+ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti Amen. +
Text: Luke 15:15
Theme: “Still a Long Way Off”
Dear baptized in the Lord Jesus,
Grace and wrath cannot be measured by human parameters. Judgment for sin and unbelief are inevitable and the persistent unbeliever never emerges from the dark shadow of this uncompromising truth. But God is love and the believer’s entire existence revolves around this reality. Today Jesus instructs us in the limitless nature of God’s grace using the parable of the prodigal son. We couldn’t go too far wrong calling this parable a symbolic narrative of the entire scheme of redemption. At the centre of the story lies the Father’s unconditional acceptance of his son. He doesn’t send a servant ahead to verify if the son has had a change of attitude or heart. “But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”1 Here is truly divine compassion.
Yes, the son was moved to repentance and that is what caused him to return in humility. Had he remained hard-hearted, had he continued ignoring and rejecting the Holy Spirit’s work on his conscience, he might well have continued in his selfish ways. But his repentance is in no way the cause of his father’s compassion. This crucial point cannot be understood too clearly. Dear friends, never, never, never, attempt to assess God’s acceptance of you based on your own feeling of repentance or measurement of your humility. But you say, “Isn’t it a great thing to know that if we are certain we have turned to God in true repentance, and God sees that, He will receive us.” No! Don’t confuse the cause with the effect. God has already accepted you in Christ. That is the fruit of His sacrifice. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”2
It is impossible to judge whether the son’s initial repentance was unreserved. In rehearsing his confession he ends by asking that the father make him like one of the hired men. This may well have been a way of saving some dignity. At least he would have an income and the opportunity to repay. But after being greeted by the father he leaves this part off. He has sinned and is unworthy. Overwhelmed by the father’s compassion, his repentance is complete.
The son was not taking advantage of a soft-hearted father. You’ve sinned and you are ashamed and you begin to question whether you have lost God’s favour. How will you win it back? Already your thinking is wrong-headed. You can never win God’s favour back. God doesn’t play games with you. He doesn’t exchange emotional trading cards. God is not some blubbering, sentimental fool who cannot control His emotions. When you seek to use God, or by-pass Him to achieve your own agenda you risk His judgment. He will not fail to bring unbelief to judgment and sin to resolution. God forgives unconditionally. He does not force His grace on people. Your repentance needs to be unconditional. No wondering or wagering about when it’s enough to just get you over the line. “Do not test the Lord our God.”3 He reads the heart.
The grace of God is in no way contingent upon your repentance, or lack thereof, your obedience, your failure, your humility, your ignorance, your good intentions, your confusion, your anger or your apathy. The Scripture says, “Because of His great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions- it is by grace you have been saved.”4 Still, people will ask, and ponder, and try to discern what the cause is of God loving us. What does God notice about one person that He doesn’t about another? How can we put ourselves in the category of His favour? As soon as we even begin to think this way we are seeking to justify ourselves, or at least be the cause- if even in a very small way- of our own justification. This is human nature. What is the cause of God’s unconditional love and compassion, for you or for anyone? It is not you, or me, it is Christ, and Him alone!
He was crucified. He is risen! The Father declares believers righteous on account of His merit. That promise is applied specifically to you in baptism. In that event- the washing of rebirth5- the Father who reconciles the world to Himself reconciles you; the Son who gave His life on the cross redeems you; and the Spirit who spoke of the faith in ages past speaks faith into your heart. And from that moment on, though it happens in fits and starts and with mighty struggles, you have a new lease on life.
This has profound and practical consequences. The privilege and duty of loving our neighbor is approached from a different perspective. Recall the Scripture, “So from now on regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.”6 Paul says literally that we should think of no one “according to the flesh.” We might say, that is, from a carnal or unspiritual mindset. What does it mean to regard no one “from a worldly point of view?”
It means that our belief that Christ died for all colours the way we look at other people. Our jealously becomes supplanted with compassion. We learn to become gentle in our approach, but unyielding in our convictions. We grow in sensitivity towards people’s weaknesses and clarity in our responses. It means we understand that possessions and ideologies are temporary, but souls are eternal. Every soul will either reign with God in heaven or be exiled from Him in hell. Misfortune is soon forgotten, good fortune even sooner, but the sacred promises of God are enduring. It means we seek to understand the culture better that we may more effectively engage its challenges. It means having our entire outlook on the meaning of existence transformed. The Bible says, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”7
So what about the older brother? Maybe you identify with him more than the prodigal. His sin is clearly that of being uncharitable and jealous. At first glance he appears to have a case. He complains to His father, “All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends.”8 Christians are easily led to this thinking. Why should unbelievers indulge in all the pleasures and pursuits of worldliness and ungodliness and then still be received (sometimes at the last minute) in the kingdom of heaven!
The vigor of the world seems worthy of our allegiance. It offers tangible progress, opportunity, fortune, and praise from others. But it is held in bondage to ulterior motives, the corruption of sin, and certain condemnation. Regardless of how alluring its spectacles are for a time, death and judgment will swallow them up. People experience many different kinds of loneliness, but true loneliness is to be bereft of the favour of God. What can the world offer you that is not far surpassed by what Christ has prepared for you in eternity? What can give you greater comfort or security than the promises of God, who does not lie or change His mind? The father’s response to his older son completes the account and re-iterates the main truth. “My son…you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.”9 He was never without the father’s acceptance or provision. And so it is with all the children of God. Amen.
+ in nomine Jesu +
Fourth Sunday in Lent
14 March 2010 Reverend Darrin L. Kohrt
1 Luke 15:20
2 Romans 5:8
3 Deuteronomy 6:16
4 Ephesians 2:4-5
5 See Titus 3:5
6 2 Corinthians 5:16 7 Romans 12:2
8 Luke 15:29 9 Luke 15:31