Thoughts on Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23.I have now been in the pulpit for almost 16 months, and though I am not new to serving in the context of the local church, this vantage point is certainly new. One of the things that some would celebrate about the first twelve months of ministry is that we had 8 people baptized as a result of professions of faith (3 children and 5 adults). I have to admit...I found myself celebrating it the first time I realized it. Then, I thought of where those people are now. Three of them are plugged into the ministry of our church, and we are discipling them through existing programs. I have already made arrangements to disciple the one man who remains in the church one-on-one.
What about the other five? They all seemed to have taken complete leave of the church and, quite possibly, Christ. Why? How can this be? What hope is there when this kind of thing happens? Can we really pin this on bad follow-up (or bad evangelism) by the church, or is something more significant happening here? Does the Scripture have anything to say about this?
Here is where the parable of the sower in Matthew 13 becomes all-too-real for me. As a pastor, I have great excitement when someone professes Christ as Savior and Lord, publicly declaring it in baptism. I think that should be exciting! (God, protect us from ever seeing it as "routine", but let it still be a regular occurrence in our churches.) My difficulty is that the disappearance of these young ones in faith truly breaks my heart. It ought to break every Christian's heart that this happens. Attitude toward the church is a visible indicator of attitude toward Christ...remember what Jesus said to Saul on the road to Damascus? "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:5). Jesus had ascended to the right hand of the Father (Acts 1), so He was no longer there to persecute. Who was Saul persecuting? The church...the body of Christ...in persecuting the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ, Saul was, in fact, persecuting Christ. So, when professing Christians abandon or downplay the importance of the gathered church, it ought to be a heart-breaking moment for all believers.
What is the spiritual reality behind this type of abandonment? If you haven't already, read Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23. We find the parable of the sower given in the earlier verses, while a rare explanation of the parable is given in the last 6 verses listed. Maybe this parable is familiar to you...it certainly is familiar to me...I've heard it preached over and over again. Here's a simplified version of v. 18-23:
- Seed on the path = no understanding, enemy steals the seed of the word
- Seed on rocky places = receives word with joy, but no root + persecution = falls away
- Seed among thorns = hears word, worries of life/deceitfulness of wealth choke it
- Seed on good soil = hears and understands word, produces fruitful life
Of those who at least hear, only one out of three is the real deal. The seed that is taken by the enemy isn't even understood. One soil produces an emotional response, but persecution proves that it was only emotion. One soil is a more intellectual response, but the pull of life's worries and wealth on the heart proves it to be no more than a mental agreement with the facts. The real deal affects the mind and emotions, and it can be observed in the fruitfulness of life. Now, go back to the numbers I shared with you at the beginning. Three out of eight baptisms have proven, so far, to be fruitful (at least in faithfulness to Bible study and worship, and in some cases, much more). That's a little more than 33%...so, the parable of the sower has shown itself to be true in my congregation during the first year of my ministry here.
There are two opposite sides of a pendulum that are terribly unhealthy when dealing with new professions of faith that turn away like this. One would take the parable of the sower and hold to it as if it were a church-growth statistic, dismissing the need for deeply intentional and careful evangelism, as well as the intentional discipleship of new believers. This attitude would say, "Well, only one in three is really going to produce fruit, so why work so hard at it?" (God, protect us from such an attitude...protect me from such an attitude.) Evangelism and discipleship are not statistics to be observed; they are life and death events for those encountering Christ...life for the one who is truly saved and death to the one who rejects the Gospel and its demands. Avoid being led by stats...this isn't a basketball game; it's eternity!
The opposite side of the pendulum is the "once-saved-always-saved" mentality. It is the kind of attitude that might say, "Well, they prayed the prayer and were baptized...they must be saved and have dropped out of church because (enter excuse here)." This actually leads to the same result...no real plan for careful, intentional evangelism and discipleship of new converts. After all, as long as the prayer is prayed, what else matters? (sarcasm intended) This attitude dismisses the parable of the sowers altogether, believing that sincerity in an emotional, one-time experience is all that matters. If this were all that matters, then why would Jesus make the ridiculous statement that "anyone who does not take up his cross and follow me is not worthy of me" (Mt. 10:38). That doesn't sound like a one-time experience...following means step by step, day by day obedience. We must avoid the lie that experience dictates true conversion...Jesus says the seed in the good soil produces fruit, and abandoning the body of Christ is not the kind of fruit a child of God produces.
To be really honest, this pendulum comparison isn't even why I wrote this blog. I wrote this blog because my heart is broken for the souls of five people who have made what could very well be false professions of faith. I know for certain that I am not the Judge of their souls, so I can only speak from the revelation that Scripture has given. However, the truth is that they may have placed their security in their trip through our baptism pool and a few weeks of joy in church, rather than in the Head of the Church, Jesus Christ. They could even believe that whatever they experienced was real, but now life has gone on, and they're "back in their routine". No cross to pick up, no sin nature to die to, no Savior to follow...just an experience, which means...no salvation. I wish I could convince them to come back and continue to seek the Savior they once professed, but my efforts have come up empty. Maybe my efforts weren't good enough...maybe my plea for their faithfulness was masked in too much religious diplomacy. Oh God, may it never be so again if that were the case!
The parable of the sower is all-too-real tonight. I do take comfort from from three things. One, God is sovereign over these things, and ultimately, the salvation of others lies in His hands...not mine. Two, if I will continue to sow the seed of His Word, He will faithful to save some. Three, Jesus has promised that He will not lose any of those whom the Father gives Him (John 6:37).
On the flip side, I know that some who profess Christ will fall away because there was no genuine conversion. I also know that the number of true converts could be fewer than the number of false professions of faith. I know I can't dismiss this reality, and I can't fool myself into thinking that they're okay, wherever they are, simply because of their experience.
So, at the beginning of this blog and at the end, I remain a pastor with a broken heart...longing for these lost sheep to be found by the Good Shepherd and brought into the fold, once and for all...longing to be effective, careful, and intentional in my personal evangelism and discipleship efforts...longing the same for you and your church. Keep your eyes on Jesus!