OUR REACTION TO THE WORD OF GOD
The parable of the Sower is in such exact accord with the facts of life that a Christian teacher, if he had to summarize in terms of agriculture what he has seen throughout decades of teaching, would have to invent the parable to express facts. This is the very first of our Lords parables; it is one of the few the literal interpretation of which is given us by the Saviour Himself; and so simple, so obvious, so convincing is it that Jesus says, - Know ye not [do ye not understand] this parable? and how shall ye know all the parables? (Mark 4: 13). And the truth of it can be put with extreme simplicity:- motives, sown in the heart, create action; and divine motives create a divine life.
Now the first immense truth that we get is that there is a pre-established harmony between Scripture and the human heart. The seed, our Lord says, is THE WORD OF GOD (Luke 8: 11).* Where in the totally distinct parable of the Tares, the seeds are the children of the Kingdom, our Lord, as the sole regenerator, says (Matt. 13: 37):- He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; but where it is solely the distributing of the Word of God, and the reaction of the human mind to the Scripture, this is nowhere stated: the sower can be an evangelist, or pastor, or teacher, or colporteur; or a worker in the Sunday School or on the street or in the home. Paul Planted, he says, and Apollos watered. The whole and sole emphasis is on the seed. The Seed is the Word of God,* and the Word of God only: all therefore, which the human sower may plant, all seed not the Word of God verbally or in substance, is here completely ignored: the parable is solely the reaction of all minds to the Holy Scriptures, whether those Scriptures be heard or read. The field is the world; and revealed truth is designed for all men, and is to be sent and offered to all.
[*The Word of God is defined in (Matthew 13: 19) as the word of the kingdom; for the kingdom in mystery, the Church, and the kingdom manifestation, our Lords Advent and Reign, together compose the whole counsel of God, - [i.e., the gospel of Gods grace and also truths relative to the kingdom, Acts 20: 24-27] - involving and embodying all revelation, but especially the seed sent forth since Pentecost.]
Four groups, and four only - four is the world-number - cover the whole of humanity; and the first is soil which rejects the seed in toto ; the hard, trampled, exposed pathway on which some of the seed falls; and since no seed germinates in it, it is all Scripture-hearers or Scripture-readers that are lost. Those by the wayside are they that have heard - the Word of God has reached them: then cometh the devil and taketh away the word from their heart, THAT THEY MAY NOT BELIEVE AND BE SAVED (Luke 8: 12). No revealed truth whatever enters such hearts: therefore no saving truth: therefore all such souls are lost. So we are left with a second tremendous truth:- that mans heart, without the Holy Scriptures, is - Godward - perfectly barren.
The next two groups cover a vast section of those who hear the truth and believe it; living plants, made alive by the germinated seed; yet, in the harvest, both these groups are found without fruit. Ή The first reads like a photograph. They that have been sown upon the rocky places, when they have heard the word, straightway receive it with joy; and they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, - [i.e. the message about the kingdom (Matt. 13: 19, N.I.V.] - straightway THEY STUMBLE* (Mark 4: 16). The particular truth, or truths, has never taken root. They have not root in themselves; that is, the defect is in them: either they never mastered the truths [of the messianic kingdom which] they have now abandoned - there was no depth of conviction; or else their own characters are feeble and volatile, and what they once grasped with joy they now relax in gloom. Their root is in a favourable environment, not in themselves; in excitement, in Christian encouragement, in prosperity. Paul sketches similar characters:- Tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men - the jugglery of controversial conjurors in craftiness, after the wiles of error (Eph. 4: 14). Probably tens of thousands of [regenerate] believers to-day (including Modernists, though by no means Modernists alone) can say with a church member known to the writer:- I have lost all my beliefs except belief in my Saviour: all the lovely early bloom, in its joyous springtime, had - as the Saviour says - withered.* And the reason is given. When tribulation - the word derives from the threshing-roller, the sifting of wheat (Luke 22: 31) or persecution ariseth because of the word - unpopularity, or even danger, of the truth straigtway he stumbleth (Matt. 13: 21). The stumbler in the race is the runner who loses the prize. Obedience is always costly and the greater the obedience the greater the cost. So it is the warning of Hebrews (2: 1): Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the things that were heard lest haply we drift away front them."
[Ή Since fruitbearing and reward, and not the receiving of a free gift of eternal life, is the subject matter before us; the gospel of the grace of God is nowhere in view: works are predominant throughout! Failure by those who recognise this fact, and neglect to point it out to others, can only reveal a certain disregard for their spiritual welfare by underestimating the importance of our Lords teaching.]
