The parable may not cover the titled theological dispute in detail, but many interpreters believe it does. So let’s explore.
Professional theologians quarrel over whether a person can truly receive the Word and fall away, or whether his reception was shallow, so when he falls away, he was never saved in the first place. What does this parable teach us?
Let’s first explain the two sides.
Eternal security (once saved, always saved): when a person is truly born again, he cannot lose his salvation. Even when he sins (as we all do), God preserves him and leads him away from sin. His salvational security in God is unconditional. The Spirit witnesses in his spirit that he is saved. If he does fall away, he was never saved in the first place.
Conditional security: when a person is truly saved, no one can take him from God’s salvation, not the devil or persecution or an outside force. God’s Spirit witnesses to his spirit that he is saved and secure. No one can take away his security in Christ, except one person—himself. He can drift away or walk away, even though God’s Spirit will tug at his heart to prevent his drift. God may even send strong believers or orchestrate other circumstances to encourage him to remain true. Nonetheless, he can still apostatize (fall away) because he has a significant degree of free will. The good news is that when he drifts away, he can return. God is merciful.
Let’s look at Luke’s version of the Parable of the Sower because he adds the element of bearing immature or mature fruit. We will refer to Matthew’s and Mark’s version, when needed.
Luke 8:11-15, Jesus is speaking:
11 “This is (the meaning of) the parable:
The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path: they heard (it); then the devil comes and takes the word from their hearts, so that they might not believe and be saved. 13 The ones on rock ground: they receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root; they believe for a time, but in the time of testing, they fall away. 14 The ones falling among the thorn bushes: they have heard, but as they go, they are choked by the anxieties and riches and pleasures of life, and they do not produce mature fruit. 15 The ones in the good soil: after hearing the word with a truly good heart, they hold on to it and produce fruit by endurance.” (Luke 8:11-15, my translation)
Three parts follow:
Exegesis (detailed look at the above passage)
Interpretation (what do the parts mean when they are put back together?)
Let’s take it verse by verse, even key word by key word.
11: “(the meaning of)”: this was inserted because it is implied in the Greek, but the sentence could be read smoothly and clearly without the phrase: “This is the meaning of.”
“Word”: It is the noun logos (pronounced lo-goss), and it is rich in meaning. It is the same word in all the verses in this section (vv. 11-15). For our purposes here, let’s assume it means the word that saves. This word explains the kingdom of God and its power to transform people’s hearts, if their hearts are receptive.
12: “the devil”: he can certainly read your heart well enough to snatch the word from your heart. Don’t let the devil rob you of the good word planted in you. “Is this really real? Is the word true?” You can ask those questions, but go to someone who is more mature than you to get answers.
See these posts for a more developed theology about Satan:
“heard”: this is an aorist (past) tense participle, so the person heard the word. But did it enter his heart and stay there? Apparently not, for the devil stole it.
Matthew’s version says that the hearers did not understand it, so the word did not hold, so the devil can easily steal it.
“so that they might not believe and be saved”: in the Greek syntax (sentence structure), the negation “not” applies to both “believe” and “saved.”
“believe”: the verb is pisteuō (pronounced pea-stew-oh), and it is used 241 times in the NT. It means to “believe, be convinced of something.” In a more specific definition it goes in a direction: “to have faith in Christ or God” (Mounce p. 61). Here it is connected to “saved,” and as noted, the negation “not” applies both to “believe” and “be saved.” So the person does not believe and is not saved.
Further, the verb “believe” is another aorist (past) participle, but the professional grammarians teach us that participles in this context take on the mood of the verb they modify, so it connects with the subjunctive “might be saved.” I translated it the way the NIV and Culy, Parsons, and Stigall and the translator of the Gospel of Luke for the NET translate the clause. (Those three men and the NET translator are the professional grammarians.)
“saved”: the verb is sōzō (pronounced soh-zoh and used 106 times in the NT), which means “save, rescue, heal” in a variety of contexts, but mostly it is used of saving the soul, as here. Please note that subjunctive does not necessarily mean it might not happen, but it can just express purpose (“so that”), as I believe it does here.
BDAG is considered by many to be the authoritative Greek lexicon, and it says that the verb “saved” means, depending on the context: (1) “to preserve or rescue from natural dangers and afflictions, save, keep from harm, preserve,” and the sub-definitions under no. 1 are as follows: save from death; bring out safely; save from disease; keep, preserve in good condition; thrive, prosper, get on well; (2) “to save or preserve from transcendent danger or destruction, save or preserve from ‘eternal’ death … “bring Messianic salvation, bring to salvation,” and in passive mood it means “be saved, attain salvation”; (3) some passages in the NT say we the forgiven fit under the first and second definition at the same time (Mark 8:5; Luke 9:24; Rom. 9:27; 1 Cor. 3:15). It looks like the first or second definition applies here.
