Last week, as we considered the parable of the two builders, we reflected on the security that Jesus promises to all those who build their lives on the unshakeable foundation of his word (Mt. 7:24-27). The houses built on this foundation, Jesus says, will never be destroyed, regardless of the storms that might beat against them. But if you’ve been a Christian for a while, you’re probably aware of either friends or relatives or even celebrity preachers who built their houses on this rock, but who have subsequently walked away from the faith. Perhaps you’ve heard people speak in terms of “deconstructing” their faith. They claim to have constructed their faith on the word of God, but later they decide to take a sledgehammer to it. If you were to ask them, they would no doubt tell you that they truly believed the gospel at one point. But as they’ll happily point out, they’ve grown beyond the gospel – they no longer believe. They are now “ex-vangelicals”.
Stories like these can raise all sorts of troubling questions for Christians. Can true believers fall away from the faith? Are we living in an age that is just too sophisticated to embrace the Bible as the word of God? Well, as we will see in the parable of the sower – there is nothing new about people turning away from the faith they once professed. What used to be called apostasy, has simply been rebranded and made trendy on social media. But Jesus shows us that those who in the process of time, turn away from the truth, do so because they were never truly transformed by it. They don’t deconstruct their faith – because they never had faith to begin with. As a well-known preacher used to say: “faith that fizzles before the finish, was flawed from the first.” The parable of the sower shows us that the deficiency is not in the seed sown (the word of God), but in the condition of the soil (the hearts of sinful men).
In Matthew’s account of this parable, we read: “And he told them many things in parables, saying: “A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and produced grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Mat 13:3-9)
Jesus again uses an illustration that his audience would have been very familiar with. Today we have GPS-guided tractors and precision grain drills that plant seed at the optimal depth and width. But the process of sowing seed was not nearly as refined in Jesus’ day. The seed was sown by hand and would end up wherever the wind blew it. Often it would land in places that made it impossible for the seed to grow to maturity. Jesus therefore uses the image of a man sowing seed to explain how the preaching of God’s word can bring forth fruit in some, while apparently leaving others a barren wasteland.
Fortunately, we do not need to speculate about the meaning of the various elements of this parable, because Jesus later explains the parable to his disciples. The seed is the word of God (Lk. 8:11) and the various types of soil refers to the different kinds of people who hear it preached. The seed that “fell along the path”, that is devoured by the birds, refers to those who hear the word of God, but don’t understand it because “the evil one” snatches it away (Mt. 13:19). The seed sown on stony ground, refers to those who initially embrace the message of the kingdom with joy, but they do so only superficially and soon turn away from the faith when tribulation and persecution arises (Mt. 13:21). Then there are those who hear the word, but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke it, and it does not produce any fruit in them (Mt. 13:22).
Finally, Jesus speaks about the bumper crop that is yielded whenever the word of God is sown “on good soil” (Mt. 13:23). According to some commentators, the typical crop yield in Palestine in Jesus’ day would have been a fivefold one. A harvest that yielded a tenfold return would have been considered exceptional. But here Jesus speaks of a thirty, sixty and even a hundredfold yield. Jesus says that, though there will be varying degrees of fruitfulness among believers, even those who are the least fruitful will yield a harvest far beyond what anyone could have expected.
In this parable, Jesus shows us that there will be some who are completely unresponsive to the word preached to them. But he also tells us that there will be those who initially seem to receive the word (some with great excitement), and yet ultimately fall away. Does this refer to people who were once saved, but who later fall away? I don’t believe that this is what Jesus is teaching here. It is interesting to note the words that the synoptic authors use to describe the way the seed of God’s word is received by those in whom it brings forth fruit.
Matthew speaks of those who not only hear and receive, but who also understand. The Greek word translated “understand”, refers to a bringing together of certain truths. As one commentator put it, those who understand the word are those who piece together the puzzle and see the full picture of the gospel and embrace it. Matthew uses the present tense form of the verb, indicating that this “understanding” of the gospel is not something that a believer does once, but something he will continue to do for the rest of his life.
Mark (4:20) speaks of those who hear and “accept” the word. Here to the word is in the present tense, and it speaks of a willful embrace of the word of God. The word is a reflexive verb in the Greek, meaning that those who accept the word, accept it “to themselves”. They don’t simply acknowledge the truth of the word of God intellectually or in a way that is detached from their personal experience. Instead, they embrace it wholeheartedly and are forever changed by it.
