Scripture Reference: Mark 4:1-20, 1 Peter 1:23
Getting Conversion RightDr. Erwin W. Lutzer | May 29, 2011
Scripture Reference: Mark 4:1-20, 1 Peter 1:23
Selected highlights from this sermon
In the parable of the four soils, Jesus relates how many people can hear the same message but respond differently. And as Pastor Lutzer explains the parable and the meaning of the four different soils, we’ll not only be challenged to witness to others, we will be personally confronted to ask ourselves: have I really been converted?
A couple of weeks ago I woke up one morning thinking of the phrase, “You can’t redo life.” And I thought, “You know, that really is true. We can’t redo life so why don’t we get it right the first time.” So I decided to speak on the parables – a few messages on the most prominent parables that Jesus Christ told, and today we get to his first parable – getting conversion right.
I have three objectives in this message today, and I hope that by God’s grace we reach all of them. The first one is to help us understand how conversion really happens, how a person is converted to Christ, and there’s a great deal of mystery connected with it, of course, so we don’t know everything. But how does it happen from our standpoint that people are saved? And another goal that I have is this – to encourage you to witness to others and to let you know that your witness for Christ is not wasted, even if it appears to be wasted perhaps in the giving of it. And finally, I am preaching this message because I want to confront you personally and ask you whether or not you have really been converted.
A couple of years ago when we took a tour to the sites of the Apostle Paul we were on a Greek island (I forget which one it was) and I saw this big sign that said, “Genuine Fake Jewelry.” Seriously! In fact, Rebecca took a picture of it and I asked somebody, “Genuine fake jewelry?” And they said, “Yeah, that’s a perfectly good sign.” They said,
“Everybody knows that what is sold here is fake, but there are some that are more fake than others, so this is genuine fake jewelry.”
So I want you to know that one of my goals is to confront you with the question of whether or not you are a genuine fake or an ungenuine fake Christian, however that comes out. I want you to be a real Christian, born again, and converted.
Now the parable that we are looking at is in Mark 4 where Jesus is speaking to the disciples. We must understand that according to Mark 4:10 and following he gives an explanation as to why he speaks in parables and he says that he does that for two reasons. First of all, it’s to conceal truth from those who rejected him and are not interested in the truth anyway. If we were to read the third chapter we’d discover that Jesus, after doing many miracles, was accused actually of being demon-possessed. They said, “He is possessed by Beelzebul.” This is in Mark 3:22. He is possessed by Satan. What a conclusion to come to! And so what happens is Jesus begins to withdraw from the multitude to spend time with his disciples who accepted him, and yet he’s speaking to a large crowd here when he gives this parable, and for those who are interested in the truth, it will lead them to more truth. For those who are disinterested in the truth it will simply confuse them and turn them off. So Jesus said that the purpose of parables is to conceal the truth from those who don’t want to hear it, but to open the truth – to reveal it to those who are interested in following him. So it has a two-fold purpose – a purpose of instruction, but also a purpose of judgment.
Now there are dozens of parables. Some of them are only one verse long. This is one of the longer parables, and thankfully Jesus gives us the interpretation so we are not left to ourselves to interpret it. It is one that we have heard read but I shall read it again, picking up in Mark 4:3.
“Listen! (And by the say that becomes so important because Jesus is going to say, “He who has an ear to hear, let him hear.” There are some people who get it, and there are some people who don’t get it, and listening means that we actually hear and understand. We don’t just simply hear words. So, in the words of Jesus, listen!) A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. And other seeds fell into good soil and produced grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold.” And he said, “He who has ears to hear (listen carefully), let him hear.” Please listen carefully because Jesus urges us to.
Now when the disciples were alone they asked him about the parable and he says in verse 14, “The sower sows the word.” So now we’re going to interpret the parable.
First of all, about the seed itself! The seed is the word of God. The Gospel that Jesus Christ was proclaiming, the message of the Kingdom that was breaking in onto Satan’s kingdom and rescuing people from the grip of Satan and his power, is the word of God. And if you ask what you need to know in order to receive the word, that will become a little clearer later on in this message, but notice that the seed is the word of God.
