The Prodigal Son

WHAT IS A PARABLE?

BEFORE YOU CAN UNDERSTAND one of the most familiar parables in the Scriptures, it is necessary to know something of the literary nature of a parable. The parable is a short, fictitious narrative which illustrates a principle of doctrine. Parable is derived from the compound Greek word παραβολή (parabole): παρά (para), meaning “beside,” and βολή (bole), meaning “throw.” Together they denote “setting alongside” or a “comparison.” In other words, in order to understand the spiritual aspect of a parable, one must match up the story with the principle of doctrine. For example, in the parable of the prodigal son, the father represents God the Father and the two sons are analogous to carnal and spiritual believers.1 The interpretation of the parable requires deduction compatible with known doctrine.

    All parables are derived from the mode of life as it was at the time the parable was written. The characters and incidents are figurative or typical, and proper names or specific geographic locations are never used. In contrast, the story of Lazarus and the rich man is not a parable because specific names and location are given. In this way you can distinguish between an actual historic event and a parable.

    The narrative of a parable has an outward literal meaning which both the unbeliever and believer can understand, but parables are directed primarily toward the believer with Bible doctrine in his soul. Only the believer with the filling of the Holy Spirit and doctrine is able to understand the spiritual significance of the story.2 When Jesus was speaking before large crowds, He often used this form of communication to teach doctrine to the believers who were present.

THE NEW BIRTH

    In Luke 15:1, Jesus Christ addressed Himself to publicans and sinners who had gathered to hear Him. Noting His compassion for these sinners, the Pharisees and scribes came to criticize (Luke 15:2). They complained that not only did He receive publicans, tax collectors, and sinners, prostitutes, He even dined with them. The publicans and sinners were the lowest social order in Jewish society. No self-respecting Jew would ever be seen in the company of these people, much less fraternize with them. However, here was One who claimed to be the Messiah, but who flagrantly ignored all their traditions and customs. He would not comply with their legalism, preferring instead the companionship of the ‘untouchables.’3

    Blinded by their own spiritual condition, the self-righteous, religious leaders refused to recognize that Jesus was the Christ, “the Son of man . . . come to seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10). Nor had He come to rule as king or liberate the Jews from the yoke of Rome, as they had expected. They did not understand that Jesus Christ would go to any length possible, compatible with His own character, to persuade those who were without salvation to come to Him by faith alone. He would do anything to draw them to Himself through the Gospel, for He was the only solution to the sin problem, the only hope for eternal life (Acts 4:12).

    The religious leaders knew well this passage in their Old Testament Scriptures:

But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes [bruise] we are healed [drawn together]. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD [God the Father] hath laid on him [God the Son] the iniquity of us all. (Isa. 53:5-6)4

Yet, how little they cared for God’s plan for a lost and dying world!5 These men were sincere do-gooders who lived by the golden rule and obeyed, or thought they obeyed, every letter of the Mosaic Law. Jesus pointed out to these legalistic Pharisees and scribes that all their morality and human good were not sufficient.6 They needed regeneration, to be born again (John 3:7).7 Even the rich young ruler, a very moral and upright man, who was confident he had kept the entire Law was declared still lacking. Later, Jesus explained to His disciples that the trouble with the rich young ruler was that he had not followed Him in regeneration (Matt. 19:21, 25, 28).

For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:26)

    The only people who are the children of God are those who are born into the family of God by faith in Christ.

But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name. (John 1:12)

This is the only way to be born again. Jesus disregarded the rejection of the religious do-gooders and continued to offer salvation to the publicans and sinners who had no illusions about their true condition before God.

    In Luke 15:3-9 the first two parables relate to salvation and answer the skepticism of the scribes and Pharisees. Both parables describe someone who has not received Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In the first parable the sinner is compared to an animal, a sheep; in the second, to an inanimate object, a coin. In conclusion Jesus states a principle:

I say unto you, that likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth [changes his mental attitude about Christ], more than over ninety and nine just [righteous] persons, which need no repentance. (Luke 15:7)

    In the third parable a new subject is introduced. The analogy changes from salvation to rebound.8

A certain man had two sons. (Luke 15:11b)

