When Jesus spoke in parables, some of His hearers gained insights into the kingdom of God while other listeners were left in confusion. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul continues his exposition of Luke’s gospel and reveals the important reason why Christ taught in this way.
Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him, and certain women who had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities—Mary called Magdalene, out of whom had come seven demons, and Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others who provided for Him from their substance.
And when a great multitude had gathered, and they had come to Him from every city, He spoke by a parable: “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
Then His disciples asked Him, saying, “What does this parable mean?”
And He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables, that
‘Seeing they may not see,
And hearing they may not understand.’
“Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience.”
In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult parables in all of Jesus’ teachings. Yet, it is rich with profound truth that is important for us to understand. It carries with it the full power and authority of the teaching of our Lord. He who has ears to hear this parable, let him hear. Let us pray.
Again, our Father and our God, if we were to rest simply on our understanding alone, we would be utterly incapable of penetrating the mystery of this Word. But we rejoice that You have given to us the Holy Spirit, who searches all things and illumines for us the meaning of this Word. So, visit us, O Spirit of truth and holiness, in this hour that we may understand these things and love them, for we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
The Women Who Followed Jesus
Before Luke recorded Jesus’ teaching of the parable of the sower, he gave a brief historical note: “Now it came to pass, afterward, that He went through every city and village, preaching and bringing the glad tidings of the kingdom of God. And the twelve were with Him.” Luke then tells us that certain women were also with Him, one of whom had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, and names some of them.
We are told that Mary Magdalene had seven demons come out of her. Mary has suffered from the characterization of having been a harlot because she had seven demons taken out of her. However, there is not a scintilla of evidence in Scripture that she was ever a harlot. Instead, she is seen as an outstanding example of fidelity to the Lord Jesus Christ. It was to Mary that Jesus first revealed Himself on resurrection morning.
We also see that Joanna and Susanna are named. Luke tells us that many others supported Jesus with their substance. One commentator says that it was the “Women’s Aid Society” that supported Jesus during His earthly ministry. Another commentator has defined Luke’s entire gospel as the “Ladies’ Home Journal of the Bible” because he gave more attention to women than any of the other gospel writers. No, the women were not numbered among the Apostles, but they did have a significant role in Jesus’ entourage during His earthly ministry. Their nobility, sacrifice, and fidelity were noted by this gospel writer.
We are told that a great multitude was gathered, that they had come to Jesus from every city, and that He spoke by a parable:
“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trampled down, and the birds of the air devoured it. Some fell on rock; and as soon as it sprang up, it withered away because it lacked moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns sprang up with it and choked it. But others fell on good ground, sprang up, and yielded a crop a hundredfold.” When He had said these things He cried, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear!”
This story is taken from the agricultural methodology of Jesus’ day. Seed was not sown the way it is in our country today. Rather, when it came time for planting, the sower would have a large bag slung over his shoulder, filled with the seed he was going to plant. Unlike today, he would not plow the field first and then sow the seed. Instead, he would go through the field sowing the seed, and the wind currents would carry the seed where it would. Sometimes, the seed would blow onto the middle of the field, onto the path along the side or in the middle, or onto the sections of the field under which there were hidden outcroppings of limestone. Wherever the currents carried the seed, there the seed landed. When he was done sowing, he would plow the seed into the earth and wait for the rain to come and the seed to germinate.
Every time seed was sown by a farmer, certain things took place. Some of the seed that was cast about would fall along the path that was beaten down, soil that was hardpan, and that seed had no possibility of penetrating the earth. The seed that was cast in that manner never germinated or bore fruit but was plucked by the birds of the air. In a sense, it seemed to be wasted.
Some of the seed would fall on the rock and had nowhere to go underneath the ground. When the plow came through, it couldn’t break up the rock. So, the seed rested just barely below the surface, on the rock, with no possibility of taking root.
Some of the seed would fall along the sides of the field where other things were already growing, such as thorns and brambles, but it could still take root because there was soil. However, when the seed took root and began to grow alongside the thorns and brambles, it would be choked and die without ever coming to fruition.