The Bible says in First Peter 1:23 that we are converted not by corruptible seed but by incorruptible seed by the word of God which lives and abides forever. The Word is the seed because the Word has life. You hold seeds in your hand and when you plant them they grow and they reproduce themselves. Why? It’s because within them is life, and within God’s word there is life that can speak to your soul and transform you when the seed dwells within.
Now, before you begin to sow you should ask yourself the question, “What harvest do I want?” because if we want the right harvest we must seed the word of God and we must do so correctly. If you have a theory of Christianity regarding health and wealth and that if you believe on Jesus you’re going to get all of these blessings as if that’s the Gospel, then you will reap an entirely different crop, and unfortunately it will be a bad and a bitter harvest. So the seed is the word of God, which germinates within our hearts and bears fruit.
But now let us notice also the sower. Jesus said a sower went out to sow. Well the ultimate sower, of course, would be Jesus Christ himself, wouldn’t it? It’s Jesus doing the sowing. But you and I sow, and we sow by our witness, and when we sow the Gospel in the lives of other people, we do so first of all in faith. We do it in faith because sometimes we don’t see any results. Now in those days the way in which a sower sowed is he had a pouch that he carried around his waist, and he would take some grain and then broadcast it – scatter it upon the earth. And he scattered it everywhere hoping that it would grow everywhere, but as we’ll see in a moment it doesn’t grow everywhere, but he does it in faith because when he goes back the next day there’s no evidence that anything has happened. And he begins to wonder whether or not his sowing is profitable, whether or not it produces the good and necessary result. He really doesn’t know. Maybe later on he might, but for the time being he doesn’t know whether his sowing produced fruit or not. And that’s the way it is when we share the Gospel. That’s the way it is when we preach and when we teach. We don’t necessarily see evidence that what we are doing is transforming lives, but we are trusting and believing in faith that in God’s good time lives will be changed and transformed, so we sow in faith.
You know, when we were building the CLC (the Christian Life Center), it was easy to measure growth. It was easy to see what we were building. Every week was different. Every month we could see advancement, but it’s not quite like that when we are dealing with people, is it? We don’t see the changes. They may be imperceptible, and those changes may be in the future.
So he sows in faith, but also he sows in partnership. Remember in the book of First Corinthians there was an argument in the church as to who was greater; whether it was Paul or whether it was Apollos. Apollos apparently was a great orator and people loved to hear him preach, and Paul said, “Don’t divide the body over personalities.” He said, “I planted, Apollos came along and watered, but it is God who gives the increase.” Very seldom do you and I share the Gospel and somebody immediately believes unless they have been prepared by others for that moment. Some plant, some water, but ultimately whether or not the seed germinates is up to God, isn’t it?
So you have the sower, you have the seed, and now the soils, which is really the heart of this parable. Let’s look at the different soils – four of them.
Jesus here is explaining why it is that people who hear the same message respond differently. Have you ever wondered why it is that a person can listen to hundreds of sermons and not believe on Jesus? It has happened. I knew a man who went to church regularly, listening to pretty good preaching, listening to the Gospel, and when it came time for him to die nobody in his family had any assurance at all that he had really believed on Jesus. Have you ever wondered why that is? Jesus is going to explain it right now.
So he says, first of all, that “The sower sows the word (verse 14). And these are the ones along the path, where the word is sown; and when they hear, immediately Satan comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.” The man is sowing wheat, let’s say, and he’s broadcasting it and some of it falls on the path, and the path is very hard. Why is the path hard? First of all it’s because the path is a place where people have trampled, and I suppose that there is no heart as hard as those who are rebelling against other Christians who have trampled on them, like a young person who says, “I hate my dad, therefore, I hate his God,” and so his heart is hardened.