    The “certain man,” declared to be their father, represents God the Father, the First Person of the Trinity. The two sons represent those who have already personally believed in Jesus Christ as Savior. The key to this passage is the relationship that exists between father and sons. When the passage is concluded, the same relationship still exists—the father and two sons. Both remain sons in their human family and in the family of God despite their different paths. At the moment of salvation they were entered into union with the Lord Jesus Christ, which I call the “top circle.”9

Top Circle
 

ETERNAL SECURITY

And this is the record, that God hath given to us eternal life, and this life is in his Son. (1 John 5:11)

    God gives all believers in the Lord Jesus Christ eternal life.10 As a believer and member of the family of God, you also have eternal security.11 You cannot get out of the top circle—your permanent relationship with God. Eternal life and eternal security are two of the thirty-nine irrevocable absolutes you receive at salvation.12 God’s grace ties up the salvation package so tight you can never get out.13

For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)

    Once a son, always a son. Perhaps you may have desired at some time to change your family. Maybe you have been the recipient of discipline or there have been family conflicts. Yet, it is impossible to change the family into which you were born physically.

    In like manner, and much more importantly, you cannot change the family into which you were born spiritually. The moment you believed in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior you were born into the family of God. For all eternity you will remain a child of God. You will always be a member of the family of God! You cannot change your spiritual birth any more than you can change your physical birth. There is nothing you or anyone else can do to change or lose your relationship with God. This is the grace of God.

    God is immutable. He is unchangeable. Jesus Christ is “the same yesterday, and to day and for ever” (Heb. 13:8). Christ cannot cancel the work He has done for your salvation. Your nonmeritorious decision of faith alone in Christ alone is the only prerequisite for eternal salvation. Christ did all the work so that all you have to do is “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved” (Acts 16:31b).

    If you have personally received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior—regardless of your conduct or behavior pattern, regardless of what a ‘stinker’ you are, or how self-righteous or religious you are—you are a child of God. You cannot change that fact.

And I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. (John 10:28)

    Never repeat that meaningless chant, that so-called prayer, “Oh, God, save us at last.” This is the same as saying that God goes back on His Word; that God is a liar; that God is unrighteous and unfair; that He is not immutable. In other words, you are guilty of the worst kind of blasphemy. You were saved the moment you first believed for all eternity; the matter is closed! Your salvation is settled once and for all!

TEMPORAL FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD

    The “bottom circle” represents fellowship with God in time. In temporal fellowship, or spirituality, the believer’s soul is filled with, or controlled by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16). Sin takes the believer out of fellowship and into carnality. In carnality the sin nature controls the soul (Rom. 7:14).14 Spirituality and carnality are exactly opposite terms: spirituality describes the believer’s status in the bottom circle, while carnality depicts his status out of the bottom circle (Rom. 8:6).

Top and Bottom Circles

In any given instant in phase two,15 every believer in Jesus Christ is either in the bottom circle or out of the bottom circle (1 Cor. 3:1); either controlled by the Holy Spirit or by the sin nature. No believer can be partially spiritual and partially carnal. They are mutually exclusive states.

    When you sin and are outside the bottom circle, you are still in the top circle. The issue, then, is regaining temporal fellowship with God. God has provided rebound as the means by which you can move back into the bottom circle. You do not return to fellowship by burning candles, rededicating, taking a vow, repenting,16 feeling sorry for sin, or any other kind of emotional flagellation. You are restored by grace. And when you are restored, you are back in fellowship with the Lord. This principle is important in understanding the prodigal.

    The prodigal started out as every believer does, in the bottom circle, in fellowship with God in time. But, he got out of the bottom circle through sinful activity. Although out of the bottom circle, the prodigal was still in the top circle. He could not lose his salvation.

    Some believers do not understand eternal security. They think they can lose their salvation. After having been out of fellowship, perhaps for years, and then desiring to return to the Lord, they think they must believe in Christ again. They try to reaffirm their faith, rededicate, or repent.

    You cannot ‘redo’ anything as far as your salvation is concerned; salvation was accomplished in toto the first time you believed. For you to redo salvation is an insult to the Lord and displays a pitiful ignorance of the Word. You are rejecting the principle of eternal security and implying that God did not do a good job the first time. Even preachers, who should know better, use the rededication gimmick when people ask them, “How do I get back in fellowship?”