Luke writes: “As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience.” (8:15). The word translated “hold it fast” means to firmly grasp or come into full possession of something. It is the same word used in Hebrews 10:23 where we read: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering...” The verb is (you guessed it) in the present tense and refers to an ongoing clinging to the truth that has been received. But Luke also explains how this word is held fast by those who believe. They hold it fast, he says, “in an honest and good heart”. Their receiving of the word has a quality apparently absent from those who fall away – they hold the truth in sincerity and goodness. Their profession of faith is not a false one, but one that proceeds from a heart that (as we’ll see in a moment) has truly been transformed.
There are two things I want us to take away from this parable that Jesus told:
Firstly, we must not assume, on the basis of this parable, that God saves only good people. Some have argued that, because the emphasis here is on the condition of the soil, the determinative factor in salvation is the state of man’s heart. Good people hear the word, and they believe. Evil people hear the word and they either reject it immediately, or they do so at some point in the future.
But this conflicts with what Scripture says elsewhere about the human heart. Paul tells us that we are all by nature children of God’s wrath – dead in our trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1-3). He tells us that we have all sinned and fallen short of his glory (Rom. 3:23) and that there are, in reality, no good people (Rom. 3:12-18). How then can Jesus speak of the seed sown in “good soil”? (Mt. 13:23) How can he speak of people who hold fast to the word with an “honest and good heart”? (Lk. 8:15)
I would suggest that the best way to resolve this tension in the Bible is to appreciate that unless God changes the stony, unreceptive hearts that all men are born with, there can be no entrance into the Kingdom of God. The Lord had to open Lydia’s heart before she could believe the gospel (Acts 16:14). And Paul, using similar language to that of Jesus, explains that, though he sowed the seed and though Apollos watered it – ultimately God is the one who allows it to grow (1 Cor. 3:6). This can be seen in the immediate context of our parable as well. When the disciples ask Jesus why he taught the crowds in parables, he answered: “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given.” (Mt. 13:11) The secrets of the kingdom are graciously revealed by the Father, not on the basis of merit, but according to his gracious will (Mt. 11:25-27).
This is why the doctrine of regeneration is so crucial. The unregenerate heart cannot receive the word of God, that is why Jesus told Nicodemus that only those who are born again can see the Kingdom of God. Ezekiel had foretold centuries before that this is what God would do under the New Covenant when the Messiah came. Speaking to Israel, God declares: “And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (Ez. 36: 26-27).
It is a humbling truth, especially for those called by God to sow the seed of his precious word. We are called to sow, but for the seed to grow to maturity and bear fruit, God must change the hearts of men by the powerful working of his Spirit. We have the privilege of sowing the seed, but only God can raise the dead (Ez. 37).
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quick’ning ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free;
I rose, went forth and followed Thee.
Secondly, this parable does not teach that true believers can lose their salvation. All three gospel writers emphasize the fact that those who become fruitful disciples of Christ, receive the word in a way that is different to those who remain barren. They understand, accept, and hold fast to what they have heard. This parable makes a distinction between those who merely profess faith and those who truly posses it. It is not in the nature of true faith to dissipate or disappear in the face of trials, instead it is tested and refined like gold in a furnace (1 Pe. 1:6-7).
In John 6:39 Jesus says: “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day”. A few chapters later he plainly says that those to whom he gives eternal life will never perish, nor can they be snatched out of the Father’s hand (Jn. 10:28-29). Paul assures as that he who begins in a good work in believers will not fail to bring it to completion on the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6). Peter speaks of “an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time.” (1 Pe. 1:4-5). He says that both we and our inheritance, are being kept and guarded by the power of God. This a truth worthy of reflection and meditation. Yes, we must hold fast to the word of God to be saved, but (as R.C. Sproul used to say) in the final analysis, it is God who keeps us from falling away.
Fear not, He is with thee, O be not dismayed;
For He is thy God, and will still give thee aid;
He’ll strengthen thee, help thee, and cause thee to stand,
Upheld by His righteous, omnipotent hand. What encouragement we can take away from this parable as we realize that from beginning to end, salvation belongs to the Lord (Ps. 3:8). God is the one who takes away our hearts of stone and gives us hearts that are receptive to the proclamation of his word. God is also the one who sustains our faith, and who makes us fruitful, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight. May we rejoice that the Lord is cultivating fruitfulness in our lives, and may we never lose the desire for still greater fruitfulness. When last did you call out to the Lord to make you more fruitful? Not so that you can boast in your own holiness and progress in the faith, but so that the good works in your life might bring glory to God (Jn. 15:8) and draw others to the gospel (Tit. 2).