Most Christians would say they know a legalist. You never think it’s you, but chances are it might be. The legalistic spirit exists in all of us from birth; that is the idea that righteousness can be obtained by works and apart from God’s grace. Basically, it’s human nature to feel that you must do good in order to earn the favor of God. Ask just about any lost person, “How do you get to heaven?” and they are almost sure to say, “Be a good person.” Is this really all that surprising? Why would lost people not view God through an anti-gospel lens? For this to change, they need to be awakened to the beauty of the gospel.

The story of the Prodigal Son (Luke 11:15-32) is often referenced for how it shows us God’s pursuit of the lost. Many assume that the passage is solely about the grace shown to the younger brother. He takes his father’s inheritance early, squanders all of it, comes crawling back for any measure of help, and, unexpectedly, is received with extravagant love and mercy. What a great story of God’s grace! You’d be hard-pressed to say that this isn’t the main point. Yet, I want to propose that it’s likely not.[1] In Luke 15:2, Luke writes that the Pharisees and scribes were “grumbling” about the fact that Jesus received and ate with “sinners.” If Jesus was the Messiah, why would He commune with such heathens? It is to this group of Pharisees and scribes ("them") that Jesus told these parables of Luke 15, including the one of the Prodigal Son. If they are the audience, then surely the application comes within the section on the older brother. Like them, he was utterly against the amount of grace that was shown towards his baby brother. Undoubtedly, this man was a legalist. If you want to celebrate the salvation of others but find yourself not doing so, these are the signs you should watch for and fight against.

1) The older brother seems to be perfect.

In Luke 15:11-16, the younger brother rebels. He asks his father to share the property that “is coming to” him (Luke 15:12). To put this into perspective, he wanted the inheritance that only comes when a father dies. In essence, he is telling his dad: “Give me my money, because I simply cannot wait until you’re dead to get it.” The father does as the son asks, and with this new wealth, he heads off for a far country and ends up “[squandering] his property in reckless living” (Luke 15:13). This puts him in a place of great need, as he is eventually seen eating with pigs.

Though it is not explicitly mentioned, this is paralleled with the older son’s story of staying at home. We have to assume that while the younger son left to live in disobedience, the older son stayed put and did as he was told. He did what was expected of the law. To those on the outside looking in, you’d think he doesn’t need grace because it seems he has done everything to perfection. Certainly, the Pharisees would be able to deduce this. If anyone in that day observed this situation, they would see the younger son as sinful and the older son as close to perfect. In the same way, legalists today seem to have everything together. It may seem weird to say that an apparently perfect and sinless life can be a negative thing, but it’s likely a sign that the sin and struggle within is masked with outward behavior and appearance. If others think you perfect, is it because you are, or is it because you are able to make it seem that way? If you opt out of being vulnerable with your sin and prefer instead to convey a sense of perfection with your life, there’s likely a legalistic spirit that needs to be killed.

2) The older brother is angered at grace shown to the undeserving.

As the story goes on, the father doesn’t just receive his son back for some lowly position in the family. Quite the contrary, he throws a party for his boy! His son’s return is a reason to celebrate! Why was it necessary? “For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:24). A Pharisee hearing this story would be dumbfounded. What kind of father would act this way? Surely, this boy doesn’t deserve the amount of attention he gets in this story, especially when you consider how he treated his dad. When the older brother hears the music and dancing, Luke says that “he was angry” (Luke 15:28). Likewise, legalists today will find themselves upset when an utterly and obviously sinful person is received with such measure of love and attention. If you feel upset at the amount of grace that is shown to those who have squandered their lives away, there’s likely a legalistic spirit that needs to be killed.

3) The older brother refuses to celebrate too soon.

This isn’t the only passage in the New Testament where a celebration takes place for the lost being found. In Luke 15:10, Jesus says, “[There] is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” But instead of joy, the older brother “refused to go in” to the celebration (Luke 15:28). Likewise, the legalist in us wants to postpone the celebration of a lost sinner coming to God for salvation. We want to see discipleship and sanctification played out before such a party takes place. Earn something or prove yourself, and then, we might throw a party for you. While aspects of this are good-natured – we should want to see new believers pursue holiness – at the heart of it is a legalistic notion that only those who have reached a certain point of sanctification deserve to be celebrated, rewarded, and recognized.

For the legalist, justification isn’t enough, and this is because he thinks his works mean something for his salvation that can only come by faith. After all, there’s a good chance that the younger brother isn’t really sincere in his return; so… let’s wait. The legalist in us has a tendency to forget this: we know that the law is good and because we cannot follow it, that we are bad. We should respond with thankfulness because the new believer now knows this for himself. If you react like this when someone is saved, there’s likely a legalistic spirit that needs to be killed.

4) The older brother thinks himself perfect.

When the father sees the older brother’s response, he entreats his son. He is disappointed. It is in this conversation that we discover more of the older brother’s heart: “These many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command” (Luke 15:29). As a parable, this statement shows us the nature of a legalist. To some degree, he thinks he is sinless. This is contrary to passages that show the universality of sin like Romans 3:23. Every legalist has some sense of self-righteousness – the idea that he deserves grace from God because he has rightly earned it by his way of living. If any of us thinks himself perfect, we should remember the rich young ruler who thought the same (Mark 10:17-27). Jesus showed him his imperfection, and He can do the same for us through the Spirit’s conviction. If you find yourself thinking you are perfect, there’s likely a legalistic spirit that needs to be killed.

5) The older brother feels that his diligence goes unrecognized.

The older brother’s problem wasn’t just that his younger brother was being celebrated for his return. The real reason for his disdain is that his father had never done the same for him. He says to his dad: “You never gave me a young goat that I might celebrate with my friends” (Luke 15:29). Don’t lie; it feels good sometimes to be in the spotlight. But rarely does the spotlight get shone on the one who has been faithful for years. Rather, it is shone on those who, for most of their lives, lived in public sin and then decided to approach the throne of grace. Like the man praying on the street corner (Matthew 6:5), the older brother wants others to see him for his worthiness; but alas, they don’t. The older brother lives for others to be aware of his godliness. If you feel unnoticed, unrecognized, and uncelebrated – especially in comparison with those who have just come to the faith – then there’s likely a legalistic spirit that needs to be killed. 

6) The older brother has a misunderstanding of real grace.

At the end of this parable, the father has to explain to the older brother why such a party was thrown. It’s not because the younger son deserved the party. In fact, no one deserves the party. That is the nature of grace. God gives us what we do not deserve, and in mercy, He withholds what we do. The reason for celebration is not in us; it’s in God’s saving work. The younger son was “dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found” (Luke 15:32). Therefore, it was “fitting to celebrate” what had taken place.  

What is the cure, then? It is this: the older brother needed a realization of his sin and a reception of grace. He could not earn salvation. He was not as perfect as he thought himself to be. What the older brother in us needs is a healthy dose of the gospel. As hard as we may try, Jesus did for us what we could never do for ourselves. The gospel of grace displayed in Christ should move us to live as those who have been changed by such a great gift.

This parable leaves us asking: will the older brother join the party? This doesn’t need to be a question left unanswered in our lives. Pressing forward, let’s celebrate the salvation of those who need God’s grace as much as we did and still do.


  1. ^ I owe much to Tim Keller (The Prodigal God) and Sinclair Ferguson (The Whole Christ) for my understanding of this passage.

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