The Parable of the Two Sons


From time to time people ask me to write about the parables of Jesus. This is something I enjoy doing because I love the parables. The parables of Jesus are launch pads to revelation and if we have ears to hear they reveal the wisdom of God. Especially this one:

What do you think? There was a man who had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Son, go and work today in the vineyard.” “I will not,” he answered, but later he changed his mind and went. Then the father went to the other son and said the same thing. He answered, “I will, sir,” but he did not go. (Matt 21:28-30)

Great story! I can’t wait for the movie.

But seriously, it is an awesome story when you understand the context (Jesus was talking to the chief priests and elders) and the question that follows it:

Jesus: “Which of the two did what his father wanted?”
The chief priests and elders: “The first.” (see Matt 21:28-31a)

Okay, so that wasn’t a very hard question. But Jesus is going somewhere with this. Here’s the punchline:

Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. (Matt 21:31b)


This little parable is a divine demolition job. It is a barrel of TNT under the edifice of DIY religion.

To the religious leaders Jesus says, “You think you’re tight with God because you’re good and decent, but those you dismiss as sinners – the crooks and the whores – are getting into the kingdom ahead of you.”

What?! [Insert the sound of confused religious types here.]

In a manner of speaking, God asks all of us to work. Who is the one that says yes but doesn’t deliver? It is the religious person who boasts, “I will do everything the Lord has said” (Ex 19:8), but breaks their promise again and again. Think of the Israelites at Sinai promising to keep the law. Think of the Christian at the altar call resolving to try harder. Such a person can never please the Lord because they are relying on their own strength. They are walking in unbelief.

And who is the one that says no but ultimately does the Father’s will? It is the honest sinner who makes no boast about keeping the law but who puts their trust in Jesus. It is the person who says, “God I’ve tried, but I can’t do it. I’m a failure. God help me.”

The way of righteousness

The religious leaders saw themselves as God’s servants but Jesus said they were hypocrites. They were the son who talked a good line but never showed up.

For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. (Matt 21:32a)

John revealed the way of righteousness by pointing to Jesus who is our righteousness. Religious folk rejected Jesus (Mark 8:31), but sinners came to him in droves and many were radically changed by the power of God. The sick were healed and the dead were raised. Haters became lovers and thieves became givers. Yet despite these signs and wonders, the religious people were not impressed.

And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him. (Matt 21:32b)

Even today there are some who think they are doing the work of God by keeping the commands and being moral, but their actions belie a self-confidence that is really unbelief. They work because they do not recognize the finished work of God, and they remain on the outside even as tax collectors and prostitutes enter the kingdom.


The work of God

The religion of self-improvement defines righteousness in terms of keeping the rules. “The commands in the Bible show us how to live for God.” But this is the way of self-righteousness and it leads to failure every time. The true way of righteousness is Jesus who takes our sinful rags and clothes us with his righteousness (Is 61:10).

The religion of self-improvement defines the work of God as rule-keeping and good behavior, but Jesus said the work of God is “to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:29). This is why the so-called “sinners” have the inside track when it comes to the kingdom of grace. Someone who is honest enough to admit their failings won’t be blinded by any illusions about how good they are.

It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick… For I have not come to call the (self-) righteous, but sinners. (Matt 9:12-13)

If you are confident of your own goodness and decency, hear the parable of the two sons. Your goodness is not good enough. Look into the mirror of the law and you will see that God demands perfection and nothing less.

But if you know that you are imperfect, broken, and sinful, then thank God for Jesus who makes the sinner righteous! Allow the Holy Spirit to persuade you that the righteousness you and I need comes to us as a free gift and is received by faith from first to last. This is the true work of God!

Jesus told two parables about two sons. This one, like the parable of the prodigal, reveals the stunningly good news that God loves us like a father. God does not hold our sins against us, nor does he expect us to perform and work to earn his love. He simply longs for all of us to come home, receive his love, and join the party.

Grace and peace to you!

Image source


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37 Comments on The Parable of the Two Sons

  1. How could I ever believe a gospel that says I have to earn my Father’s love? Yet, that’s what I believed. Thanks for turning on the light, Dad.

  2. great explanation Paul.

