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by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

A sermon preached at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord’s Day Morning, August 25, 2013

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the best loved stories in the Bible. But it is often misinterpreted today. I will try to correct that error tonight in my sermon, “Misinterpreting the Prodigal Son.” I hope you will come back to hear it at 6:30. We will have dinner for you afterwards, so come back tonight!

All of the old commentaries say that the Prodigal Son was lost. They said this parable describes his conversion. But Billy Graham and others said this was not a picture of conversion. Decisionists said it was really a picture of the rededication of a backslidden Christian. How could all of the old commentaries be wrong? Well, they weren’t wrong. It’s the modern interpretation that’s wrong. You see, these modern preachers had to make this a rededication because they never saw a conversion like this. That’s why even a great Bible teacher like Dr. McGee got it wrong – as I will show in detail in tonight’s sermon.

In the twentieth century, “decisionism” made conversion into a cheap thing – just raise your hand and you are saved. Just recite a quick prayer like a parrot and you are saved. So, in the twentieth century, preachers no longer saw conversions like that of the Prodigal. As a direct result of “decisionism” Billy Graham and others had to reinterpret the parable as a rededication rather than a conversion. Instead of letting the parable speak for itself, they now read it through the “glasses” of “decisionism.” Even a great Bible teacher like Dr. McGee was confused by decisionism. So he said, “This is not the picture of a sinner that gets saved...let’s understand what the parable is primarily about. The parable is not how a sinner gets saved; it reveals the heart of a Father who will not only save a sinner but will take back a son that sins” (J. Vernon McGee, Th.D., Thru the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983, volume IV, p. 314; notes on Luke 15:14).

I believe Dr. McGee was probably confused on this by Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary. Dr. Chafer was a strong opponent of old-fashioned crisis conversion. He taught a form of “Sandemanianism” – the idea that we are saved by merely believing what the Bible says about Christ. It seems likely that Dr. McGee got his idea of the Prodigal Son as a “rededication” from Lewis Sperry Chafer. If someone reading this sermon would research what Dr. Chafer said about the Prodigal Son, and send me the source, I would appreciate it. [The dear brother who translates my sermons into German found the citation from Lewis Sperry Chafer that confused Dr. McGee.  Dr. Chafer said, "The 'Prodigal Son' presents an illustration of the way in which a Christian may return to fellowship and blessing.  There was no record that he was any less a son 'in the far country' than he was in his own home; nor is it recorded of him that he returned to his father's house on the basis of sacrifice or atonement..." (Dr. Lewis Sperry Chafer, True Evangelism: Winning Souls Through Prayer, Kregel Publications, 1993 reprint, p. 88).]  This false idea became widespread in the twentieth century. Billy Graham often spoke of the Prodigal as a backslider who came back to God. He said, “I’m asking you to reconfirm your confirmation. I’m asking you to come back to God tonight.” He said that sort of thing nearly every time he preached on the Prodigal Son in his great crusades, which were broadcast throughout America on prime time television for fifty years. So today that is what the average evangelical in America thinks about the Prodigal Son. But it is extremely confusing! Why? Because the Parable of the Prodigal Son is not talking about rededication! It is talking about a real conversionand the two are not the same! Conversion is something God does to you. Rededication is something you do. In conversion, the Spirit of God awakens the sinner and moves him to leave the hogpen of sin, drawing him to Christ.  If a person only rededicates his life he will go to Hell. Why? Because salvation is by grace, and rededication is by works. And works never saved anybody! Dr. John R. Rice criticized Lewis Sperry Chafer's book, True Evangelism, in his book The Evangelist (John R. Rice, D.D., Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1968, pp. 24-25) and in other books. 

All the old commentaries, written before decisionism, said the Prodigal Son was a lost man. For instance, Matthew Henry’s Commentary said that the word “son” does not mean he was saved, but “represents God as the common Father of all mankind.” Henry also said that the parable was given “to show how pleasing to God the conversion of a sinner is” (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996 edition, volume 5, p. 598; notes on Luke 15:11-32). That’s the way all the classical commentaries, before twentieth century decisionism, explained the parable.

