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The Rocky Soil

The superficial believer appears genuine but withers in difficulty.

Luke 8:4—15 contains one of the most remarkable, unforgettable, and important parables our Lord ever taught: the parable of the soils.

The good news of salvation is so wonderful, so generous, we don't have words to explain all its wonders and glories. Those of us who have received salvation, those of us who have received eternal life and are headed to heaven, understand the wonder of the gift of salvation. We understand what it is to have our sins forgiven, to have the burden of guilt removed, to have a clear conscience, a conscience washed clean of guilt and shame. We understand what it is to have the hope of heaven.

And the more we understand that, the more difficult it is to understand how anybody could reject such a gift. When people come to know Christ, there is an immense transformation in their lives; it is dramatic. They've come to an understanding of the truth, an understanding of God's grace in their lives, which is overwhelming. They then tell the people around them, who are not believers, and they often run into indifference and hostility. This is one of the biggest struggles new Christians have. It's seemingly impossible to understand how anyone could reject such a gift.

Who would turn down forgiveness? Who would turn down joy? Who would turn down peace? Who would turn down eternal life? Who would turn down heaven and in exchange receive hell? Why do people reject the gospel?

The parable before us answers that question. It's not a matter of the quality of the message, and it's not a matter of the skill of the messenger. It's all about the heart condition of the hearer. That's the issue. So let's simplify this whole matter of the Great Commission, of world evangelism. Let's get this straight. It's not about the gospel. It's not about the believer who gives the gospel. It's not about being more skilled or tweaking the message to make it more palatable or acceptable. The issue comes down to the condition of the heart of the hearer. And the truth is made unforgettable in this story Jesus told.

Throughout redemptive history sinners have been rejecting God's forgiveness. They've been rejecting God's salvation. Jesus told the disciples there would be a few who would enter the narrow gate and the narrow way. The problem, again, has to do with the heart.

It's amazing to me when our society tries to figure out the reasons people do evil things. Why would priests molest little boys? Why would mass murderers kill and dismember people? Why would a mother drown her children? Whether it's the suppression of celibacy or postpartum psychosis or whatever, there's always some clinical way to explain it, because we don't want to admit the real problem. The problem is these people are operating out of a perverted heart.

Jesus said in Mark 7:21 (nasb), "Out of the heart…proceed the evil thoughts, fornications, thefts, murders, adulteries, deeds of coveting and wickedness, as well as deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride and foolishness. All these evil things proceed from within." Jesus even went so far as to say it's not what goes into a man that defiles a man; it's what comes out of a man. It isn't the influences around him that make him wicked; it's his heart to start with. That wickedness will take various forms, depending upon its influences. But the basic heart problem is the core of the issue. It's the tragic evil condition of every human heart. On the inside people are wicked. That's the problem Jesus points out in this story:

The sower went out to sow his seed; and as he sowed, some fell beside the road, and it was trampled under foot and the birds of the air ate it up.

Other seed fell on rocky soil, and as soon as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture.

Other seed fell among the thorns; and the thorns grew up with it and choked it out.

Other seed fell into the good soil, and grew up, and produced a crop a hundred times as great.

Everybody would have understood the story, because people living in an agrarian environment would have experienced this themselves. They would know what it was to go out with all intention to sow your seed and to find that some of it was wasted on hard soil. Some of it fell into rocky soil, and while the plant began to grow, the roots eventually couldn't penetrate that rock; and so the plant would die. And they all knew what it was to have cultivated the soil the best they could, but somehow remaining in the soil was the roots of weeds and thorns. And when the plants began to grow, the thorns grew faster and stronger and choked out the life of the seed.

And Jesus' audience would have known what it was to have the seed fall into good soil and produce a crop—although the crop wouldn't be this great. A tenfold crop would be a great crop, sevenfold would be a good one; a hundredfold is hyperbole. Jesus is speaking in hyperbole, because he's talking about the greatness of spiritual fruitfulness, which he will explain in a little while.

The story, then, is about the soil. Nothing is said about a difference in the seed. The same seed is being thrown, and the same individual is throwing the seed. So it's not about a variation in the seed, and it's not a variation in their methodology. It's a variation in the soil that brings about the variation in the results.

This is a rich and unforgettable insight. The story is never to be forgotten. Once you hear it, you will always remember it. That's exactly why Jesus used these kinds of stories. But even though you remember the story, you won't necessarily know what it means if it isn't explained to you. It would just be a story, an analogy that could be attached to anything.

