The grand mission of the church is to proclaim the gospel to every people group, then immersing and teaching them all things Jesus commanded (in an ultimate sense, all the Bible, for it is all the word of the Lord Jesus), by those latter actions making them students and learners of the anointed, risen Lord and King. As this message is authoritatively, uncompromisingly proclaimed to every person (for all people are immediately accountable to the message and its Lord), the church will find different responses stemming from different hearts. Ultimately, of course, there are only two responses—belief or unbelief.
The Lord has given us a parable for every age of church history, explaining how the world will respond to His gospel. Having stated the parable (vv. 3-9), the Lord now explains it to His disciples, and to us.
Because this is a continuation of the message from two weeks ago, I will maintain the same lettering.
D. The Significance (vv. 13-20)
Our Lord has just declared the foundational parable describing the interadvent age to the crowds, including His disciples. He has also said that He gives understanding of the mysteries of the kingdom to His people but that those outside (i.e., outside the kingdom) get everything in parables (lit. “riddles,” because without divine insight wrought by the Spirit that is all the parables are to them). For those who are hardened in rejection, the Lord adds that these “riddles” are to judge their rejection by preventing them from receiving the gospel and being saved (v. 12).
In light of these grand realities, our Lord asks them if they understand. They need to, for He says they must understand this to understand all His parables—for this is the foundational parable describing the Lord’s kingdom work and rule in the time between His first and second advents.
So He goes on to explain it. This, of course, is a picture of how we are to understand any portion of Scripture: We need the divine, gracious illumination of God to understand His Word! Let’s listen as He explains this critical aspect of truth.
The Unresponsive Heart (v. 15; cf. v. 4)
This heart is hardened. It is like the packed-down dirt of the road where a thousand feet have trampled. It is not tilled, not watered, and thus not able for the seed to penetrate. As such, the Word simply lies there, exposed—and Satan takes the opportunity.
It would not be wrong to see his methodology here as similar to the fiery darts he aims at believers. Perhaps he energizes objections, places thoughts in the mind of the sinful pleasures the Lord means to make war on, highlights “contradictions” in the gospel or the Scriptures—anything to keep the message from being binding and me from believing it. But his strategy is not merely internal. He understands how the human heart works, and so is happy to influence external roadblocks as well. One of the most obvious would be false teaching, whether from a professed Christian teaching a false Jesus and a wrong gospel, or any number of the “spiritual” teachers that offer a man-centered, sin-free, self-affirming worldview and message. In all of these ways, the Word is taken away—because unbelief is active, and in every case not believing the gospel is because of actively choosing to believe something else. The Word’s power is then canceled out by unbelief (cf. Matthew 15:3, 6). Apart from the Lord tilling up our soil, we all have a variant of this heart.
The Impulsive Heart (vv. 16-17; cf. vv. 5-6)
This soil is different. Rather than being impenetrable and packed down, the seed is able to penetrate and seemingly bear fruit. But there is a hidden, subtle problem: Unlike the overt rejection of the heart where the gospel cannot even penetrate, below this soil’s surface is a granite-like mass of limestone. And like the hardened soil, it too prevents the seed from ultimately penetrating. Because of the surrounding dirt, the seed can bear fruit and evidence growth quickly, but it cannot out down roots to the plant ultimately dies exposed to the blazing sun.
This person is a shallow thinker. They do not “count the cost.” They do not think reflectively or deeply about the gospel or its demands and implications. (I am not saying one must be a systematic theologian to be saved—one must simply know one’s need and that the Lord is an almighty Savior—but an impulsive, unreflective, unthoughtful response is evidently not one highly esteemed by our Lord.) Their response is worse than the hardened heart, for they give the appearance of receptivity but beneath the surface is something even harder than packed dirt! They seem to receive the gospel with joy and enthusiasm, yet the moment suffering (in general) or persecution (specifically) arise, they fall away. Often, these people become the most angry, bitter, calloused souls you can imagine, who “evangelize” for unbelief with more zeal than they ever had for the faith. That is a testimony to the flint at the core of their hearts. In their minds, Christ and the gospel failed them, not realizing that their short-lived faith was due to the rock in their hearts that would not let the gospel put down roots, exposing them to the testing of the sun. And they failed the test.
