“If you came to Christ out of being the younger brother, there is always the danger of partially relapsing into addictions or other younger brother sins. But if you’ve become a Christian out of being an elder brother, you can even more easily slide back into elder-brother attitudes and spiritual deadness. If you have not grasped the gospel fully and deeply, you will return to being condescending, condemning, anxious, insecure, joyless, and angry all the time.” –Tim Keller, concerning the Parable of the Prodigal Son (The Prodigal God, p. 70)
Note mainly the temptation of the elder-brother Christian.
The Elder brother Christian is prone to slip back into being religious. The result is he alienates himself from God and runs off the younger brother by his condescending and condemning attitude.
I see this problem played out in Church often, and I long for brothers and sisters in Christ to get this insight Keller so thoughtfully lays out.
Here’s what I see. The younger brother Christian begins to struggle. He bumps and bumbles along. He’s not as devout a Christian as he should be. He’s not as committed to church and works of love. He trips in and out of old sins. And yet, the Father loves him anyway (the Gospel).
The elder-brother type struggles with old sins too, but in the form of bigotry and religiosity. He is frustrated with the younger brother’s immaturity and indwelling sin. He even questions the younger brother’s salvation and tells him to get his act together. The elder brother thinks he’s past the gospel, while assuming the younger brother is short of the gospel. But the truth is they both need the Gospel.
The scary part is the elder-brother types keep themselves from the gospel, and they keep others from the gospel too. That’s why Jesus was so harsh with the Pharisees. That’s why Jesus could say to the devout, religious folks that the sinners were nearer to the Kingdom of God than they, because at least the sinners were broken and humble enough to see their need of Jesus.
Of course, I’m not saying the younger brothers should continue in sin that grace may abound. No way! But the way to sanctification is more Gospel, not more religion (as the elder brother is so prone to think). The answer to sin is the Gospel. This is true for the pagan, the new believer, and the old believer alike. More Gospel!
If you’re the younger-brother type, hear the Gospel today. Repent of your sins. Return to the Father. He loves you. He will receive you with open arms and throw a party for you. What good news!
If you’re the elder-brother type, hear the Gospel today. Repent of your religiosity, of trying to be good enough, of being judgmental of others. Return to the Father. He loves you. He will invite you into the party too. What good news!
Just imagine it, a church driven by the Gospel, the elder brother types finally finding the peace and security and acceptance they craved through being religious, the younger brother types finally feeling forgiven and welcomed into God’s house. How I want that for our churches!