Consequently, as Jesus would say these things, he would call out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear." What he meant by that is: Those of you who can, do you get it? Those of you who have an interest, those of you who care to understand, are you understanding what I'm saying?

That called for a response, and in verse 9 it came: "His disciples began questioning Him as to what this parable meant." The ones who had an ear—that is, the ones who cared, the ones who believed, the ones who belonged to him, the ones who were God's—they cared to know the answer. They wanted to know the spiritual truth, which was being given to them from this one whom they had come to believe was the Holy One of God.

Immediately you have a separation in the crowd. You have a huge, massive crowd of people defined in verse 4 as a great multitude made up of people from various cities who were traveling with him as well as the local people in the multiple thousands. This huge crowd is now separated into the people who want to know what this means, and the people who don't care. They are the indifferent crowd who came for the miracles, the signs, the wonders. But they don't have a particular interest in the truth.

The parable is this, Jesus said: The seed is the word of God. (By that he means the word from God about salvation, about forgiveness of sin, about entering the kingdom. Salvation comes by hearing the word of God.) So when you go out, whoever you are, and you proclaim the gospel, you're like a man throwing seed. It's the same man in this case for all four soils, and it's the same seed. The issue that varies, then, is the soil. And the soil refers to the heart.

Look at verse 12: "Those beside the road are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their heart." Down in verse 15 you have the good soil: "These are the ones who have heard the word in an honest and good heart." We're dealing with heart condition.

Let's look, first of all, at verse 12. This is the hard heart, the roadside soil. Jesus said it gets trampled, crushed under feet, or the devil comes and snatches the word away like birds that eat the seed that sits on the hard soil. It can't penetrate. The ground isn't prepared. There is no response to the presentation of the gospel.

Notice the end of the verse: "so that they may not believe and be saved." These are people who don't believe and aren't saved, as are the other two soils apart from the good soil. This parable contrasts people who hear and are not saved with people who hear and are.

First of all, there is that hard soil. We have opportunities occasionally to present the gospel, and it bounces off concrete. H and , like Israel of old. Calloused. No convictions. No . No repentance. No faith. No interest at all. I've met people like that, and I can make a fair presentation of the gospel. But you know when you've run into pavement—the heart beaten hard by sin and unbelief—and whatever of the gospel you put there, Satan snatches it away, so this person may not believe and be saved.

Superficial hearts initially receive God's Word with joy

The second soil is the superficial heart. Verse 13: "Those on the rocky soil…" This isn't soil with a lot of rocks in it; this is soil with a rock bed underneath it. It can't be felt by the plow, but it's there, and consequently when the roots go down they can only go so far. They get a little bit of nourishment, a little bit of water, and the plant jumps up because the life goes upward, but the roots can't go down. They can't get into the soil to get the water, so it withers and dies.

The rocky soil represents those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy. They're the opposite of the hard hearts. They are receptive. They are interested. Not only are they interested, they are emotional about it. They are exhilarated by it. They're thrilled with it. And they receive it with joy. But these have no root.

"They believe for a while." That's an important statement. There are people who believe for a while but in time of temptation fall away. Jesus said in John 8:31, "If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine." The writer of Hebrews talks about true believers being those who persevere. Paul told the Colossians about the true believer who continues in the faith, contrasted with those who believe for a while.

Initially they hear the gospel. They respond to whatever presentation of the gospel they have received. There is an amount of joy. There is some exhilaration, excitement, emotion. There is almost a euphoria of feeling good about the experience. And this usually convinces Christians this is a real conversion. There were tears of joy, there were hugs, embraces, and exuberance. And this person was so thrilled and happy. You say to yourself, Boy, that's the real deal there.

Compare that to someone who hears the gospel and responds in a stoic fashion. They affirm faith in Christ but don't explode in emotion. I've even had people say, "Is something supposed to happen to me? Am I supposed to feel something?"

Let me put it to you simply. Joy is not the distinguishing feature of true salvation. It is sometimes characteristic of false salvation and sometimes characteristic of true salvation. So absence of joy is not a distinguishing characteristic of a false conversion. Emotions don't tell you anything about spiritual reality. True salvation is done by God. It is a spiritual work of justification, regeneration, and transformation that is not immediately manifested.

That is why it is wrong to give people a little formula to make them sure they're saved. You don't know that. "If you prayed that prayer, you can know for sure you're saved." That's not true. Their tears of joy, exuberance, and exhilaration don't prove anything except that they feel good about what they did. It doesn't mean they did anything from the standpoint of reconciliation with God.

