The Different Ways People Respond To The Gospel

On any given day, the gospel of Jesus Christ is proclaimed to millions of people.  Some may hear the message in a church sanctuary.  Some hear it on the radio or television.  Some hear it in books and magazine articles.  Some hear it from a friend.  They all hear the same message but they respond in different ways.

Why is it that two people go to the same church, hear the same message, yet have different responses?  Why is one transformed while the other is barely wrinkled?  Why do some turn from sin and others continue on indifferently?

Jesus addresses this issue in his parable of the soils.  You find it recorded in: Matthew, Mark and Luke.  In a farming community this parable should speak quite clearly.

“A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering  the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds of the air ate it up. Some fell on rock, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times  more than was sown.” (Luke 8:5-8)

Some of the parables of Jesus will make us really wonder about the correct interpretation.  This parable does not.  Jesus’ explained this parable to his disciples and to us.

“This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God. Those along the path are the ones who hear, and then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away. The seed that fell among thorns stands for those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by life’s worries, riches and pleasures, and they do not mature. But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. (Luke 8:11-15)

This parable raises two important questions: Why do people respond differently to the gospel message? and Why is this information important to us?

Why do People Respond Differently to the Gospel?

Jesus lists four different kinds of response to the message of the gospel.  They correspond to the four types of soil.

The Seed on the Road – The hardened hearer

The  first kind of soil is the one on the hardened path.  The fields in Israel  were often narrow fields that were divided by walking paths that had gotten  beaten down over the years.  This would be like the seed in our day that was thrown  onto the highway or even the truck path in a field.  The  ground is so hard that the seed just lays there on top of the soil and the  birds fly by and eat it.

There  are some people who will “hear” the gospel message but they will  have no response because their hearts are hard.  They are closed to new insights and non-receptive to truth. They have life “figured out” and aren’t open to anyone pointing them in another direction. They have concluded that the gospel is irrelevant, it doesn’t work.  They don’t want to hear.  They have trained themselves to  tune God out.  Surprisingly, you may even find these kind of people in church.  They may 

  • be attending worship just to please a spouse

  • be here because their parents require it

  • be involved to keep up appearances in the community

  • be logging time figuring that it will gain them “points” for Heaven . . . if there is such a place

These people have the seed of God’s Word presented to them but they aren’t interested.  They are merely logging their time. Satan takes the seed sown and sweeps it away.

The Seed on the Rocky Ground – The superficial Hearer

Unlike the first group these are people who receive the gospel message with enthusiasm.  But that enthusiasm is short-lived.  When difficulty comes or when the novelty wears off, these people drift away.  They have a “conversion experience” and for awhile these people seem bold in the Lord. And then one day they lose interest and drift away. Their faith was superficial. 

Unfortunately, these people may be convinced that they are going to Heaven because they “prayed the prayer”, “walked the aisle” or “got baptized”.   These things do not save anyone.  Truly trusting Christ is what saves us. The people Jesus talks about here are counterfeit Christians.  Patrick Morely gives a good illustration,

Recently a drug manufacturer announced the study results of a new wonder drug for migraine headache sufferers. The research showed that within one hour of taking the drug a whopping 70 percent of the test patients had little or no pain.  Remarkably, in the control group that received a placebo, 29 percent of the test patients showed the same improvement.

Scientists testing new drugs always have a control group.  Those in the control group take what they think is the real thing, but it is not; it is a placebo, a “sugar” pill.  It has no active ingredient; it is not real medicine.  The placebo effect simply means that a certain percentage of people who take any potential cure will show signs of improvement if they think they are taking real medicine.

Though the placebo will produce the benefits of the real medicine for a while, sooner or later the effect wears off.  They are, after all, not taking the real thing.  It won’t work forever; it is not a permanent solution.

A  certain percentage of people professing faith in Jesus Christ don’t take the  real medicine — the real cure for what ails them.  They don’t place  their faith in the Savior of the Bible for their salvation. Instead, they  place their faith in their good deeds, or some vain imagination of what Jesus  must be like.  It is a faith that has no active ingredient.  It is a  placebo.    [Patrick Morley, THE REST OF YOUR LIFE (Nashville:  Thomas Nelson, 1992) p.68-69]

Like the control group, these people do show some evidence of new life.  They may appear to have had a genuine conversion experience . . . but it is not real, and in time, it will fade.

The Seed in the Thorns- The distracted Hearer

The third group of people are attracted to the gospel message but they never get around to getting serious.  They are so distracted by other things that they never respond to the truth.  

It’s like the girl to  which a young man once proposed. He said, “Darling, I want you to know that  I love you more than anything else in the world. I want you to marry me. I’m  not rich. I don’t have a yacht or a Rolls Royce like Johnny Brown, but I do  love you with all my heart.” She thought for a minute and then replied, “I  love you with all my heart, too, but tell me more about Johnny Brown.”