The other reason, of course, why people have hard hearts is because they feel very comfortable with their sins, and with themselves, and so in the midst of this comfort they don’t want to change; they don’t want to have God break into their lives. They are very content with who they are, but notice this. Isn’t this remarkable? Imagine the spiritual battle that is going on when we share the Gospel. There are those, Jesus said in the parable, to whom the birds come and they devour the seed and here, he says that those birds are Satan, who snatches the word of God from people’s minds. Always remember that your mind is a spiritual substance. It’s not a physical substance. It would be wrong to say, “I had a thought that was nearly a third of a centimeter long, and weighed a tenth of a gram.” Your thoughts and your mind exist in the realm of spirit, and if our minds are not protected, Satan can actually enter into them as he did in the case of Ananias and Sapphira. He put ideas into their minds that they thought were their own, and so they felt comfortable to lie and to deceive. If Satan had come to them with fury, saying, “I am the devil and I want you to deceive the Church,” they would have never, never fallen for that, but they were comfortable because they thought that this was their idea.
But notice that Satan comes and snatches the word. That’s the only way you can explain some people who, when you share the good news of the Gospel with them over and over again, they just don’t get it. The word of God is snatched from their minds. Realize that we have a spiritual battle when we share God’s word. So that’s the first category. Obviously we can describe them as having a hard heart. That’s the hard heart.
Well now, we come to another category, and that is the shallow heart. Let’s read on. You’ll notice he says regarding the shallow heart in verse 16, “And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.” These are those who hear the word of God and they receive it with joy because they say to themselves, “I feel guilty. This is a way out of my guilt.” Or perhaps they hear a message that tells them that Jesus has certain benefits connected with him if we believe in him, and the problem is that they really don’t have the soil that causes the grain to germinate and to grow, and so interestingly these are the people who bring most joy to the sower. He sows and they instantly receive it with joy. They say to themselves, “This is wonderful,” and they receive it, but when persecution arises, when difficulties come, they say, “I believed in Jesus. At least I prayed a prayer, but I didn’t know that I was getting myself into something that was as transforming as it really is,” and so they back away. I don’t think that these people were genuinely converted.
I think the best example probably is those who go forward in a meeting and they say the right prayer and they do it but somehow it is only in the head and it is not in the heart. And so because it never reaches the level of the heart, the seed is in the mind, but they never savingly believe in Christ. I think the first two categories here are unconverted people.
But now we go on to a third category that is even more interesting. I don’t know how to interpret this from this standpoint. I called it a worldly heart, category number three – may be a divided heart. You can give your own label to them, but let’s look at what it says now in verse 18. It says, “And others are the ones sown among the thorns. They are those who hear the word but the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches, and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word that proves unfruitful.”
One of the things that we learned out on the farm was that you never have to sow weeds. And in our lives we never have to sow thorns. They always want to come up. So here’s a person who has the right kind of soil. He really does. He receives the word of God. It falls into his life and germinates. Now I differ from most interpreters at this point because most people (most commentaries that you read) will say that these people also are not true Christians, but I’ve known Christians who fit this category. Jesus doesn’t want us to build a whole theological case on these parables. He’s after a certain point but you’ll notice that what the thorns are, are the cares of this world. Yes, true believers but just continuing to earn as much money as they can. You’ll notice the deceitfulness of riches because remember money makes all the same promises God does. The desire for other things consumes them, and it’s not that riches are wrong or the desire for other things, but it becomes so all-consuming that God is crowded out and they give him the left-overs, and they are not fruitful. Now I believe that every Christian bears at least some fruit, but there are some Christians who I might say bear very little fruit of the Spirit because they are overwhelmed by the cares of this world – the deceitfulness of riches and a desire for other things. And so their lives are basically unfruitful.
Maybe it is true that those in this category have never really believed on Christ, even though the word seems to have germinated, but ask yourself as a Christian if this is a picture of who you are. Ask yourself that.
But now we come to category number four, and that’s what we’ve been waiting for, isn’t it? Verse 20 says, “But those that were sown on the good soil are the ones who hear the word and accept it and bear fruit thirtyfold, sixtyfold, a hundredfold.”