Superficial hearts respond to God's Word for the wrong reasons

You might be thinking, I don't understand what you're saying. Let me explain it another way. People will respond to a presentation of the gospel for wrong reasons: because they're at the end of a broken relationship, because they've gone through a divorce and lost their wife and kids, they've lost their job, they've been told they have a terminal disease, they're tired of being left out socially and now they've found a group they can belong to, or because they believe that if they give their life to Jesus he will fix everything that's wrong in their life. Those are reasons to make a superficial response to the gospel.

Joy doesn't mean anything. They could feel happy because now they think they're not going to go to hell. They could feel happy because now Jesus is going to solve all their problems and they're not going to have so much personal pain, social pain, family pain. That's why you never want to present the gospel that way. You never want to present the gospel that Jesus wants to make you happy, and if you come to Jesus you'll be happy. We don't have that kind of promise. There's a deep, abiding joy, but that deep, abiding joy doesn't translate into all the problems going away.

In Matthew 22 Jesus describes a king who has a banquet for his son and invites everybody to come. All these people come to the banquet for the son, and it's a symbol of salvation. And in order to come into the banquet, they have to have a certain robe. But there's one guy who crashes the party without a robe.

There are people like that. They come in, but they have never been robed in righteousness. They have never had their sins covered. They're not the real thing. They want to get in on the Jesus party. They like the music, maybe. Or they like the people. Or they like the idea that their problems are going to go away. They like the idea that they can chuck the old friends they were getting sour on, and they can reinvent themselves for a new group of people and maybe make some social strides. There are all kinds of reasons people do that. They don't feel good about themselves, and these people make them feel good about themselves. So they crash the kingdom, but they've never been robed in righteousness.

Remember what Jesus said: Take that man who doesn't have the robe, and throw him in the outer darkness, where there's weeping and gnashing of teeth.

Superficial hearts quit when trials come.

If you look at the field, you don't see the rock underneath. The soil looks good. The plant pops up, but under the scorching sun, because there's no root, it can't go down and get the water. It perishes. Matthew pictures the sun coming out and says that when tribulation and persecution come, the plant withers and dies. It's the testing of tribulation and persecution that reveals the truth.

There are people who believe for a while. But a test causes them to disappear, to wither and die. This test is tribulation—thlipsis, according to Matthew 13:21—pressure, affliction, and even persecution. They thought when you got Jesus you got rid of all your problems. They thought you got health, wealth, and happiness. They thought you got prosperity. They thought you got an endless wardrobe, money coming out of heaven, miracles, bodily healing. They thought angels were going to come down and talk to you and solve all your problems. They thought this was going to be a fellowship of people where there wouldn't be any problems or conflicts or disappointments. They thought they would find a new kind of life.

Then all of a sudden trouble, pressure, trials, tests, affliction, and persecution for the Word: Wasn't everything supposed to be better? Everything got worse. I had people who used to love me who now hate me. I had people I used to hang around with and we got along fine, but now because I claim to be a Christian they resent everything about me and want nothing to do with me. Now I have a whole new group of enemies who used to be my friends. Matthew 13:21 records that the person, because of the tribulation and the persecution, is offended, scandalized, trapped.

If you were to identify the most powerful miracle Jesus ever did numerically it would be the miracle in John 6. According to verse 10 there were five thousand men, which would mean five thousand or more women, ten or twenty thousand children, so a crowd of twenty to thirty thousand easily. And Jesus feeds them. He literally creates food for them all. This is an astounding miracle. At the same time, he's doing other miracles, healing sick people, giving sight to blind people, hearing to deaf people. They're seeing a display that's never been heard of ever. They're watching this miraculous work of Jesus.

So they show up the next morning for breakfast, and he gives them a speech instead about him being the bread of life. He's got them in a hungry condition now, and he says what you really need to hunger for is the bread of life. As a result of this many of his disciples withdrew and were not walking with him anymore. They believed for a while, but in spite of this miracle that had no explanation other than the supernatural, they're gone. They left because Jesus started to talk about a price to pay.

True believers remain in Christ and bear fruit

Jesus said to the twelve in verse 67, "You do not want to go away also, do you?" Simon Peter answered, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life." The real people stay. It doesn't matter what the test is, they stay. Peter says: We're not going anywhere. Why? Verse 69: "We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God."

Jesus answered him, "Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?" There was a hypocrite hiding among the twelve, and he was talking of Judas, who was going to betray him.

Since then and on down to today there are people who believe for a while. But at some point, whatever it is they have, they lose. This is that superficial, shallow kind of faith. Jesus said in John 15:5—7: If you're connected to me, you're going to bear fruit. "I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned."

