Luke 15 - God's Grace seeking the Sinner
Luke’s gospel is the gospel of grace. It speaks of the undeserved grace of God that has appeared in order to offer salvation to all men (Titus 2:11). God’s grace and mercy flow out to each and every person who accepts the Lord Jesus as personal Saviour. We can take chapter 19:10 as the key verse of the gospel: ‘the Son of man has come to seek and to save that which is lost’.
There are some typical incidents which are only recorded in this gospel. One example is the story of the merciful (good) Samaritan. Another example is chapter 15. This chapter shows on the one hand the natural condition of the sinner but on the other God’s dealing with him in grace and love. It not only speaks of a seeking and giving God but also of His joy. Our God rejoices in showing grace. Let us briefly consider some of the key elements of the chapter, and in doing so let us never forget that it tells us about our own past condition and how God has dealt with us.
First of all we notice that the chapter contains just one parable. There are three parts to it, but it is one great lesson. The thread that runs through it is God seeking and finding lost and dead people and showing them grace.
Two sides need to be distinguished:
1. God’s grace
He seeks and receives sinners. The three persons of the Trinity are involved in this activity of seeking, loving, blessing and rejoicing. The shepherd speaks of the Lord Jesus who came to find and save His lost sheep. The woman speaks of the activity of the Holy Spirit who uses God’s word in order to bring man into His light. In the father who was looking for his son we identify God the Father who is waiting for those who come back to Him. The shepherd speaks of divine perseverance in seeking, the woman speaks of divine patience and diligence, while the Father displays divine love and forgiveness.
2. Man’s condition and his responsibility
The chapter makes clear what we were as sinners and what we had to do to be saved. Our condition was desperate: as the sheep we were hopelessly lost; as the coin we were ignorantly lost; and as the runaway son we were deliberately lost. The sheep was in danger; the coin was in darkness; the son was in great need and distress. This is man’s natural condition. There is no contribution we can make to our salvation. The only thing required is that we turn to God in repentance. God does everything but a sinner must turn to him.
The Starting Point
Chapter 15 starts with a dispute with the religious people of the day about the tax collectors and sinners Jesus had received. There have always been these two types of men on earth: those who seek salvation and grace — they accept their lost and dead condition; and those who think that they do not need God’s salvation — they might appear to be near to God but inwardly they are very far from Him.
The Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin
The first two parts of the parable belong together. They are a kind of preparation for and introduction to the third part. I would just like to emphasise four links between them:
1. The natural condition of those who are lost
The lost sheep illustrates the condition of the sinner who has run away from God. The Epistle to the Romans takes this up and makes it clear that man is actively living in sin. We were desperately lost and it required God to make all the effort to find and bring us back. The lost coin is a picture of man’s condition as spiritually dead. This is the teaching of the Epistle to the Ephesians. A dead person is entirely useless but, more than that, he cannot change his condition at all. This was our natural condition: useless for God and unable to do anything to change our situation.
The third part of the parable reprises these two viewpoints. Twice it is said that the son was dead and had come to life again, that he was lost and had been found (vs. 24, 32). This is exactly what has happened in our case.
2. No human contribution is possible
The sheep and the coin could not contribute to being sought and found. They were not involved at all. Nevertheless in both cases the importance of repentance is mentioned. This is worked out in the narrative of the prodigal son. He had to come back, acknowledging his terrible situation. It is true that salvation is an act of God’s sovereign grace. But at the same time it is also necessary that the sinner returns and confesses his failure. Only those who want it will ‘take the water of life freely’ (Rev. 22:17).
3. The value of man
There were 100 sheep and 10 coins and ‘only’ one of each was lost. Nevertheless, maximum effort was made to find that one. This shows the great value of each person in God’s eyes. If only one sinner had to be saved, the Lord Jesus would have come to die on the cross. There is joy in heaven for just ‘one’ repenting sinner. This one comes to the fore in the last part of the parable.
4. The joy of having found the lost
In the first two cases joy in heaven is mentioned. Heaven takes note if a sinner turns from being ‘lost’ to ‘found’, from ‘death’ to ‘life’. The third narrative also mentions the joy. It is the joy of the father and the son who was found: ‘they began to be merry’ (v. 24).
