Tim Keller on Luke 15

January 4, 2007

Its Thursday and so we kick off what I’ve called “Workman Watch.” This first sermon is from a preacher I very much admire, Tim Keller. The sermon is called “The Prodigal Sons” and was preached here in Scotland at the Tron in Glasgow.


Let me give one disclaimer before plunging in: this will not be a detailed sermon critique. Most of these invidivuals have bags more preaching talent than I’ll ever have! What I do hope is to glean something from their examples of expository preaching.

Perhaps some of you might take time to listen to the talk and compare notes with me on what you found helpful. (Or if you’ve heard them elsewhere, do thrown in your tuppenceworth in the comments section.)


What was the opening sentence?
The parable that we’ve just read is very famous, and is almost always called the parable of the Prodigal son; but Jesus does not call it that.”

What was Keller’s introduction about? Drawing out the point that if you focus mainly on the younger brother you will sentamentalise the parable.

What was the structure of the sermon?
1) That there are two worldly approaches to God which are wrong
* Moralistic approach (elder brother):
* Relativistic approach (younger brother):

2) There are therefore two ways to be lost and alienated from God
* Trying to be very good
* Trying to be very bad
But in both cases, trying to be your own Saviour.

3) There is only one way home

The main point? The only way to approach God is on the basis of sheer grace.

Did he deal thoroughly with the text? Keller works hard to bring the original context to life. For example, he shows at length how the original hearers would not have heard this parable in a sentimental way: “this parable was not told to warm our hearts, but explode every human category of what it means to approach God.” He also carefully explains from the preceding section how Jesus was aiming this parable at a dual audience: thus the tax collectors equate to the younger brother, while the Pharisees correlate to the older. Furthermore, Keller eventually covers the scope of the text, without unpacking every detail.

What aspects of Keller’s style was helpful?
The overarching thing that strikes me is Keller’s clarity. As I reflect on why this is so, I note a couple of things: 1) He puts his sermon signposts up front, even before his first point. This always aids to help with clarity. That said, the main points don’t reveal too much (the sermon is basically inductive) and therefore some suspense is retained. 2) Keller’s use of language is mainly plain and he is particularly adept at using terms which the unchurched person can understand. Nevertheless, he does use the odd big word. i.e. “moralistic and relativistic approach” might not be understood by an uneducated person. And 3) Dr Keller frequently uses restatement: saying the same truth in different words to aid the listener’s comprehension.

What was the application? A challenge for the individual: “There’s more of the elder brother in us than we like to think, and less of Jesus in us than we like to think.” A challenge for the church: “Why are tax collector types not as attracted to our churches as they were to Jesus?” ‘Is it because we are like the Pharisees’, Keller asks? Keller’s ultimate remedy is that we need to understand grace – and for that, we have to focus on the true elder brother, Jesus Christ.

What was the closing sentence of the sermon? “We will never stop being elder brothers in our hearts, until we see the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ.”

If there’s one thing you could take from Keller into your own preaching, what would it be?
Its hard to isolate one aspect, but I think Keller challenges me as to how well I connect the two worlds of the bible and contemporary culture. Keller’s ability to study the bible is, of course, foundational. But its his use of the bible in a sermon like this to diagnose the culture around him that makes him especially helpful to listen to.

For more free Tim Keller sermons, click here.
For Tim Keller sermons you pay for, click here.
Over at Reformissionary Steve McCoy has lots of stuff on all things Keller.

[Next Workman Watch – James Montgomery Boyce]


  1. Very good analysis; thanks.

  2. Thanks Colin! great post

    Readers might be interested, that Tim will be speaking at a free weekend conference January 19 & 20, 2007 at Second Presbyterian Church in Memphis, TN. The conference website is http://clc.2pc.org.

  3. I like this blog.
    Great format/blogging schedule.

    Keller is great on Luke 15. Listening to Keller on Luke 15, but also and especially reading Kenneth Bailey’s books on Luke 15, has significantly shaped my preaching. When I began a new preaching position 6 months ago I decided to begin with two sermons/Sundays on Luke 15 in light of how foundational Keller and Bailey showed this chapter of Scripture to be.

    One place where I disagree with Keller here is how he takes Jesus to be “the true elder brother.” I think Bailey’s work shows that this line of thinking (elder brother was the one who should’ve significantly aided in reconciling his younger brother) was not an emphasis in 1st century Palestine. Also, with the original verses in mind that kick off the set of 3 parables (vv.1-3), it’s pretty clear that point is that the symbol of the father in the parable gradually evolves into a symbol for Jesus, as just like the Father, Jesus runs out to meet and reconcile both younger brother types (“tax collectors and sinners” of v.1) and elder brother types (“Pharisees and scribes” of v. 1).

