THE FAITHFUL PREACHER ENCOURAGED
Expository thoughts on the Parable of the Sower, as recorded in Luke 8. 4-15.
The old saying that ‘familiarity breeds contempt’ is one that sometimes applies to the Christian’s attitude to certain portions of Holy Scripture. Verses and passages, learnt either by heart as a child or read over and over again since conversion, can become so well known to us that we scarcely pay attention to them when we hear them read publicly, or arrive at them in the course of our private reading. Yet how much we often lose by treating the word of God in this way. More often than not, that familiar verse, that well known passage which we almost skip over in our haste to get at something new, contains the very teaching our souls need in the hour of trial and temptation.
In the present article we shall take a fresh look at one such neglected section of Holy Writ – Our Lord’s Parable of the Sower. Using Luke’s account, we are informed that Christ spoke the Parable to the multitude (Luke 8. 4-8) but explained it privately to His disciples (Luke 8. 9-15). Let us see what we can discover for ourselves today from these familiar words, and, at the same time, offer as an encouragement to all those who are endeavouring to sow the precious seed of the Gospel in these difficult days.
1. The seed is the word of God.
Before we look at the various receptions the seed will experience, we must notice what our Lord tells us about the seed itself. At the very beginning Christ assures us that “The seed is the word of God” (verse 11). In other words, our Lord is saying that every preacher who faithfully declares the true Gospel “the glad tidings of the kingdom of God” (Luke 8.1), will find his hearers reacting, sooner or later, in one or other of these ways. This enables us to see two ways in which the Parable of the Sower is of value to the man who is engaged in sowing the seed of the Gospel today.
(a) It helps him understand the various reactions to his preaching.
In days like these, when great indifference to all things spiritual characterizes the mass of the people, and comparatively little success seems to attend the declaration of the Gospel, it is easy for the faithful preacher to become downhearted about his work. When he sees many treating the Gospel as though it was nothing more than a fairy tale, others abandoning it for the world after only a
short profession, and a third class quite satisfied with an empty, dead profession, he can eventually begin to wonder whether there is ever going to be any real harvest at all. Sometimes the devil, who counts all preachers of the Gospel as primary targets, attempts to drive these doubts home with such persuasive force that the poor sower begins to think seriously about labouring elsewhere or even abandoning the work of preaching completely. One of the best antidotes to such confusion is to be reminded of Christ’s Parable of the Sower. Once the tempted, desponding preacher realizes that our Lord experienced the same reactions under His ministry, and forewarned His servants to expect the same under theirs, the mists will begin to clear. Like every other Christian, the preacher will often find that deliverance from depression begins when the Holy Spirit, by a seasonable application of a relevant passage of Scripture, reminds him that God has said that things will be so. “The entrance of thy words giveth light; it giveth understanding unto the simple.” (Psalm 119.130).
(b) It encourages him to preach the Gospel.
Satan does not always attempt to exploit the faithful preacher’s despondency in the same way. Like a skilful general, the devil sometimes changes his tactics. Instead of suggesting to the faithful sower that he should perhaps move elsewhere or give-up completely, the adversary will encourage him to stay in the work but go about it another way. For example, he sometimes indulges his wretched habit of drawing comparisons between what he terms the “evident failure” of the Reformed pastor and the “definite success” of the bright comets at present flashing across the Evangelical sky. These comparisons, which are quite false, are generally followed by suggestions that perhaps he, too, would achieve similar “results” if he toned-down or modified his doctrine, sought the charismatic gifts, or began to make use of such modern helps as guitar groups, films, drama, etc., to make an impression on the people. Once again, a good antidote to these evil recommendations is a seasonable reminder of the Parable of the Sower. As we shall see, one of our Lord’s pictures promises a genuine harvest, and thus encourages the faithful minister to go on proclaiming the pure Gospel and trust the Holy Spirit to make it effectual. The seed is still the word of God.
