The Prodigal Son: Saint or Sinner?

by Glenn Conjurske

That the prodigal son represents a lost sinner has been the common belief of the church for centuries, and not without reason. But this is now denied by many, and the prodigal is held to represent a backsliding saint. The reason for this modern departure from the interpretation of the centuries is plain enough. There can be no manner of doubt that the theme of the parable is repentance, and to grant that this parable pictures the salvation of a lost sinner will of course involve us in the doctrine that repentance is a condition of salvation. But this is precisely what a great many modern evangelicals will not allow, and to escape this consequence, they deny that the prodigal son represents a lost sinner. But they have precious little with which to prove that the prodigal is a saint.

I am aware of but two arguments to that end. First, the parable begins with, “A certain man had two sons,” and if the prodigal was a son, he must of course be a saint. I reply, the parable says, “A certain man had two sons,” and if this statement proves that the prodigal was a saint, it equally proves that his elder brother was a saint. Unfortunately, this will give little difficulty to most Fundamentalists. Those who can contend that Simon Magus was a true saint (for he believed!) will have no trouble about the elder brother. Yet it is strange business to make a man out to be a true saint, who murmurs against his Father, and refuses to enter his house. But to make either of these sons out to be a saint renders the whole parable irrelevant to the occasion. The chapter which contains this parable begins with, “Then drew near unto him all the PUBLICANS AND SINNERS for to hear him. And the PHARISEES AND SCRIBES murmured, saying, This man receiveth sinners, and eateth with them.” (Luke 15:1-2). The Lord immediately answered this murmuring of the Pharisees with a trilogy of parables—-the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. The first two of these parables end with rejoicing in heaven over one SINNER that repenteth. While the Pharisees on earth murmur, the angels in heaven rejoice. These two parables were spoken, of course, to answer the state of the hearts of these murmurers. So also was the third, which immediately follows the other two. And the two brothers in the parable of the prodigal son exactly represent the two classes of men before the Lord when he spoke it. The younger son is one of those SINNERS whom the Lord received—-and the parable graphically and beautifully portrays how and upon what terms the holy God receives sinners. The elder son represents the murmuring Pharisees—-murmuring at God because he receives sinners. This is all so plain and so obvious that it is really a wonder that anyone could miss it. But it is all thrown away by those who make the prodigal a saint rather than a lost sinner.

Moreover, elsewhere we see the same two characters under the same figure of two sons in another of Christ’s parables, which begins with exactly the same words. “A certain man had TWO SONS, and he came to the first, and said, Son, go work to day in my vineyard. He answered and said, I will not. But afterward he repented and went. And he came to the second, and said likewise. And he answered and said, I go, sir, and went not. Whether of them twain did the will of his father? They say unto him, The first. Jesus saith unto them, Verily I say unto you, that THE PUBLICANS AND THE HARLOTS go into the kingdom of God before YOU.” It is perfectly plain that the “two sons” here represent two classes of ungodly, lost sinners. The first son is the publicans and harlots, who openly repudiate the authority of God. The second son is “the chief priests and elders of the people,” to whom the parable was spoken, who professed submission to the authority of God, but rendered no obedience. These are the same two classes which we see in the parable of the prodigal son. And here, as there, the first son “repented,” and so entered into the kingdom of God. In the parable of the prodigal, the two classes are not explicitly defined in the parable itself, though it is perfectly obvious from the context. But here the “two sons” are defined as “the publicans and the harlots,” and “you”—-that is, the elders of Israel, to whom the Lord was speaking. All of this proves beyond doubt that the “two sons” in the parable of the prodigal may both represent lost sinners, as in fact they do.

A second argument that the younger son represents a true saint is that at the beginning of the parable he is seen in the father’s house, though he afterwards leaves it. This is really no more than a variation of the argument that he is a son. Of course a son belongs to the father’s household. But the fact that he belonged originally to the father’s house is really nothing to the purpose. This only sets the stage for the parable. It is equally true that the lost sheep, so far as the parable reads, belonged originally to the shepherd who lost it. So also the lost coin. The woman had ten pieces of money, and lost one. And yet we know certainly that both the lost sheep and the lost coin represent a sinner that repenteth. This is a good illustration of the soundness of the principle that no parable can be forced to go on all fours. Some things are necessary to the setting of the parable, in order for it to hang together and make good sense, and were never designed to have any significance in the interpretation. The point of all of these parables would be lost if this setting were dispensed with. A man does not bring home with rejoicing a lost sheep which is not his. A woman does not call her friends together to rejoice with her over a piece of silver which is not hers. This original ownership is an absolute necessity for the setting of the parables. And so also is the sonship of the prodigal. Let this lost son be anything but a son, and all that is tenderest and most telling in the parable is immediately lost. That he should be a son is a simple necessity for the setting of the parable, but was surely never meant to indicate that the lost son was not lost after all, any more than the original ownership of the lost sheep and the lost coin meant to teach that “one sinner that repenteth” means “one saint.”

But if folks are determined to press the fact that the prodigal appears originally in the father’s house, they will not gain much by it. The fact is, he went out, and as John tells us, “They went out from us, but they were not of us, for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us. But they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” (I Jn. 2:19). Though the prodigal’s body was in the father’s house, his heart was in the world. He was glad to take all that the father had to give him—-even had the audacity to ask for it as though it were his right—-but his heart was far from his father, longing only to break his bands asunder and cast away his cords from him. The prodigal in the father’s house, receiving of his bounty, is nothing more than a picture of man as he is by nature. “He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things,” says Paul to the heathen at Athens, and to the same heathen he says, “We are the offspring of God.” Nothing more than this can be made of the original place of the prodigal.