The Preoccupied Heart (vv. 18-19; cf. v. 7)
This person hears the gospel and may even make a profession of faith. While their soil is not hardened and there is no hidden ledge beneath, they too have an obstacle. Their heart has not been cleared (by regeneration!) of the controlling, ruling desires and prioritizations of other things.
“Worries of the world” is lit. “distractions of this age.” This is an important phrase we must ponder for a bit. “The age” is the same thing as “the world”—which should not be completely identified with either the created world nor the cultivated world and its culture as influenced by humanity. Rather, “this age” is the fallen world, and the bad part of culture that expresses ungodly beliefs and values. “This age,” then, offers distractions to fallen people. These distractions appear to be distinct from, but related to, “the deceitfulness of riches” and “the desire for other things.” The point is that just as weeds and thorns do not leave room for the good seed to thrust down life-giving roots and will siphon life away from that seed, so will these fallen preoccupations, concerns, and distractions prevent the Word from doing its work and bringing life. A professing believer can abort the life he has supposedly received by refusing the Word’s and the Lord’s sovereignty and priority in his life. Truly, no man can serve two masters!
The Good Heart (v. 20; cf. v. 8)
But there is one heart that is different from all the others. The gracious, kind work of God has made it willing to receive the Word in its fullness. The soil is soft and tilled. There is no rock ledge hiding beneath. All competitors have been uprooted. There is only rich, wonderful loam and the divinely powerful seed thrown by the Master.
The verb tenses are wonderful. They hear (and keep hearing!), they accept (and keep accepting!), and they bear fruit (and keep bearing!). Luke’s account tells us they “bear fruit with perseverance” (8:15). They persevere in bearing the fruit of faith, all the way to heaven. There is ongoing work of the Spirit through the new birth in their life. The Lord sustains their faith and repentance; they are kept by Hi power through faith (1 Peter 1:5; Jude 1, 24) and they therefore keep themselves in the love of God until the last day (Jude 21; cf. Phil. 2:12-13).
Our Lord goes on to say that not all Christians are equally fruitful—some bear more fruit than others, likely because of varying degrees of maturity and availing of the means of grace. But all bear fruit. All give evidence of the life of God that indwells their souls by His grace alone. This soil, and only this, is the good soil that responds rightly and enduringly to the message of the kingdom and its grace.
It is important to remember that only the last soil represents a true Christian. The other three represent varying kinds of unbelief. But it would be a mistake, I think, to say that the prior three responses cannot show themselves in any sense in a true Christian. While they will not be dominant (the fruit will), all of these tendencies abide in our flesh. We can reject the Word. (Think of how you reacted to your first hearing of election and the sovereignty of God!) We can have initial acceptance of a truth only to fight against it later when it costs us. Perhaps most commonly, we fight with weeds and distractions that crop up—indeed, this last is in a sense the very struggle Paul describes in Romans 7! Our flesh remains our flesh. While the new nature and the sovereign Spirit inevitably transform us to varying degrees, we must be vigilant against these tendencies that remain in our fallen human nature. We must diligently seek the Lord and make liberal use to the means of grace to wage war against indwelling sin, that our soil might be further tilled and watered and produce abundant fruit for the Lord’s glory.
In a few verses, the Lord has given us the description of every human heart on earth, and the responses we will encounter as we faithfully proclaim the gospel. May God grant us grace to believe the varied responses are not owing to the glorious message nor the risen Messenger who makes His appeal through us (2 Cor. 5:20), but due to the fallen hearts of men—and may He be gracious to many millions of hearts, tilling their soil so that the Word might go deep and bear abundant, enduring fruit.