Home > Backsliding, Commentary, Repentance > Parable of the lost son – JC Ryle

Parable of the lost son – JC Ryle

March 20, 2010

JC Ryle

The parable before us is commonly known as the parable of “the prodigal son.” It may be truly called a mighty spiritual picture. Unlike some of our Lord’s parables, it does not convey to us one great lesson only, but many. Every part of it is peculiarly rich in instruction.

We see, firstly, in this parable, a man following the natural bent of his own heart. Our Lord shows us a “younger son” making haste to set up for himself, going far away from a kind father’s house, and “wasting his substance in riotous living.”

We have in these words a faithful portrait of the mind with which we are all born. This is our likeness. We are all naturally proud and self-willed. We have no pleasure in fellowship with God. We depart from Him, and go afar off. We spend our time, and strength, and faculties, and affections, on things that cannot profit. The covetous man does it in one fashion; the slave of lusts and passions in another; the lover of pleasure in another. In one point only are all agreed. Like sheep, we all naturally “go astray, and turn every one to his own way.” (Isaiah. 53:6.) In the younger son’s first conduct we see the natural heart.

He that knows nothing of these things has yet much to learn. He is spiritually blind. The eyes of his understanding need to be opened. The worst ignorance in the world is not to know ourselves. Happy is he who bas been delivered from the kingdom of darkness, and been made acquainted with himself! Of too many it may be said, “They know not, neither will they understand. They walk on in darkness.” (Psalm 82:5.)

We see, secondly, in this parable, man finding out that the ways of sin are hard, by bitter experience. Our Lord shows us the younger son spending all his property and reduced to poverty–obliged to take service and “feed swine”–so hungry that he is ready to eat swine’s food–and cared for by none.

These words describe a common case. Sin is a hard master, and the servants of sin always find it out, sooner or later, to their cost. Unconverted people are never really happy. Under a profession of high spirits and cheerfulness, they are often ill at ease within. Thousands of them are sick at heart, dissatisfied with themselves, weary of their own ways, and thoroughly uncomfortable. “There be many that say, who will show us any good.” “There is no peace, says my God, to the wicked.” (Psalm. 4:6. Isaiah 57:21.)

Let this truth sink down into our hearts. It is a truth, however loudly unconverted people may deny it. “The way of transgressors is hard.” (Prov. 13:15.) The secret wretchedness of natural man is exceedingly great. There is a famine within, however much they may try to conceal it. They are “in need.” He that “sows to the flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption.” No wonder that Paul said, “What profit had you in those things whereof you are now ashamed?” (Gal. 6:8. Rom. 6:21.)

We see, thirdly, in this parable, man awaking to a sense of his natural state, and resolving to repent. Our Lord tells us that the younger son “came to himself and said, how many servants of my father have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger? I will arise and go to my father, and say unto him, Father, I have sinned.”

The thoughts of thousands are vividly painted in these words. Thousands have reasoned in this way, and are saying such things to themselves every day. And we must be thankful when we see such thoughts arise. Thinking is not change of heart, but it may be the beginning of it. Conviction is not conversion, but it is one step, at any rate, in a right direction. The ruin of many people’s souls is simply this, that they never think at all.

One caution, however, must always be given. Men must beware that they do not stop short in “thinking.” Good thoughts are all very well, but they are not saving Christianity. If the younger son had never got beyond thinking, he might have kept from home to the day of his death.

We see, fourthly, in this parable, man turning to God with true repentance and faith. Our Lord shows us the younger son leaving the far country where he was, and going back to his father’s house, carrying into practice the good intentions he had formed, and unreservedly confessing his sin. “He arose and went.”

These words are a life-like outline of true repentance and conversion. The man in whose heart a true work of the Holy Spirit has begun, will never be content with thinking and resolving. He will break off from sin. He will come out from its fellowship. He will cease to do evil. He will learn to do well. He will turn to God in humble prayer. He will confess his iniquities. He will not attempt to excuse his sins. He will say with David, “I acknowledge my transgression.” He will say with the tax-collector, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” (Psalm 51:3. Luke 18:13.)

Let us beware of any repentance, falsely so called, which is not of this character. Action is the very life of “repentance unto salvation.” Feelings, and tears, and remorse, and wishes, and resolutions, are all useless, until they are accompanied by action and a change of life. In fact they are worse than useless. Insensibly they sear the conscience and harden the heart.

We see, fifthly, in this parable, the penitent man received readily, pardoned freely, and completely accepted with God. Our Lord shows us this, in this part of the younger son’s history, in the most touching manner. We read that “he got up and went to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him. The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate.'”

More deeply affecting words than these, perhaps, were never written. To comment on them seems almost needless. It is like gilding refined gold, and painting the lily. They show us in great broad letters the infinite love of the Lord Jesus Christ towards sinners. They teach how infinitely willing He is to receive all who come to Him, and how complete, and full, and immediate is the pardon which He is ready to bestow. “By Him all who believe are justified from all things.” “He is plenteous in mercy.” (Acts 13:39. Psalm 86:5.)

