Have you ever wondered whether that neighbor, coworker, or friend ever reconsidered their decision to reject the gospel? I’m not speaking of the ones who threw you out of their houses, fired you, or never spoke to you again; but those who, after some consideration, said no, not yet, or “I still have time.” Maybe they even attend church with you. Turns out, the Lord Jesus addressed this very issue when He walked among us two thousand years ago:
“Hear then the parable of the sower: When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. Matthew 13:18-19 English Standard Version (ESV)
…The doctrine of the Gospel, when it is scattered like seed, is not everywhere fruitful; because it does not always meet with a fertile and well cultivated soil. He enumerates four kinds of hearers: the first of which do not receive the seed; the second appear, indeed, to receive it, but in such a manner that it does not take deep root; in the third, the [seed] is choked; and so there remains a fourth part, which produces fruit.
…Where the word is sown, the produce of faith is not always alike, but is sometimes more abundant, and at other times [scantier]. …In many persons, the seed of life is lost [due to] various [failings, as result] of which it is either destroyed immediately, or it withers, or it gradually degenerates.
Then, he points out that the soils do not include those he terms: “the despisers:”
…We ought to bear in mind, that he makes no mention of despisers who openly reject the word of God, but describes those only in whom there is some appearance of docility. But if the greater part of such men perish, what shall become of the rest of the world, by whom the doctrine of salvation is openly rejected?
Next, Calvin delves into each verse. He starts with those “unprepared:”
When any one hears the word of the kingdom, and understands it not. …The barren and uncultivated, who do not receive the seed within, because there is no preparation in their hearts. Such persons he compares to a stiff and dry soil, like what we find on a public road, which is trodden down, and becomes hard, like a pavement.
He comments in his time, as it is now, how many hear and fall away:
I wish that we had not occasion to see so many of this class at the present day, who come forward to hear, but remain in a state of [disbelief], and acquire no [desire] for the word, and in the end, differ little from blocks or stones. Need we wonder that they utterly vanish away?
Calvin, then, finds it logically necessary to defend the seed’s integrity in the face of such rejection; not that the seed is lacking, but the soil that receives it:
That which was sown in their heart. …The wickedness and depravity of men does not make the word to lose its own nature, or to cease to have the character of seed. …We may not suppose the favors of God to cease to be what they are, though the good effect of them does not reach us.
With respect to God, the word is sown in the hearts, but it is [not] true that the hearts of all receive with meekness what is planted in them, as James (1:21) exhorts us to receive the word. So then, the Gospel is always a fruitful seed as to its power, but not as to its produce.
And, finally, in answer to our question that we first posed:
Luke adds, that the devil takes away the seed out of their heart, that they may not believe and be saved Hence we infer that, as hungry birds are wont to do at the time of sowing, this enemy of our salvation, as soon as the doctrine is delivered, watches and rushes forth to seize it, before it acquires moisture and springs up…
To examine our question more deeply, Augustine helpfully explains the relation of the soils to the wheat and the tares:
…You know that those three places…where the seed did not grow, “the way side,” “the stony ground,” and “the thorny places,” are the same as [“the tares sown among the wheat.”] They received only a different name under a different [likeness.]
He, then, assures his hearers (this was a sermon) that though they and those described in the parable might desire that all the ungodly be separated from their congregations, they were not infallible and therefore not equipped for the task:
…O you Christians, whose lives are good, you sigh and groan as being few among many, few among very many. The winter will pass away, the summer will come; lo! the harvest will soon be here. The angels will come who [are able to] make the separation [between the wheat and the tares, without mistake…]
…We too indeed, if we finish our course, shall be equal to the angels of God; but now when we chafe against the wicked, we are as yet but men. And we ought now to give ear to the words, “Wherefore let him that thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall.”
Next, Augustine exposes what is evident in all the churches, and yet, by our words and actions, we deny it:
…I tell you a truth, my Beloved, even in [the church leadership] there is both wheat, and tares, and among the [laypeople] there is wheat, and tares. Let the good tolerate the bad; let the bad change themselves, and imitate the good.
Finally, he follows through in his exhortation to his congregation and to us:
Let us all, if it may be so, attain to God; let us all through His mercy escape the evil of this world. Let us seek after good days, for we are now in evil days; but in the evil days let us not blaspheme, that so we may be able to arrive at the good days.