R. Kent Hughes, Mark : Jesus, Servant and Savior, Preaching the Word, Mk 4:18 (Westchester, Ill.: Crossway Books, 1989). p. 108

These people have a divided heart.  They receive the truth of God, but they welcome competing truths as well.  They don’t know what they believe.  Today these people would be considered “politically correct”.  They affirm all belief systems even though they are contradictory and cannot all be correct.  These people know they need spiritual life but unwilling to commit to Christ.  They love their boyfriend but still want to know about Johnny Brown. 

Jesus tells us that these people eventually drift away because of the worries of life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things.  These people want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to walk on the broad road and the narrow road.  They want to pursue the things of the world and the things of God.  But you cannot do both. Jesus said, 

“No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the    one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money. (Matthew 6:24)

The Seed on the Fertile Soil- The responsive Hearer

The true believer is one that hears the truth and accepts it as truth.  They interact with the truth of God and find it satisfying and good. They receive the message of salvation and apply it to their own life. These people recognize themselves as real sinners in need of the grace that can only come from Christ.  They throw themselves on the mercy of the court and vow to serve Him.  These are the people who come to Christ as Savior AND as their Lord. 

The evidence of this kind of commitment is a transformed life. These people bear fruit.  In other words, they are becoming holy (Romans 6:22), they are beginning to give evidence of Christ-like character (by manifesting love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control -Galatians 5:22-23). They show their faith by their changed lives and their eagerness to honor God and share the gospel with others.

These people are used by God to turn lives from darkness to light.  They make an impact by their compassion and turn heads with their consistency.  The people who are represented by the good soil may not “sprout” as fast as the seed in the shallow soil.  They may grow more slowly.  But they keep growing. Their roots dig deep. These people ask questions, they hunger to understand and to grow. Their faith is real. And fruit comes from their lives. They change slowly but surely. The true believer is committed. Their commitment is not a “flash in the pan” it is something that will endure for the rest of their life.


It Reminds us that You Can’t tell a True Believer By Their Initial Response to the Gospel

There are many people who start out enthusiastic in the faith . . . but their faith is superficial and pretend.  They may have recited a prayer, walked an aisle, received baptism, or joined a church.  But if they are only responding superficially, they are not truly reborn.  They are not genuine believers.

Our goal is not just to get people to a point of decision . . . we are seeking to make them disciples.  And there is a big difference.  When we see someone who professed faith suddenly walk away from the faith I don’t believe those people have “lost their salvation.”  They never really belonged to Christ to start with.  When these people drift away it is because they were affirming a shallow gospel.  They were believers only on the surface.

I’m not suggesting that you go around calling everyone an unbeliever.  I’m not suggesting that you not celebrate when a person is willing to declare their faith in Christ. But I do caution you not to accept things just at face value. 

  • When    a person tells you that they “believe in God” make sure you understand WHAT they believe about God.

  • When a person confesses that they are a Christian, find out what they mean by those words.  Do they mean they go to a church that affirms Christianity, or do they mean that they have given their heart and life to Christ.

  • When a person tells you they want to receive Christ as Savior, find out why. Do they want to be like others they admire? Are they responding to emotional stimuli?  Are they hoping to escape some difficulty? Are they trying to obtain “fire insurance”? Or do they see their sin and Christ’s payment for that sin?  Do they see Jesus as the one who is qualified to be Lord of Life.

Work hard to help people do more than just “play the game”.

It Reminds us to Keep Our Hearts Soft and Alert

The key question for us would be, “What kind of soil am I?” This parable should shake us up a little.  It was designed to make us think. There were lots of people who were “Jesus fans” in those days.  There were not near as many “disciples”.  Are you going through a “religious phase” or are you a committed follower?

Hard hearted people need to have their hearts made more receptive.  Unfortunately, God sometimes accomplishes this through the trials of life.  Sometimes these folks will need a crisis or tragedy to enter their lives before they realize their need for something more.  Sometimes they will need pain to make them attentive to the things of God.  

When you and I are sharing the gospel with hardened people we must realize that the process is going to be long.  God will have to awaken those who are hardened by our character, our love, and our consistency.  These people will need to SEE Christianity before they will listen to it.

But let’s get back to the question at hand: How can we make our hearts ready and responsive? First, we must make an effort to concentrate on the things of God.  We must eliminate distractions from our lives.  We are often running in so many different directions at once that we never stop and really commit to anything. We must remind ourselves that there is no issue more important and significant than our walk with God. We must give that relationship the attention it needs.