The Lost Son Went Home
The third part of the parable speaks of a father with two sons. We apply this in a general way by thinking of two great groups of people. There are always those who think that they are all right and that God can be pleased with them (the older son) and others who know how alienated they are and return (the younger son).
The younger son went far away and wasted his father’s property. Every sinner is characterised by his own will and independency. When the famine occurred, the younger son started to feel his scarcity and realised the ‘deceitfulness of sin’ (Heb. 3:13). He was hungry, humbled and lonely. That is always the end of a course of self-will and sin. We have turned ‘every one to his own way’ (Isa. 53:6; Rom. 3:12).
This son realised first that he could not help himself. Therefore he sought employment with one of the citizens of the country. But he had to learn a second lesson (one every sinner has to learn), namely that no-one could help him. The world and the devil pretend to give, but in the end they are always demanding. In this sense their resources are simply empty pits.
Verse 17 marks the big change in the story. The poverty-stricken younger son internalises his abject condition. He not only realises what he is lacking but also knows that he is perishing. So he makes the right decision: he goes back to his father to tell him all the wrong he has done.
There are three vital elements to note in his going back to his father:
Repentance is to do with our mind. We start to think differently. Prior to this, the younger son thought that his father was a hard man who stopped him enjoying the pleasures of this world. Now, having changed his mind, he thinks in a completely different way of his father. But he also thought differently about himself.
Conversion has to do with our feet. It is not enough to think differently. We have to turn around. Repentance is always a complete change of direction (see e.g. 1 Thess. 1:9). The young man put his purpose of heart into practice. Repentance and conversion are inseparable (compare e.g. Acts 3:19; 26:20).
Confession has to do with our mouth. Without confession there is no forgiveness of sins (1 John 1:9). We have to admit and confess what we have done and what we are. The young man told his father that he had sinned (the deeds) and that he was unworthy (his condition). This is exactly what Paul explains in Romans. The passage from chapter 1 to chapter 5:11 speaks of our sinful deeds while that from chapter 5:12 to the end of chapter 8 speaks about our condition as sinners.
The text does not give any details about the inner feelings of the son when he was going back home. But we can be sure that he thought about how he would be received there. How would his father react? By law he even had the right to put him to death (Deut. 21:18–21). No doubt the feelings of the son were conflicting as he went back home.
The Father Received the Son
When the son left his father’s house nothing was said about his father's inner feelings. Now he returns we are given interesting details:
1. The father saw him
He must have been waiting for him daily. It is God who seeks the sinner. The first person in the Bible who came seeking was God Himself (Gen. 3:8–9).
2. He was moved with compassion
This speaks of God’s motive. It is love. God proved His love in giving His Son for sinners (Rom. 5:8).
3. He ran towards him to meet him
This makes us think of God coming to us in Jesus. The ‘meeting point’ of God and the sinner is Calvary’s cross.
4. Despite his rags he took him into his arms
This speaks of God who is rich in mercy and love (Eph. 2:4). There was no distance, no reproach, and no rancour. The son was safe in the arms of his father.
5. He kissed him
A kiss is an outward expression of love but also speaks of reconciliation. We have been reconciled to God (Col. 1:21), which means that we have been given more than we ever had before.
The three gifts he subsequently received show us how far reconciliation goes. The young man got much more than he ever had before. He was not made a servant but he was his father’s son even more than before.
The garment has to do with our new position. It speaks of the robes of salvation with which we are covered now. In Christ we are ‘God’s righteousness’ (2 Cor. 5:21; Isa. 61:10).
The ring speaks of our new relationship. It reminds us that we have eternal life. Like a ring, it has no beginning and no end. It is life in abundance (John 10:10).
The sandals speak of the divine provision that we might be able to walk worthily in this world. We go into God’s presence to worship as holy priests and go out in testimony as royal ones (John 10:9; 1 Pet. 2:5–10).
Finally, the fatted calf was killed. This was something father and son enjoyed in common. It speaks of the sacrifice of Christ and of the fellowship we have now with our Father in the enjoyment of His Son. The work He accomplished on the cross is the foundation of everything we have. It is a joy to share this in common with God the Father. Indeed, our fellowship with Father and Son is the reason for the full and complete joy that will never end (1 John 1:3–4).