James wrote me an actual letter and asked some excellent questions about the Parable of the Four Soils. Here is part of what he wrote:
Are the four kinds of soil supposed to be static? Will a person who is very hardened to the gospel always be hardened? Would a person whose heart was like the stony soil always be that way? I think it is a very dangerous and foolish thing to think along the lines of “What’s the use? I’m just the way I am. I will never change and be any different than I am now.”
James implies that there must be possible movement or else people would be little more than puppets. I agree.
I’m choosing to answer this question from Luke 8:11-15, which is where the Lord interprets the parable (in Luke). The parable and interpretation are also found in Matthew and Mark.
I admit at the outset that the Lord does not specifically address in this parable the question of movement from one soil to another. It is certainly possible that He is only talking about how people are at the end of their lives: some are unbelievers; some are believers who have fallen away; some are half-hearted believers, and some are whole-hearted believers.
However, in light of the rest of Jesus’ teachings and those of His apostles, it is most likely that He intends us to understand both that people’s final status is determined at their end of their lives and that at any point in life a person can either go forward or backward spiritually.i
Soil One: the unbeliever. “Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved” (Luke 8:12). If movement were not possible, then no unbeliever would ever believe in Jesus. Whether you understand soils 2, 3, and 4 to represent three types of believers, or only soil 4 representing believers, someone needs to be able to move from soil one in order to be born again. We all start out as soil one.
Soil Two: the believer who later apostatizes. “But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away” (Luke 8:13). Notice that this type of people “believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away.” Since regeneration occurs the moment one believes, this soil represents a believer who apostatizes.
Do apostates sometimes, rarely, return to the faith? I’d say yes. Even the second soil type of person is capable of coming back to the faith and walking with Christ, and occasionally that happens (i.e., an apostate becoming soil 3 or 4).ii
Soil Three: the half-hearted believer. “Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity” (Luke 8:14). This type of believer has not fallen away, but he is also not wholehearted in his service. His works are stunted by spiritual weeds: cares, riches, and the pleasures of life. If we spend too much time fishing, hunting, or playing golf, then our spiritual productivity goes down. Or if we spend too much time over our finances or over our cares, our productivity is damaged.
This sort of believer can go backwards to soil 2 or forward to soil 4. He need not remain stunted by these spiritual weeds.
Soil Four: the whole-hearted believer. “But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience” (Luke 8:15). James does not ask whether the good soil can backslide into soil 3 or even soil 2. I realize that he, like all of us, is most concerned about believers being able to escape from a time of unbelief or a time of half-heartedness. But we should also be concerned about backsliding. A good-soil believer can have his productivity go way down due to cares, riches, and pleasures of life. If he falls back into soil 3, it then becomes possible that he would even fall away from the faith (soil 2). There is no guarantee that the believer who is a good-soil believer today will remain that way for the rest of his life. Compare 1 Cor 9:27 where Paul said he knew that he might not persevere, even though he knew at the time that he was a good-soil believer.
The Parable of the Four Soils is a call to “take heed how you hear” (Luke 8:18). Our receptivity toward the Word of God determines whether we are born again, and it determines how productive we remain in our service. Notice the emphasis on the term word in Luke 8:11, 12, 13, 14 [by implication), and 15.
Is movement possible? Yes. That is why it is so important that we keep on sitting under solid Bible teaching so that mindsets are right and our lives continue to be transformed (Rom 12:2).
i The application of the parable, found in Luke 8:16-18, certainly suggests that movement is possible. The Lord commands people to “take heed how you hear.” This is couched, for the believer, in Judgment Seat of Christ language.
ii However, see Heb 6:4-8, which says that is impossible to bring an apostate back to the faith. Hodges suggests that the author is speaking of what is humanly impossible, but he holds out hope that God might even bring apostates back to the faith.