  3. What a great read Paul, i love the insight into this Parable..

    i love the simple fact Jesus himself spoke these words meaning he was drawing a line in the sand, giving the freedom of choice to trust Jesus (who is the true Vine), and on top of this like it was the younger son (asked first) who intially said no (gentiles – us), but after contemplating, renewing his mind to the gospel of grace he come to understand it was a test of trust and i would even go far as to say, their was no work to be done in the vineyard but an equal chance to see which of the two sons, Jews or Gentiles would trust the father words and trust into the True Vine (jesus).

    – Abraham Trusted God and it was accounted to him as Righteousness
    – Our Father loved us so much he gave his only son so whoever Trust shall not perish
    – I am the righteousness of God by Trust

  4. I saw I had emails and I said ” come on brother!” And said “yes!” When I saw I had another email from you Paul. You have helped me a lot and I love reading all the things you write and even read them to my mom when I talk to her. The content is fantastic but you could use someone to proof read for you to check on spelling errors. Lol. Walk in Peace. Tom

  5. The “h” is missing from “ears to hear” and it should read “they are walking in unbelief”. Hope that helps. Now hurry up and write another one! ☺

  6. Woow, Paul, I see in this story……the Grace of our Lord Jesus, leads us to the Love of God and the Love of God, also leads us to the Fellowship of Holy Spirit.,But the Law of Moses leads us to be sin minded, which further leads us to estabishing our own self righteousness. Thank You.

  7. laughingdog9 // November 11, 2015 at 2:30 am // Reply

    A finely woven cloth here, but, did I find a loose thread? You wrote, “Such a person can never please the Lord because they are relying on their own strength. They are not walking in unbelief.”

    I’m thinking they ARE walking in unbelief. Isn’t that what “relying on their own strength” IS? Or did I miss something?


  8. Im a student and I had an interaction with my roommate. In fact, I did not know how to approach him and deliver the good news because he is prayerful and always engaging in church activites. I overhead him saying to another friend that there is more to it than just accepting Jesus Christ. I realise there is a problem. Last week God granted me grace to talk about what is in the scriptures. I asked him if he knows the extent he has been forgiven. He replied,”yes, Jesus Christ took away my past, present and future sins but I have to confess my present sins”. Hmm. Anyway, I told him Jesus is not in the business of dealing with sin daily but dealt with it once and for all. I ask again if he is righteousness. He said,” yes I’m righteousness have to confess my sins daily. Its in 1john 1 :9 that we should confess our sins”. I told him, he was taking wrong medicine therefore he should read it again and he will notice that passage was directed to unbelivers. Anyway, he rejected the word and said if I sin and I don’t confess it I will surely go to hell. i told him my focus is on the finished work.I asked him to read the book of hebrews and I brought the conversation to an end. It always give me much reason to be thankful to God for granting me such unlimited Grace. I also saw how Satan is rebranding lies. Now people can boldly say they are righteous through Christ but they always have a ‘BUT’ attach to their submissions. They says Yes but at the end is a Fat NO. Thanks for this word. Paul, I don’t know if you have an account where I can message you directed. I will like to share personal stuff. You can redirect me through my email.Thanks.

    • Emma I love your story so much! It’s really encouraging! Bless you sister! I’ve had similar conversations with my father, friends and customers at my store. I work at Family Christian in Colorado Springs, CO. It’s definitely a perfect place to hear the varying beliefs among the body. Learning this grace stuff has been so freeing man. Jesus is so much “enjoyable” now than growing up. lol I was of the religious mindset for sometime and had gotten out of recently about 3 years ago. God is good! Now I’m excited to share the same news so that more people in the fam and not in the fam yet can be set free! Continue pressing on in the faith sister. Much love, JP.

  9. Paul: I have been an example of both character types you helped define here. Isn’t it the way of our carnal-man before having our eyes opened – to have claimed more than once, “Ummh! I can’t get it right”…” – duh! “getting it right”, says we don’t see who/what Love is. Gospel/Grace interchangeable is love. When we assimilate we are forgiven, delivered & healed into our spirit, will be the day we begin to stop striving to be good enough. Our love we then give back to our Father, is given because we know Love.

