Brendon R. Witte
The inappropriately named “Parable of the Sower” is, perhaps, the most well-known of Jesus’ parables (cf. Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23; Mk. 4:1-12, 13-20; Lk. 8:4-10, 11-15). But, at the same time, it is one of the most commonly misunderstood parabolic speeches of Christ. The focus of the discourse is not on the sower, as the Church-given name might suggest. Nor is the spotlight on the seed, that is, the Word of God. The concentration of the parable is on the four soils—the hearts of those who hear the gospel—and their ability or inability to yield fruit-bearing plants. Hence, the heart of Jesus’ proclamation is the heart of his hearers.
What, then, does Jesus teach about the hearts of those who hear the gospel? In what ways do people respond to the gospel message? What does each response tell about the respective person’s spiritual condition? How does this passage’s central message affect our discipleship technique?
As was mentioned above, Jesus’ parable examines four soils—four typical hearts—and the interaction of the soils with the seed of the gospel. In this post, we are only going to examine the description of the first soil. The other three will be dealt with respectively in subsequent posts.
The Soil, Seed, and Satan
The first soil is robbed of the gospel-seed by a hungry bird, Satan.
When I was younger, my father owned a contracting company. The core of his business was building and selling custom houses. At the end of each build, my brother and I were employed to do my least favorite job: seeding the yard. The job was not necessarily strenuous or tiring. What made it annoying was that we had to cover the seed with straw, a messy project that made our eyes and skin itch. But, unfortunately, it was a necessary step in the process; without it, grass would not grow properly. Why? The straw did a number of beneficial things for the fledgling yard: it kept the fresh soil from eroding, it provided fertilizer for the seeds, it kept the seeds from being washed or blown away, and it deterred birds from eating the seeds. Without the protection of the straw, birds would have no obstacle preventing them from getting to the seeds. Within a few days, all the seed on the lot could be gone because of a few hungry birds.
Jesus’ first century, agricultural society must have understood the bird imagery well. They would have known intimately the destructive power of such winged pests, and they would have, thereby, understood the caustic influence of Satan. Like the birds, Satan preys on hearts by taking the exposed gospel-seed; he prevents the gospel from taking root and growing. The potential believer only hears the Word but does not act upon it. In this way, Satan prevents the person from becoming a fruit-bearing—that is, “righteous”—individual, which marks him or her as hell-bound, rather than kingdom-bound.
How does Satan steal the gospel from the heart and how can we, as believers, prevent this from happening to those to whom we proclaim the gospel?
First, this passage does not specify how Satan robs the heart of the gospel. But I posit that it is safe to assume that he does so through manipulation and deception based on the multiple descriptions of the Adversary found throughout the Testaments.
The primary attribute of Satan is that he is a liar. John 8:44 states,
“You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”
How is Satan “a murder from the beginning?” He led Eve into sin—which leads to death (cf. Rom. 6:23)—by manipulating the words of God in the Garden of Eden:
“But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3; cf. 11:14-15).
God had told Adam and Eve not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Yet the serpent, Satan, when he met Eve, assured her falsely, “You shall not surely die” (Gen. 3:4). By this lie, its corruption of Eve, and Eve’s corruption of Adam, sin entered the world and, thereby, death (cf. Rom. 5:12). In this manner, the serpent was the first murder in human history, not Cain.
Second, we can indirectly impede Satan’s mission by actively combating Satan’s servants through prayer and the proclamation of the Word of God, and by ridding ourselves, through the Spirit, of unrighteousness. But, unfortunately, we cannot, as humans, do anything directly to stop Satan from snatching the gospel-seed. We may be able to share the gospel, but we are not responsible for a person’s regeneration. Regeneration is monergistic. That is, a person is “born-again” (cf. Jn. 3:3-15) completely by the power of the Holy Spirit (cf. Eph. 2:1-10; 1 Cor. 12:3). We cast the gospel-seed, the Spirit causes it to grow, and we cultivate the new plant through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The First Soil and the Discipleship Process
How does this perspective on the first soil, then, affect one’s understanding of the discipleship process? I propose that there are at least two discipleship principles that one can learn from this passage.
First, the parable of the first soil confirms that we should not be prideful in our discipleship. It is easy to deceive ourselves by thinking that we are great Christians when we evaluate how many people we have discipled. I know I am guilty of this sin, and I have not even discipled a tenth of the Christians some of my mentors have. But by means of this self-deception we lose sight of the Spirit’s past and continuing affect in our disciple-making. Without the Spirit’s regeneration of the lost, we would have no one to disciple. Further, without the Spirit’s active presence within us, we would not be consistently conformed to the image of Christ, which is the goal of the discipleship process (cf. Rom. 8:26-30). So let us be aware of our weakness in the absence of our God, and let us turn to the Lord and not to ourselves with thanksgiving after every discipleship “win.”
Second, I suggest that this passage substantiates the claim that you should never disciple an unbeliever.
Firstly, an unbeliever is under the influence of the prince of the power of the air, that is, the fallen angel, Satan (cf. Eph. 2:1-3). He or she is not under the influence of Christ, nor is he or she part of Jesus’ planted and ever-growing kingdom. The unbeliever is, to use Matthean language, in alliance with “the sons of the evil one” (Matt. 13:38). Therefore, he or she is destined for destruction as a soil that does not contain fruit-bearing plants.
Secondly, if Satan has come and taken away the gospel-seed, what are we to water and cultivate through discipleship? A farmer does not waste time and valuable resources watering barren ground. So why should we waste our time and precious resources trying to bring to fruition a plant that doesn’t exist? Once a seed has taken root and shows itself to be capable of producing fruit, then a farmer tends to the garden. In the same manner, evaluate whether or not the gospel has taken root in a person’s heart before helping them blossom into the disciple God desires. The only way to determine the proper moment for discipleship is by measuring the potential disciple’s fruit. If he or she is not bearing the fruit of righteousness, he or she should not be discipled (cf. Matt. 9.33-37). “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn. 15.8).