Moving past the shallow decisionism of the twentieth century, let us think about the true meaning of the Parable. It is the third in a list of three parables Jesus gave to the Pharisees. They were mocking Jesus because He “receiveth sinners, and eateth with them” (Luke 15:2). To explain why He received sinners and ate with them, Jesus gave three parables – three little stories with a lesson in them. First, He gave the Parable of the Lost Sheep (Luke 15:3-7). Second, He gave the Parable of the Lost Coin (Luke 15:8-10). Third, he gave the Parable of the Lost Son – which we often call “the Prodigal” (Luke 15:11-32). All three of those parables are about the salvation of a lost person. Everyone agrees that the first two parables are about a lost person getting saved. And every single commentator before the twentieth century said that the third parable was also about a lost man getting saved! The Scofield note calls it the “Parable of the Lost Son” (The Scofield Study Bible, 1917 edition). And that’s exactly what it is. In Luke 15:24 the boy’s own father said he was spiritually dead, and that he was lost!

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again [the new birth]; he was lost, and is found...” (Luke 15:24).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son was given by Christ as an archetypea model, an example of a real conversion. The conversion of Paul followed this model. And the example of the Prodigal’s conversion was experienced by all the great preachers until the twentieth century – with the exception of the Pelagian heretic Finney. Read a little Christian history and you will see how all these great Christian leaders had a conversion based on the model of the Prodigal’s conversion. The conversion of Augustine followed this model. So did the conversion of Luther, Bunyan, Whitefield, both of the Wesley brothers, all of those who were converted in the First and Second Great Awakenings (1730-1840), as well as the conversions of C. H. Spurgeon, R. A. Torrey, and one of the greatest preachers of all time, the evangelist Dr. John Sung of China. All of these men were converted when they experienced the model conversion of the Prodigal.

By the way, I think that is one of the reasons Christ gave the Parable of the Prodigal – to give us a picture of conversion. Nowhere else in the four Gospels does Christ give a detailed description of how a conversion happens. Yes, Paul’s testimony is recorded three times in the Book of Acts – but I contend that Paul’s conversion followed the pattern, laid down by Christ, years before Paul was converted, when the Lord gave us the Parable of the Prodigal.

(Click here to read my sermon titled, “Misinterpreting the Prodigal Son.” You should read it along with this sermon).

As I said at the beginning, the Parable of the Prodigal has long been one of the best loved passages in the Bible. The reason is because it shows a lost sinner the pattern he must experience to be saved. And with that long introduction, we come to the body of the sermon itself. The text is simply,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

Now I say that the conversion of the Prodigal is an archetype because it shows all the elements that occur when a person is truly converted. The text is simple,

“And when he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

There are different stages in conversion, and we see them in the Prodigal’s experience. First, there is the stage when the young man wanted to be independent from his father. He didn’t want his father to control him any more. He wanted to be “free.” The Prodigal didn’t deny the existence of God. He attended religious services with his parents. But deep in his heart was hidden the desire for so-called “liberty.” He wanted to throw off all the rules and regulations of his father. He thought that there might be some delightful experiences he had never enjoyed. He wanted to taste the fruits of the forbidden world that he had never enjoyed before. He was a man now, and he wanted to be in charge of himself, and make his own rules, rather than be under the control of his father. If you have thoughts like this, may you “come to yourself” now, before you go into the ruin and shame that will come if you go on with these rebellious thoughts.

But soon the Prodigal came to another stage. He had received his inheritance early, before his father’s death. He took the money and ran away to a far country. Now he would do all the things he had only dreamed of before. He spent his days and nights enjoying “the pleasures of sin for a season” (Hebrews 11:25).