    This emotional approach, rededication, to the problem of carnality results in confused, miserable believers. Making a promise to God that you will never do it again, being sincere and hypnotizing yourself into rededication, or trying to make a deal with God, will not get you back in fellowship. Nothing you do will ever satisfy God. Only what Jesus Christ has done on the cross satisfies God the Father. Therefore, simply rebound, forget the sin, and keep moving. If you do not execute the rebound technique, you are ignoring the grace of God and cannot move forward in the Christian life.

    Believers are often shocked by the sins they commit. They may ask, “Can a Christian do this?” They may even wonder, “Maybe I am not a Christian!” Be assured that Christians can commit any sins that unbelievers commit! The proper question is, “How do I, as a Christian, get back into fellowship?” God provided the means to return to fellowship the moment you believed in the Lord Jesus Christ. This is the grace of God which operated on your behalf at salvation and continues to operate in the matter of fellowship and the Christian life. The parable of the prodigal son illustrates this grace.

DIVINE OPERATING ASSETS

And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living. (Luke 15:12)

    By way of analogy, “the portion of goods” that falls to the younger son is related to the divine operating assets provided by God for your Christian life. Are you aware that you are a spiritual millionaire? Perhaps you have been living as a spiritual pauper because you are not cognizant of the fact that there are thousands of promises which belong to you as a Christian.17 Each promise is based on a principle of Bible doctrine. How many promises have you claimed during the past week? How tragic when you do not claim what belongs to you. I suspect if you had a million dollars in your checking account right now, you might write one or two checks during the week. So, why not draw on the Father’s limitless account? God is ‘tapping His foot,’ waiting (Isa. 30:18) to supply you with many temporal blessings of the Christian life. But, your carnality strangles the possibility of your receiving any of these wonderful blessings.

    The younger son made a very legitimate request. He wanted in advance what would soon be his anyway. Parents in the ancient world saved for their children in order to get them properly launched in life. When he asked for the portion of goods that would be his inheritance, he was asking for what was legitimately his. This is the meaning of the phrase, “that falleth to me.”

    What was the father’s reaction? He divided his wealth between his sons. Both sons received their portion. Likewise, God the Father has divided His goods, or ‘divine operating capital,’ among all believers. The issue now becomes a matter of appropriation and utilization. How will you use the capital God has provided? Verse 13 begins the story of the younger son and how he used the capital his father had given him.

THE CARNAL CHRISTIAN

    The behavior pattern of a carnal Christian cannot be distinguished from that of an unbeliever (1 Cor. 3:3).18 In fact, he is sometimes

Carnality Versus Spirituality

worse as illustrated by David at one point in his life (2 Sam. 11). David was a believer, yet he behaved like an unbeliever.19 Saul, too, was a believer though he acted like an unbeliever most of his life. As far as God’s Word is concerned, while the believer may act like an unbeliever, he is still a believer, but in status quo carnality and out of fellowship. The “riotous living” of the younger son also represents this category of carnality.

And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance [misused his capital] with riotous living. (Luke 15:13)

    The prodigal began activities which were disastrous in his own life and displeasing to the Lord. I hesitate to elaborate on what his sins actually were, for I would certainly miss the sins of someone who would assume, “I do not fit the pattern of the prodigal son. I have not wasted my substance in riotous living. When you come right down to it, I am a pretty good person.”

    If this is your thinking, remember you still have the sin nature. Your sin nature is composed of an area of weakness, the source of temptation for personal sins (Heb. 12:1); an area of strength which generates human good (Isa. 64:6; Heb. 6:1); a trend toward legalism

The Sin Nature

which is self-righteousness (Rom. 7:7); a trend toward antinomianism which is licentiousness (Gal. 5:19-21); and a lust pattern which is the motivation toward either trend (Eph. 2:3). When under the control of the sin nature, you will generally move in the direction of your habitual trend. When under the control of the sin nature, you fit the pattern of the prodigal.

    Every Christian sins even though he is eternally saved. There is no Christian who achieves sinless perfection in time.

If we [believers] say [contend] that we have no sin [sin nature], we deceive ourselves, and the truth [doctrine] is not in us. (1 John 1:8)

If you suppose you never sin, you say in effect, “I am perfect.” Just because your sins are not apparent to you, does not mean that God is blind to them. You are only deceiving yourself.

