In the last article, I discussed how professing believers should apply the parable of the soils to their own lives and the lives of their brothers and sisters. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to read this introductory article to see why it is vital for professing Christians to apply the entire parable to themselves. In this article I want to examine a specific point of application: eight strategies for cultivating a good and honest heart.
(1) Listen Well to the Word
When you hear the Word of God, take it into your heart and believe it. Although we need God’s help to believe his Word, we must make every effort to believe it and receive it. When you are convicted of your sin or unbelief, take intentional, thoughtful steps to remedy, by God’s grace, that sin and unbelief. Eagerly listen to the preaching of God’s Word, and spend time meditating on the Scripture, not merely reading over it quickly or allowing sermons to pass in one ear and out the other (Josh 1:8; Ps 1). “Take care how you hear,” Jesus tells us almost immediately after teaching on the four soils (see Luke 8:18).
(2) Take a Long-Term Approach to Spiritual Growth
One characteristic of the good and honest heart is that it bears fruit with patience (Luke 8:15). The Scripture often depicts spiritual growth in agricultural terms—planting seed, tilling the ground, watering soil—because the entire process, from initial planting to first fruit takes time (see Psalm 1; Matt 13:1-23; 24-30; 31-33; Luke 8:1-15; John 15:1-8; 1 Cor. 3:6). Among the various species of fruit trees in the world, it usually takes 2-5 years before the tree can produce fruit because it needs to establish a root system to supply adequate nutrient to its branches. Healthy fruit trees also require pruning, which makes them appear less fruitful for a season.
But if you are unwilling to patiently plant and till and water through the hard work of spiritual discipline (prayer, Bible study, fellowship, worship, confession of sin, perseverance through trials), or if you do not want to experience the pain of God’s pruning process that may make you appear less fruitful for a time, and would instead have the quick and easy and showy growth now, you might create a flourish of foliage, but you will be unlikely to cultivate an honest heart or the good fruit of genuine faith.
(3) Focus Your Sin-Killing Energy on Your Pride
I say focus on killing pride because it is pride that often tempts us to trade slow, steady, long-term, inward spiritual growth (that is barely perceptible at times) for growth that is quick, sporadic, showy, and outward. Rather than seeking our contentment in the finished work of Christ on our behalf and the freedom of justification by faith alone, we will begin to look to our works to ground our acceptance with God. But such a reversal is deadly.
At the end of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, we learn that those who were finally rejected by Christ at the judgment were those who had produced significant external ministry (Matt 7:21-23). The basis for Christ’s rejection, however, was that he did not know them and that they had practiced lawlessness (v. 23). Despite their outward greenery, there was no inward reality in these people, and sin and hypocrisy abounded.
Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus indicates that it is possible to practice righteous deeds in order to be seen by others, so he instructs his disciples to avoid such heart motivations because they characterize the religious hypocrites (Matt 6:1). The righteousness of the true disciple is mostly conducted in secret and without the recognition of others. Those who are finally rejected by Jesus at the judgment will be those who never took issue with their pride and their tendency to exalt themselves, even when engaging in outwardly righteous deeds.
Pride will draw us away from the gospel and tempt us to exchange the outward for the inward and to become content with hypocrisy, so we must focus our sin-killing energy on this deadly enemy. Ultimately, pride robs us of the nutrients of grace needed for healthy growth (James 4:6).
(4) Fulfill Your Calling, Not Someone Else’s
Matthew’s version of Jesus’ parable of the soils ends with great encouragement: among the plots of good soil, there were varying fruit yields (see Matt 13:23). I take this to mean that among genuine, fruit-bearing Christians, there will be some who bear more fruit and some who bear less. Depending on our personalities, our respective pasts, our own besetting sins, our knowledge of God’s Word, our given responsibilities, and a host of other factors, we will each bear fruit that corresponds to who we are and what God has given us. I would also argue, based on what I’ve already noted about pride and the temptation to pursue quick, showy growth, that our drifting outside the lines of our calling may serve to upend our growth and fruitfulness.
(5) Confess Your Sins
When our pride is allowed to grow unchecked in our hearts, we will be less likely to confess our sins to God and to one another (1 John 1:9; James 5:16) because we might be valuing pseudo-growth that is showy and outward more than genuine growth which takes time and is often unperceived by others. Confessing our sins makes it appear that we are not growing as much as others and that we are, frankly, a bit of a mess. But to cultivate a good and honest heart, we must be willing to dig deep into the soil of our hearts to remove the rocks and weeds of sin and unbelief. This process will be painful and not too pretty, but it will yield much fruit over time.
