“Some fell along the path… Some fell on rock … Other seed fell among thorns… Still other seed fell on good soil” (Luke 8:5-8).

The man was becoming a celebrity. People were talking about him. Wherever he went, huge crowds flocked to him. Everybody wanted to see what he would do next. They all wanted to hear his voice. He had critics, of course, but he was gaining more fans and followers every day. One day the crowds were bigger than ever. The atmosphere was electric. There was a buzz of excitement in the air. What would happen next? But then came a letdown. The superstar did nothing but tell a strange little story that left the people scratching their heads. Here’s what he said:

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than what was sown.”

When he said this, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear”  (Luke 8:4-8)

End of speech. Was that all? Just a little farming story with no apparent point? Why would Jesus of Nazareth use the biggest moment of his career thus far to tell a huge crowd about different kinds of dirt? What was the point? Everybody was puzzled. Even Jesus’ inner circle wasn’t sure what to make of it. His disciples asked what he meant, so Jesus told them: “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for awhile, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop” (Luke 8:11-15).

According to Jesus, spiritual success can’t be measured by the size of an audience or even by how many people give a positive response right away. Real success can’t be measured so quickly. Real success occurs only where God’s Word takes deep root and produces fruit over the long haul. Those of us who are preachers shouldn’t feel we’ve succeeded just because we somehow manage to draw a crowd, nor should we feel we’ve failed just because our preaching doesn’t produce in everyone the results we hope for.

Jesus’ parable of the four soils isn’t aimed mainly at preachers, though. It’s aimed at hearers. How well do you listen to God’s Word? What kind of soil are you? Is your heart hard, so that God’s Word doesn’t sink in at all? Is your heart shallow, so that even if you respond quickly and gladly, God’s Word doesn’t take deep root in you? Is your heart crowded with so many other things that God’s Word gets choked out? Or is your heart like deep, good soil, where the Word is understood, received, takes deep root, and produces an excellent crop?

Hard Soil

The first kind of soil is the path. The path gets walked on constantly. The soil is packed so hard that any seed which lands on it can’t sink in. The seed stays on the surface. It gets trampled and then the birds devour it as quickly as they can.

This is a picture of what it’s like if you have a hard heart. You hear the message of Christ, but it doesn’t sink in, and you don’t want it to sink in. Some hard hearts probably switched off this program the moment they heard it was about Jesus. Others of you are still listening but you’re getting ready to shut it off. That’s what you do when your heart is hard. You have no desire for God’s Word to get deep into your heart. And even if you keep listening for awhile, your heart may still be hard. You may say to yourself, “Okay, I’ll hear what he has to say,” but when the program is over, you go on to other things without giving God’s message another thought.

Maybe you do this not just with a radio program but in church. You sit through sermon after sermon, week after week, but nothing you hear really sinks in or produces any change in you. You go to church out of habit or to please somebody else, not because you desire and expect God to produce new life in you. As the gospel is preached, the seed lands on your hard heart without sinking in. Then Satan and his demons swoop in like birds to snatch the Word away from your heart before it produces any new life or godly fruit in you.

What makes a heart too hard for God’s Word to sink in? In some cases, it may be skepticism and unbelief. You see yourself as an educated person. In your years of education, so many different ideas have trampled your mind that you’ve become hard and cynical. You’re too clever and sophisticated to accept the simple gospel which tells you to confess your sin, trust in Christ, and live a new life through his Holy Spirit. You’re not going to fall for this Jesus stuff.

Or maybe your heart has been trampled into hardness not by godless education but by lots and lots of religion. Years of rituals and pious talk have made you think that’s all there is to religion. If churchgoers you knew were dishonest at work and unloving or even abusive at home, you might think all religion is like that and pay no attention to God’s Word. Then again, you might imitate the religion of those hypocrites and become a hypocrite yourself. You observe some rituals out of habit, but your heart is too hardened by dead religion for the real Word of God to sink in and for a living relationship with Christ to grow and produce fruit.