If we say that we have not sinned [personally], we make Him [God] a liar, and his word is not in us. (1 John 1:10)

Whenever you imply or suggest that you no longer sin after salvation, you are calling God a liar, and the Word of God is not in the right lobe of your soul.20

    The problem is, you may run with the ‘respectable crowd.’ You keep your sins covered up and give the impression that you are a perfect person whom others should emulate. You know how to put on a long face and live by a system of taboos, but you are loaded down on the inside with vicious sins. You are proud, bitter, hypocritical, vindictive, envious, spiteful, implacable, filled with worry and fear. Legalism and self-righteousness characterize your carnality.

    At this particular point you might unwittingly be carnal. You may say, “I am not out there raising hell or doing the things that people usually call sin, so how can I be carnal?” But, you could be out of fellowship right now just by what you are thinking.21 In fact, this is the quickest and shortest route to taking the journey into the “far country” of carnality (Luke 15:13).

    Christians who fail to recognize the doctrine of carnality, or who deny the existence of the sin nature, fail to deal with sin as the Word of God mandates. They only kid themselves; they do not know doctrine. They rationalize or compensate by covering sin with a hypocritical façade, a ‘spiritual’ front such as some form of penance, an increase of their offering, or a promise to do better. But, superficial deeds do not regain fellowship with the Lord.

    Christian, get your head out of the sand! When you sin, face up to it—utilize what God has provided! Do not rationalize. Do not delude yourself that it was just a mistake, not a sin. Above all, whatever your lust pattern, whatever your sins, learn to recognize them so that you can rebound and be restored to fellowship.

    Every time you sin, every time you get out of fellowship, you are the prodigal. Paul states the problem:

For we know that the law is spiritual: but I am carnal, sold under sin. (Rom. 7:14)

Here, Paul describes his carnal experience. “Sin” in the singular refers to the sin nature. There is nothing wrong with the law, it is “holy, just and good” (Rom. 7:12), but there is something wrong with Paul. He goes on to say, “I am dominated by the sin nature.”

For that which I do I allow not. (Rom. 7:15a)

    In today’s vernacular Paul is saying, “What is this? I am a Christian; I am born again; I have eternal life; God the Holy Spirit indwells me; Christ indwells me;22 I am in union with the person of Christ; I am the object of positional sanctification.23 All of these marvelous assets belong to me, and yet, I continue to sin! I do not understand. It surprises me, it shocks me!” Paul describes himself and all carnal Christians, when he says, literally,

For I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. (Rom. 7:15b, NASB)

    There are other passages in which Paul traces his carnal experiences, such as Galations 5 where the sin nature is called “the flesh.” Colossians 3:5-9 reveals a list of sins that Christians commit which might surprise you. In 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, Christians out of fellowship are said to “walk as men,” that is, act like unbelievers. Paul did not stay this way. In fact, he gives you the secret of solving the problem of carnality and dealing with the sin nature in Romans 6 and 8. If you do not solve the problem of carnality through rebound, God’s only alternative is divine discipline.

DIVINE DISCIPLINE

And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. (Luke 15:14)

    In verse 14 we have a change of pace. The “famine” represents divine discipline imposed on the believer out of fellowship. Persistent carnality always brings the principle of discipline into focus.24 When you step out of line, God will discipline you. Expect it! This is the doctrine of the divine woodshed.

    The prodigal son was continually “in want,” in dire straits, a perfect illustration of divine discipline. No matter what he tried, everything failed. Notice what he finally did.

And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. (Luke 15:15)

    Apparently, the prodigal had gone out of the land, because there were no swine in Palestine. Pigs were forbidden by the Mosaic Law (Deut. 14:8). As a Jew, the prodigal was in a desperate situation to take a job involving pigs. The job did not pay well, and he was constantly hungry.

And he would fain [ἐπιθυμέω, epithumeo] have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. (Luke 15:16)

    The old English word “fain” is not in use today. The Greek verb epithumeo should be translated, “to long for,” or “to desire.” In the imperfect tense with linear aktionsart, this verb denotes a continuous action from past time—his “desire” continued without ceasing. The next verb, “have filled,” is a change to the aorist infinitive and means that now he desires to fill “his belly” with the same food the swine eat—the corn husks.

    When a believer stays out of fellowship, his standards change. In carnality the prodigal’s standards changed radically. He once had a ‘champagne taste’ (Luke 15:13), but now he has—well, what can we say—a ‘slop taste’? Perhaps the language is not the best, but it certainly conveys the point. Although he did not go so far as to want to eat the swine, which was forbidden to him, he did want to eat the slop that the pigs ate.

