Applying the Parable of the Soils

The parable of the soils (Matthew 13:3-8; Mark 4:3-8; Luke 8:4-15) is simultaneously a frightening and encouraging section of Scripture. It warns all those who hear the Word of Christ to take heed lest their heart or the hearts of fellow believers ultimately reject the word and become unfruitful. But it also encourages believers to pursue and protect what Jesus calls “a good and honest heart” that “bear[s] fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). There are clues in the parable and the immediate context that help us discern how to cultivate a heart that readily accepts and profits from the Word, and believers should make it their aim to diligently apply these principles.

Four Kinds of Christians or Four Kinds of People?
Diligent application of this parable is vital, because the New Testament connects spiritual fruit as the necessary result of salvation. Fruit does not earn our salvation, but it does demonstrate that we are vitally connected to the source of it (see John 15:1-8). Some commentators have argued that the parable of the soils describes four different kinds of Christians: some who are less mature and others who are more mature. I do not take this position because I do not think it can be squared with the text. In what follows (today’s article and a following article) I take Jesus to be describing four different kinds of people, with only the last representing the a true believer.

Applying the Parable
The question that arises when we take the position that Jesus is describing four kinds of people rather than four kinds of Christians is how professing believers should apply the parable. The problem of application is soon solved, I think, if we keep in mind that Jesus is giving the interpretation of the parable to his disciples (Luke 8:9).

To designate someone as a disciple in the New Testament was to say that a particular person was currently following Jesus. The classification of “disciple” did not, however, reveal an inward reality, but only external commitment. Indeed, some disciples walked away from Jesus once they heard teaching they didn’t like (John 6:65-66). Even one of the twelve was inwardly a devil (John 6:70). Importantly for our study, it is the bearing of fruit that is the only reliable sign of a genuine inward reality (see John 15:1-8).

A professing disciple, then, should approach the parable of the soils with a desire to cultivate a good and honest heart, for it is only this kind of heart that bears fruit. It should also be the aim of the disciple to avoid the tragedy of the first three soils. To say that a believer should seek to avoid, say, the calamity of superficial growth that withers in the face of opposition (soil #2), is not to suggest that a genuine believer can’t have any assurance of their salvation and that they are constantly in danger of falling away. Rather, disciples of Jesus are called to cultivate a good and honest heart that bears fruit for the sake of their assurance. 

Assurance and Fruit-Bearing
Scripture teaches us that a vital means of Christian assurance is the bearing of spiritual fruit. If we find ourselves unable to withstand opposition on account of the word, or our passion for Christ and Scripture is steadily overrun by our our desires for other things, then we will lack assurance of salvation, and for good reason. God has not designed that Christ’s disciples walk in robust assurance when their hearts are hard, superficial, or consumed with the things of the world.

So, if you are a disciple of Christ, this parable is for your own heart. But not only for you in terms of direct application, but to help us understand how the Word works in the hearts of our brothers and sisters. We can be patient with those who might be undergoing a season of pruning (as we will see in the next article), and we can be earnest with those who have allowed thorns to overtake their garden of their heart. Those who appeared to understand the Word but are now regressing may need the plow of rebuke to break up the fallow ground. In every case, the aim will be the pursuit of fertile soil. That is, a good and honest heart that that bears fruit with patience.

In the next article, we will examine eight strategies to help us cultivate such a heart.

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