On Whose Terms?

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“The Prodigal Son” by Eugene Burnand

And [Jesus] said, “There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.’ And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

“But when he came to himself, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.”’ And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ But the father said to his servants, ‘Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.’ And they began to celebrate.

“Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing. And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant. And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.’ But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered his father, ‘Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!’ And he said to him, ‘Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found.’” (Luke 15:11–32).

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!

Terms of service (also known as terms of use and terms and conditions) are the legal agreements between a service provider and a person who wants to use that service. It is the service provider who always sets the terms. The user must agree to abide by the terms of service in order to use the offered service. I would venture to say that every adult here has dealt with “terms of service” in one form or another, whether it is signing up for new bank account or installing an app on your mobile phone or favorite device. Often these terms of service are quite lengthy and a challenge for even the best lawyer to understand. So most people don’t read them, hoping and praying there are no major hidden issues.

When it comes to our salvation, we can’t do that: the terms do matter! Therefore we thank God our Father that He forgives us on His terms, not ours.

Forgiveness on our own terms doesn’t work.

The younger son in Jesus’ parable wanted forgiveness on his own terms. He sinned before God and his father. By requesting his inheritance, he, in effect, asked for his father’s death (Luke 15:12). He wanted to run his own life without any restrictions, making himself his god. He soon squandered all he had in reckless living (Luke 15:13). Then he attempted to solve his own problems, only making his life worse than it was before (Luke 15:15-16; cf. Leviticus 11:7-8).

This Jewish boy found himself dead broke working for a pig farmer in a foreign land. So hungry that the pods the pigs ate looked tempting, but no one gave him anything.

Finally, “He came to himself” (Luke 15:17). He realized that while he was perishing from hunger, his father’s servants back home had plenty of bread. It was a great first step. Admitting you have a problem is always the first step in finding a solution to a problem. But that’s when he made his next mistake. Rather than trusting in his father’s mercy, he drew up his own terms of forgiveness. He planned to confess his sin against God and his father (Luke 15:18)—a good thing! He felt that he was no longer worthy to be called a son (Luke 15:19)—also right. He would work as a hired servant—earn his keep to have enough to eat (Luke 15:17). It was a pragmatic plan, that would provide for his most pressing physical needs, but it wouldn’t make up for the shame he had caused his father.

But the older son wasn’t a whole lot better. He seems to have set his own terms, too—at least in his own mind. He’d earned his place by staying and working hard. He was angry with his father’s grace. He refused to celebrate his brother’s return. He disrespected his father and took his love for granted. “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). Then he slandered, or at least fails to put the best construction on the acts of his brother, “When this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!” (Luke 15:30).

Sadly, the older brother didn’t seem to realize his own sin. He thought he was the innocent party. He was the one who had been sinned against. He was the one who was owed an apology. And as long as he didn’t realize his own sin, there was going to be no repentance.

Let’s be honest! We want forgiveness on our own terms, too. We have sinned before God, our friends and family, and ourselves. As Christians, we may feel we deserve God’s goodness simply because we are His children. We act like the older son in the parable (Luke 15:29). Or, like the younger son, we may run off in our own direction, wanting to live our life on our own terms without God’s restrictions (Law) and thereby breaking all His Commandments. We squander the time, talents, and abilities with which God has blessed us. We try to fix our own mistakes and find ourselves deeper in the hole. We make our situation worse by doing good only to earn God’s favor.

God’s Law does its work, showing us our sin and our need for a Savior. Sometimes this process is painful. In our psalm for today, David shows us the physical, mental, and spiritual implications of being silent in our sin: “For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away through my groaning all day long. For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer” (Psalm 32:3-4).

But we, too, will draw up our own terms of forgiveness. While we plan out our confession, we choose the time, place, even the words. We decide that as a result of our sin, we should no longer be called a “son,” with an heir’s right to Christ’s inheritance. So we ask God to watch as we work out our penance, proving to Him that we are truly sorry for our sin. “Lord, if you forgive me this sin, I promise never to do it again.” We promise that we will try harder to earn our sonship: “Heavenly Father, give me another chance and I will do better this time.”

When we work out forgiveness on our terms, how often do we end up frustrated or even despairing? Or maybe even worse: We end up as self-righteous hypocrites who think we’ve got everything all together, or at least we’re not nearly as bad as that other guy over there. No, forgiveness on our terms doesn’t work. But God shows us a better way. God the Father forgives us on His terms.

The father in the parable took the initiative. He went out to meet his younger son “while he was still a long way off” (Luke 15:20). He ran to meet him, something no self-respecting Jewish adult male would do. He felt compassion when he saw how down-and-out his boy had become. He didn’t scold or punish his son but embraced and kissed him before he could begin his confession (Luke 15:20). He showed his love and compassion for his younger son by restoring him to the family as a rightful heir. He authorized gifts for his returning son that were signs to the community that the prodigal was readmitted to the family with full rights and honors, culminating in a banquet (Luke 15:22-24).

But the father was not done showing mercy and grace. He also went out to meet his older son with love when he didn’t show up for the celebration. He explained that his older son was still the rightful heir of the family. “All that is mine is yours” (Luke 15:31). But he also reminded him that it was fitting to celebrate his brother’s return for he “was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32). Even the angels in heaven rejoice over one lost sinner who repents (Luke 15:7, 10).

Our heavenly Father takes the initiative to forgive us on His terms. Despite our sin, which is great, He continues to love us, seeking us out and dealing with us on His terms of love and mercy. Inviting us. Calling us. Sending us pastors to proclaim His holy Word, the Law that shows us our sins and calls us to repentance, the Gospel that bestows forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life freely by His grace. In Holy Baptism, He adopted us into family as His own sons and heirs before most of us could speak or even nod our head yes or no. He sets before us a banquet of the finest food and drink—the very body and blood of our Savior.

God the Father showed His love by taking our sin and placing it upon His Son, the perfect Lamb of God, who paid the punishment for that sin on Calvary’s cross. While we were still weak, while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. While we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by that death of His Son. Jesus, our older Brother, willingly bore the penalty for our sin and disobedience. He willingly shares His righteousness and eternal inheritance with us.  

God’s only-begotten Son did not stay dead but rose to life again, proving that His Father had accepted the sacrifice for sin (1 Corinthians 15:17, 20).

During times of doubt, He reassures us that we are still His heirs with our names written in His Book of Life (Titus 3:7).

The Pharisees charged: “This man receives sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:1). It’s true, but not in the way they intended. Jesus promises an eternal banquet celebration for all who believe His promises and join Him in heaven (Revelation 19:9). His body and blood which we receive in, with, and under the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper is just a foretaste of the eternal bliss that awaits us in Paradise in the marriage supper of the Lamb.

When we squander everything, our heavenly Father is there with a word of assurance: “Do not be anxious, saying what, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or “What shall we wear…’ for your Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). When sickness or death comes, our Savior is there with a word of comfort. “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall He live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die” (John 11:25-26). When we return to our Lord with repentant hearts, our heavenly Father is there, waiting with arms spread wide in a welcoming embrace, He deals with us according to His terms—grace and mercy.

Along with David, we pray: “I acknowledged my sin to You and I did not cover my iniquity; I said, ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and You forgave the iniquity of my sin” (Psalm 32:5).

So, “blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Psalm 32:1-2). Go in the peace of the Lord and serve your neighbor with joy. You are forgiven for all your sins.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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