    Does this situation change his family status? No! He is still a son; he has been born once and for all into his family. He is still a child of his father even though he is under severe discipline having been reduced to the status of an unclean animal.

    He has become what we call a ‘pig-pen’ Christian. He is still a Christian and still a child of God. God’s love will never be removed from him, but he has placed himself in the divine woodshed for a thorough scourging. He is being disciplined for his persistent carnality.

For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth, and scourgeth every son whom he receiveth. (Heb. 12:6)

    His hunger continued, but “no man gave unto him” indicates refusal on the part of the foreman to even permit the prodigal to eat the slop he was feeding to the hogs. Now this is interesting: The prodigal had sunk so low that the pigs were more important than he was to his boss.

    What is the point? When a believer gets out of fellowship and stays out, he often sinks lower in character, motivation, and behavior pattern than the unbeliever. As a matter of fact, unbelievers have used the carnality of Christians as an excuse to reject Christ. The unbeliever can think of fifteen unbelieving friends who are better than some carnal believer, and often he is right. Of course, this is no excuse.

    You may have heard an unbeliever express his excuse this way: “I will never go to that church—they are a bunch of hypocrites.” The absurd thing about this is that he does business with hypocrites, makes money from hypocrites, and associates with hypocrites in recreational activities. Yet, a church where there might be a hypocrite is off limits. This is the height of inconsistency! Hypocrisy makes an easy excuse for those who are looking for an excuse and are inclined to think superficially.

    Let’s face it, when a believer gets out of fellowship and stays out of fellowship, he only gets worse and worse—not better. A believer who has been out of fellowship for a long time can be unethical in his business practices, be known as a ‘man about town,’ and still be a deacon in the First Church of Podunk. He is still a Christian, still born again, but he is in the same situation as the prodigal. How tragic that a carnal believer should be such a stumbling block to those in need of salvation.

 

REBOUND AND SPIRITUALITY

And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! (Luke 15:17)

    What does it mean to come to yourself? It means to look at life from the biblical perspective: to face up to the situation as it really exists; to recognize the sins in your own life; to stop rationalizing or justifying your sins; to stop blaming God or someone else (Operation Patsy) and to actually acknowledge your sin—to recognize that you are wrong and contrary to the Word of God. The prodigal realized that the servants in his father’s house were much better off than he was at the moment.

I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee. (Luke 15:18)

    Here is the principle of getting back into the bottom circle. Restoration to fellowship has nothing to do with emotion or penance. There is only one way to recover the filling of the Holy Spirit and restore fellowship—not two ways, not three ways!

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:9)

    Many Christians question God’s grace by asking, “Is 1 John 1:9 the only place that states this principle? If this is the only verse that says this, why is it so important?” In answer to that, how many times does the Word of God have to say something for it to be true and important? Once, and that is all! However, this is not the only verse. This principle occurs many times in both the Old and New Testaments: Nehemiah 1:6; Psalm 32:5; 38:18; 51:3-4; Proverbs 28:13; Daniel 9:4; 1 Corinthians 11:31; 1 Peter 4:17; and others.

    I like to use a word which describes the principle so aptly—rebound: “to bounce back, to recover from setback.” Sin causes the believer to stumble and to sustain a setback in his spiritual life. Confession is based on the work that Christ did on the cross where He was judged for all sin. Now when we name them, God can forgive our postsalvation sins and we can bounce right back into the playing field of the bottom circle.

    Whether you find the word “confess” in the Hebrew, Greek, or Aramaic, it means “to name or acknowledge.” Confess does not carry any connotation of feeling sorry for what you have done. Although it is all right to feel sorry for what you have done, it is not necessary for divine forgiveness or restoration to fellowship. Nor is it a prerequisite to feel the ‘rosy glow’ in order to get back into fellowship.

    Feeling is not the criterion for rebound any more than it is the criterion for salvation. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. Some get a ‘rosy glow’ the minute they accept Christ as Savior and that is fine. Other people have no emotional experience whatsoever. You may not feel saved, but if you have trusted in Christ, you are saved. Likewise, you may not feel restored, but if you have rebounded, you are restored.

