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A sermon written by Dr. R. L. Hymers, Jr., Pastor Emeritus
and given by Jack Ngann, Pastor
at the Baptist Tabernacle of Los Angeles
Lord’s Day Afternoon, November 5, 2023

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry” (Luke 15:24; p. 1097 Scofield).

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is one of the most beloved stories in the Bible. And yet it is one of the most misunderstood passages today. I will give a brief account of the parable, and then I will tell you how it has been twisted and perverted, even by well-meaning preachers.

As I bring the message this afternoon, I will deal with this parable in two ways. First, I will show how it has been perverted by “decisionism.” Second, I will show what it really means. And then I will show how it applies to you. But we will begin by going over the entire parable.

Jesus said that there was a man who had two sons. The younger son came to his father, and asked for his part of the inheritance now, before the father’s death. The father agreed, and gave the younger son his half of the inheritance. The younger son took everything and left home. He went far away to a distant country and squandered the entire inheritance with loose and sinful living.

When he had spent all the money, a famine occurred and he was starving. He went to a citizen of that country who sent him out to feed pigs. He was so hungry that he wanted to eat the husks that the pigs were eating, and no one gave him anything to eat.

Then he came to his senses and realized that his father’s servants had enough bread to eat, while he was starving. He decided to return to his father’s house and say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee, and am no more worthy to be called thy son; make me as one of thy hired servants.” He arose and came to his father. While he was coming, his father ran and hugged him and kissed him. His father put an expensive robe on him, a ring on his finger, and shoes on his feet. The father killed a calf and made a great feast. The father said,

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry” (Luke 15:24).

That is the basic outline of the parable. Now, I will go back and show you how it has been misinterpreted in our day, and then I will show you what it really means.

I. First, the way this parable has been misinterpreted by many modern preachers.

I hate to say that Dr. J. Vernon McGee misinterpreted this parable, but he did. Dr. McGee said, “This is not a picture of a sinner that gets saved...In this story our Lord told there was never any question as to whether the boy was a son or not...He was a son all the time...The only one who wants to go to the Father’s house is a son; and one day the son will say, ‘I will arise and go to my Father’” (J. Vernon McGee, Th.D., Thru the Bible, Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1983, volume IV, pp. 314, 315; notes on Luke 15:11-19).

So, Dr. McGee wrongly said that this young man was saved all the time. He rebelled and went into a life of deep, prolonged sin, but he was still saved. Later he repented of his sin and rededicated his life.

I am sorry to say that this shows how Dr. McGee was influenced by modern “decisionism.” That is the way many modern preachers, like Billy Graham, have interpreted the parable. Why have they done that? They did it because tens of thousands of people have made “decisions” and have then gone back into sin. The only way these preachers can explain that is to say they are like the Prodigal Son, and some day they will wake up and rededicate themselves. You hear them say that there are “saved” alcoholics, “saved” drug addicts, and even “saved” prostitutes. Since 88% of all “church kids” leave their church “never to return” (Barna) and all of them have made a “decision,” the pastors give false hope to their parents by saying they are prodigals, saved but backslidden. They say all these people, who live in deep sin and don’t attend church, are “saved” just the same. All they have to do is come back and rededicate themselves at some future time. But even if they don’t do that, they are still saved. As Dr. McGee said, “There was never any question as to whether the boy was a son or not. He was a son all the time.” So, Bill Clinton, a Baptist, was “a son” even while he was having sex in the Oval Office with Monica Lewinsky. So, another Baptist, Jimmy Carter, was “a son” even when he was denying the inerrancy of the Bible and saying that Mormons are true Christians! A few years ago a woman who headed a house of prostitution here in Los Angeles said that she was a “born again Christian.” One evangelical leader told me, “Don’t judge her.” What madness! This confusing brand of evangelicalism is called “antinomianism,” and it comes out of the belief that one can live in the hog pen of sin and be a child of God at the same time. They are so-called “carnal Christians.” But Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, “It is a wrong interpretation [of Romans 8:5-8] to say that ‘they that are after the flesh’ are so-called ‘carnal’ Christians; for we see that the Apostle says something about them which makes it impossible that they should be Christians at all...Christianity, as the Apostle has told us so often, involves a complete, a radical change in the nature of the human being” (D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, M.D., Exposition of Romans 8:5-17, “The Sons of God,” The Banner of Truth Trust, 2002 reprint, p. 3).

I really hate to correct Dr. McGee. He taught me a great deal of the Bible during the 1960s and early 70s, as I listened to him every day on the radio. I literally recoil at the thought of correcting him on his view of the Prodigal Son. But I have no choice. Dr. McGee said that he himself was saved when an “evangelist in southern Oklahoma many years ago used this parable to present the night he preached on the Prodigal Son, and that’s the night I went forward” (ibid., p. 314). But then Dr. McGee said, “The parable is not how a sinner gets saved” (ibid.). He said it is “primarily” about how God takes “back a son that sins.”

