The Parable of the Prodigal Sons (Luke 15:11-32, NRSV)

Then Jesus said, “There was a man who had two sons. The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the property that will belong to me.’ So he divided his property between them. A few days later the younger son gathered all he had and traveled to a distant country, and there he squandered his property in dissolute living. When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed the pigs. He would gladly have filled himself with the pods that the pigs were eating; and no one gave him anything. But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.”’ So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly, bring out a robe‐the best one‐and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.’ Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, ‘Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!’ Then the father said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.’”

Jesus begins by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” Each son represents a way that people choose to live. Both are ultimately self-destructive.

Maybe you will identify with the younger son. The younger son chooses the “irreligious” way of life which says to God, “I don’t need you, I’ll justify myself by self-discovery and self-indulgence.” Eventually, a person realizes that trying to justify ourselves by seeking things, and not seeking the God who is the source of all things, will ultimately be unsatisfying. It’s like clutching at shadows but never grasping the true object. We were created by God and for eternity with Him, not for temporary things.

Younger sons & daughters, read: A Father’s Love (excerpted from Max Lucado’s book He Chose the Nails)
A modern retelling of the younger son’s story.

Or maybe you will identify more with the older son. The older son chooses the “religious” way of life which says to God, “I don’t need you, I’ll justify myself by my works and by moral conformity.” But how good is good enough? We are all in danger of falling into this kind of self-justifying works-based mindset. The “religious” way is just as misguided as the irreligious way because it is like trying to pull ourselves out of quicksand; the more you struggle, the worse it gets.

Older sons & daughters, read: How Good is Good Enough?
The whole idea of earning your way into God’s favor is totally common-sense … and totally, tragically wrong.

Each son in the parable had a strategy to get things: One was trying to be really independent the other was trying to be really good. Neither is necessarily a bad thing, but they made it their main thing, and so these both become merely different forms of self-justification. Both ways are sinful because they dishonor God, making Him second, when He alone deserves glory.

Thankfully there is a “third way” to the irreligious and religious ways: The gospel way. Only God can justify us (make us right with Him and restore the relationship between us). Grace is God loving us enough to send His son, Jesus Christ, fully man and fully God, to die as atonement for our sins. (Atonement means “at-one-ment”, paying the penalty on our behalf.) He was then raised from the dead, conquering even death, so that we too may have eternal life if we accept God’s gift of His grace and follow Him. This is why the Bible describes life without Jesus as being “lost”; when we follow our own ways, we end up astray.

The parable of the sons ends without telling us the older son’s response: Will he continue in his steadfastly untenable way, or will he choose the gospel way? More importantly, which way will you choose?

Further reading:
Jesus Christ: Who is He?
Watch the Jesus Film online, free
What is the “gospel”, aka “good news”?

With thanks to Tim Keller‘s writing & speaking re the Prodigal Sons.

God & AdamMany people believe that God exists (or believe God might exist) but object to the idea of a “personal” God. This would be more akin to deism rather than traditional theism, and would rule out the God described by most of the world religions a priori.

However, here are six reasons why I think that it’s reasonable to conclude that God is, in some sense, personal. The first three are philosophical reasons, one is a sort of thought experiment, one is historically based, and the final reason is personal.

The video embedded below the six arguments is a YouTube clip from the debate between William Lane Craig and Lewis Wolpert; the full debate between Craig and Wolpert is also available on YouTube. (See also Craig’s discussion of God’s personhood in the article Personal God on his website.)

1) The cause of the universe must be creative, which implies personhood

Craig notes in his Personal God article that all of the traditional arguments that he uses for God’s existence “imply the existence of a personal being” although he does not really describe why. The cosmological argument, for example, shows that the universe has a cause. This cause created the universe, including material, space, and time itself. To create requires creativity, and creativity requires several other qualities including intelligence, a purposeful intention to create, knowledge of how to create, and the ability (power) to actually bring this knowledge and intention into fruition. To call an entity which possesses all these properties anything less than personal would seem rather odd. Positing some sort of magical computer (a position atheist scientist Lewis Wolpert is forced into, see video below) is bizarre and unnecessary.

2) The universe’s cause is beyond space and time

The first of two arguments given by Craig in the video below, this one is also noted in his Christianity Today article “God is Not Dead Yet” and quoted from the article here:

[A]n external cause of the universe must be beyond space and time and therefore cannot be physical or material. Now there are only two kinds of things that fit that description: either abstract objects, like numbers, or else an intelligent mind. But abstract objects are causally impotent. The number 7, for example, can’t cause anything. Therefore it follows that the explanation of the universe is an external, transcendent, personal mind which created the universe, which is what most people have traditionally meant by “God.”