    Do not wait to confess until you have a certain feeling or until you work up a sorrow for your sins. By that time you may be eating husks with the swine! Do not let your emotions rule your life. I know this is hard for some of you because all of your Christian life, you have lived by your emotions. When you feel good, you think you are spiritual and when you feel terrible, you think something is wrong. When emotion or feeling becomes your criterion instead of the Word of God, you have had it!

THE GRACE OF GOD IN REBOUND

    If the carnal believer does not get back in fellowship, he cannot be controlled by the Spirit, he cannot serve the Lord. Rebound is never a license to sin, it is a license to serve, to keep on honoring the Lord in phase two. If the believer does not rebound, then the whole purpose for which he remains on this earth is negated. Whatever he produces is human good rather than divine good.25

    Without this gracious provision, neither you nor I, nor any other Christian, could survive the exigencies of life or meet the demands of the Christian life. If you are one of those rebels who still think you have to feel sorry for your sins and that confess means something besides “name it,” then you still do not understand the grace of God. Look again at 1 John 1:9:

If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

    The Greek word ὀμολογέω (homologeo), “confess,” means “to admit, to name, to acknowledge.” “If” introduces a third class conditional clause which denotes that naming your sins depends on your volition. Maybe you will or maybe you will not confess your sins. You are free to choose.

    Confess, like believe, excludes any human works or merit. Certainly it is no credit to you when you name your sins. “If we confess our sins” simply recognizes the fact that you commit sins. “He [God] is faithful” means He forgives your sins every time you confess. He is “just” to forgive your sins because Christ was judged on your behalf. Christ bore your sins in His own body on the cross (1 Pet. 2:24). Therefore, you are judicially cleansed from all sin and He is faithful and just to forgive your sins.26

    The Bible does not tell us to ask for forgiveness. The Bible says, “confess.” The Bible does not say to plead, “Oh, God, forgive me!” The Bible says, “name it.” We need to grow up and operate in complete accord with the mandate of the Word of God.

    Since the day we accepted Christ as Savior, God deals with us in grace. We do not earn grace; we do not deserve grace; we cannot work for grace; we do not merit grace in any way. The grace of God in rebound depends entirely on who and what He is. All we need to do is appropriate His grace.

    Even in discipline God always punishes you in grace. You will never get what you deserve. Did you ever stop to ponder where you might be if you, even as a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ, got what you deserved from God? The grace of God can never treat us according to what we deserve. It is impossible! Therefore, although He may punish you severely, it is still in grace. That is why the Bible tells you to get up and move on (Phil. 3:13).

Wherefore lift up [restored to fellowship] the hands which hang down, and the feeble knees [carnality]; and make straight paths for your feet [spiritual growth through doctrine], lest that which is lame be turned out of the way [return to carnality]; but let it rather be healed [rebound and keep moving]. (Heb. 12:12-13)
    You are deluding yourself if you think you are forgiven because you worked up sorrow for sin, or because you made a vow, or went through some system of asceticism. Nothing you do will get you back into fellowship short of confession of sin. And that is it—period! When you name your known sins to God, you are forgiven and cleansed because Christ paid the penalty as your substitute. Your confession is nonmeritorious. All the merit lies in the One who died in your place.
 
    The grace of God also cleanses you “from all unrighteousness.” These are the unknown sins which you commit in ignorance—sins that you do not realize are sins because you do not know doctrine.
 
    So far, the prodigal had it right when he said to himself, “I will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee.” That was his confession and he needed nothing more. But the prodigal let his emotions take over and got right back out of fellowship. He quenched and grieved God the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30; 1 Thess. 5:19).27 Out of fellowship, the prodigal became confused.
And am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants. (Luke 15:19)

    Truly he was not worthy, but self-reproach would not get him back in fellowship. In his confusion he became ridiculous. He assumed that his father might no longer care to consider him a son after his sinful conduct. He thought if he offered to become a hired servant, perhaps his father would be more inclined to forgive him.

    Even if the father should put him in livery as a servant of his estate or put him in chains, this would not make him a servant or a slave. He was his son. He was not worthy, but sonship does not depend upon worthiness. And therein lies the prodigal’s confusion. He wanted to do penance. He wanted to compensate for his wrongdoing.

