesus was the Christ. That puts you in Heresy land.

    God is the one who does all the saving. He is also the one who does all the “keeping” too… for He that began a good work in you is faithful to complete it in that day. A Christian runs the race because he IS a Christian, not to become one or to keep his good standing before God.

    I know it seems like there are verses that make it sound like you can lose your salvation, but it is actually a covenant that God makes by himself about you. You still have to repent of your sins and put your faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross, but those are gifts from God too, and they are not “works”.

    Does my argument make sense?


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