Now you know I was born on a wheat farm. We had some cattle but primarily we grew wheat and some oats, and maybe also some wild oats at times (at lease my brother). But I know something about planting. We thought that if we got thirty bushels in return for every bushel of wheat that we planted that was really great. Fifty was unusual, and only happened every once in a while.
Now Jesus here is saying, “Thirtyfold – that’s great! Sixtyfold – that’s beyond the limit! A hundredfold – there’s no way that you could expect to get a hundredfold.” There may be some things that you get a hundredfold in. Usually it’s weeds. It’s not wheat or oats or barley. But Jesus said that the life where the soil was good (and that doesn’t mean that we as humans are good but that the seed received a wonderful welcome and was deeply rooted) bore fruit. And by the way, that’s the only soil that really has the assurance of salvation. The only real evidence that you and I have that somebody has been converted is when they become fruit-bearing Christians, and we begin to see evidence of the new life that God has implanted within them.
Now what I’d like to do is to give you three lessons that I hope you never forget. It’s easy for us to forget, but don’t let Satan snatch this out of your mind.
First of all, notice that even though all of the soils received the same seed, only one really bore the fruit God intended. And that means that there are degrees of receptivity for the word of God. Today I am preaching to a lot of people here at the Moody Church, and many who have joined us by way of the Internet. This message is going to be on the radio God willing and will be heard by many thousands of people, and there’s going to be a variety of responses. Some are going to say, “Yes, I get it. I understand,” and those are the Christians who say, “I know that my roots are real, and that the Gospel has done its work in my life.” Others are going to blow it off, and simply say, “We’ve heard all this before,” and they are uninterested because their hearts are hard.
This past week I met a man who debates atheists. I wish I had met this man before I debated an atheist a few months ago. And he said he always asks atheists this question. I love it. He says, “If I ask you two questions will you give me an honest answer?” And they say, “Of course, yes.” And the first question is, “Will you give me an honest answer to question number 2?” Every atheist of course says yes because remember atheists also are created in the image of God, and because they are created in the image of God they have a sense of morality and conscience, etc. Their conscience and their morality does not come from atheism but from the fact that they are God’s special creation in his image. So they always say yes, and then he asks them this question. If Christianity were true would you become a Christian? Most of them think about it for a moment and some of them say no. Well what’s this debate all about here? How much evidence would it take to convince you? The answer is none because even if it were true, you wouldn’t become a Christian. In other words, it does not matter. The evidence is irrelevant. And what that means is a hard determined heart. But let’s not think that that is relegated to atheists. It’s relegated to church people who are willing to come and listen but are indifferent to God and indifferent to the Gospel. And so please keep in mind that when we speak about hard hearts it doesn’t mean somebody who is angry. It means somebody who is comfortable without God’s forgiveness and grace as it is found in Jesus. So please keep that in mind. The response is different in the lives of different people.
The second lesson is that it is the word of God (the Gospel), which will become clear in a moment, that produces the miracle, and not the sower. The sower who sowed the seed may not have been dressed too well. He may not be very educated, but ultimately, if the miracle is going to happen, it’s going to happen because the word of God (the seed) fell onto soil that was willing to receive it and accept it. That’s really the key to witnessing.
Now, I might say that sometimes the sower gets in the way of the seed. If you are going to sow the good news of the Gospel to those with whom you work, your friends and so forth, don’t trample on them at the same time because, as I mentioned, for those who were along the path, that path was hard because many people had walked over it. So the integrity of the sower oftentimes is important for the receiver to accept, but at the same time, when the miracle actually happens, that miracle is really a miracle that the seed does. The word does what you and I cannot do. It is the miracle of regeneration. It is the word of God, and we don’t know how that is, do we?
In another parable Jesus said that the Kingdom of God is like unto a man who sows seeds in a field, and then he goes and sleeps, and after a number of sleeps he comes back and he sees that there is growth but he doesn’t understand how it happens. And I don’t understand how you can have one little seed of something that is very small and you plant it and then you get thirty or forty or a hundred back. I don’t understand that. I don’t understand how the Holy Spirit of God works in a heart and brings about conversion or regeneration. I don’t understand that but I do know that the word does its work, and we are born again by the word of God. And so God often uses very imperfect sowers.