  10. Hi Paul. Thanks for this, there is a grace revolution happening here in Singapore and Malaysia and messages like this get people from other religions faster to accept the lord than traditional church goers. Be blessed brother and keep it coming brother.

  11. Nice to see Bollywood photo there…. LOL.

  12. Joseph Sanchez // November 11, 2015 at 5:15 pm // Reply

    I just want to say that I love the way you make the gospel so clear in your blogs. I also wanted to thank you for quoting the words of Tullian Tchividjian. Many have disregarded him lately, but I still think his sermons and teachings where the best I’ve ever listened to. God Bless

  13. Someone who is honest enough to admit their failings won’t be blinded by any illusions about how good they are.
    LOL.. well said, Paul.
    Mind blowing. As usual.

  14. Personal application for me… “No Father, i will not go. I will live my own life and live in my own misery.” Tried this for so many years. Oh how patient and kind and Good He IS! And then, for but a true change of mind to believe that what He has for me (and you) to do in His field is the way to go… He gives us a life exceedingly and abundantly beyond anything we could ever imagine. My puny little “belief” is slammed by universe-fulls of His goodness and favor… Wow! Praise Him!

  15. emma(emmanuel) // November 11, 2015 at 8:14 pm // Reply

    Thanks for the fellowship Ian. I’m Emmanuel not Emma(female).Lol. I’m thankful that you can see through the lens of God. Its about time we get out and propagate the gospel at every corner. Stay blessed bro!

  16. Konda Nayak Mudavathu // November 11, 2015 at 11:27 pm // Reply

    Great insights sir.Thank you

  17. Herbie Carmona // November 12, 2015 at 5:32 pm // Reply

    Very nice insights. The impact of the story can be best understood by Asians. It is very common in Asian communities (e.g. Filipino) to say “yes we will” when in fact deep inside we’re saying no. If a Filipino do not want to do what he is asked to do, he will just say “yes” so that you will stop bothering him but will not do it anyway. I’ve seen this also in other Asian culture. This is the reason why the Lord Jesus told His diaciples in Matthew 5:37 that your yes be yes or no be no otherwise beyond this is from the devil. Be true to what we say is the message of thr passage.

  18. Man are so wicked. What makes us think that we can please God by serving at the church. Nothing we do is pleases God, only by what His Son do at the cross that makes God see us pleased (because God see His Son, not You!!). The work of His Son is pleases God, not your work!!

    If we able to do all of thing, it’s just because of His Grace. We serve at the church just because we realize that Jesus love us so much, and His Love flow out of our self, and makes us want to share His Love to our fellow, by serving them, because Jesus (did) served us first.

    • Mark Hritz // March 14, 2016 at 7:27 am // Reply

      Hello Anggia,
      You’ve stated that there is nothing we do that pleases God and I know what you meant.
      In Hebrews 11:6 we are told that there is one thing we do that pleases God and that one thing is believing. So there is one thing we can do that pleases God.

      You also mentioned that we can’t please God with our work and I know what you meant here too. Actually,there are three types of work we can do that pleases God and Paul Ellis has mentioned one of them here when he referred to John 6:29. The work Of God is believing in Jesus. The other work that we are urged to do is mentioned in Hebrews 4:11 where we are urged to make every effort/labor to enter into his rest. We rest because Jesus is resting from his finished work. 1 John 4:17 tells us that as he is,so are we in this world so,since he is resting,we display our belief in his finished work by resting in him. The third kind of work we are urged to do is to diligently seek God (again in Hebrews 11:6) and that he will reward us for this work.

      To summarize,
      Things to do to please God
      1. Believe
      Work for Christians to do
      1. Believe
      2. Rest
      3. Seek
      Our father counts our believing as good work and rewards us for it. What a Father!

  19. Anggia, so what you are saying is, God really is disgusted with us and he see us through “Jesus glasses”. So He’s really lying when he calls us holy, righteous and saints because He is not looking at us but looking at Jesus only.

    This is a very unhealthy and un-biblical view of ourselves. If we are still really dirty and sinful then what does it mean to be born again ? What does it mean when the scripture says that God has given us a new heart and a new spirit ? What does it mean when it says we have become the righteousness of God ? What does it mean when it says there is no condemnation to those that are in Christ Jesus ?

