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The Parable of the Four Soils:

Do the Middle Two Soils Represent Believers or Unbelievers?
(Matthew 13:20-22)

by Bob Wilkin

In Matthew 13 we read these words of Jesus Christ concerning two undesirable types of soil:

    20But he who received the seed on stony places, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy;
    21Yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while. For when tribulation or persecution arises because of the word, immediately he stumbles.
    22Now he who received seed among the thorns is he who hears the word, and the cares of this world and the deceitfulness of riches choke out the word, and he becomes unfruitful.

Recently I received a question from a reader regarding this parable. The reader wanted to know how I viewed the spiritual condition of the people represented by the second and third soil types, the ones mentioned in Matthew 13:20-22 cited above.

The text notes that the second soil type of person does receive the word. With joy even. Only believers receive the word. Indeed, the parallel account in Luke actually says that this second soil type of person believed (Luke 8:13).1 The problem with the second soil person is that he falls away when affliction and persecution arise (Matthew 13:21). Other passages of Scripture confirm this implicit warning: believers, if not careful, may fall away from the faith (Luke 8:13; James 5:19-20; 2 Peter 3:17). The thing which distinguishes the second, third, and fourth soils is not whether they receive/believe the word--they all do--but whether they produce fruit or not.

The expression "yet he has no root in himself, but endures only for a while" (Matthew 13:21) leads some to doubt the plain meaning of the text. If one believes that anyone who fails to persevere proves that he was not a believer in the first place, he must conclude that the person in question here is an unbeliever. But note why he comes to that conclusion. It is not the text which compels him. It is his presupposition. Thus the texts' explicit assertion that the second soil person received and believed the word (Matthew 13:20; Luke 8:13) is treated as though it didn't exist.

Verse 21 pictures a believer who fails to grow and mature and become well grounded in the word and in a local church. Such a believer is unstable. He lacks the depth of character and commitment needed to endure persecution for Christ's sake.

The third soil, the thorny soil, represents those who receive the word, believers, who then allow the cares of the world to stunt their growth and block their production of fruit. Once again, there can be no doubt that believers are in view--unless of course one predecides that no believer is ever overtaken by the cares of the world and becomes unfruitful.

Let's accept for the moment the premise that the second and third soils picture unbelievers. What would we then conclude about salvation and assurance?

We would say that there is a type of faith in Christ which does not save.

We would surmise that unfruitful people in the church probably/surely are not saved.

We would doubt our own salvation since the world's cares sometimes seem to get to us and we sometimes wonder how fruitful we really are.

We would stop giving anyone immediate assurance of salvation since only those who endure in good works prove that they are saved. We would give up thinking that anyone could be absolutely sure that he was saved since no one can know for sure if he will endure in the future or how long he must endure in order to prove absolutely that he is saved.

Are these conclusions valid? No! The Scriptures are clear that there is no such thing as a faith in Christ which will not save. Whoever believes in Him has everlasting life (John 3:16). And, all believers--even brand new Christians--can have absolute assurance of salvation which is based on the promises of the Word and not on the prospects of our works (John 5:24; Romans 8:38-39; 1 John 5:13).

The Lord did not give us this parable to cause us to question our salvation. Rather, He gave it to motivate us to strive to produce much fruit. When we appear at Jesus' Judgment Seat He will judge our faithfulness and fruitfulness (2 Corinthians 5:10). If we have overcome the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and have faithfully served Him in spite of persecution, then He will say "Well done, good servant; because you were faithful in a very little, have authority over five/ten cities" (Luke 19:16-19) and He will give us heavenly treasure (Matthew 6:19-21; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 9:24-27).

However, if we prove to be unfruitful, while we will suffer the loss of rewards that we could have had, we will nevertheless enter the kingdom and enjoy our Lord and His people forever (1 Corinthians 3:15; Luke 19:11-27).

Nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39). Nothing.

1In the Lukan account the text explicitly says regarding the first soil that the devil came and took away the word lest they should believe and be saved (Luke 8:12). Thus when the next verse says that the ones represented by the second soil believed, it is clear that it is saying that they were saved. While the text does say that they believed "for a time" (pros kairos), that doesn't call into question the genuineness of their faith or their salvation. Compare 1 Corinthians 7:5 where the same expression "for a time" is used. It is impossible to get around the fact that Jesus in Luke 8:13 said that they believed for a time. Unless He was teaching there that salvation can be lost if and when one stops believing--which He was not teaching (cf. John 3:16; 5:24; Romans 8:38-39)--He was saying that the second soil people believe, are saved, and then fall away due to testing. While Jesus doesn't say what fate awaits these type of believers--other than that they will be in the kingdom since they are saved--we know from other teachings of Jesus that rebuke and shame, and loss of reward and rulership are in store for them (cf. Matthew 6:19-21; Luke 19:11-27; 1 Corinthians 3:10-15; 9:24-27; Galatians 6:7-9; Colossians 1:21-23; 2 Timothy 2:12; 2 Peter 1:5-11; 3:14; 1 John 2:28).

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