Also, a good and honest heart can only be maintained by keeping a good conscience. When the conscience is weighed down and defiled by sin, it is like a fruit tree with an infection. Fruitfulness will be hindered, and some fruit will not be as healthy as it could be otherwise. We keep a good conscience as we confess our sin and receive God’s cleansing through the blood of Christ (1 John 1:9; cf. Proverbs 28:13).
(6) Be Willing to Forsake Anything that Dampens Your Affection for Christ
The seed that fell in the third soil was choked out by the deceitfulness of riches, earthly pleasure and, as Mark’s version adds, the mere “desire for other things” (Mark 4:19). Although God has given us all things richly to enjoy (1 Tim 6:17), we are called to exercise wisdom and self-control as we enjoy these gifts so that the “desire for other things” does not crowd out our desire for Christ and his Kingdom. Jesus said plainly, “So, therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33).
When a particular enjoyment or possession comes into our lives and we find that it starts to consume our thoughts and affections and take away time and energy from biblical priorities, if we are unable turn that enjoyment or the use of that possession for God’s glory, we might need to abandon such enjoyments for the sake of our souls. Giving up our bucket list may be a practical step toward realigning our priorities and re-tilling the soil of our hearts. These exhortations are not meant to advocate any kind of aestheticism (see Col 2:23) or the rejection of God’s good gifts (1 Tim 4:1-5). But a healthy soul will be one that is willing, as Calvin tells us, to moderate our enjoyment of earthly pleasures. Adrian Hallat explains:
Moderation in the desire of worldly comfort is, for Calvin, ‘One of the main differences between the ungodly and the people of God.’ The people of God can ‘restrain immoderate and irregular desires for worldly comforts and pleasures, whereas the former [that is, ungodly] rush into excess in many varied ways.’
Jesus also tells us that the thorns were allowed to “grow up with” the new little shoots and were not dealt with immediately upon planting (Luke 8:7). What is implied here is that the person who desires to maintain an honest and good heart must constantly tend to the soil, rooting and pulling and digging out thorny plants that threaten to render the Word unfruitful. The call for Christians to lay up treasures in heaven rather than treasures on earth and to resolve their loyalty between God and wealth will be ongoing until we reach heaven (see Matt 6:19-24).
(7) Pray for a Good and Honest Heart
Just like the farmer relies upon God and prays for rain to produce growth from the newly planted seed, so must we rely upon God and ask him through prayer to cultivate in us good and honest hearts. Ultimately, it is God who causes the growth (1 Cor 3:6) and allows us to make any progress in spiritual maturity (Heb 6:3). Yes, we must till the soil through confession of sin and repentance, and place ourselves under the teaching of God’s Word, but without the Spirit giving life, our efforts will come to nothing. We must pray for a good and honest heart.
(8) Recognize What is at Stake
As I noted in the last article, Jesus is not describing four kinds of Christians, some who are less fruitful than others. Rather, he is describing four kinds of people, with the last one being the only true believer. The first heart was hard and therefore could not believe the Word and be saved (Luke 8:12). The second soil demonstrated that, despite appearances, the seed never penetrated deep enough to establish a sustainable root system. This plant of faith, therefore, withered in the face of difficulty and trial, particularly as the trouble arose on account of the Word (Luke 8:13). According to Jesus’ words elsewhere, to turn our back on Christ in the face of opposition is to fail to reach final salvation (see Matt 24:13).
The seed of the third soil was choked out by the pleasures of life and the deceitfulness of riches before it had a chance to mature (Luke 8:14). In other words, this soil was unfruitful (Matt 13:22). Yet Jesus tells us plainly that only those who bear fruit can be counted his true disciples (John 15:8). It is only the last soil—the good and honest heart—that bears fruit and can therefore be counted a true believer. Jesus is clear: no fruit, no salvation (John 15:2, 6). The fruit doesn’t earn our salvation. But fruit does demonstrate that we are vitally attached to the source of it (John 15:4-8).
The parable of the soils helps us understand the dynamics of the human heart when it comes in contact with the Word of Christ. All professing disciples of Jesus are therefore warned and encouraged by this parable to take care of the soil of their hearts because their assurance and final salvation is at stake. We should also be aware of how the hearts of our brothers and sisters can become entangled in the thorns of earthly pleasure and riches and be ready to encourage them to serious plowing and weeding when necessary.