The memories, on most days, seem better left forgotten. Never has remembering sweet Bible studies tasted so bitter. Flashbacks of late-night conversations and time spent in prayer press inconsiderately upon the wound. In that large group, I can still hear his profession of faith echo. I thought I heard angels sing at his surrender. So long we had prayed for his salvation. Now, he no longer walks with Jesus.
The grief of false conversions.
“They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us” (1 John 2:19). They. We knew them by another name: friend, spouse, mother, son. Each sang with us in church, confessed to be the Savior’s, renounced the world and Satan at baptism — but only for a time.
Our prayers, we thought, were finally answered. Their souls, we thought, were finally saved. Our joy, we thought, was finally complete. The prodigal son returned home — and left again. The difference between a comedy and a tragedy, some say, is where you place the period. Their faith, at best, led only to a semicolon; what a horrible independent clause came next: “They went out from us.”
How the Gospel Dies in a Soul
Jesus tells the tragedies of our daughters, our best friends, our parents, in his parable of the sower.
The parable is familiar. The sower scatters seed on four soils. Some falls on the path — where the hateful bird, Satan, steals it before it can be understood. Such are those who dismiss the gospel as foolishness and never pretend to believe. The fourth soil is the good soil, the true soil, the one who receives the Christ by faith and holds to him, the genuine Christian. But the second and third soils receive the seed, it germinates, and life sprouts from dead earth. Hallelujah! Professions are made; baptismal waters stir; they break bread with us. Our prayers, we believe, have been answered. But the gospel seed, over time, dies. Their faith returns to the dirt before our eyes.
Jesus depicts two ways the gospel dies in the soul.
Scorched by Trials
The first false soil is rocky.
Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and immediately they sprang up, since they had no depth of soil, but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. (Matthew 13:5–6)
The most confusing part about this soil is how wonderful the beginning seems. Upon hearing the gospel word, they do not argue with it or poke at it. Rather, these receive it “with joy” (Matthew 13:20). They smile at the news of Jesus, shed tears that he would die in their place. They raise their hands and sing of eternal life with what Jesus tells us is real joy.
But the plant shoots up quickly because the soil beneath is thin. Inhospitable rock prevents the roots from growing deep. When the sun eventually rises, tribulation or persecution beat down upon them on account of their new faith in Christ (verse 21). Through much of church history (and still in many places today), this entailed lives threatened, property plundered, friends arrested. In the modern Western context, girlfriends threaten to break up with them. They lose their job. They become the ridicule of family and friends.
A time of testing arrives, and they fall away. They received the word with joy, but when the weather changed, they headed back home, as did Bunyan’s Pliable. Happily, Pliable walked from the City of Destruction as Christian assured him of all the glories that awaited them at the Celestial City. But they soon fell into the Slough of Despond.
At that Pliable began to be offended, and angrily said to his fellow, “Is this the happiness you have told me all this while of? If we have such ill speed at our first setting out, what may we expect betwixt this and our journey’s end?”
He struggled out of the pit and returned home.
So with some loved ones. They explode like a firework only to fizzle in the night sky. Their initial joy, though real, proved shallow. The gospel gripped passing emotions but did not reach the heart. Their god was worth serving, but only in fair weather. Their faith was worth confessing, but only while it cost them little. Their Shepherd was good to follow, but only when he led to green pastures. The sun rises and scorches the gospel word buried in the shallows of their soul.
Choked by Pleasures
Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. (Matthew 13:7)
Here, we find that more than just the gospel grew in the heart. Alongside faith grew rival loves — thorns.
As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. (Matthew 13:22)
They grew too busy. They began a new relationship. They found a way to make some extra money. Jesus and his service could wait a little longer after all. The love of this world and its shiny things, its comforts, its urgent business became preferred to the unseen world. These sharp loves wrapped themselves around the word of the cross, of forgiveness of sins, and of eternal life with God, and squeezed. Maybe we saw them put up some fight as faith lost its breath, but busyness, this career, that boyfriend proved too gripping.
We see these thorns grow even in the hearts of those who seemed most dedicated to Christ and his work in this world. Such was the tragedy of Demas. Paul writes to the Colossian church, “Luke the beloved physician greets you, as does Demas” (Colossians 4:14). Paul calls him his “fellow worker” in his letter to Philemon (verse 24). Yet thorny soil he proved to be in the end. “For Demas,” Paul writes to Timothy at the end of his life, “in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Timothy 4:10).
In love with this present world, they desert us, desert Christ — thorny soil.
Heart of the Matter
The soils represent different types of hearts. In some rocky hearts, the gospel seed dies due to a shallowness of reception. In thorny hearts, it dies in the grip of love for this world and its concerns. Yet read the description of the good soil in Luke’s account:
As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:15)
Good soil holds fast the gospel seed, refusing to relinquish it when persecution comes. Good soil fends off encroaching loves for a pure and beautiful devotion to Jesus. Good soil bears fruit with patience. Good soil is analogous to a good and beautiful heart, a heart promised long ago:
I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26–27)
The new-covenant heart, one removed of its stone and cleansed of its competing loves — this heart endures trials and tribulation, and resists temptation and the world’s best, aided and empowered by God’s own indwelling Spirit. Good soil bears good fruit, yielding thirty, sixty, and a hundredfold (Matthew 13:23).
Father, tears well in our eyes as we consider those whose desertion our hearts cannot bear. What hope is left?
For some, you alone know it is too late to restore them to repentance. For them it is impossible to be restored, for they have been enlightened, tasted the heavenly gift, shared in the Holy Spirit, and tasted the goodness of your word (Hebrews 6:4–6). We love your Son, and would not have him “crucified again” or held up for contempt. And yet, you can permit restoration (Hebrews 6:3). Let us be hopeful of better things — namely, that you are not done with our loved ones just yet.
Let us see those who have wandered from the truth be brought back. Use us to return them from their wandering. Use us to save their souls from death and cover a multitude of sins (James 5:19–20). Teach our lips the promise, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon” (Isaiah 55:7). Your grace is unlike our grace. You offer abundant pardon still, and in that, we hope.
And grant us each to keep eyes and prayers on one another, lest we too fall. Let us take heed, lest there be in any of us an evil, unbelieving heart, leading us to fall away from the living God. May we be diligent to exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of us may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:12–13). Keep us in your love. Be pleased to place the period — over them and us — after the words, “Enter into the joy of your Master.”