Whenever someone wants to become a British citizen they have to take a test called “Life in the UK”. They have to learn facts about British history, politics and culture, and if they pass they can be granted citizenship.
Is that how it works with the gospel? Do you have to study for some kind of heavenly citizenship test? Gather as much information as possible about the Bible, learn the correct doctrines or ways of behaviour?
In the bible, there’s a very well-known story called “The Prodigal Son”. We read in Luke 15:11-32 about a son in rebellion. He asks his father for his inheritance early, so that he can leave home and live a wild life. The dictionary definition for “prodigal” is: “spending large amounts of money without thinking of the future, in a way that is not wise.” We see how this reckless son eventually runs out of money – he’s brought so low that he considers eating the food of the pigs he’s looking after. He realises that even his father’s servants are living better than he currently is and decides to return home to beg for forgiveness. But “while he was still a long way off, his father saw him” and runs towards his son to receive him back into the family with joy, love and celebration.
This is a beautiful picture of the gospel – of the forgiveness that we find in Jesus. But it’s a story about two sons, and both of them show us what happens when we don’t really see God, the Father, for who He is. The younger son was only thinking of himself, and then thought his father would only take him back if he ‘redeemed’ himself by working as a servant. The older son did everything right – he didn’t demand his money, or run away, or live immorally. He worked hard and obeyed his father. But when his brother returned, he was outraged at his father.
“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 15:28-32)
The older brother worked because he thought he would earn his father’s approval, and therefore would deserve to be richly rewarded. Christian author and theologian Timothy Keller says this about the story of the prodigal son: “Neither son loved the father for himself. They both were using the father for their own self-centered ends rather than loving, enjoying, and serving him for his own sake. This means that you can rebel against God and be alienated from him either by breaking his rules or by keeping all of them diligently.”
No matter how much you know about Christianity, how well you can quote the Bible, even if you would easily pass a test about it, the gospel is all about knowing Jesus. He is longing for a relationship with us: he runs towards us even after we’ve run away from Him and, like the story of the older brother in the bible, he tells us that “all that is mine is yours”, not because we deserve it, but because we’re His children.