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Three ways to live

I've thought this for sometime, initially because I recall someone preaching in Poland on the older son back in summer 1998, but also from some time studying Luke's gospel a couple of years ago, but Tim Keller has refreshed my thinking about it with some extra clarity.

In Luke 15 Jesus tells three parables. The first two and a half are basically the same thing repeated. Something is lost, and then found and there is great celebration. The odd thing is the chapter should end after that, but it doesn't. It doesn't because the third parable is about a man who has two sons, and there is a whole big bit about the other son. We meet the bad kid who repents of blowing his inheritance and gets salvation at his Father's feast, and we meet the good kid who has never done anything wrong, he however refuses to join the party. Tim Keller helpfully exposes the idolatry of the good kid. He's respectable. He's acceptable. He's sound. He's reliable. And yet he's lost.

What's striking is who all these parables are told to (v1). The sinners are of course there, always following Jesus around. But so are (v2) the pharisees, complaining about the way Jesus welcomes sinners (again). The parables are often applied to the benefit of the sinners - and of course there is good news for them, however lost they are they can come into the feast, heaven will rejoice over their repentance. The shocker is the application to the pharisees who could have it all but miss out on the gospel by their grumbling and good life. There are 'three ways to live', the gospel way, the bad way, the good way (which is really only two, but the 2nd & 3rd need some separate attention).

It's not the first example of this in Luke's gospel, in chapter 10 Jesus hits the same sort of note. He warns his disciples about joy in their evangelistic endeavours (which were pretty impressive) telling them that their hearts should instead rejoice in their salvation (names in heaven, Jesus revealed to them), and then we're shown two good people - the lawyer (who is exposed by the parable of the good samaritan) and Martha who are missing out blinded by the idol of their own goodness and busyness, compared with the third Mary who has got the one thing she needs as she sits and listens to the teaching of Jesus, the soul-satisfying word of God.

Keller also makes an interesting observation about the Sermon on the Mount (I think he credits it to Dick Lucas) which I need to think further about. He observes that the Sermon on the Mount ends with 'two ways to live' - two roads, two houses, two trees. What's the path people are warned off in the SotM? Jesus is one of the ways, what's the other? Not primarily 'bad life' more, warning against pharasaic religiosity, man-impressing piety - all the kind of things that 'good people' love to do. The kind of people who might just cry out 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?'. As Jesus addresses his first disciples they have a choice between two ways of living - either they can go with Jesus, or they can go with the sand that is being pious. Life in Jesus leads to life, bears fruit and survives the storm. (Matthew 7) which is a better way than do-gooding.

In February I'm travelling to Plymouth to teach from one of my favourite books, Galatians. I've drawn 4v8-5v1 in their series. That's interesting because the second half is the bit where Paul uses allegory!! Whatever the methodology his point seems to be to show that slavery has already been shown to be futureless, and so they should live a free life in the gospel. The first part of the passage focusses more on the present joylessness of being a slave when they could have the joy of Christ being formed in them by the Spirit. Before hitting that note Paul plays the first part of a melody that might sound dischordant to some, but is really sensational. He accuses the Galatians of going back to their old slavery (4v8).

The thing is, before being Christians they would have been slaves to pagan idols, now as Christians they're enslaving themselves to aspects of the Jewish law. Jewish lawkeepery looks very different to pagan idolatry. It really does. And yet it's actually the same. One puts a religious idol above God, the other puts the idol of religiosity above God. Both are idolatrous. So it was for Peter when he put the idol of a food law above the gospel-created fellowship he as a Jew could enjoy with a Gentile, the day he jumped out of step with the gospel and thus out of step with the Holy Spirit. So too for the Galatians when they bought into circumcision from the silver tongue of their visiting speakers who no doubt had compelling arguments why it would be worth them adding just a little something to Jesus.

Oh, the deceit of our trust in our goodness! Firstly my own goodness is no different from my badness, it's all idolatrous. Secondly, such idolatry is no match for the gospel of Jesus Christ. Jesus is better than it, and his death is enough to provide all the forgiveness required for religious posturing on my part. In an age where people are into spirituality and everyone assumes that if there was a heaven God would of course let them in, we need to preach the gospel to older brothers, good kids, religious ex-pagans, pious environmentalists and self-deceived UCCF team leaders.


  1. "And yet he's lost"

    Obviously there is a lot wrong with the older Son's behaviour. It is a denial of grace, and despite his protestations that he obeys his father, he is not like his father in mercy. However I am not sure that Jesus says that he is 'lost'.

    In fact his father says to him "Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours." He seems to be exhorting his older son, not condemning him.

  2. Hmmm. Maybe, but I find the absence from the feast and the watching grumbling pharisees to suggest that the older son is a picture of someone who has much and has tried hard but is missing out on salvation...

  3. Hmmm indeed. It's a difficult because parables are rarely exact allegories.

    I'll think some more.

  4. Indeed... but when you put the three parables of Luke 15 together, I think you get a small encouragement to the sinners but the twist makes it a parable against the Pharisees who assume they're saved but actually aren't...

  5. I love the fact that grace is always fresh. You think you have it, then it comes back and hits you again between the eyes.

  6. Yeah. And I'm sure you're about to have a great week getting graced up with Hosea.

  7. It certainly is a parable against the pharisees, and in this sense I think it's best understood as an exhortation. Although doctrinal information can be gleaned from the parable, I think it's important that the parable remains at home in its context of a conversation - the parable is not so much "about" the pharisees, but "for" them; they should listen. The context of celebrations in heaven in Lk 15, the special feast in the parable, and the words of the Father to the older son suggest that Jesus is not so much interested in saying something about their eternal destination, but about calling them to repentance (which will, of course (!) have consequences on the last day).