Let this boundless mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ be engraved deeply in our memories, and sink into our minds. Let us never forget that He is One “that receives sinners.” With Him and His mercy sinners ought to begin, when they first begin to desire salvation. On Him and His mercy saints must live, when they have been taught to repent and believe. “The life which I live in the flesh,” says Paul, “I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (Gal. 2:20.)

Luke 15:25-32

These verses form the conclusion of the parable of the prodigal son. They are far less well known than the verses which go before them. But they were spoken by the same lips which described the younger son’s return to his father’s house. Like everything which those lips spoke, they will be found deeply profitable.

We are taught, firstly, in this passage, how unkind and ill-natured are the feelings of self-righteous men towards sinners.

This is a lesson which our Lord conveys to us by describing the conduct of the “elder brother” of the prodigal son. He shows him to us “angry” and finding fault because of the rejoicings over his brother’s return. He shows him complaining that his father treated the returning prodigal too well, and that he himself had not been treated as well as his merits deserved. He shows him utterly unable to share in the joy which prevailed when his younger brother came home, and giving away to ill-natured and envious thoughts. It is a painful picture, but a very instructive one.

For one thing, this elder brother is an exact picture of the Jews of our Lord’s times. They could not bear the idea of their ‘Gentile’ younger brother being made partaker of their privileges. They would gladly have excluded him from God’s favor. They steadily refused to see that the Gentiles were to be fellow-heirs and partakers of Christ with themselves. In all this they were precisely acting the part of the “elder brother.”

For another thing, the elder brother is an exact type of the Scribes and Pharisees of our Lord’s times. They objected that our Lord received sinners and ate with them. They murmured because He opened the door of salvation to publicans and harlots. They would have been better pleased if our Lord had confined His ministry to them and their party, and had left the ignorant and sinful entirely alone. Our Lord saw this state of things clearly; and never did He paint it with such graphic power as in the picture of the “elder brother.”

Last, but not least, the elder brother is an exact type of a large class in the Church of Christ in the present day. There are thousands on every side who dislike a free, full, unfettered Gospel to be preached. They are always complaining that ministers throw the door too wide open, and that the doctrine of grace tends to promote licentiousness. Whenever we come across such people, let us remember the passage we are now considering. Their voice is the voice of the “elder brother.”

Let us beware of this spirit infecting our own heart. It arises partly from ignorance. Men begin by not seeing their own sinfulness and unworthiness, and then they fancy that they are much better than others, and that nobody is worthy to be put by their side. It arises partly from lack of charity. Men are lacking in kind feeling towards others, and then they are unable to take pleasure when others are saved. Above all, it arises from a thorough misunderstanding of the true nature of gospel forgiveness. The man who really feels that we all stand by grace and are all debtors, and that the best of us has nothing to boast of, and has nothing which he has not received–such a man will not be found talking like the “elder brother.”

We are taught, secondly, in this passage, that the conversion of any soul ought to be an occasion of joy to all who see it. Our Lord shows us this by putting the following words into the mouth of the prodigal’s father–“We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!”

The lesson of these words was primarily meant for the Scribes and Pharisees. If their hearts had been in a right state, they would never have murmured at our Lord for receiving sinners. They would have remembered that the worst of publicans and sinners were their own brethren, and that if they themselves were different, it was grace alone that had made the difference. They would have been glad to see such helpless wanderers returning to the fold. They would have been thankful to see them plucked as brands from the burning, and not cast away forever. Of all these feelings, unhappily, they knew nothing. Wrapped in their own self-righteousness they murmured and found fault, when in reality they ought to have thanked God and rejoiced.

The lesson is one which we shall all do well to lay to heart. Nothing ought to give us such true pleasure as the conversion of souls. It makes angels rejoice in heaven. It ought to make Christians rejoice on earth. What if those who are converted were lately the vilest of the vile? What if they have served sin and Satan for many long years, and wasted their substance in riotous living? It matters nothing. “Has grace come into their hearts? Are they truly penitent? Have they come back to their father’s house? Are they new creatures in Christ Jesus? Are the dead made alive and the lost found?”

These are the only questions we have any right to ask. If they can be answered satisfactorily we ought to rejoice and be glad. Let the worldly, if they please, mock and sneer at such conversions. Let the self-righteous, if they will, murmur and find fault, and deny the reality of all great and sudden changes. But let the Christian who reads the words of Christ in this chapter, remember them and act upon them. Let him thank God and be merry. Let him praise God that one more soul is saved. Let him say, “this my brother was dead and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

What are our own feelings on the subject? This after all is the question that concerns us most. The man who can take deep interest in politics, or field-sports, or money-making, or farming, but none in the conversion of souls, is no true Christian. He is himself “dead” and must be made “alive again.” He is himself “lost” and must be “found.”


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