The Prodigal Principle

A review of this familiar proverb examining the cycle that takes us from rebellion to restoration with God.
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One of the most basic lessons or principles taught throughout the Bible is the Prodigal Principle. We see examples of it in Genesis and all through the Old Testament as God dealt with the Jewish nation as they rejected Him, fell into sin, and then were rescued by Him. This is the Prodigal Principle.

We read the most classic story of it in Luke 15 as Jesus tells the parable of the Prodigal Son (the word prodigal does not appear in the Bible; it means wasteful and was applied to this story because one of the sons wasted his inheritance). The principle or lesson taught in all these stories including that of the prodigal son is this:

  • People who live by their own ideas/rules end up in rebellion against God.
  • Rebellion leads to reversal.
  • Repentance leads to restoration.

So let's look again at the story of the prodigal son and see how this principle works within this parable.

The Prodigal Principle

1. Rebellion

And he said, "A man had two sons. the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.' So he divided his wealth between them. And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.
- Luke 15:11-13

The first step in this principle is rebellion. To rebel means to defy or refuse authority. It is a serious sin because in the end to rebel against parents or legal authority is to rebel against God who grants all authority and who is the final authority. I Samuel 15:23 says that rebellion is like idolatry because we set up our own gods and ourselves as authority. Proverbs 17:11 warns, "A rebellious man seeks only evil, so a cruel messenger will be sent against him."

In Luke 15 we see the natural signs of rebellion.

A. Impatience with God's timing

The younger son wanted his inheritance now. He didn't consult God about his future, the use of his gifts or his inheritance.

B. Desire to be in control

The young man said to himself, "it's my life, I'll do what I want." His was the arrogance of thinking that we own our lives and bodies, not realizing that God gives us our every breath.

C. Irresponsibility and carelessness

Friends, fun, freedom. Refusal to submit even to the rules of common sense about saving, preparing, caring for oneself. This boy lived in the world and rejected his family, his church and his God.

D. Moral lapse and decline

Rebellion opens the door to immorality. When you live by your own rules, then you are living by Satan's rules because if God isn't controlling you, Satan is. There is no such thing as absolute freedom. God controls or Satan. Rebellion is Satan's way of disconnecting you from God and connecting you to the world and sinfulness over which he exercises great control. If you live in and for the world, you become like the world. Once the rebellion is complete then step two usually begins to appear.

2. Reversals

Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him.
- Luke 15:14-16

Just because a person rejects God, doesn't mean that God abandons that person. Sometimes God gets your attention by allowing you to suffer the consequences of your rebellion. You can rebel against God but you can't overthrow Him (what Satan tried to do). God is always in charge.

The son, hurting now but still in rebellion, turns to a stranger for help rather than to God or his father. But God would not allow anyone to rescue him because that rescue would only be temporary, only partial. Many people are only partially rescued. They save themselves from their troubles, their addictions, their demons but they are never really healed from the true cause of their problems: rebellion. In this case God won't allow "rescue." He's waiting for the next step.

3. Repentance

But when he came to his senses, he said, 'How many of my father's hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men. So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
- Luke 15:17-20

By leaving home and acting in the way he did, this young man "left his senses." Repentance in his life meant that he returned to his senses. A rescue would have solved the immediate problem but would have left the boy in his rebellious state. Sometimes we need a crisis to help return us to our senses.

Repentance means "to turn around." The boy faced away from God in his rebellion and now he turned back to face God and what God required of him. In his repentance we see the nature of true repentance and what it requires:

Acknowledgement of actions.

This means to really admit fault and sin without excuses:

  • I was selfish
  • I was lustful
  • I was greedy
  • I was disobedient
  • I was rebellious

Acknowledgement that what we've done is really wrong.

  • No excuses, no watering down.
  • What we've done is bad and "we know that it's bad," no buts.
  • Not just saying, "I made a mistake or had a lack of judgment," but to actually own up to the fact that what we did was wrong.

Acknowledgement that the crisis is a result of what we've done.

Repentance requires ownership of the consequences of our sins. We're in a mess because we've done wrong. Repentance does not blame parents, society, the other person, etc.

Decide that with God's help we will not do this again.

We fix what we can, we leave to God what we can't, and go on with His forgiveness.

Only when we've experienced this kind of repentance can we be ready for the fourth step in the process. Rebellion, reversal, repentance...

4. Restoration

And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his slaves, 'Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.' And they began to celebrate.
- Luke 15:21-24

The reason that the father felt joy was because the son felt remorse and true repentance. It wasn't indulgence on the father's part (he wasn't soft, or spoiling the boy). He recognized true repentance and was overjoyed because of it. The father could offer restoration because the son offered repentance. Some parents think it's Christian to offer restoration and forgiveness without repentance but it's not. God doesn't do it, why should we?

It's also useless. Without repentance the child cannot take advantage of restoration, it will only result in future rebellion.

The word "restore" means to bring back to an original condition. In this case it was to restore the son to his original condition and position as a son in the family. What the father did was a symbol of this:

  • The Robe was a symbol that he was now acceptable in his father's home. It covered him with righteousness as Christ covers us with righteousness when we are baptized (Galatians 3:26).
  • The Ring was a symbol of his sonship, just like the Holy Spirit is our symbol or seal of sonship when we receive Him at baptism (Ephesians 1:13; Romans 8:15; Acts 2:38).
  • The Sandals represented freedom because only slaves were barefoot. Just as we are freed from sin and punishment when we put on Christ and receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, "...having been freed from sin..." (Romans 6:18).
  • The Feast with the fatted calf meant that the father gave his son back the right to be happy again, the right to sing and rejoice. He didn't have to go on living with his head hung in shame, always defined by his past failures. It is the same with us as the Lord adds us to His church at baptism (Acts 2:47) and we can now sing and rejoice with the saints, forgetting the past and looking forward to a glorious future. Of course, this was made possible for us not by a calf but the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, sacrificed for our sins on the cross by a loving Father who always waits patiently and lovingly for our return.


As I finish this story and explanation of the Prodigal Principle I am compelled to ask each of us: where are we in this process this day?

Are we in rebellion?

Openly or secretly defying or disobeying God or those who God has placed over us? Our parents, leaders, conscience, God's word, our elders? Are we moving away from God by refusing to do what we know is right, what we ought to do?

Are we in reversal?

Is our life chaos, pain, struggle? You know, sometimes it's this way because of other people or circumstances and we are truly innocent victims. But have we examined ourselves and our lives carefully to make sure that we might not be the reason for the trouble? Maybe we're the cause of the chaos and struggle.

Are we in repentance?

Are we thinking it's time to change, it's time to stop fighting God and give in to Him? Are we, like the son, coming to our senses and making the long journey home? If we are, don't turn back, don't linger, don't give up because bringing home a repentant heart will bring you to where I want all of us to be.


At peace with God, at peace with our families and others, at peace with ourselves, at peace with the decision to do the right thing. If you need to come home to your father I encourage you to repent and be baptized right now or be restored through prayer, whichever is appropriate for you and where you are at in the process. If you're a prodigal son/daughter won't you come home today?

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