If you find the Bible boring, if you can’t see why Christ matters in your daily life, if your religion is all ritual and no relationship, you may shrug and think you’re okay–no big deal. But Jesus says it’s a huge deal. Your response to God’s Word is a matter of heaven or hell, of salvation or damnation. The hard soil, says Jesus, represents people “who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” If your heart is too hard for God’s Word to sink in, and if it stays that way, then you will not be saved. Satan and his hideous demons are snatching from you the only Word that can save you. Unless your heart changes, you will spend eternity in the horrors of hell with Satan and his demons.

Shallow Soil

A second kind of soil isn’t so hard, at least not on the surface. The seed is able to sink in and sprout. But the soil is shallow, with rock beneath. When seed lands on rock coated with a thin layer of soil, the results are quick and impressive. The seed sprouts and comes to the surface right away. But when the weather heats up, the seed withers as quickly as it sprang up.

If you’re shallow soil, you get excited when you first hear God’s Word. You may not really understand the gospel message or be quite sure what you’re getting into, but whatever it is, it sounds good to you and you’re thrilled about it. If an evangelist at a meeting invites you to come forward to receive Christ, you’re one of the first to walk the aisle to the front. If you’re worshiping in a church, you sing with more energy than anyone, you listen to the message with more enthusiasm, your heart swells with emotion, and your eyes brim with tears of joy. You tell yourself, “This is it! I’ve got such a strong feeling. It’s got to be the real thing.” You pray and read the Bible more, you enjoy uplifting books, tapes, and programs, and you enjoy a tremendous spiritual high.

But then a time of testing comes. People close to you make fun of Christianity and put pressure on you, and you can’t handle the heat. Or you have troubles in school or on the job. You face illness and setbacks. Someone you love dies, in spite of prayers for recovery. That wasn’t what you expected back when you made that “decision for Christ.” You expected faith to make you happy and improve your life. You never thought it would make things harder for you. Now that the thrill has worn off and hardships have come, why keep following Jesus?

Your Bible reading slows down and stops. Your prayer life dries up. Church becomes less and less appealing to you. Your thoughts and actions become exactly the way they always were. Your life is no different than it was back in the time before you got so excited about God. The shallow soil, says Jesus, represents people “who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for awhile, but in the time of testing they fall away.”

[When Jesus walked this earth, preaching and doing miracles, a lot of people made decisions to believe in him and to follow him. But what did Jesus think of these quick, happy decisions? “Jesus would not entrust himself to them,” says the Bible, “for he knew what was in a man” (John 2:23-25). Many came to Jesus wanting quick fixes for their felt needs, but when they found out more of what it meant to belong to Jesus, many in the crowds “turned back and no longer followed him” (John 6:66). This came as no surprise to Jesus because he had known from the start which of them had shallow hearts and no deep, real faith with staying power (John 6:64). Jesus knows your heart. In fact, he knows you better than you know yourself.]

You may think you belong to Jesus; you may think you have real faith; you may think you’ve had a born-again experience. But are you sure your heart isn’t shallow soil? Are you sure your faith isn’t phony? You may focus on how you received Christ and had a joyful experience in the past, but here’s the real question: Is God’s Word alive in you right now? Is it bearing fruit in your life?

If not, you are on the road to hell. Don’t think you’re okay just because you had an emotional religious experience once upon a time. You might say, “But if I was saved back then, won’t I stay saved forever?” Yes–if you were really saved. But if your original response to the Word has withered away to nothing, you weren’t really saved in the first place.

This doesn’t mean that everyone who goes through a spiritual dry time isn’t saved. Dry times come to all Christians. The plant of faith may seem stressed and start to wither a bit. But even though happiness fades for a time, real faith keeps trusting and seeking God no matter what. When dry weather strikes a plant in good soil, it forces the roots to go deeper to find moisture. So too, if you have real faith and not just a passing feeling, tough times will make your roots go deeper and make your faith more stable and fruitful than ever.