I love that story. You know in the eighteen hundreds there was a great preacher in England by the name of Charles Haddon Spurgeon. One time when he was about eighteen years old, as I remember the story, Spurgeon went to a church, and it was snowing so hard he trudged through the snow, and it snowed so much that the pastor never made it to the church himself. So a lay person stood up and read the phrase from Isaiah, “Look unto me and be ye saved all the ends of the earth.” He read that text a couple of times, made a few comments, and that was it, and that word stuck in Spurgeon’s heart and soul and led him to conversion.
It’s not a matter of saying, “Oh, I don’t witness because I don’t have all the answers,” or “I’m not polished.” No, what we need to do is to give people the word of God.
Now there’s a third lesson. Only God can take the soil and change its consistency. Only God can really take the soil and change it because a question you should be asking in this message is, “What about the hard soil?” Can it ever be plowed so that it becomes soft and pliable? And the answer is yes. We should never think that somebody is locked into hardness. God is able to take soil and change it.
Now, one of the things I learned (and Collin Smith preached on this passage, and he brought it out, and I totally agree with him) is that in those days what they would do is to seed the word of God, or I should say broadcast the seeds over a piece of land, and only after that did they plow it. They didn’t plow it ahead of time. They plowed it afterwards, and so they plowed it under so that it would begin to grow.
Now here’s the reason why you and I should be witnessing and sharing the word of God. It’s that as we give it out to people we have no idea when God may decide to plow - whose life he may begin to plow up so that they can receive the word of God. Maybe they can’t receive it when we give it to them, but the time may come when they will. And how does God do that? Well I don’t know all the ways that God does it but I do know that there are times when a person feels as if he needs God. It may be an awareness of God. It may be tragedy. When somebody comes into your room – the doctor comes into your room - and says, “You know, you’ve got six months to live,” that may cause you to begin to think, “You know, my heart has been hard toward God but maybe I should listen to God’s word.” God comes along and plows and the reason that you and I should sow seed is we do not know where he will plow next.
Now, sometimes God goes ahead of us and prepares the soil so that when the word comes it falls into good soil immediately. Now let me tell you a story. Two weeks ago today Rebecca and I were on a train going to Prague in the Czech Republic. We were with two other couples, and when you buy tickets on a train you are given the place where you are going to sit and so forth, and so we were given six seats, and we arbitrarily chose them. We couldn’t sit together. One group went there. I and another man, we chose some seats. You know how those trains are? The seats face one another and I found myself directly across from a young woman who had headphones and I asked her whether or not she could speak English, and she said yes. I asked her where she was from and she said Moravia. I said, “Do you know the story of the Moravians?” You know they were the ones who went from the Czech Republic to Germany and sent 265 missionaries around the world. No, she had not heard of the Moravians, and I said, “They spread the Gospel,” and she said, “What do you mean by the Gospel?” So in less than two minutes we were into the Gospel.
Now the good news is this. I’ll tell you the end of the story and then I’ll give you the process. In less than an hour I took her by the hand and led her to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Isn’t that wonderful that God did that? (applause) For all I know she may be listening today because I encouraged her to join us here at the Moody Church online, but here’s what I discovered.
First of all, most of the time was spent helping her to see why she was a sinner who needed a savior. Now she was open to God but thought that she could find God just within her – you know the God within. She didn’t need forgiveness in the biblical sense, and then she raised the issue of why we can’t just come to God directly. Why do we need Jesus? I love that question. Why do we need Jesus? And so I explained to her why you can’t go to God directly. You can pray to him, and he may answer your prayer, but the way in which he’ll answer it is he’ll bring Jesus into your life in one way or another very quickly because Jesus is the mediator between God and man, the only one qualified to take away this issue of sin.