See my study on the words salvation and saved:
13: People can receive the word with joy when they hear it. But the rocky soil prevents the roots from going deep enough for them to soak up the moisture. What is the moisture? Jesus does not tell us, so the interpretation is open-ended: more word, fellowship, the Spirit, and water baptism or all of the above. Scorching sunlight (trials and temptations) is implied in this verse.
“they believe for a time”: “time” is kairos (pronounced ky-ross), and it has a quality built into it, while chronos (pronounced khro-noss) expresses one event or hour or day after the other. In this verse it is not clear that kairos is any different from chronos, but translate kairos as “season,” if you wish.
So the hearers believe (present tense), but in the time (kairos again) of testing or temptation they fall away. “Fall away” could be translated more literally as “stand away” or “stand apart.” It is easy to imagine that the hearers, receivers and believers walk away or stand away from the word after they go through temptation or testing.
“testing”: it is the noun peirasmos (pronounced pay-rahss-moss), and it can be translated in one context as “test, trial” (to see what is in a person) and in another context as “temptation, enticement” (to sin). As noted, scorching sunlight (peirasmos) is implied. God is not tempted with evil, nor does he tempt anyone (towards evil) (Jas. 1:13). But we are tempted by our own human sin nature (Jas. 1:14). So how should we translate the noun here? Matthew’s and Marks versions have “tribulation or persecution.” So why does Luke go with peirasmos? It is more ambiguous. Maybe he chose the broader and more ambiguous term to let readers know that they will go through testing by trials and persecution and through temptation by Satan. Be prepared for trials and temptations.
14: In v. 7 the thorn bushes grow with the seed and choke it. Here the thorn bushes are explained as the anxieties, riches and pleasure of life—and these things choke the word. The people heard it, and they produce fruit, but it does not mature. No, money and certain pleasure are not bad in themselves, but too often they do choke out our relationship with God.
“produce mature fruit”: it is one verb in Greek: telesphoreō (pronounced teh-less-foh-reh-oh), and it is used only here in the entire NT. “Fruit” is implied, because of the word in v. 15 and the entire context of the parable: growth of fruit. It is in the present tense, implying that if the word had not been choked out, the fruit would have grown to maturity; one has to keep going to maturity (v. 15). Being a compound word, the tel– stem means “completion” or “maturity” or “end” (as an end zone or goal in football). And the phor– stem means “to produce” or more literally “to bear” or “to carry.” So the picture is that the hearer produces some fruit, but then the entire plant gets choked out by the anxieties, riches, and pleasures of life. Those three things can be modified by the word life, or only pleasures is modified by it. It is better to see the entire package as modified by life: “anxieties of life, the riches of life, and the pleasures of life.”
“life”: it is the noun bios (pronounced bee-oss), and, yes, we get our nouns biology and biosphere from it. In NT Greek the noun meant “life, everyday life, livelihood, property, worldly goods.” It has the connotation of a moral or immoral lifestyle built into it, since the authors were deeply concerned with our relationship with God and then how that works out in our morals and behavior.
V.15: “after they heard”: this another past participle (aorist), and it is temporal (“after they heard”), say the grammarians.
“truly good heart”: it is literally “fine and good heart,” but the grammarians teach us that the combination of words is a doublet, used to intensify one idea. So it just means “truly good heart.” However, many translations have separated the one idea as two different adjectives: “honest and good heart” (KJV, NAS, NET); “good and honest heart” (CEV, NCV); “noble and good heart” (NIV, NKJV); “good-hearted” (NLT); “good-hearts” (MSG). You can interpret the one-idea doublet in that way, if you wish.
Matthew’s version says that the hearers understand it, so it can take hold in the heart.
“hold on”: it is the verb katecho (pronounced kah-teh-khoh), and it is in the present tense, so you keep holding on firmly to the word, implying that it is possible to let it go, as the other three soils-hearts imply. Keep holding on. It means in this context “to hold (tight).”
“produce fruit”: it is one verb karpophoreō (pronounced kahr-poh-foh-reh-oh), and it is in the present tense—you keep producing fruit, implying that fruit can be produced, but not grow to maturity (v. 14). It is a compound verb. The karp– stem means “fruit,” and the phor– stem means “to produce,” or more literally “to bear” or “to carry.” Here it is in contrast to the ones who do not produce mature fruit (v. 14).