We need to refuse to settle for surface stimulation.  It’s great to feel warm glow from a good experience in church, but we must remember that a warm glow is not the same thing as a real relationship with the Savior.  We must question our motives and our heart.  We must constantly be seeking a deeper relationship with Christ.  We must not settle for “warm fuzzies”.  It is not enough to have our emotions stirred.  God wants our hearts.  

Finally, we need to act on what we are learning. A medical intern’s job is to take all the book knowledge that they have and start putting it into practice.  They must examine patients, participate in surgery, and actually work through the problems that arise.  You can be intelligent and still be a terrible Doctor. You have to know how to apply the knowledge you have. 

It is the same for Christians.  You can have all kinds of knowledge and still not be a follower of Jesus. You may be able to debate the Gospel with the finest minds . . . but if you are not doing what He tells us to do, you are not a true disciple. 

It Makes us Reconsider our Methods of Evangelism

This parable raises some valuable and probing questions about our attempts to share the gospel with others.  First, it reminds us that we must not get discouraged just because everyone does not respond to the message.  In this parable three of the four soils were ultimately unresponsive.  Our job is to scatter the seed persistently, consistently, and faithfully.  Our job is to pray and water the seed.  God will prepare the soil. We should seek to adopt the best methods possible, but we should not get discouraged if people do not respond. 

Second, we need to remember the importance of the seed.  The sower cannot accomplish anything without the seed.  Our methods are far less important than our message. As I read about those who have come out of false religions like Islam or Mormonism there is a consistent theme . . . .each of these people were exposed to the Word of God.  It was in reading the Bible that they saw the error of what they had been taught. Our job is to proclaim the truth of Scripture and then let God’s Word do what God’s Word alone can do.

Third, we need to re-think our methods of evangelism.  Arthur Pink writes words that ruffle a number of feathers as he talks about those who are like the soil that responds quickly but have no roots.

today almost everything  connected with modern evangelistic effort is calculated to produce just this  very type of [superficial] hearer. The “bright singing,” the sentimentality of the  hymns, the preacher’s appeals to the emotions, the demand of the churches  for visible and quick “results,”  produce nothing but superficial returns. Sinners are urged to make a prompt  “decision,” are rushed to the “penitent form,” and then  assured that all is well with them; and the poor deluded soul leaves with a  false and fleeting “joy.” And the deplorable thing is that many of  the Lord’s own people are supporting this  Christ-dishonoring and soul-deceiving burlesque of true Gospel ministry.  [Pink, The Prophetic Parables of Matthew 13, 3. the Parable of the Sower. p.  20]

These are tough words but I think they are accurate words.  In our desire to get “decisions for Christ” we are often guilty of manipulating emotions and watering down the nature of Christian commitment.  We tell people “all they need to do is walk an aisle or raise a hand, or say a prayer.” We appeal to the superficial.  But Jesus asks for surrender.  He asks us to surrender our attempts to save ourselves.  He asks to follow Him, to trust Him, to rely on Him. It isn’t a decision that can be made in moment of emotion.  We are aiming too low!  We must focus less on decisions and more on discipleship.

Jesus told potential followers that they must “count the cost”. He told them that they needed to think carefully about the commitment He was calling them to make. We would be wise to abandon our emphasis on immediate decisions and put our energy into encouraging people to count the cost. 

For  lack of “counting the cost,” hundreds of professed converts, under  religious revivals, go back to the world after a time, and bring disgrace on  religion.  They begin with a sadly mistaken notion of what is true  Christianity. They fancy it consists in nothing more than a so-called  “coming to Christ,” and having strong inward feelings of joy and  peace. And so, when they find, after a time, that there is a cross to be  carried, that our hearts are deceitful, and that there is a busy devil always  near us, they cool down in disgust, and return to their old sins.  And  why? Because they had really never known what Bible Christianity is. They had  never learned that we must “count the cost.”  [Bishop  J.C. Ryle, HOLINESS,  Christian Life Classics  (Lafayette In.:  Sovereign Grace Trust, 1990) p. 61]


What message do you need to hear from this parable? Is God calling you to cast aside superficial faith, and make a genuine commitment to Him?  Is He calling you to count the cost?  Is He calling you to un-clutter your life so that you can give attention to His work and His will? Is He warning you that continual indifference to the message of grace may eventually result in a hardness that will make you unable to respond? 

Maybe God is prompting you to change the way you “witness” to others.  Maybe He is pushing you to stop relying on gimmicks and start presenting the honest invitation of the Gospel.  Maybe He is encouraging you to put less emphasis on your ability and to put more confidence in His.

You have heard the message today.  The seed has been sown.  What happens next will depend on the nature of your heart.  May God plant His words deep in your soul. And may He pleased with the fruit that comes as a result.

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