  8. Hmmm. I think you might be overstating things, though, in equating "Jewish lawkeepery" with pagan idolatry... that I think goes beyond Paul's very positive view of the law in Romans and his own retention of Jewish customs as seen in Acts 21.

  9. Agreed I need to reckon with Acts 21... not really thought about that one before, but in Galatians he really does seem to shoot hard against law noting that if the Jerusalem apostles had gone back to it he'd have laboured in vain (2v2), likewise with the Galatians embracing circumcision, and Peter is clearly marked as out of step with the gospel/Spirit for resuming food laws...

    That doesn't mean the law has no use for Christians, but it's hard to see that obeying its commands is to be required. Galatians 4v8ff seems compelling to me, along with his later association between keeping law and sinning in chapter 5.

  10.'s hard to see that obeying its commands is to be required...

    Required in what sense? To merit salvation? Well, they never were intended for that anyway, so if that's what the Judaisers were teaching then everyone from Moses to Malachi condemns them along with Paul.

    Required for Christian maturity/ obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord as the evidence of genuine faith? Well, yeah, of course that's required - let's just not think that the commands of God haven't been transformed at all by the coming of Jesus Christ, because they really really have. In other words, don't live 'under the law' when u should be living under Christ by the Spirit. Of course, the Christ we're under claims his teaching embodies the law and brings it to its eschatological climax. And the Spirit we live by is interested in writing the law on our hearts. In other words, living under Christ by the Spirit is going to mean fulfilling the law by our love-obedience (Galatians 5:14, Romans 13:8-10).

  11. Be great if some of you wanted to pick this up and run with it on your own blogs, what do we do with the law? on what basis do we live the Christian life...

    or just keep commenting here.

  12. "Required in what sense? To merit salvation?" - no, clearly not as you have both rightly said.

    "Required for Christian maturity/ obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord as the evidence of genuine faith?... In other words, living under Christ by the Spirit is going to mean fulfilling the law by our love-obedience (Galatians 5:14, Romans 13:8-10)." Yes I think so. Within this framework of "love-obedience", we need to think through HOW the OT law filters through to us - some bits (e.g. offering sacrifices) clearly obsoleted, for other bits the principles can surely be retained even if the specific details can't.

  13. And, though not "required", it may be "permissible" or "wise" for Jewish believers to retain elements of the law as a means of retaining Jewish cultural identity and as a testimony to the wider Jewish community that faith in Jesus as Messiah is not about the eclipse of Jewish culture nor does it require Jews to become Gentiles - which is I think what Acts 21 and Romans 14-15 are all about.

  14. There may be nothing wrong with retaining Jewish culture for a Jewish Christian, but the culture of the gospel is grace isn't it. Paul and Peter put aside vast amounts of their old Jewish culture. Again, I do need to think over the references you mention, but mostly the principle seems to be live by the Spirit not by things you do.

  15. "mostly the principle seems to be live by the Spirit not by things you do." - yes of course - and no Messianic Jew I know would deny that we are saved 100% by grace and go on 100% by grace. But there is a difference between how we are saved and grow, and the culture within which we live!

    "the culture of the gospel is grace isn't it." - I would rather say that the gospel of grace impacts every culture differently. Many aspects of Jewish culture are compatible with the gospel of grace; some aren't. Just as many aspects of British culture are and many aren't!

    "Paul and Peter put aside vast amounts of their old Jewish culture." Hmmm. Paul appeared to continue to observe OT festivals and explicitly identified himself as a Pharisee, even after coming to faith in Jesus, and was prepared to offer a blood sacrifice as testimony that he never encouraged Diaspora Jews to turn away from Jewish customs. He was adamant that Gentiles should not be circumcised (as in Galatians) but was quite happy to have Timothy circumcised!

    Have a look at this which may interest you.

  16. Bob Clucas once preached a brilliant sermon on 'What should the title really be?'

    He rejected 'The parable of the prodigal son.' It's not all about him.

    'The parable of the apparently bad Dad,' (the pharisees would think a father who allowed his son to be that rude should beat his son not give him the money) got some wonderful consideration but that too was eventually rejected in favour of:

    'The parable of the two sons neither of which truly understood the full extent of their father's love.' Not snappy but brilliant. As is Bob.

  17. Thanks St, the titling is a tough one. Probably too much is made of the parable, and it at least needs to be in the context of the rest of the rest of the chapter, and probably ch16 too.

    James. yes... Paul certainly kept Gentile Christians from circumcision. Yes he circumcised Timothy but had Titus been compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2) it would have signified a departure from the gospel by the Jerusalem church.

  18. This is the bit I'm not sure of

    'they free us from the old list...'

    I find it really hard to reconcile that with Psalms 19 and 119.

    I just think that the 'problem with the law' in Galatians and romans must be with the law as it was used by the Judaizers, not with the law itself. Were they expecting it to do things that it was never intended to do (such as save, regenerate, enable obedience rather than just prescribe it?), and were they failing to see where they were in salvation history?

    Point noted about taking this up on our own blogs Dave. I might post something very soon, even if it's just a link to one or two really helpful things I've read.

  19. I've now posted something on my blog about the law. You can find it by following the link from my nickname.

  20. Link: Pete: 10 on the law. Good to pick this up elsewhere.

    Thanks for picking it up. I take the point about there being command in the gospel, I'm not yet convinced that 'the law' is given to us to keep, and I can't escape the way that Galatians 3 puts it as a temporary measure for Israel until Christ.

    One thing I'm 100% with you on, One of THE single most important theological and pastoral issues is the relationship between Christian living and the law. Amen to that.


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