Now she said she was defining sin as the big things such as murder, theft, etc. etc. I began to help her to see that our nature was corrupt. I said, “You know, we as human beings are something like fish in the sea who say, ‘I don’t see any water. Where’s the water? What do you mean by water when you are swimming in it?’” So that helped her along the way, but here’s why I tell you the story. God prepared the soil.
She said a year ago (and it’s a year ago this coming month) she was walking along a pier and fell down, and she said there was blood for two meters (I’m not sure exactly what all that meant), but she was picked up basically for dead. She was taken to a hospital, and in the hospital, after being in a coma for I forget how many hours she recovered. But the doctor said that she should be written up in the Guinness Book of World Records because they have no idea why she lived. As a matter of fact, when she was there in the hospital her soul actually left her body so that she could see herself lying there from the corner of the room, which helps us to understand the separability of the soul from the body, but she came back to life and she said that there were people who came into her room just to look at her and to say, “We don’t understand why you are alive.”
So she said to me, “Why didn’t I die?” Oh, I love those questions. I took her by the hand and said, “You didn’t die because you weren’t ready to die. God knew that at some time I would sit across from you in this train and explain to you how you can come to saving faith in Jesus Christ and be ready to die.” So afterwards she was ready to, struggling, of course, with how to pray, so I explained to her the prayer that I would pray in detail – what she was admitting to – that she was a sinner – that she couldn’t save herself – that Jesus died for sinners, and that he made a path to us so that he could take away our sins and give us the righteousness of Christ. I said, “Would you like to believe on Jesus?” She said, “That would be wonderful if you would help me to.”
Now only time will tell whether or not she fits into good soil. I know for sure that she isn’t in the first soil because her heart was not hard. I trust that she did not belong to soil number two that received the word with gladness. I hope that she fell into the good soil category, and I received an E-mail this week from the folks in the Czech Republic with whom we connected that they have followed up with her. They’ve connected with her a couple of times by E-mail and are helping her to find a church in Prague, and to be discipled. I hope and pray that she will be the fourth soil that bears fruit forever. But I tell you that to let you know that God went ahead and he plowed the soil and he brought into her life circumstances that made her ready to believe on Christ.
And maybe today, for those of you who are watching by Internet, or listening on the radio, or those of you here in the sanctuary of the Moody Church, God has brought you to this moment, to this hour, for this reason, that you might savingly believe on Christ, that the word of God coming into your heart might be so received that it creates the life of God, and you’ll begin to love Jesus, you’ll begin to display the fruit of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, etc.) and you’ll say to yourself, “Surely, I know God.” And the fruit that you will bear you’ll never see here on earth.
That guy who led Spurgeon to faith in Christ because of that one or two sentence sermon that he preached had no idea that that eighteen-year old in the congregation was going to be one of the most famous preachers in history. You have no idea the impact you have when you sow the seed.
Get your colleagues at work to read the book of John, and just say to them (even if you don’t believe it), “Read it and ask yourself who is this Jesus anyway?” Get the word in their hearts. God will come along and plow the field and someday they’ll bear fruit forty, sixty or a hundredfold.
Did God intend this message for you this morning? I hope so to encourage you to share the word, or for those of you who are not sure, to bring you to openness to receive Christ.
Would you join me as we pray together?
Father, today we thank you for the Gospel, and I pray, Father, for those who perhaps fit into category number two or three. They’ve received the word, maybe even with gladness, or it is growing among the thorns, and we don’t know whether they are converted or not, and they don’t know whether they are converted or not. Today, Father, open their hearts to the Gospel.
And even as I prayed with a 32-year old young woman on a train, I pray that in this moment you can repeat this prayer after me.
Father, I know that I am a sinner. Today I understand that Jesus is the Savior, and I receive him as my Savior. I trust him to forgive my sins. I trust him by his spirit to come to live within me and to change me by his word. Today, Father, I pray that you will put me on a path of being a fruit-bearing Christian thirty, sixty or a hundredfold.
Father, help all who have prayed that prayer and those who haven’t, but should. In Jesus name I pray, Amen.