A true disciple stays, bears fruit, remains, abiding in the vine, permanently bearing fruit. The one who bears no fruit is discarded and burned.

One other verse that speaks directly to this is 1 John 2:19: "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us." They left, and that's the proof they never were of us.

I've debated this through the years in what's called the "lordship controversy," written in The Gospel According to Jesus and The Gospel According to the Apostles. When somebody professes faith in Jesus Christ and at some point abandons the faith, they never were saved to begin with. They believed for a little while. There was some emotional response. The church is filled with these kinds of people.

Contemporary evangelism doesn't deal with rocky soil, because it doesn't get where you have to go. Where you have to go in any presentation of the gospel is into the heart. Before you bring to the mind an understanding of the gospel, you've got to penetrate the depth of the person so they understand their sinful condition. Trouble and persecution tell people who are shallow that Jesus doesn't work. I thought he was going to fix my life. I thought he was going to eliminate all the trouble and hassles in my life and bring me into a loving group of people where I'd never be persecuted. When that doesn't happen, they're gone, because that's not the issue. You don't want to say to somebody, "You need to come to Jesus because he's going to make you happy and everything is going to be super." You want to say, "Come to Jesus because if you don't you're going to have to suffer the eternal consequence of your sin. And you need to come to grips with your sin." That's where you have to start. That kind of deep plowing has to be done.

The Holy Spirit does that work. God grants repentance, Paul told Timothy. The Holy Spirit will come, Jesus said in John 16, and convict the world of sin and righteousness and judgment. That's a threefold conviction that has to be done by the Spirit of God in the heart of a person.

Convicting them of sin means convicting them of what sin is and that they are sinful, that they have the kind of heart we described at the beginning. And then convicting them of righteousness is to convict them that while they are profoundly sinful God is profoundly and perfectly righteous, and they have no ability to be as righteous as God. Therefore, they are under judgment. And the Holy Spirit convicts of judgment. That's essential, because as the Puritans used to say, you can't preach grace until you've preached law. You can't preach freedom from condemnation until you've preached condemnation.

That's why when Jesus preaches the Sermon on the Mount he starts out by saying the people who are going into the kingdom are the poor in spirit, the ones who recognize their spiritual bankruptcy. What that means is they looked inside, in their spirit, and they are in absolute poverty. The word our Lord uses has to do with beggarly poverty, not just having little but having nothing, being reduced to begging. He says they mourn over that condition, because it's a frightening condition to be in, it's totally destructive, debilitating, and damning. And out of that broken mourning attitude comes a humility and then a hunger and thirst for righteousness. Not a hunger and thirst for popularity, acceptance, happiness, belonging, or whatever other psychological reasons draw people to make some shallow affirmation of faith in Christ. The true conversion takes place when what the person hungers for is to be delivered from a deep, overwhelming burden of sin into righteousness before God.

When trouble comes, what happens to the true believer? James says when you fall into various trials count it all joy, because when trials come they have a completely different effect on a true believer. James says the testing of your faith produces endurance. The testing of false faith ends endurance. It produces abandonment. You quit. You walk off. It's over. In a true believer's case, the test produces endurance, and endurance has a perfecting result. The tests come. They reveal who's for real. And in the end all the test does is produce endurance and spiritual maturity.

There are many people in this shallow condition. And some of you here are in that condition. You're superficially attached to Jesus for whatever reasons. You may feel emotional about it at this point, but you're not going to survive if you didn't come to him because you were utterly and totally overwhelmed with your sinful condition and its consequences and the cry of your heart was for a righteousness you knew you needed to escape judgment and have a relationship with God.

John MacArthur is of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, president of The Master's College and Seminary, and radio teacher for the program, "Grace to You." He is author of over six dozen books, including The MacArthur New Testament Commentary series (Moody).

(c) John MacArthur

Preaching Today Tape #243


A resource of Christianity Today International

John MacArthur is pastor-teacher of Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, as well as an author, conference speaker, chancellor of The Master's University and Seminary, and featured teacher with the Grace to You media ministry.

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Sermon Outline:


Salvation is so wonderful we find it hard to understand why anyone rejects it.

I. Superficial hearts initially receive God's Word with joy.

II. Superficial hearts respond to God's Word for the wrong reasons.

III. Superficial hearts quit when trials come.

IV. True believers remain in Christ and bear fruit.


If you didn't come to Christ because you were overwhelmed with your sin, you're not going to survive.