The Problem of Ineffective Christianity

Read Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

On July 20, 2004 Jason Clauss and his brother went surfing on a beautiful summer day off the coast of Long Island, New York. At the end of several hours of fun, Jason returned to shore and had removed his wetsuit when he heard cries for help offshore. Two brothers had been pulled out to sea by a riptide and were struggling to stay afloat. Grabbing his board, Jason plunged into the icy waters and managed to rescue one of the boys. The body of the other boy was never found. Whenever someone calls Jason a “hero” he brushes it off saying: “The other kid is still out there.” (Source: Doug Colligan, Rough Waters, Reader’s Digest, March 2005, p. 31)

How many Christians through the ages have struggled with “ineffectiveness”? Faithfully sharing the good news, they are delighted when someone comes to faith—but devastated when someone “falls away.” The good news can change a human heart forever, but it doesn’t always happen that way—leaving many sincere Christians with disturbing questions about what went wrong.

We will not always experience success in our sharing the good news of Jesus Christ. Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13 anticipates the discouragement that His disciples (and future generations) would face in sharing the gospel. Jesus does not want us to be surprised — He wants us to understand what is happening.

Through a simple story about a farmer broadcasting seed, Jesus explains that the successful transformation of a human life requires three elements.

  • The seed represents the message of redemption (13:19). The message of salvation is powerful. Paul would later describe the gospel message as God’s power to change a human heart (Romans 1:16, 1 Corinthians 1:18). Power like that cannot fail!
  • The sower represents anyone who shares the good news (13:18-19). Although Jesus Christ is the ultimate “sower” (13:37), He uses Christians as His hands and feet in the act of redemption. If Jesus is the one who sows the truth, then the sower does not fail!
  • The soils represent the hearts of the hearers and how they respond to the good news (13:1-9). Four very different responses to Jesus are described, but only one heart is really transformed (13:23). The problem of “ineffective Christianity” does not lie in the seed or the sower, but in the soil!

Armed with this vital insight, we can begin to understand why the good news doesn’t change everyone who hears it. There are four very different heart responses.

There are people who simply will not care. (vs. 19)

As the sower scatters seed in the air, some of it lands on the hard, dusty trail beside the field. The birds quickly snatch up the easy meal. The message never had a chance! This soil represents people who hear with little or no comprehension of the truth. They do not even try to absorb what they are hearing. Preoccupied with other issues on their mind, they are demonically distracted and become indifferent to our message.

There are people who will like what they hear, but will not be changed by what they hear. (vs. 20-21)

Some of the scattered seed lands in shallow, rocky soil. It germinates, but cannot survive when the sun’s heat dries out the vulnerable root system. Jesus said this describes a heart initially moved by the good news, but not really motivated by the good news. Expressing great emotion and excitement, this person is void of any real commitment to Christ. As soon as trouble or persecution erupts because of their close association with Christ, they will fade and abandon the race.

There are people who will partially commit themselves without a full commitment. (vs. 22)

The seeds also land in a patch of thorns. In time, the dominant thorns crowd out the seed, causing it to die and become fruitless. Partial commitment describes a heart trying to nourish multiple sets of lifestyles, passions and pursuits. Because this person accepts the gospel as one of many other interests and ambitions, competing passions obstruct genuine conversion. Career ambitions, financial goals, and recreational pursuits can easily crowd out an authentic commitment to Jesus Christ.

There are people who will absolutely give their lives to the truth and lead others to do the same. (vs.23)

Some of the seed lands on good soil, yielding an abundant harvest. Jesus said this soil represents people who hear and understands the message. This person alone understands the full implications of what it means to follow Jesus Christ in total commitment. The responsive heart is marked by a drive to reproduce itself in the hearts of others. Not satisfied with just hearing the truth, this person is ready to give away life for the sake of others.

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