Q – Would you please discuss the parable of the sower a bit? I’ve been thinking about perseverance of the saints. I feel this parable is at least a good place to start in looking for illustrations of how a person can profess to be a believer and then fall away. I am a bit tied up in the idea that of the four seeds, three become plants (though only one of those perseveres).
Jim – Okay, thanks for asking! Let’s start off by clearing up a common misconception, though. This parable is not about four seeds or four types of seed. It’s about only one seed, the Word. There are four types of ground that the good seed falls into, but the seed remains the same.
“And his disciples asked him, saying, What might this parable be? And he said, Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God: but to others in parables; that seeing they might not see, and hearing they might not understand. Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the way side are they that hear; then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away. And that which fell among thorns are they, which, when they have heard, go forth, and are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life, and bring no fruit to perfection. But that on the good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience.” (Luke 8:9-15)
So, let’s start at the start.
The seed is the Word and there is nothing wrong with the seed. The seed is good and valuable and capable. But, growth and fruit bearing are determined by the type of ground the seed falls on. Good ground produces good fruit. Lousy ground gets you lousy fruit, or not fruit at all. So, the different types of ground are equated with different types of people.
Now, from a historic perspective the wayside ground was the dirt along the side of the road or highway that had been tightly packed down and compressed due to repeated travel. When seed falls on that sort of ground it gets “trodden down,” but it’s not properly buried or watered. So, the birds come and eat it up. Jesus likened that to people who hear the word, but it is immediately taken away by the devil so that they will not believe and be saved.
Every Christian knows people like that. As a preacher, it’s a very disturbing reality. I am not, indeed I cannot be, an unconscious preacher. I’m keenly aware of the people listening to the sermons we preach. But sometimes, despite my best efforts to be clear and present the Word without compromise, people will walk away unaffected. The seed falls on their stony hearts and before they can even digest it, it’s gone. No root, no plant, no fruit. It’s a genuinely frightening thing to behold, knowing that the Word contains the key to everlasting life and some people simply cannot hear it.
Of course, Jerusalem (and much of Canaan) is very rocky. So, some seed fell among the rocks. But, plants don’t grow well on rocky terrain because they can’t get their roots down deep enough to find water. So, they spring up quickly and wither just as quickly. Jesus likened that sort of plant life to people who hear the word, rejoice in it, but because of their lack of root (no depth, no proper grounding) they cannot withstand trial and temptation. So, as soon as the struggle comes they fall away.
We’ve all seen these folk. They spring up quickly and embrace the concept of Christianity with joy and give the initial appearance of actual conversion. And, as long as the Christian life is joyful and groovy, they’re willing to hang. But, they are not rooted and grounded. They have no depth of learning or anchor for their faith. So, when the troubles of life come along (as they certainly will), those folk renounce their faith or just wander off unthinking. Oftentimes, these are people who assume that God is primarily interested in enhancing their lives and that Christianity guarantees physical, psychological and financial success. But, when the reality of the Christian life strikes them and they go through trials of their faith, they take their ball and go home.
Of course, that group can be very hard on churches. They give early indications of genuinely grasping the reality of Christ. So, when they fold under pressure, it can be genuinely heartbreaking for the people who love them. These people are also the group that have led many theologians to postulate that a person can be saved and then lose that salvation. But, Jesus warned in advance that there would be some who would appear genuine, but prove to be false. So, genuine salvation cannot be lost; pretend salvation will not endure.
I have always understood such folk in the context of John’s comment, “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.” (I John 2:19)
God will thin the herd, so to speak. And, He does that through trials and scourging. He proves what we’re made of, and the Church finds out what we’re made of. And, if we are able to turn our backs on God, then we never belonged to Him in the first place. That’s the core of John’s argument.
Now, of course, when Jesus was speaking of trials in this life that would cause people to fall away, He knew that torture and death were in the offing for many of
His followers. And, those who truly belonged to Him would not recant. But, others fell away quite easily. For instance, the crowd that followed Him as long as He fed their bellies. But, when He preached the doctrine of His absolute authority and centrality in all judgment, these same people turned away from following Him. (John 6:26-67)
But, those hard lines are more difficult to recognize today. There is no real price to pay for being Christian in modern America that is on par with the killing and torture of First Century Christians. In other parts of the world, you may be martyred for your faith, but not in present-day America. Still, there are plenty of people who will follow after Christianity as long as it provides for their needs. But, when it’s time to stand up and be counted, they will deny Him. That trial of the faith is looming on the horizon, actually. When it comes time to take the “mark” or have your head cut off, plenty of people will denounce the faith they once professed.
The third type of ground is thorny ground where healthy plants get choked. Jesus likened that sort of ground to people who hear the word and go back to living as they always have – so the “cares and riches and pleasures” of this terrestrial life choke away the word that was planted. They never stick with it long enough to bear fruit.
I think, in Jesus’ context, He was referring to the wealthy, the rich and powerful. They hear that Christianity is about service, ministry, sharing, joint-participation, sacrifice, etc. But, they just can’t bring themselves to let go of what they have. I’ve often said that poverty will force a man to his knees before God, but I’ve known many, many folk who were ruined by wealth and abundance. As Jesus said, it is a difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven as it is for a camel to go through the eye of needle (Mat. 19:24).