Before long he came to the third stage, when he had “spent all.” Now there was nothing to satisfy his hunger. All his sins gave him no satisfaction now. And it was in this terrible condition that he came to the fourth stage – “when he came to himself” (Luke 15:17) – or as a modern translation puts it, “He came to his senses.”

What a fool he had been! He was like a crazy person, going from one sin to another. We have seen young people do wild, strange things. We have seen young people go so far in sin that they finally leave our church. We have seen them plunge into even deeper sin. No one could stop them now. They never thought they would go so deep in sin. They may succeed in business and outwardly appear to be doing well, but concerning the things of God they become like animals, without peace in their heart, and without hope in the world.

“And when he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

That is the first work of grace in the heart of a lost sinner. Only the Holy Spirit can make a sinner come to his senses and begin to think wisely about his life, and his eternal destiny. And don't listen to the Devil if he tells you that you can always come back, like the Prodigal. Don't count on it! You can only come if God draws you, and there is no guarantee that He will draw you back if you wilfully go into sin!  He may say, "Ephraim is joined to idols: let him alone" (Hosea 4:17). Let’s take a few minutes to see how the Parable of the Prodigal reveals the conversion of a lost sinner.

I. First, the lost sinner comes to himself.

“When he came to himself” – when he came to his senses. This is the first sign that the grace of God is working in your life.

Sometimes this change of mind happens suddenly. That’s the way it happened to Mr. Griffith, who a moment ago sang, “Lord, I’m Coming Home.” He experienced an old-fashioned, sudden conversion. He came to church with a friend. I was preaching hard on sin and judgment. The friend said, “Let’s get out of here.” Something like that. Griffith said, “Wait, I want to hear this.” The other fellow fled, literally running away from the sound of my voice. Griffith stayed. He came under conviction of sin. “He came to himself.” He thought, “The preacher is right. I’m a sinner.” Right then and there, he trusted Jesus and was saved. I rejoiced greatly when I heard of it! He became as full of desire for the things of God as he once was for the things of sin. Everybody that knows him can tell that his change of heart was real, even though it came suddenly the first time he heard the Gospel. That’s the way Dr. Chan was converted. That’s the way my wife was converted. That's the way Melissa Sanders was converted. That’s the way Mrs. Cagan, and several others in our church were converted. They came to their senses suddenly – and they trusted Jesus suddenly. And they were saved the very first time they heard me preach the Gospel!

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

On the other hand, sometimes this change comes very gradually, very slowly. That’s the way Mr. Song was converted. He came to church and went to the inquiry room after the sermon. He came again and again. He had his own way of thinking. He began to argue with us as we tried to point him to Christ. One day he argued with me quite strongly and I rebuked him. He left our church and tried to find another clergyman who could make conversion easier for him. As I recall, he went to a Catholic priest. But the man didn’t help him. He went to a liberal Protestant minister, but he got no help there either. Finally he turned on the TV and saw part of a movie about Jesus. Somehow God spoke to him, and he broke down in tears. The next Sunday I saw him coming into the service, and I rejoiced! When he came to the inquiry room after that service, his pride was broken. He trusted Jesus. He was converted,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

One of our young men was raised in our church. He is a Chinese boy. He struggled and struggled. He was resisting Jesus – looking for a feeling, rather than pardon for sin. Then one morning I saw tears in his eyes. He was worn out from struggling. I got him on his knees beside his mother, and he trusted Jesus. He was converted,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

Another young man came again and again to the inquiry room. He was under deep conviction, but he refused to come to Jesus in simple faith. He cried every time he came to the inquiry room, but he was not saved. Finally he was crying and groaning so hard I thought he might have a convulsion. I told him to go to the restroom and wash his face. When he came back, I quoted an old-fashioned hymn to him,

Could my zeal no respite know,
   Could my tears forever flow,
All for sin could not atone;
   Thou must save, and Thou alone.
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
    Let me hide myself in Thee.
(“Rock of Ages, Cleft For Me” by Augustus M. Toplady, 1740-1778).