3) The only way to get a temporal effect from a timeless cause

This argument seems a bit tricky to me, so I’m just going to transcribe Craig’s statements from the video below rather than try to paraphrase it myself:

How else could a timeless cause give rise to a temporal effect like the universe? If the cause were an impersonal set of necessary and sufficient conditions, then the cause could never exist without its effect. If the cause were permanently present, then the effect would be permanently present as well. The only way for the cause to be timeless, and the effect to begin in time, is for the cause to be a personal agent, who freely chooses to create an event in time without any antecedent determining conditions.

(My note: The cause exists ontologically prior to the event rather than temporally, since time came into being in the creation event.)

4) The scale of personhood

This thought experiment is adapted from a book by Brian McLaren, whom I don’t generally endorse, but I think this particular point is interesting.

Consider a slug. A mollusk has very little, if any, of what we might term “personality.” Now think of a frog. You may not have known many frogs, but you can probably imagine that a frog might have a little more personality than a slug. Now thinking of a parrot, we would find a still more personal being, and moving up the “scale” of personality we would find a dog, a chimpanzee, and finally to a human being. As we move higher up the scale, we encounter more and more personal beings; we add more depth and fullness while subtracting previous limitations.

Now consider what we would need to say if God were impersonal: We’d need to conclude that God is on the same level of personality as a slug, or worse, perhaps a rock, or some other non-personal object. But this seems to be an inane conclusion: First, that the creator of these personal beings would be impersonal, and second that the God which created the universe would (if impersonal) be lower on this scale than that which was created. Therefore, because we cannot accept such a conclusion, we must accept that God is in some sense personal, and in a way that is even far beyond the way that human beings are personal. Of course, the difference between God’s level of personality would not be comparable between a frog and us, it would be a billion times or more higher. Yet it seems as though we’re led to the conclusion that God must be personal.

5) The God of the Bible and the historical Jesus

This argument is simple to state but rather lengthy to justify. In summary, it’s impossible to read the Bible without noticing its claim that God is personal. In particular, in the incarnation of the Son of God, fully God, into the person of Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man, God entered into the world He created in the most personal way. Therefore, if we have good reasons to trust what the Bible says (I think we do, see my free ebook The Historical Reliability of the New Testament) then we also have good reason to believe that God is personal. If God is personal, we would expect God to reveal this characteristic, and the Bible provides a record of some of those revelations.

6) Personal encounters

Experiential arguments are problematic, since they are essentially subjective. Although I can describe my experience to you, the experience itself is private to me and cannot be empirically shared. I can share my own story of when I met God personally, but such a story could be dismissed as mistaken, lying, crazy, or contradictory to the experiences of others. But even though the knowledge attained is not transferable, that does not make it an illegitimate source of knowledge. Many of the truths we claim to know most confidently were attained primarily or entirely through personal experience. Therefore, a personal encounter with God is a means of knowing that God is personal.

What does it look like to deny that God is personal?

As noted above, during philosopher William Lane Craig’s debate with biologist Lewis Wolpert, the biologist objects to the personal nature of God, but ends up pretty much affirming God under a different name! See the following video, which begins with Craig’s two philosophical arguments for a personal God (#2 & #3 above) then the brief discussion with Wolpert after the debate:

If you are still wondering if God is really personal, and actually does care about you and has been seeking to begin a personal relationship with you, here’s what I would suggest: Be open to encountering Him. Pray honestly, and as much as possible, humbly. Consider reading the writings He has given us to know Him. Explore the life of Jesus Christ. Learn what the good news, the “gospel,” really is all about.

Some friends of mine recently completed work on their first professionally produced music CD! The Hymn Remix project “was born of a desire to teach and inspire passion toward the deeper Christian life: we seek to revive, refresh and remix the timeless tunes and diction of traditional hymns with the musical styles of the present generation.”

Here’s the first single (?), listen to it! Check out the rest of the songs online at iTunes, Bandcamp, Amazon MP3 (USA only), and Rdio. You can also buy the CD at the website.

A few weeks ago a guy named Jeff Bethke posted a short spoken-word piece on YouTube entitled “Why I Hate Religion But Love Jesus“. It unexpectedly became a minor sensation, gathering over 19 million hits. I can understand why some people are critical of it, but I can also understand where he is coming from; so much of what is called “religion” today is misguided or even hateful.

That’s why I appreciate this video called “Religion – Why Isn’t it Working?” by David Nasser, who was raised in Iran until his family was forced to flee the country. This 17 minute video is a powerful exploration of the subject of religion in the world.

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