All people are supposed to hear the good news of Jesus Christ crucified and resurrected from the dead. Not only are all people supposed to hear that salvation has been accomplished in history, they are to hear that any who repent of their sin and turn in faith to Jesus will actually possess the benefits of that accomplished salvation as well. In other words, those who offer the gospel are to sow the seed personally and indiscriminately, and are not to be discouraged when many people reject the message. While it would be hasty to say that three quarters of those who hear the message will reject it, it is certainly fair to say that of the various kinds of heart-soil that hear the gospel, three quarters will reject the message. Sowers of the good seed should rejoice in the positive results that do occur (and that God has promised!), rather than sulk about all the bad results or lack of results. The fact is that the outcome of the sowing is not dependent on us. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 3:6: “I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth.” It is our business to be planting, not digging up the seeds to see if they have sprouted yet.
The biblical thinking outlined above runs counter to all the various kinds of evangelism that put pressure on the one sowing to make the growth happen. Thoughts such as these — “if only I had been a little more eloquent”; “if only I had kept going a little longer”; “if only I had used a different illustration” — are stultifying to the evangelist. Why put pressure on oneself to provide the growth he is incapable of providing? What motive remains for the evangelist if he pressures himself thusly, but has no visible results? If, however, the evangelist depends on God’s grace for the growth and merely concerns himself with presenting clearly the Word of God (which also happens by the grace of God), the proper relationship between God’s sovereignty and man’s responsibility in evangelism will be maintained.
Anyone who thinks this way can be an evangelist. One of the main problems that churches are facing today in the area of evangelism is the idea that the pastor is the only person qualified to evangelize. They might think that the pastor must be the only one to do evangelism because the pastor is paid to do it. Or they might think that only seminary-trained individuals can evangelize. Ultimately, that kind of thinking stems from the idea that the growth depends on us. The real problem is not a lack of education. The real problem is that we seldom love people as we ought. We don’t love people enough to tell them they are going to hell without Jesus Christ. We fear the consequences (men) more than we fear the Consequence (God). Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, help us to repent of our unloving hearts!
The application to sowers of the seed is only half the picture. The other half has to do with the hearers of the seed. Most applications of this parable focus on evangelism, and rightly so. What kind of soil do you have? How are you listening to the Word of God? Are you hard-hearted, such that the Word of God bounces and skitters along the surface, never penetrating? The Word is then gone before you even know it is there. Are you shallow, driven with every mad craze of the age, such that the Word of God is just one more fad that will be replaced with yet another, much in the same way as Toad in The Wind in the Willows? Oh, you might receive it well initially, but the next thing to come along withers it. Or, is your heart distracted? The Word might have some penetration in your heart, but you want so many other things alongside the Word. Eventually, those other things crowd out the Word.
The most wonderful thing about God’s grace is that God is the gardener who can change your heart-soil. He can take out the hard heart, the shallow heart, the choked heart, and give you a first-rate topsoil heart, infused with the fertilizing energy of the Holy Spirit, the watering efficacy of the blood of Christ, the sun of the Father’s powerfully enlightening Word, all of which together plow the tough soil, remove the underlying rock layers, and weed out the distractions.
One last thing bears mentioning. Christians can respond to the Word in one of the three bad ways just as much as the unbeliever does. There are areas of our lives that are hard, shallow, or choked. By God’s grace, using the means He has provided for us, we must tend our gardens, using the plow of the Law to prick our hardened consciences, levering out the rocky soil by means of serving one another, and weeding out those worldly idols that so easily entangle us. God’s grace accomplishes this just as much as in the conversion of the unbeliever. However, that does not mean that we sit back and do nothing. As Paul said in Philippians 2:12–13: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”