He trusted Jesus and was saved,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

Mr. Lee came to church and seemed to trust Jesus. But it was only a superficial decision. After a while it was clear that he had no life from Christ. He “ran out of gas,” so to speak. He came back to the inquiry room. He came to the Saviour with tears of regret and repentance. He was soon converted,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

Now for many years he has been enabled to pray in public with the zeal and love that men once had in the Great Awakenings of the 18th and 19th centuries and in the Korean revival of 1907. Praise God! He was soundly converted,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

John Cagan hated the church, and he hated his father for making him come every Sunday. One morning the Holy Spirit broke his heart. He came sobbing, crawling on his hands and knees to the altar. He was saved like an old-time Methodist! Oh, praise God! He was converted,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

I am thinking of a girl right now. She was so very religious! But she was all bound up in herself. She couldn’t figure out how to come to Jesus. It seemed hopeless to her. She had no hope at all. When all other hope was dashed to the ground, shattered like broken glass, she came to Jesus very gently, and she was saved,

“When [she] came to [herself]” (Luke 15:17).

II. Second, can’t I just let you come and make a quick decision?

Of course I could! I could have you come, and have you repeat the words of a so-called “sinner’s prayer.” You would be happy – for a while. But then you would begin to think, “Is that all there is to it? It doesn’t seem real at all to me now.” And you would begin to have prodigal thoughts once more. You would again begin to think, “Maybe there’s something out there in the world that I missed.” “Maybe this isn’t real after all!” “Maybe I’m missing some real enjoyment out there.” I have seen it! I have seen it! The Bible says, “The latter end is worse with them than the beginning” (II Peter 2:20). Better get it right now! Better get it right now! If you don’t get it right, “the latter end” will be worse with you “than at the beginning.” For then your heart will be so calloused and so closed that nothing you hear from the Word of God will move you! Better to struggle and weep, and cry out now, than to be given “over to a reprobate mind, to do those things which are not convenient” (Romans 1:28). Better to struggle and strive to find Christ now than to some day hear Him say to you, “thou hast destroyed thyself” (Hosea 13:9). Better to have bitter tears, and a sobbing heart now, than some day to hear Christ say,

“I never knew you: depart from me” (Matthew 7:23).

“There shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when ye shall see [these whose conversions I have told you about this morning] in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrust out” (Luke 13:28).

And you hear Christ say,

“Cast...the unprofitable servant into outer darkness: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 25:30).

Oh! Oh! I plead with you, think now! Think now! Think now! “When he came to his senses.” Oh, may you come to your senses today! And may it be said of you,

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17)

he said in his heart, “I will arise and come to Jesus now” –

For cleansing in Thy precious blood
   That flowed on Calvary.
I am coming, Lord! Coming now to Thee!
   Wash me, cleanse me in the blood
That flowed on Calvary.
   (“I Am Coming, Lord” by Lewis Hartsough, 1828-1919).

If you would like to become a Christian, please leave your seat now, and walk to the back of this auditorium. Dr. Cagan will take you to a quiet place for prayer. Go to the back of the auditorium now. Dr. Chan, please pray for someone to come to themselves and trust Jesus now. Amen.

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at Click on “Sermon Manuscripts.”

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Scripture Read Before the Sermon by Mr. Abel Prudhomme: Luke 15:11-19.
Solo Sung Before the Sermon by Mr. Benjamin Kincaid Griffith:
“Lord, I’m Coming Home” (by William J. Kirkpatrick, 1838-1921).




by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr.

“When he came to himself” (Luke 15:17).

(Luke 15:2, 24; Hebrews 11:25; Hosea 4:17)

I.   First, the lost sinner comes to himself, Luke 15:17.

II.  Second, can’t I just let you come and make a quick decision?
II Peter 2:20; Romans 1:28; Hosea 13:9; Matthew 7:23;
Luke 13:28; Matthew 25:30.