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The parable unlocking an enigma…..


Wb 173



As he wrote to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul’s eyes filled with tears. He knew of some whose minds were set on “earthly things” and who lived for pleasure alone. Their lives indicated that they were “enemies of the cross of Christ,” and they were heading for destruction (Phil.3:18—19). His heart ached to see how shameful their lives had become.




It is distressing to hear news of those who once appeared to be walking with the Lord but are now far away from Him. Many believers today are aware of people who have become embroiled in scandal and embezzlement or have become involved in same-sex relationships — and these are sometimes people who were brought up in good Christian homes and at one time were active in work for the Lord. Why have things gone wrong?


There are a number of facts that must be established at the beginning. First, salvation is God’s own work. The “finished” cry of the Lord Jesus at Calvary indicated that the work was done (Jn.19:30). Nothing more is necessary for salvation. It is by God’s grace that we are saved, through faith. Our “works” play no part whatever in salvation (Eph.2:8—9). These facts are clear. It is also possible for a believer to backslide. The example of Simon Peter proves this. He had denied his Lord three times and had used strong language to make the point. He was seriously at fault — but he did not lose his salvation. Peter repented of his sin and was restored by the Lord. But another disciple’s behaviour is also recorded in Scripture for our instruction. Judas Iscariot mingled with the other disciples and to all intents and purposes seemed a genuine member of the little band. He was even their treasurer! But Judas Iscariot was a lost soul. He never knew the Lord. His case in some ways is unique, but his behaviour is nevertheless a stark warning to us of how someone can appear to be a believer and yet not be one.


We must not be guilty of handling Scripture in a dishonest fashion. We are told in 1 Corinthians 6:9—11 of how believers at Corinth were once living very dubious lives. Some had been immoral and had been involved in adultery and homosexuality. Others had been idol-worshippers, drunkards, and flagrantly dishonest people. Yet all of this was in the past. It was what they had been. They were like this no more. They had been washed from their guilt, sanctified and justified in the name of the Lord Jesus and by the working of the Holy Spirit. They had forsaken their former lives of sin. But we must notice what Paul tells us in this passage. He makes it abundantly clear that “the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (1 Cor.6:9).


We must not be deceived on this point! If someone’s life displays the features that had formerly characterized the Corinthians, it is clear that they are not in the kingdom of God and therefore are not saved. If a professing Christian can habitually commit any of the sins listed in this passage, we can only conclude that they were never saved in the first place.


In Matthew 7:20 the Lord Jesus stated plainly that it is by our “fruits” that we are known. Our lives provide evidence of what we are really like underneath. The following verses (Mt.7:21—23) show that it is possible to mingle with the people of God, say the right words, engage in work for the Lord, and at the same time not know Him. If someone is living a “double life” — a “Christian life” when with the Lord’s people and a life of sin when in other company — surely this is the case. They do not know Him.


Does this suggest that we must doubt our salvation? By no means! It would be utterly wrong to doubt what the Lord Jesus Christ accomplished at the cross. But we do need to check up on ourselves. It was to believers, not unbelievers, that Paul wrote, “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith” (2 Cor.13:5). It is possible to embrace Christianity without personally trusting Jesus Christ as Saviour and yielding one’s life to Him as Lord. Salvation is not simply a matter of “praying a prayer” that someone has helpfully written for a seeker. It involves repentance, changing the direction of one’s life, and submitting to Christ as Lord.




A key passage that can unlock the enigma is the parable of the sower recorded in Mark 4 (as well as in Matthew and Luke). The Lord Jesus Himself stressed the importance of this parable when He told His disciples that if they could not grasp its meaning, they would fail to understand the rest. (See Mark 4:13.) The parable deals with four features: the sower, the seed, the soil where the seed fell, and the sequel to the sowing in each part of the field. There are also four different areas of the field: the wayside, the stony ground, the place where thorns sprang up, and the good soil. This emphasis upon the number four suggests a universal significance. Scripture refers, for instance, to “the four corners of the earth” (Isa.11:12).