Dr. McGee didn’t get that idea from the old-fashioned preacher who got him saved back in Oklahoma. No, he got that idea from modern new-evangelical preachers like Billy Graham, who call for “rededications” rather than clear-cut conversions. This “new” way of looking at the parable has produced a teeming ocean of so-called “backslidden Christians” who have never been converted. As Dr. Lloyd-Jones said, it is “impossible that they should be Christians at all.”

I recently read an article by an evangelist who said,

I live in South Carolina, and I love the South, and I’m not mocking anyone from there, but it seems like everyone there says he’s saved!...In some Southern states, there is a church on just about every street corner. Even our politicians and movie stars state that they are saved...Yet we have more murder, rape, drugs, pornography, divorce, lying, and thievery than ever... So what is wrong? Why are our local churches diminishing in growth and outreach?...What is the problem? (Jerry Sivnksty, “Gospel Soaked or Gospel Thirsty?”, Frontline Magazine, July/August 2013, p. 38).

I’ll tell you what the problem is – we have tens of thousands of people who have made “decisions” but are not converted! That’s what the problem is! And it isn’t just happening in the South. It’s all over America! One preacher recently told me that almost every door he knocks on in evangelism, the people tell him to go away because they are already saved! He said they won’t come to church and they won’t repent – because they think they are saved already! That is the result of decades of “decisionism” and the utterly false idea that “prodigal sons” are really Christians! I say, “Away with such a false gospel! It has literally ruined America!” Down with it! Be done with it! Throw it out! It has damned millions of souls, crippled our churches, and has brought spiritual ruin to our nation! I don’t care who promotes it – Dr. McGee, Billy Graham, Pope Francis, or the Antichrist – it is a hellish doctrine, full of Satanic poison! Which takes us back to our text,

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry” (Luke 15:24).

(Click here to read another sermon I preached on the Prodigal, titled, “The Archetype of Conversion.” You should read it along with this sermon).

II. Second, this parable was given by Christ to show how lost sinners, dead in trespasses and sins, are saved!

I once knew a man who left his wife and ran off with another woman. Then he robbed a bank with a gun, and went to prison for bank robbery for several years. He was an adulterer, a thief, and a bank robber. But he said he was saved all that time! I asked him what would have happened if the rapture had occurred while he was robbing that bank with a gun. With a straight face he said, “The gun would have fallen to the floor when I was raptured to meet the Lord in the air!” I told him he was wrong, that he had never been converted. He appealed to the Prodigal Son, and gave the false interpretation I explained a moment ago, that he was a “son” all along. I opened the Bible. I took his index finger in my hand and put the end of his finger on Luke 15:24. I said, “Read it.” I had to say that three or four times before he finally read it haltingly,

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

He stared at me with a wild look in his eyes, like he had been caught! Then he blurted out, “But that’s not what it means!” I said, “I didn’t tell you what it means. I only told you to read it.” Then I read it to him,

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found...”

Then I said, “The man’s own father said he was ‘dead.’ The man’s own father said he was ‘lost.’ If his own father said that, who are you to contradict him?” By the way, if you look at Dr. McGee’s commentary, you will see that he didn’t give any comment on Luke 15:24! He couldn’t! It would have destroyed his false theory completely! In Luke 15:24 the father said his son had been “dead” – that is, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Ephesians 2:1, 5). Then the father said, “he was lost.” What could possibly be clearer? The Prodigal pictures a lost sinner!

Jesus gave three parables in the fifteenth chapter of Luke to answer the Pharisees. They had complained that he ate with sinners (Luke 15:2). He gave these three parables to show how God rejoices when a sinner gets saved! Each of the three parables shows that God will receive and pardon lost sinners. He gave the parable of the lost sheep in verses 3 to 7. He gave the parable of the lost coin in verses 8 to 10. And then He gave the parable of the lost son in verses 11 to 32. The main point in all three parables is that God greatly rejoices over “one sinner that repenteth” (Luke 15:7, 10, 24). Strangely, even Dr. Ryrie did not agree with Dr. McGee and Billy Graham. Dr. Ryrie got this right. In his note on Luke 15:4, he said, “Lost. Eight times in this chapter the lostness of man is emphasized, vv. 4 [twice], 6, 8, 9, 17, 24, 32” (Charles C. Ryrie, Th.D., Ph.D., The Ryrie Study Bible, Moody Press, 1978, p. 1576; note on Luke 15:4). “The lostness of man is emphasized.” Exactly right!

Dr. McGee overstressed the fact that the Prodigal was called “a son.” In this parable “son” does not mean that he was saved. Dr. John MacArthur was right on this particular point when he said that this parable “pictures all sinners (related to God the Father by creation) who waste their potential privileges and refuse any relationship with Him [God], choosing instead a life of sinful self-indulgence” (John MacArthur, D.D., The MacArthur Study Bible, Word Bibles, 1997, p. 1545; note on Luke 15:12).

