A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the footpath; and the birds came and ate it up. Some seed fell on the rocky ground, where it had little soil, and it sprouted quickly because it had no depth of earth; but when the sun rose, the young corn was scorched, and as it had no root it withered away. Some seed fell among thistles; and the thistles hot up, and choked the corn. And some of the corn fell into good ground where it bore fruit, yielding a hundred fold (Matthew 13:4)
I guess that most of us are all too familiar with the parable of the sower, and if we hear it, we hear the ‘punchline’ before we have got half way through it. It is usual to assume that the different types of soil represent different types of people. This may be the usual interpretation but it is not the only one.
An alternative way of seeing the parable is to assume that the different types of soil represent the same man but each type of soil describes a different stage during his conversion. While some people are converted ‘instantly’ and their pilgrimage with Jesus commences straight away, that was not my experience: like many others, I was first convinced, then believed, then was committed but had only a head knowledge and only after some further time was my heart engaged properly in the discipleship.
Think of the parable this way, then: initially, the man hears the Gospel, but his heart is hard and he hears nothing. This is the footpath prior to any kind of conversion. After a time, though, he admits that the Gospel must have some truth: he is hedging his bets and prefers to believe only a little of what he hears … the ‘safe’ bits, so he says ‘thus far and no more’ or ‘I can believe only so much’; his commitment is only as skin deep as the layer of soil that covers the rock.
After a further time, and this same man knows more about the Gospel and about Jesus. He wants to know more, to believe more, to have a deeper faith. It is here that his conversion is most in danger because he is sufficiently committed to be a risk to Satan keeping his soul, but insufficiently so to effect the conversion of others. Accordingly, Satan diverts his attention. The man finds that his new-found Christianity now has to compete for his time and money: he is committed to Christianity but also to other things, both to corn and to thistles.
The man can only go forward or backward at this point in his conversion: he cannot stay still. It is a battle between saving his soul and losing it. If he falls backward, then it is a matter of him saying ‘and I used to be interested a bit in the church’ but if he understands what is happening then he will ask for help from the Holy Spirit: his commitment will increase and his soul will be saved. The soil is used solely for Jesus.
It is worth noting in passing that the above order, albeit in reverse, explains the route taken by many back-sliders.