[* Professor William James, quoting the letter of a correspondent, gives (in his Varieties of Religious Experience) an example that could be indefinitely multiplied. His correspondent describes how a living faith which had been a tower of strength and a well of life to him, gradually left him. "A blank was there, he writes, instead of it. I couldn't find anything. Now, at the age of nearly fifty, my power of getting into connection with it has entirely left me; and I have to confess that a great help has gone out of my life. Life has become curiously dead and indifferent. All apostates fall under this heading, whether temporary like Peter, or permanent like Judas.]
The third group is no less intensely realistic. They that are sown among the thorns are they that have heard the word, and the cares of the world, and the deceitfulness of riches, and the lusts of other things entering in - after the Word has sprung with lovely promise choke the word - the old convictions survive, but become inoperative: Wickliffe translates it, strangle it and it becometh unfruitful (Mark 4: 19). It becometh unfruitful, for in early stages there was fruit: absorbing anxieties, or else worldly success, or else the passion for other things - and there are a thousand such - than the coming of the King and the Kingdom, bring it about that the grain never ripens. The second group were fruitless through external difficulties - unpopularity, ostracism, even danger to life: the third group, through internal passions - anxiety, covetousness, and countless other lusts.* In the words of Havelock, when criticized for his religious convictions:- I humbly trust I shall not change my opinions and practice, though it rains garters and coronets as the reward of apostasy. It is the warning of John:- Look to yourselves, that ye lose not things which ye have wrought, - the lovely fruits of springtime but that ye receive a full reward (2 John 8).
[* The love of money is the root - here is one thorn-root of all kinds of evil, which some reaching after have been led astray from the faith and have pierced themselves through with many sorrows (1 Tim. 6: 10) - here are the thorns.]
Whether or not we may press the numerical proportions given in the Parable it is impossible to say; but it is at least very suggestive that, in our Lords statement, only one in, every four who hears, and only one in every three who believes, bears fruit. Christian fruit - another enormous lesson of the parable - is simply Scripture reproduced in life. That in the good ground, these are such as in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, hold it fast - the Greek word implies so holding a thing that it does not run away from us: truth can be slippery and BRING FORTH FRUIT with patience (Luke 8: 15). If we do not grasp the truth, and retain it, it passes: but truth retained in unencumbered soil, infallibly fruits. These neither misconceive the true genius and character of the Gospel calling, as a scheme of discipline and probation, by which virtue is to be made perfect through suffering, like converts of the second class: nor shrink from its personal duties, and give it a secondary place in their thoughts and affections, like those of the third: but are ready to endure all things, even the loss of life; and ready to sacrifice all things, even themselves, their dearest appetites and passions (Greswell).
So now we see in all its clearness, the priceless facts which our Lord unfolds. (1) The reaction of the soil to the seed is a perfect revelation of the soil: no test for analyzing character is more subtle or more searching than our reaction to the Word of God. It is only the burning conviction that creates the glowing life. (2) The seed is received as each man has ears to hear (Alford). The only seed is the Word of God; and each seed - that is, each Scriptural truth - bears its own fruit, fruit which is impossible if that particular truth is not planted in the mind. A seed may be more, or less, vigorous, and therefore more, or less, fruitful - that is, a truth, equally accepted by different believers, may have widely different effects; but also, as covering the whole ground, the fewer seeds accepted, the narrower the harvest. It is the amount of truth we absorb, and the amount of truth we retain, that decides our harvest. Simple, saving truth produces simple, elementary salvation; but Gods Word is a vast mass of sixty-six books, and each truth produces a fruitfulness of its own. Therefore (3) the glorious fact stands forth that, as that life will be fullest of fruit whose heart is fullest of scripture - Scripture first studied, then believed, then practised - so complete fruitfulness is made possible for every believer - a hundredfold, not thirtyfold - by complete obedience to all Scripture. All of us can become living epistles.
So we reach the vital point. What controls our reception of the seed? The Lord says nothing of subtlety of intellect, or depth of learning: for appropriating divine truth the qualities are not mental at all, but moral. Such as in AN HONEST AND GOOD HEART hold it fast (Luke 8: 15). It is a description, says Greswell, familiar to classical readers as the received formula among the Greeks for moral excellence. The first quality, honesty, means straight vision, an mediate acceptance of unpalatable truth, a refusal to have any axe to grind, perfect openness; our Saviours single eye which is consequently full of light. The second quality, goodness is a heart bent on all that is right and divine. The expression an honest and good heart conveys to us the idea of ingenuousness, nobleness of purpose, united with goodness (Alford). Our character and life are ultimately the sole evidence of a good and honest heart; and the highest holiness is the closest incarnation of the Book. Therefore the golden words of President Woodrow Wilson to all sowers: - Give men the Bible unadulterated, pure, unaltered, uncheapened, and then see it work its wholesome work through the whole nature. It forms a part of the warp and woof of mans life. For the soil does not change the seed, except to develop it; but the seed does the miracle - it turns dust into fruit.