    I hope to preach or teach this text on an annual basis as Luke 15 has been so helpful to me and to my church in clearly laying out and showing off the gospel (Note: I’ve got a link to these two sermons on my blog if anyone is curious).

  4. Good work. Thanks for the analysis. I think we don’t do enough serious work on preaching after we leave seminary. This will help us do it. Thanks, I’ll continue to follow the blog.

  5. I am glad to have found your site. I believe that “Between Two Worlds” sent me this way. Keller’s message had a lot of good insight. Last year he spoke on the Gospel and Postmodernism at John Piper’s conference. His analysis was very good and Haddon Robinson speaks highly of him as being in touch and able to speak to contemporaries, so I wanted to hear him preach when I saw your analysis of his sermon. What I found difficult was the _apparent_ (underline apparent) lack of passion. His message was excellent, but there was a great difference in his level of ethos and that of David Martyn Lloyd-Jones whom he quotes in is lecture on postmodernism. I once heard Leo Buscaglia, a secular professor, speak with great passion and conviction that gripped me. Have I missed something here? Do we have to speak calmly to get a hearing with contemporaries?

  6. Gary, that’s why I (personally) have an ever so slight preference for listening to the likes of Piper/MacArthur than Keller. For me, the former ‘convey’ a greater sense of passion as they deliver the solid content. That said, I’m always careful about this because preaching is ‘truth through personality.’ My impression is that Keller is a laid back kind of guy and therefore its no surprise that this translates into his preaching. Moreover, sometimes when I’ve heard Keller speak I’ve detected that he is excited about what he’s talking about. Of course, Keller’s passion won’t ‘look’ the same as Piper’s!

  7. Thanks for the response, Colin. (And I am sure your read pathos where I unthinkingly wrote ethos.) Keep up the good work. Blessings!

  8. […] on the parables of Jesus with a message on the parable of the prodigal son. I was reminded of a sermon that was posted recently by Tim Keller preached on the same text. I’ve never heard Keller, but I plan to listen to this one some […]

  9. I’m a little worried about the ‘passion’ statements. I don’t take them personally at all–not at all. But they may be a bit short-sighted. We all have different temperments and Rev A can feel something just as strongly as Rev B and yet not be as intense and dramatic in his outward expression of it. But keep in mind that a lot of secular people simply can’t hear the gospel very well when the speaker gets highly emotional. There’s room for a great range of temperments in preachers because there is such a great range of temperments in the listeners.

  10. Tim, I appreciate your taking the time (and having the grace) to comment on this post – especially when it’s looking at one of your sermons. May God continue to bless your preaching of the gospel.

    As to your point, I think you have one insofar as I wonder how John Piper might be received in downtown Manhattan! No doubt God grants us different temperaments for different situations and audiences.

    One question I do have though – if every congregation has a range of temperaments, do preachers at times need to adapt? Put another way: does every Keller need a bit of Piper in them (I’m stereotyping!), and every Piper a bit of Keller if they will reach the whole congregation?

  11. Colin–Yes and no. I agree that a preacher should try to do some adaptation. You can see Paul doing that in Acts. He most definitely changes his approach when speaking on Mars Hill rather than in a synagogue. But there’s a limit to how much you can adapt–at some point it becomes inauthentic, a kind of acting. So you may want to seek out people that you know God has gifted you to reach better than others. It’s a balance.

  12. If anyone can help me, and especially Pastor Keller, I would greatly appreciate it. Our church is in the process of searching for a Lead Pastor. We have a candidate who came in last week and essentially delivered this Prodigal Son message with what amounts to in my opinion – after listening againg to both sermons – an uncanny resemblance to Tim Keller’s message. The trouble is that he did not credit Tim Keller for the work. He has admitted/confessed this was a lapse and he had intended to credit Tim, even going so far as to apologize to the congregation in a subsequent serveice, and we believe him to be a godly man based on his strong references and history of service.

    What continues to trouble me is that this Pastor candidate’s delivery, just prior to using certain exact phrases that Tim uses such as “melted and moved by what it cost to bring us home” or “through this story Jesus is redefining God, redefining sin, redefining salvation” uses a lot of “I think” and “I believe” statements which would seem to be very inconsistent if he had intended to fully credit Tim Keller as he says he meant to.

    Can you share some thoughts and guidelines on what are the ethical boundaries we should expect when it comes to borrowing from other’s sermons. Many on our search team think I’m being harsh and perhaps even judgmental but I don’t know this man very well and I am supposed to be discerning whether God is calling him to be our Lead Pastor…and I can’t help but think integrity counts for a lot!

    For His glory and Honor,

    Rob C. – Washington State

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