In the parable, the seed is identified as the Word of God (Lk.8:11). The sower is understood to represent any servant that God uses in the spreading of His Word. According to Matthew 13:38, the field represents the world. But within that “field” can be found different types of soil. The soil represents the human heart, and four different hearts — which must be examined in turn — are described in the parable. 




The first part of the field is called “the way side” (v.4). When the seed landed on the surface, the birds quickly flew down and devoured it. The explanation given later by our Lord is that when the Word is sown Satan appears quickly and uses his agents (the birds) to take it away from the hearts of the listeners (v.15).


Someone may question why the sower would “waste” seed by casting it on the path. The answer is really quite simple. The person spreading the Word of God has little idea of the heart of the recipient and cannot see what “soil” lies beneath the surface. “The Word” must be sown in the heart, but in this part of the field Satan is pictured as removing it quickly. We must remember that Satan (“the god of this world”) does not want souls to be saved and will therefore blind people’s minds so that the light of the gospel does not shine in (2 Cor.4:4).


The “way side” was where people would walk and where seed might be trampled upon. Today many “trample” upon sacred truth and esteem it very lightly. Satan controls much of education and the media nowadays and uses them to great effect. Education and popular thinking cause people to dismiss the message of the gospel as being irrelevant to life today. In Western Europe the dismissive heart is commonplace. The seed sown there has soon gone.




In the parable we also read of seed that fell on stony ground where there was not much earth. A thin layer of soil covered the rocky foundation beneath, and the seed responded to the warmth generated in this soil. “Immediately it sprang up … but when the sun was up, it was scorched; and because it had no root, it withered away” (v.5—6).


In the explanation we are told that this soil represents people who hear the Word and “immediately receive it with gladness” (v.16). The person here is dissatisfied with life and sees the gospel message as the answer to his needs. For this reason an instant response is made. But two things are lacking: there is no depth of soil, and the tender plant has no root. Although the seed germinates and begins to grow, it is only “for a time” that it endures. Afterwards, when difficulties or persecution are encountered because of the Word, the soul is “offended” (v.17) and the seedling comes to nothing.


It is vital that a new believer is “rooted” in Christ (Col.2:7). The people represented by this part of the field were not. An open mind is not the same as saving faith. Many people are open-minded and warm to the Christian message without exercising personal, saving faith in Christ. Open-mindedness is not enough. The seed germinated quickly, and just as quickly its growth stopped. The immediate response was later followed by immediate offence caused by opposition. The fact that there was no root caused the shoot to wither away (v.6). Thus there was no later evidence of genuine salvation.


This may help to explain what has often been observed. A young person goes to a Christian camp and hears the message of the gospel. In the camp atmosphere and in the company of believing people, away from the influence of the world, the young person warms to the message and appears to respond. Returning from camp, people hear that the young person has been “saved” during the week, and there is general rejoicing. For a few weeks the interest is maintained, but then there is a “cooling-off period” — when that initial keenness is tempered by opposition. Eventually the young person fails to turn up any more and appears to have lost interest altogether.


More than an impulsive response is needed. We must receive Christ Jesus as Lord in an initial act of faith, but then we must “walk” in Him. Our lives must be “rooted” in Him, and we must be established in the faith (Col.2:6—7). If this does not take place, it is doubtful that salvation has entered the life at all.




Some seed “fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up, and choked it, and it yielded no fruit” (v.7). Obviously the thorns grew up with the good seed.


The Lord’s explanation adds some further detail to the picture. The people in this section of the field “hear the Word,” but the Word becomes choked by other things. “The cares of this world” crowd out the growing plant. There are distractions and conflicting interests that exert pressure, as well as “the deceitfulness of riches” (v.19). Riches are deceitful because they convince us that they are permanent. The truth is that they can make themselves wings and fly away with eagle-like speed (Prov.23:5). The strong desire for “other things” also competes with spiritual needs, and these desires prove stronger than any desire for the Word. Although there may be more progress here, and the situation may look more promising than the two previous areas, it all came to nothing in the end. One thing in particular was wrong. The thorns were in the soil already and had never been removed.


Hosea offers us an interesting perspective on this problem. “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy; break up your fallow ground: for it is time to seek the LORD” (Hos.10:12). Fallow ground is unproductive; it needs dealing with. Ground that is fallow (idle) must be broken up. The plough must be used to disturb the roots of weeds that are established in it. In this part of the field there had been no adequate ploughing.


