This post comes to us from our friend Julian Brooks.

Most of us have heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son and found ourselves identifying with one of the two sons. In fact, if we’re honest, we have to admit we are certainly a mixture of both. Whether we are self-righteous, angry older brothers or unrighteous riffraff, we know the story illustrates the desperate need that we all have for the unconditional love of the Father.

But have you ever noticed what happens to our perception of God the Father when we undermine the radicalness of the Gospel of Grace? I’m amazed at how many believers worship a God that actually looks more like the older brother than the loving Father.

Perhaps you’ve heard something like, “Grace is for baby Christians who don’t know any better. But if we don’t improve, God is less patient with us.” In essence, to grow as a Christian is to need less Grace, and as we grow God becomes less patient with us. Sounds like great news to me! (Yes, that was sarcasm.)

This kind of thinking changes the image of the tenderhearted, eager-to-forgive father into the angry, impatient older brother in the parable. God starts off as a joyful father full of acceptance upon the return of his son. But that son only gets one chance, and he has already used it up. Living once again under his father’s roof, the son watches as, with each passing day, his father begins to change. He is no longer the father who loves the undeserving. He has turned into the older brother, the one who thinks celebrations are only justified after years of faithfulness. “Sure, the Father had grace,” the son thinks, “but I’ve been here for a while. I should know better by now.”

Most people, if they saw this written out, wouldn’t agree that this was their view of God. Yet functionally, and according to the way we try to explain Christian growth, this becomes the God we present to others and that we ourselves worship. I believe this to be the result of two bad assumptions. The first being that too much grace leads to sin. And second, that what follows robust grace should be law, with threats and punishments thrown in for safe measure and balance.


Paul, of course, challenged this thinking–really he anticipated it–as a response at the end of Romans 5. In that chapter, Paul painted the most robust view of Grace that the readers of that time would have been exposed too. And he knows that naturally his readers will think he is inviting them into a license to sin. After all, he ends Chapter 5 by saying that Christ’s obedience makes us righteous, and that God’s Law was intended to increase sin, not to remove it, so that Grace could abound all the more. Why wouldn’t people take this as a license to sin?

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is also full of robust Grace. But we naturally assume that the Parable is describing Grace as an entry point, not a sustaining reality. You can’t keep everyone sitting before a lovestruck father who looks past the filth of his son’s sins and just loves him, holds him and keeps throwing him parties. Certainly then we will think that we should sin more to increase Grace. But when we resist the enormity of God’s good news, we begin to form a theology where God eventually becomes the older brother.

Paul’s answer to sin and his explanation of Christian growth is not the Law, or a promise-keeper convention: “Alright guys, let’s get more serious about holiness. Give me a list of things you’re going to work on, and I’ll keep you accountable from my prison sell once a month.” No, Paul crushes this thinking by slamming on the gas pedal and flooring even deeper into the Gospel: “You think I’m saying we should continue in sin that Grace may abound. Don’t you know God already judged your sin? You’re dead to it. There is no condemnation for it. If you serve sin, it is your master. But you are dead to sin and alive in Christ, free to walk in your newness every day and in every moment no matter how greatly you have failed, because you are already crucified, buried and resurrected in Christ.” Paul blasts us with proclamation of what God did for us in Christ. He declares who we already are, trusting that the power of the Gospel is enough to sever the controlling power of sin in the believer’s life. His interpretation of Christian growth is not that we sin less and less. It’s that we trust more and more that our sins have already been dealt with–now go, be free, and serve your neighbor.

The Father is not just the father of “baby” Christians. He is not going to change into the older brother. (He actually is on a course to destroy the older brother in you.) The same tender Father who looked past all your dirt and filth and said, “Give me that one,” from before the foundation of the world, looks at you the same today and with the same eagerness says, “Let’s throw a party for this rascal. You are as loved and forgiven as the day you first came home!”