At the seminary, there was a professor who was well known for a response he often gave. When a student asked a question, he would reply by asking, “What’s the question behind your question?” Now I always thought this was kind of annoying. But I had to grant that he did have a point. Sometimes we ask a question because we are really trying to find out about some larger issue. We ask about one thing, because we really are interested in learning the answer to some related question.
That’s how it is when people ask about whether a person can be sure that he or she will be saved. In answering this it is important to know why they are asking. If they are asking because they are concerned about the continuing struggle against sin and the ways they fail, then the answer is that in repentance and faith they can know that they will be saved. Jesus Christ died on the cross and rose from the dead to win forgiveness for their every sin. They have been baptized into Jesus’ saving death and in the water of baptism they were clothed with Christ. When God looks at them, he does not see their sin but instead sees what Jesus did for them. Yes we do fail, but in repentance we return to our baptism, and there we find the assurance of forgiveness and eternal life.
However, if the person asks the question because they want to be freed from having to strive to live as a Christian, then a different answer is in order. Although you often hear Christians express the idea that “once saved, always saved,” this is simply not true. Christians are not saved because of what they do. However, because they are saved they seek to live like Christians. When they cease to do this, it is a sign that they are on their way to no longer being saved because faith is no longer present. Faith can be lost if we do not cling to Christ and his Means of Grace.
This point comes out very clearly in the Gospel lesson for today. We learn at the beginning of our text that a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to hear Jesus. So our Lord told them a parable. Parables played a central role in Jesus’ teaching, and they had a unique character. Jesus spoke them in order to teach. But their very form revealed and concealed at the same time. If you understood who Jesus was and recognized that he was bringing the kingdom of God – the reign of God – then they were powerful tools to teach you more about Jesus and his saving work. However if this faith and understanding was not present, they were just entertaining stories. In fact the entertaining and familiar character of the story actually concealed the truth.
Life in first century Palestine was tied to the land. Fishing and the raising of animals like sheep were certainly important. But it was farming that provided what was needed to make the staple of life – bread. From what we know, the practice of farming in Palestine was different from what we are used to seeing. In Jesus’ day the seed was sown on to the ground first. Then the farmer came back and plowed the seed under the soil so that it would grow.
This explains what we find in the parable Jesus tells. He says that, “A sower went out to sow his seed.” The farmer walked through the field area and tossed the seed out. Our Lord tells us, “And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it.” Long established walking paths cut through the fields, and it was easy for some seed to land on them. Those travelling on the paths stepped on the seed and then birds came and got an easy meal.
Jesus went on to say, “And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it.” Not all of the land in the area of the field was equally good. Some seed landed in rocky soil where the seed at first grew, but then died because it didn’t have any moisture. Some seed landed in the midst of thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked out the seed.
Thus far things don’t sound so great. But then Jesus added, “And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” Some of the seed landed where it could produce … and it did. In fact it produced a hundredfold – a great harvest. As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus’ statement, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” signaled that there was more going on than just the surface meaning. And so the disciples asked what the parable meant. Our Lord’s explanation makes it clear that the parable is allegorical – that different elements of the story each mean something. The most important thing to understand is that the seed is the word of God. In particular, in the setting of Jesus’ ministry, it is the word of the Gospel – the good news about the kingdom of God that had arrived in Jesus.
Jesus explains that, “The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved.” Our Lord’s words remind us that all of life is lived in the midst of a great spiritual war. Through the temptation of Eve, the devil brought sin into the world. The fall brought death and placed humanity under the devil’s power. We are conceived and born as people for whom the devil is lord.
By his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ won forgiveness for all people. He provided the means by which people can be reconciled to God and again live as his children. He redeemed us – he freed us from slavery to the devil. That freedom is received through faith in Jesus Christ which the Holy Spirit works.
Now the devil may be evil, but he’s not stupid. He doesn’t want to lose people who are under his spiritual power. And so he works to snatch the word of the Gospel so that people do not believe. He works through our culture to create a worldview that rejects the Gospel. He wants people to think that there is no such thing as truth; that there are not absolutes; that no one religion can be true; that the individual must decide what is true for him or her; that it is better to be “spiritual” than religious. For when people think in these ways, they are primed to reject faith.
Jesus goes on to explain, “And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away.” The Gospel is a source of joy. But the Gospel does not provide freedom from testing and trials. In fact, the exact opposite is true. The Gospel often brings the cross and trials. And so if we are to continue in the faith we must be deeply rooted in Christ and his word.
Our Lord and his word must be a regular and important part of our life so that when testing arrives we remain believers. The question then, is whether it is for you. Is reading God’s Word a daily part of your life? Are you seeking to deepen your understanding of the Scriptures? This is the means that the Holy Spirit uses to root you in Christ so that faith can remain firm in the midst of trials.
Next Jesus explains, “And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” Just as with the seed that fell on the rocks, the seed that fell among the thorns teaches us that faith can be lost.
In particular here, Jesus calls attention to the way the cares of life, and riches and pleasures of life, can destroy faith. What are the things you worry about? What are the things you value most? What are the things you enjoy most? How much time, attention and effort do you direct towards these things? Are they perhaps even things that are contrary to God’s will – things that God’s word declares to be sin?
The Small Catechism explains the First Commandment with the words that, “we are to fear, love and trust in God above all things.” That which you value most; that which you treat as most important; that which gives you a sense of security, worth and well being is your god. In his explanation Jesus says “but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature.” This is not something that happens overnight. Instead it is a pattern of life over time in which false gods – and we all have them - crowd out the true God.
We each must identify and confess those things that we put before Christ – the things that our actions say are more important. We must repent. This means that we confess our sin and receive the forgiveness that Jesus Christ has won for us. But it also means that we seek to make changes. You can’t just keep doing the same thing as you go on your way. Instead we are called to struggle against sin and to recognize it as such.
Finally Jesus says, “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.” Our Lord tells us to hold fast to his word, which is the same thing as holding fast to him. We cling to Christ and his word because in Jesus we have the assurance of forgiveness and salvation. We have the certainty that by his death and resurrection he as reconciled us to God. He has made us saints – forgiven sinners – who now live as children of God. This is the gift of our Lord that we do not deserve and could not earn. Yet in his love he gives it to us.
And when we cling to Christ in faith, we will bear fruit with patience. This fruit is the love we show towards our neighbor. It is the way that Christ uses us to care for those around us – for those that he has placed in our life. The Holy Spirit who has created faith, leads us to walk in the way of faith – a way that seeks to serve the needs of others just as Jesus Christ served us.
In the parable of the sower, our Lord teaches us to hold fast to him and his word. He leads us to recognize that faith can be lost. Therefore we need to repent where sin is present. We need to confess our false gods – the things we put before Jesus – so that we can receive forgiveness. And we also need to seek to turn away from them.
The means by which we continue to live in the faith is the same means that created faith – God’s word. It was water and the word that made us a child of God in Holy Baptism. Now we make God’s word an important and central part of our daily life. For when Christ and his word hold this place, we can bear fruit with patience.