You know, in my rock and roll career, I met plenty of very wealthy, very famous people. And, they all had one thing in common. They were defined by their fame and money. Take that away and they had very little to show for their lives. And, oddly, I’ve never known a single rich person who was content with what they had. You would think that they would be satisfied, but money and power inspire the desire for more money and power. Enough is never enough. And, it’s very difficult for people who are consumed with self-sufficiency to recognize their need of a Savior. After all, they can have anything they want. Why would they want Jesus?
So, the cares and riches and pleasures that this world has to offer act like weeds to choke the life out of these plants before they can produce any fruit.
The last type of ground is good, fertile ground. When the seed hits that ground, it bursts forth and grows plentiful fruit. They have honest and good hearts, which can only happen through God’s intervention and taking away our stony hearts (Ezek. 11:19). They hear the word, keep it, hold it, embrace it and bear fruit through patience, through trials, through time and persistence.
So, yes I see perseverance in this parable. One type of ground surely prevail. But, I also see election. Only one type of ground bore fruit and it was because that ground had been fertilized, worked, turned and ready for seed. In other words, they’ve been given a new heart that is capable of receiving these things.
And, Jesus’ equation is that only one quarter of all ground is good. That means that three quarters just never gets it. The many versus the few. The wide road versus the narrow way.
And, I see irresistibility here. Good ground always reacts to good seed. It cannot help itself. Good ground plus good seed bears good fruit. It’s the nature of the combination. It cannot help but produce. That’s cool.
Now, let’s look at the common factor between the first three types of ground. The first, packed-down soil never produces a root, a plant or fruit. The second, stony ground produces a plant with not deep roots and no fruit. The third group, that grow up among the thorns, has a plant and a root, but they are choked prior to fruit-bearing.
So, the common element that Jesus was emphasizing in each case was: lack of fruit. By contrast, when speaking of the good soil, He never mentioned their plant, their flower, or their root – only their fruit.
In other words, Christ is looking for one thing and one thing only as evidence of genuine conversion and saving faith – fruit production.
And He taught that in many ways, not just words. For instance, read Mark’s account of Jesus’ encounter with a fig tree.
“And Jesus entered into Jerusalem, and into the temple: and when he had looked round about upon all things, and now the eventide was come, he went out unto Bethany with the twelve. And on the morrow, when they were come from Bethany, he was hungry: And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet. And Jesus answered and said unto it, No man eat fruit of thee hereafter for ever. And his disciples heard it … And when even was come, he went out of the city. And in the morning, as they passed by, they saw the fig tree dried up from the roots. And Peter calling to remembrance saith unto him, Master, behold, the fig tree which thou cursedst is withered away. And Jesus answering saith unto them, Have faith in God.” (Mark 11:11-13, 19-22)
This story has several similar elements to the parable of the sower. For instance, the fig tree had roots, limbs and even leaves. It looked, for all intents and purposes, as though it was going to bear fruit. But, when Jesus was hungry and looking for fruit, the tree failed to provide the one thing the Lord required. So, the Prince of Life cursed the tree and it was dead before day’s end.
Again, the point is clear. Jesus requires fruit.
Here’s a quick Christian point-of-reality. Most of us do not die immediately after conversion. So, the Christian life – what it is, how it looks and how we live it – becomes a very important ingredient of the Christian faith. Most of you know that I am a stickler for “sound doctrine.” But, that doctrine must lead to more than just “head knowledge” or some mental assent to a set of ideas or concepts. Proper Christian doctrine will lead to proper Christian living – which Christ called “fruit.”
The Apostle Paul, who wrote roughly two-thirds of the New Testament, made this a central theme of his theology. He set out to define the Christian life. One of the things that he emphasized, as did Peter and John, was the ability to persevere in the faith through trials, temptations, flatteries, riches, travail, beatings, shipwrecks, stonings, and times of great honor (like appearing before the Emperor of Rome).
So, you ask, what is Christian fruit? Well, Paul defined it like this –
“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts. If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another.” (Gal. 5:22-26)
“For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth; Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord.” (Eph. 5:9-10)
You can only know what the fruit of the Spirit is by studying Paul’s writing and teaching. So, doctrine has a very definite place in the Christian faith and life. And, I do think that if there were a greater emphasis on proper doctrine in the Church at large we would not only have greater unity, we would have much less fluff and “pop” stuff.
Anyway, to wrap up, Jesus wasn’t looking for plants; He was looking for fruit. The seed of the Word, spread out into the world, may attract people who will spring up as though they are genuinely converted. And, it’s practically impossible for us to know the level of their commitment or the veracity of their profession. So, I meet everyone where they are and take their profession of faith at face value. It is only time and life circumstances that will tell. They will either bear fruit or wither away. And, when they turn their backs on the word of life, it’s really, really hard to watch. But, I’ve seen it time and time again.
But, true, genuine faith will bear fruit and will endure.
Hope that helps!