Sinners in the Hands of the Prodigal’s Father

kinnon —  January 30, 2012 — 10 Comments

One of the interesting comments on David Fitch’s recent post about Mark Driscoll & the neo-Reformed was Scot McKnight’s. Scot said he prefers NeoPuritan to neo-Reformed.

…I have now landed on NeoPuritan as the heart of this movement. Puritanism is, of course, personal zeal before the Lord for holiness and, also, zeal for reforming church and society according to biblical (and not ecclesiastical) teachings.

This got me thinking about the Puritans and specifically about the Puritan theologian & preacher, Jonathan Edwards (a hero to many) and perhaps his most famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.

…God is dreadfully provoked, his anger is as great towards (natural men held in the hand of God) as to those that are actually suffering the executions of the fierceness of his wrath in hell, and they have done nothing in the least to appease or abate that anger…

Which then caused me to think about how Jesus taught us about God the Father’s character, in the story of the Prodigal Son.

As you remember, in that story, we see the younger son who effectively tells his father that he wants to view him as dead so he can immediately recieve his inheritance.

The father’s response is neither to ignore him, punish him or even disown him. Rather, the father gives his younger son what he demands, his inheritance — the father no doubt knowing that his son will end up as a wastrel.

The son quickly burns through all his inherited wealth and sinks to the point of finding himself sleeping with pigs — particularly gross to Jesus’ Jewish audience— and though he believes his father will no longer see him as his son, he hopes that he might at least be a hired servant on his father’s estate. So he heads home… or at least to what was once his home.

Jesus shocks his audience when he tells them of the father’s response. He sees his son coming from a great distance — as if the father has been looking, hoping and waiting for his prodigal son to return. And the father runs to his pig-stinking, wastrel son — throwing his arms around him and kissing him. (While the son attempts to apologize and asks to be a hired servant.) The father then has him clothed in fine robes, puts a ring on his finger and throws a party in his honor.

Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’

Jesus’ audience, “tax collectors and sinners” and grumbling “Pharisees and teachers” would have all been shocked. This was not how they had been taught to view Yahweh.

I would ask, is this a story of Jesus showing us sinners in the hands of an angry God? Or are we all sinners in the hands of the Prodigal’s Father.

Perhaps a little food for thought in light of what’s going on in some parts of the NeoPuritan world right now.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

10 responses to Sinners in the Hands of the Prodigal’s Father

  1. Thank you. This is one of my favorite parables, superseded only by the Unjust Steward. God loves us faithfully whether we are wayward children who have wished us dead or employees who have stolen from us. I think sometimes the neo-reformed worry so much about being faithful to God through rule keeping, they lose the bigger picture which includes God’s fidelity shown through his infinite love and mercy.

    • Thanks, Nadine. I spent years with what I call my “cosmic baseball bat view of God”. Which is that at some point, God’s mighty bat will fly through time and space and crush me as the worthless bug I know I am. That idea did not come from the Prodigal’s Father. 🙂

  2. Bill,
    I appreciate the post. I have pondering this parable quite a bit since reading Keller’s Prodigal God. A couple of things have struck me about it. First, I have to always remind myself that both sons are already sons of the father in the parable. Second, we tend to use this parable in reference to those who are not necessarily already sons, that is, those who have come to faith.

    I am still working through the ramifications in my own mind and hear about this. I have read much Edwards and found that nearly all his sermons (including “Sinners” ) were nearly always very grace oriented. I wonder if there is a distinction that ought to be made between the Prodigal who was already a son of the father, and the non-Christian that Edwards is speaking of in the above quote?

    Maybe not, but, it just hit me reading this post.

    Thanks for giving something to chew on today! I appreciate you brother!

    • Remember that only a few paragraphs before this one, Jesus is teaching the parable of the lost sheep. Then the parable of the lost coin which ends with “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

      Jesus is teaching about the character of his Father rather than the “already sons” aspect of the Prodigal. In fact, would the Jewish hearers believe the son to still be a son of the Prodigal’s Father?

      And Edwards was preaching to people who believed themselves to be believers.

      I appreciate your questions and your response, Daniel.

      • “And Edwards was preaching to people who believed themselves to be believers”

        This is key, I think. I have heard some of the neo Calvinist pastors talk about preaching to a ‘depraved” congregation every Sunday. And I wonder what happened to being “Born Again” or new creatures in Christ?

        As a student of history, imitating Puritans or holding them up as examples scares me a bit. This focus on all things Reformed, this idolatry of Calvin, Edwards, the Puritans, etc, is regressive in many ways. And it elevates man over the Trinitarian God.

        As a compliment to this post, I would recommend George Marsden’s bio of Jonathan Edwards and read about some of the bizarre suicides of “believers” during Edwards’ Great Awakening.

        I am not trying to paint a bad picture here, I just think people need the “whole” picture. Just like they do with Calvin as they ignore his state church mentality and the state being elevated over the Word.

        I do think we have to balance the prodigal parable with Hebrews 10: 26-31 and Matthew 7 (I never knew you)

        But we know that God is also long suffering and patient with us.

      • Thanks, Lin. And the balance is important.

  3. Great post, Bill.

  4. I found your post linked on Wartburg Watch. It reminds me of my poem “It Became to Me a Dark Thing” which is based on the parable. You can find it here: link to

  5. I am a Messiani c Jew, and I am always looking for someone who will see that Jesus, Y’shua was one Himself, and that He spoke in parables in order for His Jewish listeners, to hear, and understand that He was here to speak to them. He, being God, knew how to convict His Jewish people in any audience. I just find it hard for any one who says that they are a Christian, to not understand that without seeing who Jesus really was: the Promised Messiah, predicted throughout the length and breadth of the Old Testament. I am just heartened that you KNOW who He is, and how I long to see Jew and Gentile worshipping together – what a job it is going to be…… I keep praying that this is the hour for the work to begin! Jesus was a Jew!!!

  6. Hey Bill!

    I know I already said this on Twitter, but I’m all about leaving things for posterity (I’ll leave you my posterior to kick later). As a nit-picking historian, and who has published on this, I’d be remiss to not mention that Edwards was actually not a Puritan. The movement itself, which is notoriously hard to define, ended likely with the death of John Howe. Technically, Edwards would be categorized as an Evangelical (along with the Wesleys, Whitefield, etc). There is of course great continuity between Puritanism and Evangelicalism. Some call Edwards “a Puritan born out of due time.”
    Second, I wouldn’t want your readers to come away thinking that Edwards was a heartless jerk who only wanted to preach sin and damnation. Some of his most well-loved works are sermons like: “Heaven is a World of Love,” “A Divine and Supernatural Light” or his works on charity. You’d be shocked at the social justice/poverty emphasis of some of his work. He puts the most left-wing, tree hugging, fair trade swilling hippie to shame!
    I think Edwards would whole-heartedly agree with your view of the Father’s prodigal love. Check out this quote (there are many such in Edwards):

    “God has wonderfully laid out himself to make provision for the souls of fallen men. He contrived it from all eternity, and he has been preparing of it from the beginning of time; and wonderful has been the cost that God has been at to provide for us. And this provision we find very often in Scripture compared to a feast that God has made for us. Thus the prophet Isaiah, speaking of gospel times, prophesies, Isaiah 25:6, “And in this mountain shall the Lord of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.” So we read in Proverbs 9:2’s killing her beasts, mingling her wine and furnishing her table. So when the prodigal son returned, they killed the fatted calf, and feasted him and feasted with him [Luke 15:23].”


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