2. The seed which fell by the wayside.
One of the reactions to the Gospel, which every true preacher is sure to experience, is that of numbers quickly rejecting what they have heard. How perfectly our Lord’s picture describes this. “…and as he sowed, some fell by the wayside; and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it” (verse 5). Let a man proclaim the Gospel in its purity and power, and he will still have the mortifying experience of seeing many lose the word almost as soon as they have heard it. Our Lord’s explanation of their behaviour is left for the
preacher’s instruction. “Those by the way side are they that hear;
then cometh the devil, and taketh away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved.” (verse 12). No sooner is the service over than Satan will take pains to remove the seed from many hearts where faith has not been mixed with hearing. In some people, he will stir up natural contempt for the message and effectively rob them of the seed of the word in that way. In others, he accomplishes the same end by leading them to read infidel
literature, watch television, or plunge themselves into vain company.
One also wonders, from what one has sometimes seen in Evangelical churches in recent years, whether Satan does not also use frivolous ‘after-church’ gatherings on Sunday evenings to rob needy young people of the Gospel seed. But let the desponding
preacher take heart. Our blessed Lord experienced this aspect of
Satan’s work under His own ministry, and has told His servants to expect the same. Because some seed has been lost to the fowls in the air, it does not necessarily follow that all the seed sown by the farmer has suffered the same fate.
3. The seed which fell on the rock.
The second type of reaction to the declaration of the Gospel is , rather different from the one we have just considered. Our Lord describes it in verse 6, “And some fell upon a rock; and as soon as it was sprung up, it withered away, because it lacked moisture.” The faithful preacher will sometimes find that there are hearers who do not turn away from the Gospel but seem to receive its message with open arms. They appear to have been deeply affected by the word preached, and soon profess “repentance toward God, and faith toward our Lord Jesus Christ” (Acts 20. 21). A new joy seems to have entered their hearts, and they begin to leave their former ungodly companions and pursuits, and identify themselves with the Lord’s people and their ways. In short, there is much to raise the preacher’s hope that they have been truly converted, and he begins to look forward to the day when he can baptize them and welcome them to the membership of the local church. But, alas, his hopes are short-lived. As soon as the new ‘converts’ begin to experience the frowns of ungodly relatives or the criticisms of former religious associates, and see that really to follow Christ involves carrying a cross, “immediately they are offended” (Mark 4. 17). In vain will the faithful pastor try to reclaim them from what he considers to be a backslidden state. In due course, his new ‘converts’ abandon all profession of the evangelical message, forsake the company of the Lord’s people for that of their former worldly friends, and often end up among the most hardened opponents of the truth. It is at this point that the preacher needs to listen to Christ’s explanation of what has happened. “They on the rock are they, which, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, which for a while believe, and in time of temptation fall away” (verse 13). The hard fact is that such people were never regenerated by the Holy
Spirit, and consequently never possessed true, saving faith. They were nothing more than false converts whose temporary man-made faith collapsed when subjected to tests which only God-given faith can survive. Our Lord was never deceived by the professions such people made under His own ministry, and has left us this description and explanation of them that we might be wiser and more discriminating in our own. Once again, such experience should not deter the faithful preacher from going on with his work. Because some seed withers away on the rock, it does not necessarily follow that all the seed sown by the farmer will come to nothing.