But if you’re shallow soil, your roots don’t go deeper. When the time of testing comes, you just give up on God. Something may have sprouted briefly, but your heart never changed. It stayed as shallow as ever. And unless you get a new heart, you will perish in hell forever.

Thorny Soil

There’s a third kind of soil where good seed doesn’t produce a good crop: thorny soil. Seed that lands among weeds, thistles, and thorns may sprout and grow a bit, but eventually the bad plants choke the good. Thorny soil produces nothing worthwhile.

If you’re thorny soil, you hear the message of Christ but your heart is too crowded to make room for his life to grow in you. Your mind is crammed with worries about your job or your friends, with thoughts of how to make money and where the stock market is heading, with scenes from the movie you saw last night or the party you’re planning to enjoy next weekend or your next tee time on the golf course.

Amid that jumble of things, the impact of God’s Word is “choked by life’s worries, riches, and pleasures.” Worries can choke your response to God and keep you from eternal life. Riches can choke your response to God and keep you from eternal life. Pleasures can choke your response to God and keep you from eternal life. A heart that is overgrown with worries, riches, and pleasures is too crowded for God’s Word to flourish, ripen, and produce good fruit that lasts forever.

Jesus mentions “life’s worries, riches, and pleasures” in a single breath, but we tend to think of these things separately. If people worry, it’s because they don’t yet have enough riches and pleasures and need more, right? And if people have riches and pleasures, they don’t have much to worry about, do they? That’s how we may think, but as usual, Jesus sees more deeply into reality than we do. You can be wrapped up in worries, riches, and pleasures all at the same time. If you lack riches and pleasures, you may still be so focused on getting them that you can’t stop worrying. And if you do have riches and pleasures, you worry about hanging onto them and not losing them. You may feel rich one day but see your wealth vanish quickly in a changing economy. You may feel great pleasure on the golf course on day, only to have a disabling stroke the next day.

“Life’s worries, riches, and pleasures”–these thorns in your heart are all part of the same nasty cluster: worldliness. A thorny heart is a worldly heart, a heart that cares more about earthly treasure than heavenly treasure. A worldly heart is crowed with worry, worry, worry about stuff, stuff, stuff for me, me, me. Worry grows if you depend on yourself more than on God and when you care more about earthly stuff than God’s kingdom.

Jesus doesn’t say that it’s wrong to have fun, and he doesn’t deny that you need some earthly stuff to survive in this world. He says that your heavenly Father knows what you need to survive, and he’ll take care of it. So even though you need food to eat, clothes to wear, and a place to live, don’t worry or chase after such things. Seek first God’s kingdom, and God will take care of everything else you need (Luke 12:22-31). If you trust in God and your desire for his Kingdom keeps growing, he will make sure that your needs are supplied, even as his Word grows in you. But if you let worldly stuff crowd your heart and choke out your interest in God’s kingdom, you will miss God’s kingdom and lose all the other stuff besides.

Here’s what’s really scary: these thorns choke you almost without you realizing it. In describing the thorny ground, Jesus speaks of “the deceitfulness of wealth” (Mark 4:19). Money is tricky. Pleasure is deceptive. If your life is full of fun and games and plenty of money to pay for more, you don’t necessarily feel choked. Sure, you have a few nagging worries, but overall you feel great! Your mind is full of business plans or TV shows or next weekend’s fun times and the Bible is seldom in your thoughts. Your energy is devoted to getting ahead in life and not to honoring Christ. But you still feel like things are fine between you and God and that all’s well in your life.

Beware of thorns! Watch out for worldliness! “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him… The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever” (1 John 2:15,17). The career that means everything to you will pass away. Your money and portfolio will pass away. Food will pass away. Sports will pass away. TV shows and computer games will pass away. Alcohol and drugs will pass away–and make you pass away sooner than you otherwise would. If you depend on anything for your happiness more than you depend on God, if you pour your energy more eagerly into any of these things than into God’s kingdom, your spirit will be choked by these thorns, and you will perish forever in hell.