    But his father set all that aside. He did not say, “This boy needs a lesson; I’ll put him in the stable for a month.” Or, “I’ll give him some nasty jobs scrubbing floors, cleaning the stalls, or plowing the fields. He deserves to pay for his offenses.” His father had no intention of making him a hired servant. Instead, all that was ignored. Likewise, God recognizes only our confession and forgives us with no other conditions.

DIVINE ESSENCE IN REBOUND

And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. (Luke 15:20)

    I want you to see the picture of divine essence in this verse. It is so important you cannot afford to miss it.28 When the prodigal was yet far away and his father saw him is an illustration of divine omniscience. His father’s personal integrity and compassion is an illustration of divine love. In the prodigal’s absence, the fact that his father’s love had not changed is an illustration of divine immutability.

    In eternity the omniscience of God always knew about your sins. Billions of years ago He knew how many times you would confess. In eternity past His love provided the solution for your sin problem.

    God’s personal love for all His children ensures His compassion toward us when we rebound. God forgives us at the moment we rebound because on the cross, Christ satisfied the Father’s divine integrity, His justice and righteousness. The omnipotence of God guarantees that He has the power to provide forgiveness. When we confess our sins, it is just as though the Father were to run to us, put His arms around us, and kiss us. This is the Father’s love toward us as believers.

    The Father loves you personally with an infinite amount of love. This is always His attitude, for His compassion and integrity never fail (Lam. 3:22). And how does He express this love? Not by making you grovel, but by forgiving you immediately when you are willing to name your sins to Him. This is His love for you. You are His child; you belong to Him.

    When my son was young and away from home, I was never too sure he was the epitome of decorum. There were many times when I was happy to say, “That’s my boy!” Then there were times when I would prefer to look the other way and say, “Whose kid is he?” But I can tell you one thing, whether he was good or bad, I was always glad to see the ‘little stinker’ move through the door. And regardless of what he had done, the first thing I did was to put my arms around him and welcome him. I never stopped loving him.

    This is the attitude of God the Father toward you personally, but magnified many times over. The omniscience of God knows whether you are going to step out of line in five minutes, five hours, or five days. What is so tremendous is that He still loves you! You will come back and confess again and again, and each time He will forgive you again and again. That is grace!

THE RESULTS OF REBOUND

And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. (Luke 15:21)

    That was true, he had sinned. But notice he also said he was not “worthy”; he wanted to be made a hired hand on his father’s estate. His father interrupted him.

But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a [signet] ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: And bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry. (Luke 15:22-23)

    This verse illustrates four experiential characteristics of restored fellowship:

  1. The “best robe” represents the outward manifestation of restoration to fellowship as a family member. The prodigal’s father did not make a servant out of him. Instead, he gave him the best robe signifying the availability of divine operating assets to grow in experiential righteousness.29
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  3. The signet “ring” relates to his father’s signature. In the ancient world the signet ring was a form of identification. With this ring the restored prodigal was again identified with his father and could draw on his father’s tremendous bank account. By way of analogy, when we rebound, we are restored to full fellowship with God and have access to the Father’s unlimited divine operating assets that produce experiential righteousness. We can write a check on His account.
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  5. The “shoes” represent Christian service (Eph 6:15). When you rebound, then you can “walk in [by means of] the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16) and you have the honor and privilege to serve the Lord again (Col. 1:10). The filling of the Holy Spirit produces divine good. Do not let any legalistic believer clip your wings by quoting to you the old cliché, “The bird with the broken pinion will never fly as high again.” You can fly as high as before. You are back in fellowship. So keep growing; keep moving ahead in the Christian life (Phil. 3:13-14)!
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  7. Finally, the “fatted calf” speaks of fellowship in the Word, feeding on divine truth. When you are in fellowship, it is possible to feed on the Word again and grow in experiential righteousness.
For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost [ἀπόλλυμι, apollumi], and is found. And they began to be merry. (Luke 15:24)

    There are seven different kinds of death in the Bible.30 This is a reference to temporal death as described in Romans 8:6, 13; Ephesians 5:14; 1 Timothy 5:6. To be “alive again” means that the son is back in the bottom circle—back in fellowship. “Lost” is the Greek word apollumi, meaning “to be ruined” or “to be destroyed”; the connotation being that he was out of the sphere of the Christian life. All the time he was away, he was unwilling to live the Christian way of life. Now that he “is found,” or has rebounded, he is back in the sphere where he can grow spiritually.

