Every religion outside of Christianity essentially offers the same thing: a way to salvation through our own human effort. The parable of the prodigal son explodes that damnable lie. It illustrates instead the simple truth of how and why repentant faith is the only means by which any sinner can find justification before God. Forgiveness is not a reward for merits we earn by good works but rather the gracious and lavish gift of our loving Creator.
That isn’t to say, however, that practical righteousness is of no value or meaning for God’s people. Good works are the inevitable fruit of genuine faith. But sinners who repent and turn to God are fully and instantly justified, freely forgiven from the first moment of faith’s inception—before a single good work is done.
That was the principal lesson of Abraham’s life. He “believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6, emphasis added). His faith was the sole means by which he laid hold of God’s promises. In Romans 4, Paul makes an extended argument showing that David was likewise justified though faith alone, rather than through the performance of any good deeds, religious rituals, or meritorious works designed to nullify the debt of sin.
In a similar way, the prodigal son is a textbook example of someone who is justified by grace through faith apart from meritorious deeds.
I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.” So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his slaves, “Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.” And they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:18–24)
The prodigal’s forgiveness was a fully settled reality, and his status as a privileged son was established beyond question before he ever even had an opportunity to finish expressing his repentance. And what about that lifetime of work he was prepared to offer as a servant to his father? It was utterly unnecessary as a means of earning the father’s favor. The father had granted his full blessing and unconditional pardon by grace alone.
But this repentant young man would nevertheless be permanently changed because of the grace his father showed him. Why would he ever go back to a life of self-indulgence and prodigality? He had already pursued sin to its inevitable end and knew the results all too well. He was severely chastened by the bitterness of that experience. He had drunk the awful dregs of sin’s consequences.
But now the blinders had been taken from his eyes. He saw his father in a new light, and he loved him with a new appreciation. He had every reason henceforth to remain faithful. He would be serving his father now with gladness—not as a hired servant, but with the full status of a beloved son.
(Adapted from The Prodigal Son)