Again, it must be remembered that the parable of the prodigal son does not stand alone. It is the third of a trilogy of parables, all of them spoken to answer the murmuring of the Pharisees over the fact the Christ received sinners. Those three parables are, the lost sheep, the lost coin, and the lost son. Though we cannot escape at this time of day from the common designation of “the prodigal son,” the Bible does not call him prodigal, but lost. “This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:24). And again at the end of the parable, “This thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.” (Luke 15:32).

We might just as well argue that the lost sheep must represent a true saint, because it was a sheep, as to argue that the son must be a saint because he is called a son. The parable itself will not allow this, and neither will the usage of Scripture elsewhere. Thus in Matthew 10:6, “Go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” That these lost sheep are lost sinners is plain enough, for he says of those who will not receive their testimony, “It shall be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment than for that city.” (Verse 15).

Again in Matthew 18:11-14, “For the Son of man is come to SAVE that which was LOST. How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray. Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven that one of these little ones should PERISH.”

So also in Luke 15. The lost sheep is lost—-ungodly, unconverted, and unsaved—-and so is the lost son.

But this brings us to the doctrine of the parable. It was spoken to answer the murmurings of the Pharisees against Christ, because he received sinners. The parable teaches that in receiving sinners he was doing the work of God the Father, who receives sinners indeed, and receives them with open arms—-with kisses, and best robes, and fatted calves, and music and dancing. But the parable is just as clear that it is upon their repentance that they are so received. The joy of the shepherd over his sheep, and of the woman over her coin, are the joy which is in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. It is for those who insist that men are saved by faith alone, with or without repentance, to inform us why these parables are not concluded with “joy in heaven over one sinner that believeth.” This would suit their theology exactly, but as the parables now stand, they cut directly across the grain of that theology.

And really, no one whose heart and mind are formed by the Bible doctrine of salvation could doubt for a moment that the prodigal son is a lost sinner. What! a child of God wasting his substance with riotous living in the far country? What! a saint—-a holy one, that is, for that is the only meaning of the word “saint”—-a saint devouring his father’s living with harlots? Those who can believe this have never taken seriously the plain declarations of the New Testament—-such as:

“Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God.” (I Cor. 6:9-10).

Again, “For this ye know, that no whoremonger, nor unclean person, nor covetous man, who is an idolater, hath any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no man deceive you with empty words, for because of these things cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience.” (Eph. 5:5-6).

Once more, “Little children, let no man deceive you: he that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as he is righteous. He that doeth sin is of the devil.” (I Jn. 3:7-8).

But these solemn declarations of holy writ—-these solemn warnings against deception—-have been ignored by many. I know Christian parents who have ungodly children, living without God in the world, and without a spark of holiness, and yet those parents seem to have no concern whatever about them. They are just prodigal saints—-children of God after all, and “safe in the fold,” though living a thousand miles from it. I was at a Saturday evening fellowship meeting in a Bible church in Milwaukee some years ago, and a young lady brought up the case of a friend of hers who had turned his back upon God, and not only upon God, but upon nature also, and was living openly in that sin which is against nature. For three fourths of an hour his case was discussed, and not one person ever hinted that the man might not be saved. On the contrary, the general substance of the remarks was that there was really nothing to worry about, for he was a true child of God, and God would surely bring him back, as he did the prodigal.

A few years later another case of the same nature occurred, this time in a Bible church in Springfield, Missouri. In a young adults’ Bible class a young lady brought up the case of her sister, who was a professing atheist, and whose life, she affirmed, was “just like hell.” She wanted to know what she could do to restore her from her atheism and wickedness—-meanwhile expressing her complete confidence that her sister was saved, for she had “accepted Christ” at the age of ten. To this belief there was not one dissenting voice—-until I (an unknown stranger) ventured to speak. At length I said, “If you really want to help your sister, the first thing you need to recognize is that she is not saved.” But I quickly found they had no ears to hear such heresy. “Oh, I strongly disagree,” retorted a young Nazarite, with hair flowing down upon his shoulders. And yet the scripture which they were studying that morning was Galatians 5, wherein we read, “Now the works of the flesh are manifest, which are these: Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, THAT THEY WHICH DO SUCH THINGS SHALL NOT INHERIT THE KINGDOM OF GOD.” (Gal. 5:19-21).

All such scriptures as this must be ignored or swept aside by those who will make the prodigal son a saint. There is no broad way which leadeth to destruction in all their theology. The broad way may lead to eternal life as well as to destruction, and it may lead to eternal life as well as the narrow way. Wasting my Father’s substance with harlots is as good a way to heaven as taking up my cross and departing from iniquity, so long as I believe that Christ died for my sins. What I do has nothing to do with the question of my salvation—-though the apostles Paul and John affirm in the most solemn manner that it does. “He that DOETH RIGHTEOUSNESS is righteous—-he that DOETH SIN is of the devil.” So says John. “They which DO such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” So says Paul. Could anything be plainer than this?

Glenn Conjurske