How do advocates of a strict perseverance of the saints doctrine explain the Parable of the Sower? That is, how does someone explain it who believes that once someone is saved they cannot lose that salvation? Jesus' own explanation of the parable says:

Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:11–15, ESV, emphasis added)

It certainly seems like Jesus is saying some people believe for a while and then stop believing, implying it is possible to give up/lose one's salvation. How does one resolve this with a "once saved, always saved" theology? I'm sure the answer will be something along the lines of "they weren't real believers to begin with," but I want more in depth exegesis. Why are there four groups in the parable if there are only two or three type of people (real believers, "pretend"/apparent believers, unbelievers)? What do the different groups represent if no group represents people who left the faith (after legitimately having it)? Why should we take the words of Jesus that some believe, but only for a little while, to mean they didn't really believe at all?

A good answer should reference commentary by a published theologian who adheres to a strict perseverance of the saints doctrine.


4 Answers 4


As expected, "once saved, always saved" advocates (I'll use "reformed" as shorthand for this) generally agree that both the second and third types of soil represent people who were never saved. Broadly speaking, they make these points:

  • The four soils represent four types of people or hearts: the unresponsive, the impulsive, the preoccupied, and the well-prepared
  • The main difference between the impulsive and the preoccupied is found in the specific reasons that growth does not occur
  • There are biblical examples of both the impulsive and the preoccupied that we can learn from
  • Ultimately, the parable should lead us to self-reflection: it should inspire the unbeliever to repent, and the believer to greater faithfulness

The four soils

The breakdown of the four soils given by William Hendriksen is characteristic of reformed commentators:

One might speak of the unresponsive heart (verse 19), the impulsive heart (verses 20, 21), the preoccupied heart (verse 22), and the good, responsive, or well-prepared heart (verse 23). [referring to verses of Matthew 13]1

The statuses of the first and fourth groups are quite obvious, while the second and third are worth further investigation in light of the question: If both of these soils refer to "people who were never saved to begin with," as reformed commentators believe, what is the point of the distinction? It is to show and warn against two ways that people fail to properly respond to the Gospel.

The impulsive

The profession of faith of the impulsive person, John Gill says, "is taken up in haste, immediately, upon a flash of affection, and a little head knowledge, it does not last long, nor prove honourable."2 As Hendriksen writes:

The trouble with the people symbolized by seed that fell on rock is that their emotions are superficial, not based on deep-seated convictions.3

The disappearance of this "faith" occurs when trials and persecution come. But what about the language of Luke 8, where Jesus says that these people "believe for a while"? Is that not an indication that they have faith, and then lose it? John Calvin admits that the "honor which they render to the Gospel resembles faith," and that that they are "widely different from unbelievers, who give no credit to God when he speaks." But ultimately, they do not have the "true faith":

None are partakers of true faith, except those who are sealed with the Spirit of adoption, and who sincerely call on God as their Father; and as that Spirit is never extinguished, so it is impossible that the faith, which he has once engraven on the hearts of the godly, shall pass away or be destroyed.4

John Gill understands them to be the sort of hearers who

whilst they are hearing, assent to what they hear, but when they are gone, either forget it, or, falling into bad company, are prevailed upon to doubt of it, and disbelieve it.5

Biblical examples suggested for this type of person include Simon the magician (Acts 8), the crowds who turn away from Jesus when his teaching is difficult (John 6), those who shouted "Hosanna" and later, presumably, "crucify him" (Mark 11), and those who abandoned the faith in 1 John 2:19.

The preoccupied

The seed in the heart of the preoccupied person, on the other hand, fails to grow not because of trials and persecution, but because of distractions and pleasures. John MacArthur calls it the "worldly heart, swept up in the deceitfulness of riches."6 In such a person, Calvin writes, "sinful affections of the flesh prevail,"4 and Hendriksen emphasizes the inability to focus on Christ:

[The preoccupied heart] has no room for calm and earnest meditation on the word of the Lord. Should any such serious study and reflection nevertheless attempt to gain entrance, it would immediately be choked off.7

Many biblical examples of this type are suggested, including the rich young ruler (Matthew 19), Demas (2 Timothy 4), and the merchants of Amos 8.

Application and summary

Hendriksen writes that the lesson of the parable is:

Examine yourself to discover to which group you belong. If you belong to any one of the first three groups, be converted! Not, of course, by power residing in yourself but by God's sovereign grace! Even if you should belong to the fourth group, ask yourself the question, 'Am I sufficiently fruitful?'8

Calvin similarly notes that believers should take heed not to let thorns hinder their fruitfulness:

We ought to labor, no doubt, to pull out the thorns; but as our utmost exertion will never succeed so well, but that there will always be some remaining behind, let each of us endeavor, at least, to deaden them, that they may not hinder the fruit of the word.4

To put it simply: Reformed commentators see the parable as a description of and warning against three distinct types of unbelief, and a call to greater fruitfulness in the Christian walk.


