The Parable of the Three Sons

I am the prodigal son. I ran as far and as fast away from my heavenly Father as I could until He, by His utterly undeserved and lavish grace, drew me back to Himself. Not long after I was converted, many would tell me how my life was a beautiful picture of what Jesus had spoken about in the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-31). It wasn't until years later that I came to understand that the parable of the prodigal son wasn't merely the parable of the prodigal son it was also the parable of the prodigal sons. Both sons in the story were spiritually far from the Father. One of them repented and came home to God. The other was inwardly rebellious--thinking that he deserved the blessings of the Father. He was in the home, but his heart was in the far country of self-righteousness. Still, more years passed before I came to understand that the parable is, in its truest and fullest sense, more profoundly rich in it's purpose--it is, in fact, the parable of the three sons. How is it a parable of three sons? To answer this we have to look the immediate context and the redemptive-historical context of the parable.

Immediate Context

For far too long many Christians have atomistically fixed their attention on the younger son--treating the parable as if outward rebellion was exhibiting the worst form of rebellion in the sight of God. This is, in fact, to miss the point of the parable entirely. Jesus told this story to the self-righteous (i.e. inwardly rebellious) Pharisees and scribes who despised the fact that He was receiving lawless (i.e. outwardly rebellious) “tax collectors and sinners” to Himself (Luke 15:1-3). Sinclair Ferguson has helpfully explained this in the following way:

So why after…the prodigal son has returned home do we have another eight verses in the parable of the prodigal son? It must be either because Jesus wasn’t such a good story teller after all and He messed this one up, or the punchline isn’t really about the prodigal son at all. And actually when you read this parable in it’s context, it’s actually very obvious that the parable isn’t really about the prodigal son at all; or to put it the other way around, if we want to keep the title, the real prodigal in the parable is not in fact the younger brother…Jesus had the Pharisees in His sights. The story was ultimately going to be a mirror held up so that they could see themselves in the light of God’s grace and in the light of Christ’s Gospel.1

Once we grasp this contextual aspect of the parable we can safely squeeze out all of the spiritual truths embedded in the small details of the parable. In this parable Jesus teaches us about the nature of inward and outward rebellion, mistaken ideas about what God is like, the harsh conditions of the world, the  nature of true repentance, the eagerness of the Father to receive returning sinners, and the joy in the heart of the Father over returning sinners.

Redemptive-Historical Context

There is, however, another significant point of interpretation that is frequently overlooked. This parable has often been used by liberal theologians to suggest that no atonement is needed in bringing the younger brother back to the Father. In his sermon, “The Prodigal Son” (pp. 3 ff.), B.B. Warfield helpful pointed out the problems associated with attempts to pass off the details of the parable as the essence of the Gospel, rather than as elements of the Christian experience. In his chapter, “Sharing the Father’s Welcome,” Edmund Clowney explained that it would be insufficient to preach this parable without preaching about the saving work of the Jesus who taught it. He insisted that there was another brother in the parable–the one telling it. He wrote:

We do not understand this parable if we forget who told it, and why. Jesus Christ is our older Brother, the firstborn of the Father. He is the seeking Shepherd who goes out to find the lost; he is the Resurrection and the Life who can give life to the dead; he is the Heir of the Father’s house. To him the Father can truly say, “Son, all that I have is yours.” He who is the Son became a Servant that we might be made the sons and daughters of God. This parable is incomplete if we forget that our older brother is not a Pharisee but Jesus. He does not merely welcome us home as the brother did not; he comes to find us in the pigpen, puts his arms around us, and says, “Come home!”

Indeed, if we forget Jesus, we do not grasp the full measure of the Father’s love. The heavenly Father is not permissive toward sin. He is a holy God; the penalty of sin must be paid. The glory of amazing grace is that Jesus can welcome sinners because he died for them. Jesus not only comes to the feast, eating with redeemed publicans and sinners; he spreads the feast, for he calls us to the table of his broken body and shed blood.2

In his sermon, The Waiting Father, Ferguson takes this idea even further and makes the most profound observation about how this parable is related to the Person and saving work of Christ. He explains that only the sufferings of Christ make it possible for the Father to receive the outwardly rebellious son into His home again:

All of this loss has been sustained in the heart of the Father. This is why the joy is so great in the heart of the Father because the loss has been felt so keenly. Now why is that so significant in this story? For one reason, because in this story there are actually three sons: there’s the younger son who leaves home; there’s the older son who stayed at home; and there’s the eternal Son whose telling the story. And the story of that eternal Son is that in some time He is going to be given up to the cross, and He is going to cry out “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken Me?” in a sense that He has lost His Father; and there is going to be an echoing cry in the heart of the Heavenly Father, much deeper than the cry of King David in the death of his son Absalom, “Oh Absalom, my son, Absalom, my son, my son Absalom.” And you see its the story that’s taking place outside of the story of Luke 15, that makes the story in Luke 15 both possible and glorious. You remember how Paul sumamarizes this in what seems to me to be one of the greatest utterances in all of history, “The God who did not spare His own Son, but gave Him up for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things.”3


1. An excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson's sermon The Distant Son I

2. Edmund Clowney “Sharing the Father’s Welcome

3. An excerpt from Sinclair Ferguson's sermon The Waiting Father.


Further Resources


Edmund Clowney's Reformed Theological Seminary lecture, “The Parable of the Prodigal

Tim Keller The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith

Sinclair Ferguson's three part sermon series The Distant Son IThe Distant Son II and The Waiting Father.