    When a believer gets back in fellowship and advances spiritually by learning the Word of God, all the wonderful by-products of Christianity are resumed. To “be merry” speaks of inner peace, joy, stability—all the blessings that can come to the believer who rebounds and keeps moving forward in the Christian life, to the one who utilizes divine grace.

THE LEGALISTIC BELIEVER

Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and entreated him. (Luke 15:25-28)

    The elder brother should have been delighted to have his younger brother home. He should have thrown his arms around him and said, “Welcome brother! I sure am glad you are back!” But he did not do that.

    Now, the elder brother took his own journey into a “far country”—he was the one who was out of fellowship. He was jealous and angry because his father had treated the younger brother in grace. He was sulking and would not go into the house and join the welcome-home party. Therefore, his father came out and begged him to come in, but without success.

    The father had the right to treat his children as he thought best. Do not get angry because God the Father treats another Christian in grace. God the Father entreats you to have compassion on other believers. You should have the same mental attitude of love and grace which was manifested by the Lord Jesus Christ.

Forbearing one another [of the same kind—believers], and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any: even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye. (Col. 3:13)

Remember that the shoe may be on your foot some day, and you will want all of the grace coming your way.

And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends. (Luke 15:29)

“All these years I have been faithful,” he whined, “and yet you never threw a party for me.” Probably his father had, but in his jealousy of his brother he had forgotten. One mental attitude sin, jealousy, led to another, anger, and then to another as he began to judge and malign his father and brother.

But as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. (Luke 15:30)

    How could he know that his brother had thrown away his inheritance on prostitutes? He could not! The passage says, “riotous living,” which could mean a lot of things. In whatever manner his brother lost his money, it was only a conjecture that it was spent on “harlots.” There is no specific indication as to how the prodigal lost his inheritance.

    Furthermore, it was none of the elder brother’s business. When a believer gets out of fellowship, all of his bad qualities are brought out. Elder brother was legalistic, self-righteous, and guilty of Operation Long Proboscis.31 Whatever the younger brother’s sins were, the father had forgiven him. The principle is that we are never to penalize another believer for the sins which God has forgiven.

    The legalistic believer imposes his own standards of human good on others and castigates those who do not live up to them. It is not unusual for an entire congregation in their ‘sanctified,’ legalistic, holier-than-thou attitude to stomp on one member and play ‘kick the can’ with him. No one has the right to do that to any believer.

    When you begin to judge others, you not only get yourself out of fellowship, you become the recipient of divine discipline.32 One of the most wonderful qualities in the Christian way of life is the ability to mind your own business, and not worry about whether another believer is stepping out of line or getting away with something. God will take care of him. If you try to help God with a little discipline of your own, you put yourself between God and the whip. You will get the discipline! So save yourself the misery, live your own life before the Lord. Relax, and rebound when necessary.

AFTERMATH OF LEGALISM

    What was the father’s answer to this brother who had gotten out of fellowship through legalism?

And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. (Luke 15:31)

The elder brother may have whatever he desires. He had always had all of his father’s operating assets. Whether he ever accepted his father’s grace and returned to fellowship is unknown. But, in order to have access to the Father’s unlimited operating assets, you must accept His grace in utilizing rebound.

It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again: and was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:32)

    Every time you sin, you are “dead”—temporal death, out of fellowship. Every time you confess your sin, you are back in the bottom circle ready to utilize all the grace assets provided by God for you. Therefore, as long as you live, whenever you sin against the Lord you must rebound. If you do not, your life is useless and powerless. Your production is human good and does not count as far as the Lord is concerned. Only after you have been purified from sin through the principle of 1 John 1:9 are you ready to move out and serve the Lord.

    As in the parable of the prodigal son, all believers are divided into two categories—spiritual or carnal. Like the prodigal son, you can choose the path of lawlessness and obvious carnality. Or like the elder brother, you can become self-righteous and legalistic. While your carnality is not quite as obvious, it is just as wrong. Regardless of your brand of carnality or its visibility, God does not approve of your sins and must sever temporal fellowship with you. However, since you are His child and a member of His family forever, He never stops loving you despite your wrongdoing. He graciously offers you rebound to restore your fellowship and spirituality. Whether you exercise the option and return to fellowship, as did the prodigal, is your choice. It is never too late to rebound and keep moving!