How can we evangelize with integrity? As my husband and I lead our church together, this is a question we wrestle with a lot. Namely, in our enthusiasm to see people come to know Christ, how do we resist the temptation of results-driven ministry? How can we communicate the urgency of the gospel without manipulating others’ emotions or fears? How can we present the gospel in a way that is inviting without truncating the message to make it more palatable?
As we have processed these questions and temptations regarding evangelism, we have found ourselves both chastened and encouraged by the Parable of the Sower (Matt. 13). In this famous story, Jesus uses an analogy that would have been familiar to his Palestinian audience. According to Bible scholar William Barclay, farmers at the time would have sown their seed in one of two ways: either casting out the seed by hand or strapping a bag of seed to the back of a donkey, tearing a hole in the sack, and letting the seed spill out as the animal crossed the field.
In both scenarios, the seed would have been vulnerable to variables such as wind or rocky terrain, but because of these two different practices, the identity of the “sower” in this parable remains unclear. Perhaps we are the human sower, or perhaps we are the farmer’s donkey, but it is “God who gives the growth” (1 Cor. 3:7, ESV). In this way, the parable is symbolic of three “actors” who are present in the sharing of the gospel—you, the hearers, and God—and until we understand these roles properly, the work of evangelism will be much harder and more burdensome than God ever intended.
In Matthew 13, the sower goes out to sow (v. 3), and he sows into all sorts of soil. What is strange about this sower, however, is that he sows haphazardly. He sows into bad soil and good. There is a recklessness to the sower. He does not pause to consider whether the seed can take root; he simply gives every soil the opportunity, and Jesus explains that our assignment is the same. It is not our role to judge the quality of the soil but simply to cast the seed.
On the other hand, the sower’s “recklessness” should not be mistaken for carelessness, thoughtlessness, or laziness. In addition to sowing, a good farmer also cultivates his soil by loosening it and fertilizing it. The Parable of the Sower does not describe this work, but all of Scripture is brimming with instructions for cultivating the soil of our culture. When Christians are exhorted to “conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders” (Col. 4:5, NASB), “keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles” (1 Pet. 2:12, NASB), “speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy” (Prov. 31:9), be known by your love (John 13:35), and be “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22), these actions have a way of loosening and preparing the soil around us.
Much of Jesus’ ministry work was soil work. He intervened on behalf of the woman caught in adultery before he exhorted her to sin no more (John 8). He reached out to the woman at the well, a social outcast, before dispatching her to evangelize her town (John 4). And he dignified the sinful woman, inviting her to anoint his feet and setting her free in forgiveness (Luke 7). By loving people, healing people, listening to people, and speaking in a language they could understand, he prepared the way for the seed to fall on fertile ground. For those of us who are prone to blame the world for its inability to hear, this perspective is a helpful corrective.
The Hearer’s Role
For others of us, we place too much responsibility on ourselves to change hearts. Whether we do so because of pride or a lack of trust in God, this parable is a corrective for us also. In his commentary on Matthew, R. T. France writes, “The description of the four types [of soil] focuses, as surely as the parable intended, on their varying receptiveness to what they hear. All hear the same word.”
Jesus describes three types of soil where even the best seed will struggle to grow: the hard path (Matt. 13:4), the rocky soil (v. 5), and the thorny ground (v. 7). The path, Barclay explains, would have been hard as pavement, packed down by the foot traffic of passersby, and it represents those hard-hearted and close-minded individuals who cannot receive the Word due to their prejudice, an unteachable spirit, an immoral character, or a wound from the past.
The rocky soil represents a shallow faith, marked by chasing after the latest trend instead of cultivating something that lasts. Theologian Stanley Hauerwas describes this kind of Christian as one who is “too ready to follow Jesus,” meaning they “fail to understand that [they] do not understand what kind of Messiah this is.” They do not count the cost, and because of this, their faith is easily distracted or destroyed.
In the case of the thorny ground, the soil is good but “is already taken up” by what France calls “cares and delights.” Whether it is the temptation of ease or the busyness of over-commitment, this seed fails to grow and thrive because it is simply crowded out.
Finally, Jesus describes the only good soil conducive to long-lasting growth. It is the heart and mind that is open to God, ready to hear, eager to understand, and willing to count the cost.
In this parable, we encounter four different types of soil representing a thousand different stories and circumstances. At any given time, in any given church, women’s retreat, bookstore, or coffee shop, hearers are coming with their different states of soil. Many are not even what they appear. Some will be reserved yet more than ready to hear, while others seem curious but cannot, in actuality, be convinced.
These soil conditions are too many for any one person to predict or imagine, which is why Jesus tasks us with a lighter burden: simply casting out seed. We do not have to anticipate every possible objection. In fact, this parable promises that some of our seed will not take root, and we are expected to cast it out anyway. We do not have to bend or twist or perform all sorts of acrobatic interpretive work to persuade the unpersuadable. That work is up to God.
The Spirit’s Role
So much of horticulture is outside of human control. We cannot control the elements. We cannot control the wind, the drought, the floods, or the pests. Sowing the Word of God is similar—there is much we cannot control. In 1 Corinthians 3:6, the apostle Paul makes an important observation about the work of sowing. He affirms the value of evangelism, and he doggedly casts out seed, but he also writes, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God has been making it grow.”
When it comes to evangelism, our role matters—but our role is also limited, and this truth can unburden us. Whenever we feel the pressure to convince people or feel tempted to make our gospel “nicer,” we are wise to remember that salvation is the Spirit’s work. The Spirit can take our words and make them just the right shape for another’s heart. The Spirit can translate our message about one situation into a myriad of different life scenarios.
If anyone is going to break up the hard soil of a person’s heart, it is going to be the Spirit of God. If anyone is going to clear away the rocks and the thorns, it is going to be the Spirit of God. We may cast out the seed, but it is the Spirit who does all the heavy lifting. We do not have to transform the message for the benefit of hearers; instead we trust the Spirit to transform them.
Evangelism’s One Sure Thing
Evangelism challenges our desire for resolution. We often want results we can point to—and faithful evangelism cannot promise us this. The Parable of the Sower meets us in this ambiguity, as does Jesus himself. Not only does our Savior cast out the seed of his words, but he also casts out the seed of his life.
It strikes me that some approaches to evangelism neglect the sowing of our words, while others neglect the sowing of our lives. But, as Jesus’ followers, we are called to follow him in both. We sow by speaking the whole truth with boldness and by laying our lives down in love. Neither guarantees a response in our hearers’ lives, but they do guarantee one thing: granting as many people as possible a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God.
Sharon Hodde Miller is the author of Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More and Free of Me (Baker Books). She holds a PhD on the topic of women and calling, and she leads Bright City Church in Durham, North Carolina, with her husband, Ike.
This article is part of CT’s special issue on how women are rethinking global gospel proclamation. Download a free pdf of the issue at moreCT.com/YourMissionField.