While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
– Romans 5:8
This snippet of Paul’s letter to the Romans encapsulates the attitude of grace and mercy which Jesus is portraying in the story of the Prodigal Son.
Obviously we can’t take the verse out of context, using it as a niffy proof text to wield as some kind of rhetorical dagger of reason and evidence. However, Paul has been spending the previous part of his argument outlining something of the nature of faith and how even from the beginning people have been justified not by obeying the Law, but through their faith which led them to follow the Law. Paul is about to go on to discuss what theologians would call ‘a model of atonement’, explaining that as through one man, Adam, all have fallen, so through one man, Jesus, all are saved. Our quote, then, comes in the overlap; as part of the transition. The link between faith and atonement is grace.
The extended quote is this:
[God will credit as righteous] … Us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead. He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification. Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love to us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much moire shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received redemption.
– Romans 4.24-5.11
So, what does this have to do with the Prodigal Son? Well, the story of the Prodigal Son was a challenge to the Pharisee – yes. But it was also a picture of the Gospel, it was a prophetic metaphor to point towards the truth of who Jesus is and what and why he was doing. This letter, written by Paul, is an attempt to point back to the events of Easter, with the cross and resurrection, and to unpack the theological significance of this event for believers. It’s interesting to note that whilst Paul is engaging in some pretty hefty theological thinking here (don’t believe me? Go to a theological library and look at the size of the commentaries on Romans, or at NT Wright’s two volume work Paul and the Faithfulness of God and see if you change your mind) his theological thinking is not an abstraction of interesting concepts and words, but is actually profoundly people orientated. This is no PhD or journal article, this is making sense of a reality of literally life changing proportions and doing so in such a way as to build up and support the believers in Rome, and all those who believe in Jesus Christ.
So when we bring this passage together with the story of the Prodigal Son we find a story and a confession of faith. The central message of each is this:
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.”
But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us,
– Luke 15.20;Romans 5.8