(Note: This article is adapted from Rescuing Wayward Children. Follow this link to learn more.)

No greater work has the Lord God of heaven ever undertaken than to save the souls of his children. It is the grandest, the greatest undertaking that ever has been inaugurated.—Elder Rulon S. Wells [i]

Sometimes called “the heart of the gospel” or “the gospel within the gospel,” Luke 15 describes the work of the Father and the Son as well as any section of the scriptures. If the gospel doesn’t work at this level, it doesn’t work at all.

In compiling his gospel, Luke intentionally grouped a set of parables that attest to God’s priority on redemption and His infinite power to save. As much as Alma’s redemption story is at the heart of the Book of Mormon, Luke’s fifteenth chapter, which also deals with the redemption of the outcast, is at the heart of Luke’s Gospel. In Luke 15, Jesus helps his listeners, and later readers of the canon, to understand how God views the sinner.

Luke prefaces this chapter by stating that publicans and sinners had come to hear the Savior and that the Pharisees were incensed because Jesus was eating with known sinners.[ii] The only thing that disturbed them more than the sinners’ attendance was the Lord’s subsequent willingness to go to the sinners’ homes to dine with them. We might speculate that if the Lord were to suddenly appear, we would have to seek Him where He would be spending most of His time—with sinners. Should we doubt, then, in light of Luke’s introduction to this chapter, that the Savior is not with our wayward children even now? Where else would He be?

The Lord’s response to the Pharisee’s criticism was His proffering three parables that simultaneously reveal His character and describe His work and glory. The parable of the lost sheep concerns those who wander from the fold, after which searching occurs; the parable of the lost coin concerns those who are lost from view by someone’s carelessness, after which seeking happens; the story of the prodigal son concerns those who rebel and follow a destructive path, after which patient waiting ensues.

The central themes of these parables are the love of God and the value He places on a wayward soul. In the case of each parable, we should ask ourselves, If a human being would exert such a profound effort to recover a sheep or a coin that is lost, how much more effort would God put forth to recover a lost soul? Notice that every time the lost is found, a celebration follows—one that has a simultaneous counterpart in heaven.

The Lost Sheep

When Matthew recorded his version of the parable of the lost sheep, he added two important statements by the Savior that are not found in Luke: “For the Son of man is come to save that which was lost,” and “Even so it is not the will of your Father which is in heaven, that one of these little ones should perish.”[iii] Can we harbor any doubt about the intended meaning of the parable?

In the first parable recorded by Luke, [iv] a shepherd loses one of his hundred sheep that has strayed. Leaving behind the ninety-nine, we assume with other able shepherds, the shepherd begins a diligent search. When he finds the lost sheep, he carries it back on his shoulders (possibly implying the weakened condition of the animal), then joyously celebrates its return with loved ones. The Savior pointedly notes the connection between earth and heaven, an indication that signals celestial participation in the search: “likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth.”[v]

President David O. McKay suggested that the lost sheep is like many who stray innocently with no rebellious intent. Rebelliousness is not always the issue, he said. In the parable, the sheep was seeking its livelihood legitimately, albeit ignorant of the consequences, and wandered into unknown and dangerous territory seeking better grass. Suddenly, it is lost. The sheep is no different from some children in the Church who wander unwittingly; seeking success in education, career, or other pursuits, they one day look up and find themselves far from the Church and disconnected from gospel principles. Their wandering has misled them in defining truth and what constitutes true success, and they are now too lost to find their way back without a good shepherd to guide them.[vi]

For whatever reason, the straying sheep finds itself lost and in need of a savior—one who knows and loves him intimately and who will search the wilderness, valleys, and mountains to find him. Once when he is found, and exhausted from wandering in sin, the lost sheep needs someone strong to carry him home—to that safe place where there is acceptance and where there will be rejoicing at his return.

The Lost Coin

To find lost souls, God sometimes searches, which means “to make a thorough examination of; look over carefully in order to find something”[vii] In the case of the lost sheep, the Lord searched. But at other times, He seeks, which means “to try to locate or discover.”[viii] In the parable of the Lost Coin,[ix] a woman seeks for something valuable she has lost due to neglect. She is frantic to find it. Interestingly, she lights a candle and sweeps the house as she diligently seeks, suggesting that she needs not only more light in her life, but also a thorough cleaning. Eventually, her effort results in her ability to recover the coin, which she has carelessly lost in the clutter of her life.

The message may be stinging, but it is true nonetheless: Personal repentance and subsequent sanctification are essential tools in petitioning for power from heaven in order to reclaim others. Alma taught, “God has said that the inward vessel shall be cleansed first, and then shall the outer vessel be cleansed also.”[x] That is, if we will first concentrate on personal sanctification, we will then be in a better position to petition sanctifying blessings for others.

This principle is stated consistently by the Savior in a variety of settings: “Therefore if thou bring thy gift to the altar, and there rememberest that thy brother hath ought against thee; Leave there thy gift before the altar, and go thy way; first be reconciled to thy brother, and then come and offer thy gift.”[xi] And, “First cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”[xii] To successfully seek out that which we may have neglected and carelessly lost, we need to shine an honest light on our own house and begin sweeping.

Elder J. Kent Jolley wrote that an Enos-like experience usually precedes our ability to perform the work of recovering lost coins. We must persist in following the Lord’s prophets and in studying His word, and we must hunger and petition the Lord to ease our personal spiritual weaknesses and burdens. Then, like Enos, we will be in a position to continue effectively in prayer for the welfare of others who are spiritually “misplaced.” The experience of Enos can happen to us if we seek for it as did Enos.

When our hearts have been changed and are right, we will be in a much better position to assume the great work of redemption.[xiii]


Although the woman in the parable could represent someone who is careless, neglectful, and in need of repentance, she also could represent our perfectly attentive Heavenly Father, who seeks diligently for those that are lost. When the woman finds the coin (as with the lost sheep), a celebration is in order, indicating how much value she places on the coin. The parable ends with Jesus repeating that heaven has participated in the seeking-and-finding process and therefore has a legitimate right to join in the rejoicing. 

As we shall see in Part 2, these first two parables set the stage for the most well-known of the trilogy: The Prodigal Son. The effort made to find a sheep or a coin is nothing compared to the Father’s effort to reclaim a wayward child.

Author’s Note

Note: This article is adapted from Rescuing Wayward Children. Follow this link to learn more.

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[i] Rulon S. Wells, Conference Report, April 1927, 72–73.

[ii] See Luke 15:1–2.

[iii] Matthew 18:11, 14.

[iv] See Luke 15:3–7.

[v] Luke 15:7.

[vi] See David O. Mckay, Conference Report, April 1945, 120.

[vii] American Heritage Dictionary, “Search.” 

[viii] American Heritage Dictionary, “Seek.”  

[ix] See Luke 15:8–10.

[x] Alma 60:23.

[xi] Matthew 5:23–24.

[xii] Matthew 7:5.

[xiii] See J. Kent Jolley, “Parables of Jesus: The Lost Coin,” Ensign, June 2003.