“by endurance”: it is the noun hupomonē (pronounced hoo-poh-moh-nay), and it literally means to “stay under.” When you go through times of testing or temptation (peirasmos in v. 13), you have to stay under the Lord’s guidance and strength. It takes perseverance, endurance, patience, fortitude, steadfastness (all translations of the noun) to live life in Christ, all the way to the end, until the day you die. The Lord is looking for those who will keeping going, even when life is difficult and full of trials, persecutions and testing or temptations.
Interpreting the Parable
So now let’s interpret the parable in light of the discussion over “once saved, always saved” and the possibility of walking away from salvation.
We don’t include “the path” because birds steal the seed before belief and salvation happen. The other three soils are open for discussion.
Here are the other three.
Rocky: the Greek literally says “on the rock,” but the context is soil, so most translators have the words “rocky soil.” In any case, someone believed for a while with joy in his heart, but his soil (heart) was shallow so the word did not sink down roots, so in times of testing the plant dried up. Is the person truly saved or seemed to be saved but were really not? The answer depends on an interpreter’s starting point.
Those who believe in “once saved, always saved” would claim the person was never saved in the first place, or else his roots would have gone deep enough to preserve the plant from withering away during testing and temptations. In contrast, a conditional security interpreter would say he was saved for a while and had joy in his heart because of salvation, but then trials and temptations weakened his inner endurance, so he walked away out of own free will.
Soil with thorns: the person’s fruit grew a little, but did not mature, because the thorns choked the plant—the anxieties, riches, and pleasure of life are the thorns. So was he truly saved or not? The answer to that question also depends on an interpreter’s starting point.
Those who believe in “once saved, always saved” would claim he was never saved in the first place; otherwise he would have persevered in the word and his fruit would have matured. Those three things would not have choked out the word and his salvation. In contrast, those who believe in conditional security say that the (immature) fruit still proves he had an experience with God and was able to produce enough fruit to indicate true salvation. However, those three things choked out the plant and further growth, and out of his own free will—buffeted as his soul was—he fell away.
Good soil: Jesus describes a person who listens with a truly good heart and holds on to the word and produces fruit by enduring. So does he have to persevere because he potentially he could drift away and lose out, or is he secure in his salvation until the day he dies? The answer to that question depends on the interpreter’s starting point.
Those who believe in “once saved, always saved” say that God will ensure he will persevere. He won’t walk away from his salvation because he is truly saved. The counsel to bear fruit and endure is a warning that does not apply to him—not really. It is potential without ever becoming actual. In contrast, the conditional security interpreter agrees that God sustains the person, so he is secure in his salvation, but the fruit production with endurance is a warning that means something. The opposite may happen. He may not endure and his fruit may stop short of maturity or later in life his fruit may shrivel. In other words, out of his free will he may walk away because he does not persevere or endure.
It is impossible (for me at least) to draw the line between the roots going deep enough or not deep enough to have real salvation, between when the fruit is mature enough or not mature enough to have real salvation, between receiving the word with joy enough to indicate salvation or not enough joy to indicate real salvation.
The heart is difficult to read, and so is this extended metaphor of seed, soils, and testings and trials and thorns (and so on). So we have to be careful not to read too much into the parable.
But let me state my tentative view.
In the parable, there is enough evidence to indicate true belief and true salvation, but the person could potentially and then actually fall away due to temptations and trials and anxieties and riches and pleasures of life. That seems to be the thrust of the entire section of Scripture. The “once saved, always saved” interpreter seems to impose a template on the verses, such that no matter how much evidence there is about falling away, the fallen person was never saved in the first place.
However, I can see how still a third interpreter can conclude–perhaps wisely–that the evidence is not perfectly clear, 100%, because Jesus did not consider such a debate, then and there, before his original audience.
You can decide for yourself which interpretation fits the verses, or none of the above.
So how does this post help me understand God better and grow in Christ?
What did you do when the devil tried to take the word from your heart? If you read Psalm 23, you will discover that the Lord will sustain you through testing and temptations—through your valley of the shadow of death. God’s power to sustain is so great that the riches and anxieties and pleasure of life do not have to choke out the word in your life. You only have to sink your roots deeper and be restored.
How has the Lord worked in you to have a truly good heart to receive the word and produce fruit by persevering and remaining steadfast in him? He is willing to work in you and help you. If you were to fall away, regardless of the original condition of your heart, he would gladly accept you back. He loves you.