In his psalm of sincere repentance, David wrote, “A broken and a contrite heart, O God, Thou wilt not despise” (Ps.51:17). The plough must do its work. The human heart needs to be disturbed and “broken” by the Holy Spirit so that evil roots are shown for what they are. Where this work of the Spirit does not take place, old desires remain and there is no surrender to Christ.


Think of a young child that is led to the Saviour by an adult. The adult cannot read the heart and does not know what is going on in the mind of the child. Knowing that the adult will be pleased by a positive response, and knowing that it is the “right” thing to ask Jesus to be their Saviour, the child prays a simple prayer. Now — please do not misunderstand this. Not all children make an inadequate response. Countless children have genuinely trusted the Lord Jesus as their Saviour at a very young age and have gone on to serve Him over a lifetime. Subsequent events will prove whether the prayer offered was genuine. It is by our “fruits” that we are recognized (Mt.7:20). But if there is no fruit in evidence, no lasting work of the Spirit has been done.




The “good ground” in the parable was where the seed fell and yielded fruit. Although the final amounts varied (30%, 60%, 90%) the pattern was the same. In each case the seed “sprang up, and increased; and brought forth” fruit (v.8). Having stated this, the Lord Jesus then challenged those of His listeners with ears to hear His Word (v.9). We must hear with understanding. The Lord wanted His listeners to understand what He was saying so that they would be fruitful — for verse 9 follows verse 8.


At the conclusion of the parable these truths are confirmed. The people represented by this part of the field firstly “hear the Word,” then “receive it,” and finally “bring forth fruit” (v.20). Luke, in his account, reveals something more. Having heard the Word, the people here “keep it, and bring forth fruit with patience” (Lk.8:15). To keep the Word means to hold it fast. Notice, too, that “patience” is connected with fruit-bearing. Patience, or continuance, was lacking in the other parts of the field.


If we are seeking to understand the doctrine of salvation from this parable, clearly the ones who are saved are those represented by the good soil. The heart here is discerning. The yield from one seed may vary from that of another because conditions in every part of the good soil are not identical. It is true that some believers are more fruitful than others — for a number of reasons. But whether the yield is 30%, 60%, or 100%, in each case the “fruit” is proof of a saved life. You can tell that the person has truly been born again.




This parable throws helpful light upon the perplexing question with which this article began. If we understand the truth in “this parable,” we will be enabled to understand the truth revealed elsewhere in Scripture.


Four different hearts are pictured here. With the first, there was a blunt refusal to consider the message. The truth was dismissed, and nothing happened. In the second area the response was rapid but unthinking and shallow. Although the heart was dissatisfied, ultimately the response came to nothing. The third area had never been ploughed, and the Word became unfruitful because the heart was distracted by other concerns. Only in the part of the field representing the discerning heart was the response genuine.


In his second epistle to Timothy, Paul stated, “The Lord knoweth them that are His” (2 Tim.2:19). We need to understand that we do not possess His knowledge. At times we think we are seeing people being saved, but we can be wrong. We cannot read the heart and know what is going on within. Our responsibility is to faithfully sow the seed. But God’s “seal” does not only reveal His knowledge of His own. The other side of the “seal” contains a challenge. Those who own His Name must forsake iniquity (2 Tim.2:19). If someone is not prepared to forsake the paths of sin, it is clear that they have never come to know the Lord. As mentioned earlier, it is by our fruits that we are known (Mt.7:20). Where those fruits of the Holy Spirit are lacking, and where the works of the flesh are in evidence, the conclusion must be drawn that the person concerned does not know the Lord. Those who, according to God’s standards, are continuing to live in a way that is “unrighteous” are clearly outside of God’s kingdom.


We need to examine ourselves (2 Cor.13:5). Are we “in the faith”? Do we know the real Lord Jesus Christ — not some imaginary “Jesus” spoken about in many churches today? If we know Him, we shall want to please Him. God’s intention is that the seed of His Word should find a home within our hearts and bear fruit — to His glory and praise.