In the parable of the prodigal son, the younger brother squanders his inheritance on foolish pleasures. He returns to his father’s home and pleads with him to take him back. The father forgives him, enraging the older brother, who has kept to the straight and narrow path. He wants recognition from his father because, he thinks, he deserves it. The younger brother disobeyed his father. The older brother has obeyed his father all his life, but from expectation of his inheritance, not from love.
The lesson is that it’s not a person’s ability to avoid sin that saves him from sin. God’s grace is boundless, and we all need it. We should rejoice at the redemption of sinners from their sinful nature by their confession of faith in Jesus Christ, who redeemed us from the deathtrap of our flesh. He took the punishment for our sins and put it on Himself, on the cross. When you accept that, dead is the old self and the hunger of pride, envy, lust, etc. Jesus becomes your nourishment instead.
The Pharisees saw people as falling short of God’s grace if they were not good enough. In Jesus, there is no threat of falling short. Anything you could do on your own to “get right” with God, Jesus has already done, times a thousand.
How did the Pharisees respond to Jesus’ teaching? I paraphrase: “What do we need grace for? We keep the laws. We have so many chits to our names. We’re good enough. We’ll make it into heaven.” This is hope in an empty promise. It sounds closer to secular rationalization and resistance to the human condition than the testimony of believers.
Is forgiveness for all trespasses, past and future, license to go on sinning? Paul answers:
We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? ... For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin—because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Romans 6:2, 6-7)
Naturally, since people are imperfect, they set themselves up to be crushed by their shortcomings if they take the Pharisees’ view, that being good enough can get you into heaven. At the outset of my faith journey, I feared this. I was conscious of my sin, and I was scared I would fail and be naked and exposed before God. But I took a chance on a church and they taught me the truth.
To Jesus, your life comes first. It is the headwaters. Your behavior is downstream, an effect, not a cause.
To Pharisees, your behavior comes first. Salvation is downstream.
“Neither Jesus nor any author of the Bible ever implies that any human being is flawless without sin or fault, except Jesus Himself. Instead, the point is that it is a distraction to concentrate only on our specific behavioral shortcomings.” –Timothy Keller, Prodigal God
When a lost soul returns to the home of the Holy Father, those who are already saved should not be embittered because they reveled in sin for a time and are yet still forgiven. For no one is reconciled to God by his own rights. The sinner steeped in the “joy” of his sin is not in an enviable position, anyway.
Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;
for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Related: “Righteousness talking.”