Jesus said in the parable that there was seed that fell on good earth. It did not fall on earth that was hardpan or stone, nor covered with thorns and brambles. Instead, it was fine soil that had the nutrients needed for germination and growth. The seed that fell on this soil took root. It grew and produced a hundredfold, a wonderful crop. After telling this story, Jesus said: “Do you understand what I’m saying? He who has ears to hear what I’m saying, let him hear.”
Not Only to Reveal but to Conceal
The disciples weren’t sure whether they understood the point of the parable. They said to Jesus, “What does this parable mean?” Jesus answered the question and explained the meaning of the parable. Before He did that, however, He said something that is often disturbing to people as they read this text of sacred Scripture. He said, “To you it has been given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, but to the rest it is given in parables.” Then, Jesus quoted from Isaiah:
Seeing they may not see
And hearing they may not understand.
We normally assume that the point of a parable is to clarify a difficult point of Jesus’ teaching. In actuality, parables had a dual purpose. For those who had ears to hear, parables were given to reveal the hidden things of the kingdom of God, to explain, elucidate, and clarify Jesus’ teaching. For others, Jesus spoke in parables to hide the truth of the gospel. Why would He do that? Parables were given not only to reveal but to conceal. To those whom God had given ears to hear, it was revelation. But for those whose hearts were hardened, who did not have ears to hear, whose necks were stiff, who didn’t want to hear the Word of God, who had a basic antipathy and hostility to the things of God, the parables were a form of divine judgment.
It is as though God was saying: “You don’t want to hear Me? Fine. I will not let you hear Me.” God’s justice is poetic. He gives people over to their sins. If their hearts were hardened by their own sin, He would say: “Let that hardened heart be even more hardened, that stiff neck even stiffer. If that is what you want, that is what you will get.” This is a perfectly just judgment of God with respect to people who do not want to have God in their thinking.
Jesus said that this parable was given to reveal things about the kingdom to the disciples, so He explained it to them. He said, “The seed is the Word of God.” That is the first thing we must understand about the story Jesus gave. This story about seed being cast into the wind and onto the earth is not simply an exercise in agriculture. It is a parable about the preaching of the Word of God. The seed represents God’s Holy Word, which is sown or preached. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear, but the devil comes like the birds of the air and takes that Word out of their hearts, lest they believe and be saved.
For some people who hear this parable today, just as Jesus gave it, it does not pierce their souls, even though they can understand it intellectually. The Word does not penetrate their hearts. If this is you, your heart is still in the enemy’s possession. He wants to do everything in his power to keep that Word from entering your soul. Though you hear it outwardly, you do not hear it inwardly. You are like the seed that fell along the way.
If You Have It, You Never Lose It
Jesus said that the seed on the rock are those who, when they hear it, receive the Word with joy but have no root. They believe for a while, and then, in times of temptation, they fall away. Some look at this parable and think it teaches that people can be saved and lose their salvation. They can be in a state of grace and be justified, but it doesn’t last. That kind of thinking flies in the face of everything else the Bible teaches us about the perseverance of the saints. The Bible tells us that those whom the Lord redeems, He preserves. He gives them the seal and earnest of the Holy Spirit. We are told that He who began a good work will finish it to the end. John tells us that those who go out from us were never really with us.
John goes to great lengths to teach us that God the Father has given the Son a people. Those whom the Father gave to the Son come to the Son, and nothing can snatch them out of His hand. I do not believe for a second that a true believer ever loses his or her salvation. They may have periods of backsliding. They may be engaged in a serious and radical fall away from grace but never a full and final fall. We say it this way: “If you have it, you never lose it. If you lose it, you never had it.” That is the paradox in this situation. Repeatedly, we see examples of people who make professions of faith in Christ and do it enthusiastically, joyfully even. It is a spurious conversion, however, not a true one.
Real Conversion Turns Your Life Upside Down
A bane of mass evangelism in America in the last couple of centuries has been a phenomenon that evangelists scratch their heads about. They will hold public meetings, give stirring sermons, and at the end of the sermons, call people to come forward and give their lives to Jesus. Maybe you have been to places like this and seen these kinds of experiences. All of a sudden, a wave of humanity comes out of their seats, into the aisle, and forward to confess their faith in Christ. Studies show that six months later, the majority of these people return to their old ways and show no evidence of conversion whatsoever.