    I think you are confusing what God has done in the spirit of a believer versus the behavior of a believer. We are made righteous and acceptable to God only by what Jesus has done not by our performance. When God looks at us He is not angry or disgusted and He doesn’t see Jesus, He sees us !

    The gospel is about God making us righteous by no work of ourselves. After that, we grow and try to live according to our true identity as a child of God following the Spirit that God has put in us. It’s grace that saved us and its by grace how we live day to day.

    We are not sinners and we are not wicked, we are holy, righteous and blameless in the sight of God by the blood of Jesus once and for all. It is finished……..


  20. Nas I think u misread what Anggia said. I think u are on the same page. She was of the view that we cannot present our deeds as a means of justification. Yes there is no good in man that’s why God has to make us righteous through his son. Therefore if u receive His righteousness it means He sees Christ in you not your old u. He calls us Holy because of His son. Stay Blessed

    • Thank you emmanuel for making my point, clearer.

      Just wanna share, not so relate with above article.

      How amazing while we let Holy Spirit lead us.
      I never knew about this website, never heard about Mr. Ellis.
      A few weeks ago a leader on my church give us Hyper Grace By Paul Ellis.
      Search on google about Hyper Grace, it leads me to ‘Ask Dr. Brown’ Facebook Fan Page.
      On that Page he share about article in this website, click on it and boom, I’m in love with this website.
      While i realize Dr. Brown, Mr. Ellis and Hyper Grace, It’s make Roman 8:28,31 became Rhema in my life.
      So amazing, to read and sharing with brethren who have the same spirit, it’s strengthen me.
      All praises and glory to our Lord Jesus.

  21. Interesting Contrasts:
    The first son (Tax collectors & harlots) :
    – Went to the vineyard (work). (Mat 21:29)
    – Believe John’s pointing to Jesus (Mat 21:32)

    The second son(Self righteous) :
    – Didn’t go to the vineyard (didn’t work). (Mat 21:30)
    – Saw The Way of Righteousness in Person but still don’t believe (Mat 21:32)

    Does go and work at the vineyard (doing the work of the father) means believing Him ?

    • elisabethanggia // November 16, 2015 at 4:52 pm // Reply

      First we have to that Jesus is talking to the chief priests and elders (religion leaders of the Jews).
      Their focus is on ‘do good work to pleases God’ this is what concerning our Lord.
      Their self righteousness blinded them, they didn’t see that The Son of God, whose intended to be King over them (Jews), and will make them a very bless nation, that every nation will envy to them because of they have a very good God.
      Yet, they rejected the new covenant that Jesus bring to them.
      They doesn’t want Good News that Jesus bring to them.

      While the sinner, who know that they really need Jesus, because they realize that nothing good inside of them, will make Jesus their Savior, easily.

      So, What is doing the work of the Father? Let bible interpret bible, see on John 6:29, Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one He has sent.”

  22. Emmanuel, thanks for the clarification. Of course it is Christ that makes us righteous and the old man is dead when we are born again. So God sees the “new us” in union with Christ not just Christ by Himself. So God looks at us as being truly righteous because we are in Jesus Christ. This does not change based on our behavior because this is at the spirit level. The scripture says that God gives us a new spirit. So we have a new human spirit in union with the Spirit of Christ (Holy Spirit).

    It is important to know and understand that God is looking at the reborn “us” and not the old man through “Jesus glasses”.


    • I partially get that we are not worthy of unmerited favor. But God’s love is it because we are children of a true father? Elsewhere you said, God died for men not to make them worth it but because they are…yes this is all the same good news. Thank God for His great smile that knows us and forgives us.

  23. Bradley Kastoor // December 6, 2015 at 8:43 am // Reply

    Awesome truth I just like it

  24. Daniel David // January 13, 2016 at 7:13 pm // Reply

    This was really cool… and I thank God for you. This is my first comment on E2R

  25. Rev Nicholas B.Ogago // March 16, 2018 at 9:10 pm // Reply

    Great work!May God strengthen you to further the Gospel.

  26. Awesome message, very true. Glory to God, thanks be to Him for sending us His Son Jesus Christ.

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