Dr. MacArthur also correctly said that the Prodigal Son “was a candidate for salvation” when he “came to himself” (ibid., note on Luke 15:17). This shows that MacArthur correctly says the Prodigal was lost. I side with Dr. McGee against Dr. MacArthur on many issues, particularly on the Blood of Christ. Dr. McGee is right on that important subject, and John MacArthur is not right. But on the conversion of the Prodigal Son, our text forces me to agree with John MacArthur,

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

By the way, all the old commentaries say that the Prodigal Son was lost, and then converted in this parable. None of the old commentators say he “rededicated” his life and was saved all along! Matthew Poole (1624-1679) said of our text, “A sinful soul is a dead soul…The conversion of a sinner is as a resurrection from the dead. Nor is any soul capable of any true mirth, till it be reconciled to God through the blood of Christ” (note on Luke 15:24; A Commentary on the Holy Bible, The Banner of Truth Trust, 1990 reprint, volume III, p. 247).

Matthew Henry (1662-1714) said, “The parable represents God as a common Father to all mankind, to the whole family of Adam…” Matthew Henry went on to say that the Prodigal Son represents “a sinner, every one of us in our natural state…the condition of the prodigal…represents to us a sinful state, that miserable state into which man is fallen.” Then Matthew Henry went on to give nine ways that the prodigal pictures a lost person (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, Hendrickson Publishers, 1996 reprint, volume 5, pp. 599-600).

Dr. John R. Rice looked back to the old way of the classical commentaries. Dr. Rice disagreed with Dr. McGee’s statement that “this is not a picture of a sinner that gets saved.” Dr. Rice said just the opposite. Dr. Rice said, “The prodigal son pictures a lost sinner” (John R. Rice, D.D., The Son of Man, Sword of the Lord Publishers, 1971, p. 372; note on Luke 15:11-16).

C. H. Spurgeon, the Prince of Preachers, gives this same view in his sermon “The Prodigal’s Climax” (The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Pilgrim Publications, 1975 reprint, volume XLI, pp. 241-249). Our text says,

“For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry” (Luke 15:24).

Spurgeon said of our text, “The conversion of a soul is enough to make eternal joy in the hearts of the righteous” (ibid., Exposition of the chapter, p. 251). The weight of all these commentators shows clearly that the Prodigal was a lost man, and the parable shows how he was converted. That is the view given by mainstream scholars throughout the ages – until the “decisionism” of our time made conversion “fuzzy” and unclear!

III. Third, this parable shows what must happen to you in a real conversion.

If you expect to be converted, and become a real Christian, you are going to have to go through the same thing the Prodigal went through. If you don’t, God will not be able to say to you,

“This my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found...” (Luke 15:24).

Now you sat through all this explanation and background, and your mind is drifting off. Sit up man! Sit up woman! Now I am speaking to you! You must go through at least some of what the Prodigal went through or you will go to Hell! You must experience what he experienced, or you will spend eternity in the sulphurous flames, gouged and tormented by demons, and torn in pieces by your own conscience! Here is what you must go through, at least to some extent, to be saved. Jesus died in your place, to pay for your sins, on the Cross. He rose from the dead to give you life. But there is usually a struggle in coming to Christ. The following points are drawn from the parable of the Prodigal:

1. Admit to yourself that your heart is truly selfish and wants to be as far away from God as possible. We have known people who came to the inquiry room and said they wanted to be saved who were, at the very same time, planning to leave the church! This is deep self-deception. Why should God give saving grace to a person who is thinking about going back to the world? “If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (I John 2:15). “A double minded man is unstable in all his ways” (James 1:8).

2. Pray for God to show you the emptiness of this world. You don’t have to become a street person on Skid Row, to realize you don’t want to go there! God can show you the vanity of any materialistic lifestyle. Ask God to show you the emptiness of a godless life. “Ye have not, because ye ask not” (James 4:2).

3. Wake up! Come to yourself! Pray for God to show you that you “perish with hunger,” while you could have peace and joy! The way you are now, you have no inner peace! Why go on in sin when you could be pardoned by Christ? “There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked” (Isaiah 57:21).

4. Think about your sin. Think about individual sins, as well as your sinful heart. Think deeply about your sin until you can say with the Prodigal, “I have sinned against heaven, and before thee” (Luke 15:18). My pastor Dr. Timothy Lin didn’t get saved until he wrote out a long list of his sins. He went over and over that list of sins until God convicted him, and he knew he was a lost sinner! I’m not saying you have to do that, but it might help someone.

5. Throw yourself on God the Son, “For there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5). Jesus said, “No man cometh unto the Father, but by me” (John 14:6). “Strive to enter in” to Christ (Luke 13:24). Those who just casually think about coming to Christ will not be saved. It must be the most important thing in your life! “Strive to enter in”! When you find Christ it will be well worth any amount of effort, any amount of “striving.” Jesus said, “Come unto me…and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). “The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (I John 1:7).

May this old hymn be your prayer today –

I’ve wandered far away from God,
     Now I’m coming home;
The paths of sin too long I’ve trod,
     Lord, I’m coming home.

I’ve wasted many precious years,
     Now I’m coming home;
I now repent with bitter tears,
     Lord, I’m coming home.
Coming home, coming home,
     Never more to roam,
Open wide Thine arms of love,
     Lord, I’m coming home.
(“Lord, I’m Coming Home” by William J. Kirkpatrick, 1838-1921).