I wish to use Christ’s Parable of the Sower to demonstrate some important points regarding the preaching of the Gospel to the lost and the subsequent harvesting of their souls into the Church. Most importantly, I want to us to notice how prominently Election figures into the parable.
I have heard numerous evangelistic sermons on the Parable of the Sower. They all share the same idea that the unsaved listeners should not let the devil steal away what they have heard or that they should put down good, deep roots, etc. I want to stress first of all that I believe this is a totally erroneous interpretation of the parable. Jesus’ own presentation of the parable, and especially His explanation of it, should prove this fact.
Jesus tells us several important facts in this parable.
- Who is the Sower?
The Sower is not the preacher: it is Christ. It is Christ Himself who tells us this (Matt. 13:37). Whenever a pastor, evangelist or missionary preaches the Gospel, he is merely participating in Christ’s work. If we were to stretch the parabolic analogy we might say that the preacher is the hole in the seed pouch from where the seed falls. In theological circles there is what is referred to as the General calling and the Effectual calling. This parable serves to demonstrate that truth. Some of the seed falls in general areas and some of it falls in specifically designated places where it attains the desired result. The proclamation of the Gospel and the command to repent are to be given by the preacher to everyone without distinction. The Book of Acts finds Paul preaching in synagogues, city squares and at the Areopagus. The distinction between those who are elect and non-elect is not ours to make. It is Christ who decides who is good soil and who is not.
- How does he sow?
Christ did not use parables as sermon illustrations – quite the opposite. It is considered an indispensable skill for a preacher to have a massive arsenal of illustrations at his disposal in order to make his points more understandable to his hearers. Christ used His parables in order to make His message intelligible to a specific group among His hearers and unintelligible to the rest. Jesus explicitly says, “[I]t is given unto you to know the mysteries of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it is not given. For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath. Therefore speak I to them in parables: because they seeing see not; and hearing they hear not, neither do they understand.” (Matt. 13:11-13) Christ spoke in such a way as to give illumination to those He had chosen to salvation and to hide the truth from those who were not chosen. Few, if any preachers understand this skill today.
Let me emphasize again that it is Christ who does this: He is the Sower. Hence when we preach the Gospel, the Spirit either opens the listeners’ minds, thus making the message intelligible and effectual, or He simply leaves their minds in the innate darkness of their own fallen state, a condition in which understanding spiritual truths in impossible since they are spiritually discerned.
- Where does He sow and/or not sow?
The seed stolen by the birds, that which fell on the rocks, and that which fell on thorny ground, was not sown! I cannot stress enough how vital this point is. The only seed that was actually sown was that which was taken by the Sower to good ground; the rest simply “fell” in various places. No farmer with an IQ above 6⅞ would purposely sow seed on the roadside, on stones or among thorns. Surely we must assume as much of Christ. When Christ the Sower set out to sow His seed He did not begin the actual, intentional work of sowing seed until He reached the designated plot of good ground. This fact illustrates the doctrine of Election. Election precedes foreknowledge. The farmer foreknows where his crops will grow precisely because he has already chosen the plot of land in which to plant them.
Imagine a farmer in his tractor driving out to the field where he plans to sow seed. It is not unimaginable that some seed (perhaps even a lot of seed) might spill out along the way. Furthermore, it is not improbable that some of the seed might be a free lunch to birds or that some of the seed might actually sprout up briefly. But none of us would be so foolhardy as to imagine a flaw in the seed or the farmer when these seeds fail to produce fruit. And the farmer would certainly not be disappointed when he couldn’t harvest fruit in the middle of the road or out in the gravel driveway! None but the seeds actually planted in the pre-appointed field are expected to produce a harvest.
- How is the ground made good?
We must also hasten to point out that the receptivity of the soil is not its own doing. The farmer purposely plants in good soil. But no soil is good in and of itself. It must be first prepared by the farmer. He first picks out a plot suitable to his designs. He then begins to break up the fallow ground. He removes anything that might already be growing in this field. He ploughs the chosen plot and does other necessary preparations such as adding fertilizer. Theologically, there are massive implications here. The plot of land was chosen purely because the farmer in a sovereignty of his own decided that that particular piece of land fit best with his plans. The ground was not chosen because it was already good land. It was made so after it was chosen.
Here is where the flaw in the aforementioned evangelistic sermons becomes apparent. When the preacher warns his unregenerate audience to guard the Word so that the devil doesn’t steal it away, or to put down good roots by not being caught up in the cares of the world, he betrays a exceedingly defective misunderstanding of the parable. He operates on the faulty assumption that all ground is created equal. This is patently false. No one in the world, let alone a farmer, would assume that the growing potential of a well-trodden roadside is equal to a properly cultivated field. The Parable of the Sower is an explanation of how the Gospel proclamation works with regard to the elect and non-elect. It is not a Gospel proclamation itself. Not recognizing this distinction must certainly be the source of this common misinterpretation. Chaos would ensue if we interpreted other similar parables the same way. Just image how bizarrely the Gospel would appear if you tried to expound it based on the Parable of the Lost Sheep. What nonsense would ensue from telling sinners that they must go out looking for the lost sheep! The main reason that this Parable of the Sower is misinterpreted is because the mistaken exegesis lines up too easily with Arminian soteriology.
- Who is responsible for the seed’s growth?
The seed is not expected to be fruitful in the undesignated areas. No farmer is disappointed because his crops do not grow out in the wild, uncultivated fields. He is not troubled because the seeds that accidentally, as it were, fell out in unsuitable places did not bear fruit. Christ did not represent the Seed as being ineffective. Rather, He blamed the deadness of the soil for the lack of fruitfulness. There is a significant theological truth here as well. The preaching of the Word is not to be considered an invitation, but a declaration. The Seed is effective in the areas where it did not grow: It serves to judge the unbelief of the impenitent hearers. We have become so results-oriented that we forget that the responsibility for fruit, indeed the fate of the Gospel, is not in our hands. God is sovereign and His plan will be fulfilled through our work or despite our work. Luther once said something to the effect that the growth of the Church would go on as God intended whether he were preaching or drinking a beer! This is a typical Luther statement, but it is most certainly true. Jeremiah the prophet preached for forty years and had, so far as we know, only two converts: his scribe Baruch, and an Ethiopian named Ebed-melech. He wouldn’t be invited to any church-growth seminars! William Carey labored in India for seven years before he saw his first convert. In a classic passage, St. Paul says,"I have planted, Apollos watered; but God gave the increase" (1 Cor 3:6). In other words, regardless of who does the work and what work they do, the success of it ultimately lies in God’s sovereign power.