Thorny Ground

Jesus describes four types of soil and how they receive seed in his parable of the sower, which is recorded in Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23; Mark 4:3-9, 13-20 and Luke 8:4-8, 11-15. These four types of soil represent four types of people who hear the gospel:
1. People who never grasp the gospel at all,
2. People who respond to the gospel without counting the cost,
3. People who respond to the gospel but who do not persevere by bearing fruit to the end, and
4. People who respond to the gospel and bring forth its fruit.

Three of the groups are fairly easy to identify. The first group, the pathway, clearly refers to people who were never saved; the gospel never really penetrated their thinking at all, and as soon as the message is preached, the demons come with distracting thoughts to keep the word from impacting them. The second group, the rocky ground, corresponds to those who make confession of Jesus in response to evangelism and may even get baptized but are nowhere to be found after a few weeks have passed; as soon as they discover the implications of the gospel, they drift away. The fourth group, the good soil, clearly is a metaphor for true Christians: "they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience." (Luke 8:15)

The crux of the theological argument would be how we understand these folk to become those who hear God's word and hold it fast "in an honest and good heart." Evangelical Arminians and Calvinists (as over against the followers of Pelagius, the British monk who was condemned as a heretic by the Church in 416 for denying Original Sin) maintain that inasmuch as the Bible teaches that people are born with a heart that is anything but honest and good, there must be some prior work by God's Spirit preparing the soil -- prevenient grace. (John 6:44) Evangelical Arminians would see that grace as indiscriminate and universalistic; Calvinists would see it as particularistic, truly effecting radical and permanent change only in those whom the Father gave to the Son. (E.g. John 6:37; 17:2, 9, 20)

The Calvinistic position does not rule out human cooperation with grace; it simply understands that human cooperation has been purchased and secured through Jesus' death and effectually brought to pass by the work of the Holy Spirit. (Titus 3:3-7) There are mysteries here because the Bible does not teach that God ever violates man's will, thereby forcing people to do what they do not choose to do. Paul puts these seeming antinomies together so well 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." Those who work out their own salvation with fear and trembling, in context, are those who regularly seek to have the mind of Christ, who willingly made himself a doormat for others. They are those who "in lowliness of mind esteem others better than themselves," whose focus is the welfare of others above their own. (Philippians 2:1-5) The ability to live such a New Testament lifestyle does not lie in carnal human nature. Those who live this way have only God's sovereign grace to thank; those who do not live this way have only their fallen nature to blame.

The really difficult group is the third, the thorny ground. I think that it is difficult sometimes to identify who these people are. Are they saved are lost? It is hard to be dogmatic about some people. The ambiguity about people who were once rather active in their Christian profession but who now are essentially fruitless leaves us with many questions. The question is not whether they were once saved and are now lost, but whether they were ever saved at all; for, if they were ever saved, they are still saved, and if they are not saved now, then they were never really saved. This is so clear in 1 John. True Christians not only have sinned, but they never get beyond having sin in this life. (1 John 1:8, 10) But a true Christian cannot go on living in sin without repentance. (1 John 3:3-10) In fact, if a person can live on and on in sin, never repenting when confronted, then he has never been born again. 1 John 3:9 says, literally translating it directly from the Greek New Testament, "Everyone who has been begotten (perfect tense in Greek, indicating a completed action in the past that has results that continue in the future) of God is not doing sin, because his seed is abiding in him and he is not able to sin (present tense indicating continuous action, effectively translated as "he is not able to continue on to sin") because he has been begotten (form as above) by God." 1 John 3:6 says, again from Greek, "Everyone who is abiding in him is not sinning; everyone who is sinning has never seen (perfect tense, as above) him or known him." The whole force of these verses is summed up in John's profound and simple statement, "They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us." (1 John 2:19)

The thorny ground hearers are those about whom we should have doubts. And they should have doubts about themselves, too. Are they the folk of 1 John 2:19 who once were within the visible fellowship of the Church, but never actually born again? After all, a temporary faith is not true Christian faith. (Acts 8:13, 20-23) Or, are they true Christians who have grown distracted and cold, living for a season with things other than the Lord Jesus as the focus of their lives? The other three "soils" are clearly identifiable: the never interested, the new but short-lived "convert" and the fruitful, mature Christian. But churches also encounter people who drift away for a while in coldness, bitterness and sin, and some of these people do come back in the brokenness of repentance in time. During the time that such people are out of fellowship, we simply cannot know who they really are.

Scripture admonishes people from time to time to question their salvation. (2 Corinthians 13:5) It does not mean that we should ever question God's work of salvation, only whether or not we have appropriated it, because these warnings about apostasy are there, warnings that I, who am trusting in Christ at present, must take seriously. If I do not mortify sin, and I continue in that state, then I will eventually turn my back on Christ and go to hell. The possibility of complete apostasy from God is a reality that is not merely hypothetical, but real for all of us. That it does not ever happen to someone who has been born again is due to God's free and sovereign grace. The problem arises when people who appear to have been true Christians begin to live as if they were devils. To them we must say that the only past event on which our assurance of salvation rests is the finished work of Christ two thousand years ago, not our presumed experience of it. It is not our past experience, but our present experience that testifies to our being real Christians. This is not to deny that true believers sometimes backslide and live for a season in sin, but they will never fully turn away from the Lord Jesus, and they will always come back. But while they are living away from the Lord, they have no biblical basis for assuming that they are saved.

So it is that we are admonished to "Keep (our) selves in God's love," realizing that all of this is due "To him who is able to keep (us) from falling." (Jude 21, 24) Or, as Paul puts it in Ephesians 2:8-10: "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them." 

Grace is the root, faith is the means and works are the fruit. The whole of this is secured by God's saving act in Jesus Christ, applied in time by the Holy Spirit, who does not violate the will of man but who courts and woos sin hardened sinners by the overtures of the gospel proclamation, "To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself, not imputing their trespasses unto them . . ." (2 Corinthians 5:19)