In Mark 4:3, Jesus begins the Parable of the Four Soils: “Listen! Behold a sower went out to sow.” Anyone exposed to Free Grace teaching in regards to this parable understands how misunderstood it is by many within Christendom. While everyone agrees that the first soil represents unbelievers, most think that the second and third soils represent unbelievers as well, and only the last soil represents believers. They do this because the second and third soils do not produce much fruit, and they believe that all true Christians always produce much spiritual fruit.
If we understand the difference between receiving eternal life as a free gift and bearing spiritual fruit by works after eternal salvation, then it is clear that the last three soils all represent believers. It is not a question of whether they are believers (they all are, and all have life—all three have a plant spring up), but it is a question of whether they will produce a great harvest for the coming kingdom.
While I have been exposed to a correct basic understanding of this parable, recently I took a closer look at the context. It is always important to do so, and I found that (not surprisingly) the context supports the Free Grace view.
Mark 3 ends right before the Parable of the Four Soils. At the end of Chap. 3, we see strong opposition to Jesus. His family thought He was crazy. They came to take Him away. They had heard that He was not eating, and the house He was staying in was crowded with people. His loved ones thought they needed to help Him. No doubt they thought others were taking advantage of Him, and He probably wasn’t getting the sleep He needed, either.
The religious leaders also accused Him of doing miracles by the power of Satan. They did this, even though He had clearly performed these miracles by the power of God (how could Satan cast out Satan?!). In other words, the religious leaders had hardened their hearts to the truth that was right before their eyes.
But there was another group with Jesus at the end of chap. 3. His disciples were surrounding Him to hear His teaching. This group was made up of many people, including believers such as Peter, James, John, Andrew, and Matthew. These disciples were in the house with Jesus and were sharing in the difficulties He was going through. They too were missing meals. They too were being pressed upon by the crowds. They too were subject to the opposition of the religious leaders. They also saw how the family of Jesus had responded to all that was going on.
If we understand this context, the Parable of the Four Soils comes into much clearer focus. The first soil represents unbelievers who have hard hearts. They have hearts that are unwilling to believe. What a great picture of the religious leaders of the previous verses!
But what about the disciples who had believed in Jesus and were with Him, listening to His teaching (Mark 4:1-2)? What did the last three soils have to say to people like Peter, John, James, Andrew, and Matthew? They had believed in Jesus as the Messiah and already had eternal life, but their lives could take one of three paths.
They saw that Jesus was opposed by the religious leaders and even His family. They could expect the same thing. Their own families might think they were crazy to leave their lucrative jobs in order to live like Jesus was living. Certainly the religious leaders would oppose them. They could decide it was not worth it to follow Christ in the midst of such opposition. What a great picture the second soil, the rocky soil, painted of such a decision.
Matthew certainly had given up a lucrative job. So did James and John. While traveling with Jesus, they found themselves in a situation in which they couldn’t even find time to eat. No doubt, the crowds took away a lot of their free time. They certainly gave up a lot of money to follow Christ. It was surely possible that these believers could decide to go back to a normal life where they would enjoy many of the comforts their former lives afforded them. If they did, what a great picture the third soil (the thorny soil) painted of such a decision.
But what if these believers decided to continue following Christ and being faithful to Him? They would experience a great spiritual harvest. The fourth soil is a great picture of such a decision.
The Parable of the Four Soils was very applicable to those hearing Jesus teach in Mark 3–4 about the kingdom of God. Once again, we see the importance of looking at the context of a passage. Those who were rejecting His message because of their hardened hearts could be seen in the first soil. The believers who were listening to Him would need to decide which of the last three soils they would be. What kind of harvest would they have for the kingdom?
If you are like one of the believing disciples listening to what Jesus says, the same question applies to you. Which of the last three soils paints a picture of your life? If the answer is four, are you aware of the need to remain the good soil? If the answer is three, are you moving toward becoming the good soil? Good soil is what we must long to be and to remain.