4. The seed which fell among thorns.
Our blessed Lord’s third picture – that of the seed which fell among thorns (verse 7) – is one that has often been misinterpreted. How often has one been assured that this picture and its explanation (verse 14) refer to what are called ‘carnal Christians’. These are people (so one is told) who have been converted under the preaching of the Gospel, but, alas, become unfruitful through entanglement with the world. However, this popular interpretation becomes unsatisfactory when one considers the immediate context more carefully and compares scripture with scripture. For one thing, Christ does not describe the thorny-ground type of hearers as possessing “an honest and good heart”, even though they are said to “have heard” and “go forth”: only the fourth type of hearers are credited with that prepared soil (compare verse 14 with verse 15). Furthermore, degrees of fruitfulness are also attributed to the fourth type of hearers, “such as hear the word, and receive it, and bring forth fruit, some thirty-fold, some sixty, and some an hundred” (Mark 4.20); whereas the thorny-ground type are said to “bring no fruit to perfection” (verse 14); all they produce is stunted and not worth harvesting. To whom, then, is Christ referring when he likens the reaction of some hearers of the Gospel to wheat choked by surrounding thorns? There is a class of people who regularly attend the preaching of the Gospel (they would not attend elsewhere!) who fit Christ’s description in verse 14 perfectly. Are there not those in Evangelical churches today who claim to have been converted, and perhaps been in membership for years, of whom it can only be said that they “are choked with cares and riches and pleasures of this life” (verse 14)? Our Lord’s explanation solves one of the apparent enigmas of the present-day Evangelical scene -the people who, unlike the temporary convert previously described, continue to attend the Gospel but remain barren, fruitless professors. Being destitute of real spiritual life, and possessing nothing more than natural religion, they are essentially worldlings at heart, and exercise a deadening, blighting influence wherever they go. It is not too much to say that this type of hearer often causes the Reformed pastor more grief than the other two we have already considered. Yet a proper understanding of their real condition will do much to relieve the preacher’s despondency, and can also be
blessed to make his ministry more discriminating. Besides, just because some of the crop is not worth harvesting, the farmer should not hastily conclude that the whole field is worthless.
5. The seed which fell on good ground.
It is when we study our Lord’s description (verse 8) and explanation (verse 15) of the fourth type of reaction to the Gospel, that we see what real, positive encouragement He has provided for His faithful yet often downcast servants. Although many who hear the Gospel never savingly profit from it, there will be those who receive it to the salvation of their souls. In the sovereign providence of God, there will be those present, when the Gospel is proclaimed, who fit our Lord’s description and explanation perfectly. Unlike the rest of the people present they possess “an honest and good heart” in which true, saving faith dwells and works, a heart in which spiritual integrity has been created by the regenerating work of the Spirit. Sometimes the preacher will be used by the Holy Spirit to break-up the fallow ground of the natural man’s heart, and then successfully sow the Gospel seed in the newly prepared good ground later. At other times, he will find that the good ground lies ready for sowing, and that his work is to expound the Gospel to burdened souls who have already been awakened to seek after salvation. But the ultimate result in both cases will be the same – that these elect souls “keep” the word that they hear and “bring forth fruit with patience” (verse 15). In other words, the reality of their conversion will be demonstrated, not by a mere lip-service to the Gospel, but by the patient, continuing production of genuine spiritual fruit. The present writer will never forget one such conversion he was privileged to witness. It occurred in 1968 at the Combined Allied Headquarters at Rheindahlen in West Germany. Owing to the complete absence of faithful preaching in the Garrison churches -the result of military chaplains being deeply drenched in Modernism – a few of us who knew and contended for better things were in the practice of meeting for Bible study and prayer in a married quarter on Sunday evenings. All we did at our gatherings was to offer a few thoughts on a selected passage of Scripture and engage in prayer. One Sunday evening we were surprised to see a Corporal in the W.R.A.F. join our circle. The meeting followed its normal course and was not marked, as far as one can remember, by anything unusual. But no sooner had the meeting been closed with prayer, than our visitor exclaimed, much to our astonishment, “Oh, I am so glad I came here tonight; I have been searching for weeks for someone who could explain these things to me!” It was obvious from what the young lady then told us that she had been awakened by the Holy Spirit some weeks previously, but had not found the answer to her need through what she had heard in the Garrison churches. Here was the “good ground” of an “honest and good heart”, well prepared to receive the seed of the word. Her conversion proved to be as sound as that of Lydia of old whose
“heart the Lord opened, that she attended unto the things which were spoken of Paul” (Acts 16. 14), and greatly encouraged us all. Never mind, then, if much of the faithful sower’s labours seem in vain, and other preachers despise the smallness of his cause and lament the feebleness of his endeavours. Let him persevere with the work, knowing that it is “well doing” (Galatians 6.9) in the eyes of Christ, and will be owned and vindicated by Him in His own time and way. In the picture and explanation of the seed which fell on good ground, our Lord is giving us a fresh reminder of the glorious doctrine of effectual calling. “He that goeth forth and weepeth, bearing precious seed, shall doubtless come again with rejoicing, bringing his sheaves with him” (Psalm 126. 6).
P. D. Johnson