Good Soil

Jesus talks about a fourth kind of soil, good soil. This soil makes the planting worthwhile. Unlike a hardened path, the good soil is soft, and the seed sinks in. Unlike shallow soil with rock beneath, the good soil is deep and rich, and the seed takes root deep down. Unlike thorny soil, the good soil does not choke out the plants but yields “a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.”

If you’re good soil, God’s Word produces results in you. The truth and life of Jesus Christ grow and flourish within you, and his Holy Spirit produces an excellent crop. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). If you are good, productive soil, these Christ virtues keep growing and multiplying in your life. It is sobering to know that there are many hearts where God’s Word has no long-term impact, but it’s thrilling to know that when you listen carefully to God’s Word, store it in the depths of your heart, and persevere in truth faith, the results are impressive and eternal. “The seed on good soil,” says Jesus, “stands for those with a good and noble heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.”

But what if you don’t have “a good and noble heart”? Are you a lost cause? Is there any way to get a good and noble heart if you don’t already have one? Well, think about soil. What makes soil soft, deep, and weed-free? Preparation! And what makes a heart good and noble? Preparation!

I grew up on a farm. I know that productive soil is soil that has been prepared. If soil is packed too hard, it needs to be tilled and loosened. If soil is too shallow, with many rocks just below the surface, it needs to be plowed more deeply and the rocks need to be removed. If soil is full of weeds, thistles, and thorns, those things need to be killed out before the seed is planted. Prepared soil is productive soil.

Likewise, a prepared heart is a productive heart. An unprepared heart can’t be productive. That’s why God says in the Bible, “Break up your unplowed ground and do not sow among thorns” (Jeremiah 4:3). “Break up your unplowed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord” (Hosea 10:12). “Rid yourselves of all offenses you have committed, and get a new heart and a new spirit” (Ezekiel 18:30-31).

Only God can plow your heart and make it like a freshly prepared soil–deep, rich, and ready to respond to his Word with faith, obedience, and spiritual fruit that lasts forever. God is the great Farmer, and the initiative is his. Jesus says to his people, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last” (John 15:16).

What happens when God prepares your heart? Your inner self is plowed with deep repentance. Your hard heart is loosened and softened, and God’s Word sinks in. Your shallowness and the stones that cause it are removed. You don’t just give a quick, happy response but rather a deep, understanding response to the gospel of salvation through Jesus’ sacrifice and the call to serve him as your King. Your weeds of worldliness, the thorns that fill up so much of your life, are uprooted to make room for God’s Word. Your heart becomes good and noble, not because you’re able to make yourself good and noble, but because God’s Holy Spirit plows and prepares your heart.

This heart preparation is God’s work, but you must trust him to do it. God holds you responsible for the condition of your heart and for how you receive God’s Word. Jesus urged, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Luke 8:8). A few moments later Jesus added, “Consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him” (Luke 8:18). Truth that is not grasped and applied will be lost, but truth that is understood and acted upon will be multiplied.

If you sit in church and the message goes in one ear and out the other, don’t think you really have something. You’re hard soil, and even what you think you have will be taken away. If you had a religious experience once upon a time but have lost interest in the Lord, don’t think you really have something. You’re shallow soil, and even what you think you have has withered and will be taken away. If you have a few beliefs about God but your heart is crowded with life’s worries, riches, and pleasures, don’t think you really have something. You’re thorny soil, and even what you think you have is being choked out and will be taken away.

But if you humbly read the Bible, carefully listen to biblical preaching, and take God’s Word to heart, you have God’s truth and will be give more. If you are truly sorry for your sin and accept God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ, you have God’s mercy and will be given more. If you hate your sin and want God to change your character and conduct, you have God’s holiness and will be given more. If you treasure Christ above anything in this world, you have God’s love and will be given more. If you are growing and producing the fruit of the Spirit in your daily behavior, you have God’s life and will be given more–joyful, abundant, productive life that lasts forever and ever.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.