While we are spiritually dead in our fallen condition, we can still perceive something of the benefits of the gospel. We can still perceive that it is good news. As creatures made in the image of God, even though our consciences have been seared by sin, we still have an ability to feel guilt. For some people, that’s all they feel. They are guilty and they know it.
The euphemisms and rationalizations that we use to assuage our guilt do not work. When somebody preaches the gospel of free grace and forgiveness of sins, they jump at it. As the parable indicates, there is an emotional response, but it is superficial. It is a surface response only, a momentary emotional response that does not come from the depths of the soul or the deepest chambers of the heart.
False conversions are like the seed that falls on the tiny bit of earth under which there is stone. It takes root for a second, but the roots don’t go deep enough to sustain life. It springs up quickly, but it withers and dies as soon as the sun comes up, bringing no fruit whatsoever. That is false conversion in a nutshell, which is one of the greatest dangers we deal with in the church. I always say that we are not justified by a profession of faith but by possession of genuine faith. Anybody can say they believe and have their hearts tingling for a moment, but real conversion turns your life upside down.
Are You Converted?
I recently gave a sermon in which I mentioned my personal testimony. I said that on September 13, 1957, at eleven o’clock, I met Christ, and it was the defining moment of my life. After relating that account, I grew concerned. I thought, “I hope people didn’t walk away thinking that unless they can say the day and the hour of their conversion, they aren’t really converted.” Regeneration, the work by which the Holy Spirit changes the disposition of your soul and brings you from darkness into light, from unbelief into faith, is an instantaneous thing. It is not something that happens gradually, nor is anybody ever partially reborn. You are either regenerate or not. That being said, your conversion experience, your intellectual awareness of what has taken place, may take years to realize.
I often think of the example of Billy Graham and his wife, Ruth Bell Graham. Billy used to tell a story of one night in North Carolina, on the way home from playing baseball. While he was still in his uniform, Billy stopped at a revival tent and heard the preaching of a man named Mordecai Ham, who gave an altar call at the end of the service. Billy went forward, and his life changed forever. So, he knew the day and hour when he became converted. On the other hand, his wife Ruth was a Presbyterian and grew up with catechetical instruction in a Christian home. She could not have told you within five years of when her conversion took place.
The question is not, “When and where were you converted?” but “Are you converted?” It is not about whether you answered an altar call, raised your hand, prayed the sinner’s prayer, or signed a card. Does the Holy Spirit dwell in your heart? Has your life been changed by the regenerating grace of God the Holy Spirit? The only test for that is whether you bear fruit.
Here is Jesus’ description of the third group: “Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity.” Like the ones that fall on the stone, these at least take root. Maybe their profession of faith lasts a little longer than those who fell on the stones. The ones that fall on the thorns, however, never leave the thorns and are choked by them.
I used to teach at the Young Life Institute in Colorado. I frequently warned their leaders, saying, “I do not know of any organization that has a more effective ministry to high school kids than Young Life, but you make Christianity so attractive that people are often converted to Young Life and not to Christ.” One problem that the leaders in Young Life used to deal with constantly was what they called “tubing it.” Kids would come to camp, sing songs around the bonfires, enjoy wonderful fellowship, but they would fall away, down the tubes as it were. They would renounce their faith.
Were these converted people who fell away? I do not think so. Their conversion experience was spurious and not the real thing. That is why it’s so important to hear a parable like this, lest we go through life blithely, blindly assuming that we are in a state of grace when we are far from the kingdom of God. We need to search our hearts to make our calling and election sure, lest we be deceived.
The Fruit of Conversion
Jesus also said that there was seed that fell on the good earth. Do not come away saying, “Only good people respond to the gospel.” That is not the point Jesus is making. The good soil is that which has been changed by God the Holy Spirit. It is the good soil where the seed takes root because the Holy Spirit has prepared it, tilled it, and made it fertile, which is something we cannot do for ourselves.
For those whose hearts have been changed by the Holy Spirit, when they hear the Word, they love it. They embrace the Word and obey it. They bring forth the fruit of conversion, real salvation in abundance, a hundredfold. I think that is the point of this very interesting but difficult parable. It is why many commentators don’t even call it “The Parable of the Sower.” Instead, they call it “The Parable of the Soil” because it’s the soil that determines whether the fruit comes forth and the seed germinate, which only happens in soil that the Holy Ghost has prepared. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.