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Prodigals I: What Is a Prodigal?

Demas, in love with this present world, deserted Paul and the gospel ministry. That’s a prodigal in a nutshell: someone who loses their first love and walks away from the faith; a covenant member who deserts Christ and His Church. While that turning away involves a prodigal’s whole being, it is often led by either the head, the hands, or the heart. Understanding these three dimensions of prodigality helps us know how best to respond when someone we love departs from the faith.

A heretic is a prodigal of the head who departs from the faith through wrong or false belief. In the strongest form, a heretic is someone who denies one or more of the central truths of the faith, especially those found in the ancient creeds. Using the term more generally, a heretic is someone who no longer believes what their church believes.

Head-prodigals usually claim to still follow Jesus, but what they believe about Jesus stops coming from the Bible and their church. The place the Bible focuses most clearly on this kind of falling away is in 1 John, where John writes: “Whoever believes in the Son of God has the testimony in himself. Whoever does not believe God has made him a liar, because he has not believed in the testimony that God has borne concerning His Son.”

The backslider is a prodigal of the hands who deserts the faith through sinful actions, by sliding back into ungodly behavior. They don’t want to do what God commands, or they want to do something God forbids, and so they turn away from God by disobeying Him. Sometimes, a backslider still professes to be a Christian, but their behavior says otherwise.

When this happens, it is the church’s responsibility to make it clear what God says in places like Ephesians 5:5-6: “For you may be sure of this, that everyone who is sexually immoral or impure, or who is covetous (that is, an idolater), has no inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.” Unless they repent of their sin, the hand-prodigal will slide all the way back down to hell.

A third kind of prodigal is the heart prodigal, someone who falls away from the truth because it doesn’t satisfy or fit with their affections. The focus here is not so much on knowing or doing, but on loving. They will tell you that love is more important than doctrine, and love is more important than good behavior, and so they overlook heresy and disobedience in the name of love.

What heart prodigals forget is the gospel call to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength so that they can love their neighbor rightly. Loving God means obeying His commands (John 14). Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth (1 Cor. 13). Because heart-prodigals don’t love God or neighbor in obedience and truth, they’re actually heartless.

Maybe now you can tell the difference between Prodigal A and Prodigal B. But how can you distinguish between a prodigal and a not-prodigal? As James says, “we all stumble in many ways.” No one is perfect in head, hands, or heart, so why is there this special category we call prodigals?

But the difference we’re talking about is the difference between a stumble and a fall, between straying and deserting. King David sinned, King Saul was a prodigal. The Apostle Peter stumbled, Judas deserted Christ. The famous Paul and Barnabas split was over Mark abandoning the mission much like Demas. But look at 2 Tim. 4:11: “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is very useful to me for ministry.” What’s the difference between Mark’s desertion and Demas’ desertion? Repentance.

Because Mark loved God, even though he sinned, he repented and came back. But because Demas loved the world, it’s hard to hold out much hope for him. Of course, even a prodigal can repent and come back, but a refusal to repent over an indefinite period of time is what distinguishes a prodigal from a saint who still struggles with sin.

The one thing a prodigal does not do that a faithful Christian does is repent, because as soon as they repent they’re no longer a prodigal. If they’re repenting, they’re coming home! And so one of the best ways to combat a prodigal spirit in your own life is to regularly confess your sins to God, and the best prayer that you can pray for the prodigal that you know and love is that they would repent of their sins and run back into the arms of their Father.

Posted on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 by CJ Bowen