The eternal security of the believer or lack thereof, is one of the most vital yet divisive doctrines amongst conservative Christianity. The parable of the sower is often cited by both sides in defense of their position. We know that scripture only has one correct interpretation and thus this seeming ambiguity must be soluble in some manner. It is my aim in this essay to demonstrate through detailed analysis that the parable is actually not tackling the believers' security but instead the reaction of man to the Gospel which is a related but distinct subject. When viewed in this light, I believe, the parable has a much clearer and less divisive interpretation.
If one attempts to use the Parable of the Sower to discuss salvation then one thing that should immediately inspire caution is that the parable divides people into four categories and not two. Salvation is a binary issue, the individual goes to heaven or hell, they are really the only options available. However, when it comes to profitability we find there are many grades and types of believer. Therefore we need to look at the four divisions of the parable and see if it really refers to two groups or more.
The first group is described as those where the grain falls by the wayside and the word is then immediately snatched away by Satan. To me the key point here is that the word is taken immediately. The implication is that it has not had time to provoke any form of reaction. Rom 10:14 specifically details that believer and hearing are separate steps; I believe the first grouping of this parable are those that have simply not believed. The very phrasing of Mark 4:4 describes these people as the way-side; they are essentially peripheral to the main event. We are to pray that laborers are to go into the harvest, our first group forms no part of the harvest.
The other group that is, at least initially, easy to classify is the fourth. These are the good soil that bring forth fruit thirty, sixty or a hundred fold. Clearly these are the good guys.
However, are we really prepared to view this degree of fruitfulness as the entrance criteria for the kingdom of heaven? Does every believer have to win thirty other souls for Christ before they count as saved? We may attempt to lessen the implication of this verse by suggesting that the fruit may not have to be other souls; however that does not fit the parable. Wheat brings forth wheat, corn brings forth corn. We are explicitly told the seed is the word of God and we are told that the fruitfulness is simply a factor increase thus taken literally we are being told that these people manage to 'preach' thirty times as much as they heard.
Another problem for those who wish to use this passage to suggest that fruitfulness is an entrance card to the kingdom of heaven is that people can be fruitful early. One person might take their entire lifetime to notch up their 30 scalps, but suppose another superstar preacher has brought 100 people to Christ by the time he is 30. Can he then live a life of decadence and debauchery safe in the knowledge that he has already earned his passage? Of course the converse is equally troubling; is the faithful martyr who dies before his thirtieth soul really condemned?
I suggest the answer is plain; some people in the kingdom of heaven will be that fruitful. The fact that the majority will not be is simple mathematics; there are simply too many believers for each one to produce thirty converts. Thus, outside a strictly elitist almost cultic interpretation this group cannot be a definition of a believer.
Having thus seen that the fourth group cannot be a gold standard for being a believer we can look at the other two groups and see what they teach.
The second group is I believe the most interesting. These are people that have clearly reacted to the Word of God at some level. I suspect it is the same group as referred to in Hebrews 6:4-8. If so, then we know they were convicted by the Spirit, derived enjoyment from Spiritual matters and then fell away.
We also know that for this group it is impossible to repent which makes them a very strange group indeed. We know the unsaved in general can repent and we know that believers can repent of backsliding so why would there be a group that cannot. I believe that here we see the subtle distinction between belief and commitment, or submission to use a less popular word. There are those for whom Christianity makes sense and they are happy to go along with it, provided the cost stays within bounds. Yet they have never reached that point of laying aside everything in humble brokenness and asking for forgiveness at any price. Further when they make that final decision; they back away.
The third group is probably the most depressing, and sadly the most prevalent. Note that unlike the second group we are not told the plant, itself, dies. We are simply told it is unfruitful. Whilst some may choose to seize on this to show the eternal security of believers I don't think it really applies. The ills defined by the Lord in v19 are really burdens rather than evidence of backsliding. Whilst 'cares of this world' and 'love of money' could count as fear and greed which are sinful they are sufficiently low key and prevalent that using them as a standard for loss of salvation would again lead to an extremely small heavenly population. Now, whilst I personally do not believe that any form of backsliding loses a genuine believer his salvation I think the categorization of this third group is way too broad and encompassing to refer to backsliders. Thus I don't think we can glean information about the state of backsliders from the fact that the plant in the third group doesn't die.
In conclusion we have seen four groups of people. Firstly the uninterested unsaved, secondly the God fearing but uncommitted person that ultimately rejects the Gospel. Thirdly we have seen the believers that have every potential to yield forth bountifully but really don't because too many other things get in the way. Finally we see that the Lord has separated some for Himself that are able to bring forth abundantly to His glory. Whilst as humans we are rightly concerned with whether or not we have eternal salvation we should also spare a thought for our service and fruitfulness for Him once we have moved into that most blessed, and secure, state.