  1. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, 558.
  2. Gill, Exposition of the Whole Bible, Matthew 13.
  3. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, 427.
  4. Calvin, *Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke, Volume 2.
  5. Gill, Exposition of the Whole Bible, Luke 8.
  6. MacArthur, "Receptivity to the Gospel, Part 3" (sermon).
  7. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew, 561.
  8. Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, 429.

(I know the question says good answers will have references from published commentaries; I may look for some later when I get the chance to go to my college library, but for now this answer will be my explanation of the kind of perspective I have heard.)

Those who believe in the perseverance (or preservation) of the saints or eternal security of salvation, view justification as a permanent change of state. Justification is seen as permanent, as the question already clearly says, so I won't go into it. But it must also be understood that our state before God is seen as a binary state, with only two options: we are either justified or we are not. There are several Biblical images for this binary state change:

  • being dead vs alive in Christ (Ephesians 2)
  • being Jesus' enemy vs being reconciled to God (Matthew 12:30)
  • being strangers to God vs being citizens of heaven (Ephesians 2:19)

(I'm not aware of any groups who teach permanent but non-binary justification, but such a system would be theoretically possible. Maybe there could be several steps to take before you are fully saved, and once you move forward a step you can never move back, even though you may not reach the end. Maybe the Catholic understanding of baptism could be understood this way, as you can never become unbaptisted.)

In the parable of the sower the first group is clearly the unjustified, those who reject the message and offer of God. The last group is clearly justified: those who have a healthy Christian faith, pleasing God in their lives. The question is whether the second and third groups are justified. There is debate over these groups, even among those who support the perseverance of the saints. The issue is whether the signs of faith they show are just the illusion of faith, or whether they are real evidences of a life changed through the gospel. The first group "hears" but does not "believe". The second group "receive the word with joy" and "believe". The third group only "hears" it, while the fourth group "hears" or "hears and understands" in Matthew's version.

Jesus frequently indicated that there were different kids of hearing: "He who has ears, let him hear." All four groups hear the gospel, but not all four respond. The second and fourth definitely do, the third is less clear. But when you consider the parable itself, not just the explanation, the seed takes root in all except the first group. So I am someone who interprets this parable as indicating that the second and third groups "receive the word with joy" and "believe": they experience the permanent change of justification. The have received life and the holy spirit, they are adopted as children of God, they are members of the body of Christ.

So lastly, how would I explain their seeming change back into unbelief? We must distinguish between justification and whether a person lives a life that pleases or disappoints God. The key passage for my understanding is 1 Corinthians 3: 12-15, which describes our future judgement before God as our being tested by fire. There are some people whose lives will show little fruit of the gospel, with their works being burnt away, though they themselves will be saved. I believe that the Holy Spirit cannot be stopped from producing good works in those who are saved, but they may produce few, and they may even die without having repented from their apostasy. But if they have been justified, a change only God can know, then regardless of how it seems to the rest of us, that person is saved for eternity.

  • (+1) Good explanation. If you add published commentary to show this is a common (or at least non-unique) understanding, I would be inclined to give you accept.
    – ThaddeusB
    Commented Oct 26, 2015 at 2:04

As with all Scripture it is not possible to take only a part of Jesus teachings alone and understand Salvation, but all of his teachings are a part of gaining access to the Kingdom. Otherwise Jesus would not have taken three years to bring his message to us.

Beginning with the Parable of the sower let us see if we can determine the course for attaining the Kingdom.

This is an excerpt from the commentary by David Guzik:

  1. (11-15) Jesus explains the parable.
    "Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity. But the ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience."
    a. The seed is the word of God: 1Pe. 1:23 says that we have been born again, not of corruptible seed but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever.
    i. The natural tendency is for the audience to critique the preacher. But here, Jesus the preacher is critiquing His audience. How they will hear is the issue.
    b. Those by the wayside are the ones who hear; then the devil comes and takes away the word out of their hearts, lest they should believe and be saved: Some people are like the ground on the pathway. They allow no room for the seed of the word in their lives - it never enters.
    i. This is Satan's preferred result. His desire is that the word take no place in a person's life, so they do not run the "risk" of being fruitful to God.
    c. But the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear, receive the word with joy; and these have no root, who believe for a while and in time of temptation fall away: Some people are like the ground that is rocky, but covered with a thin layer of topsoil. They receive the seed of the word with a flash of enthusiasm that quickly burns out.
    d. Now the ones that fell among thorns are those who, when they have heard, go out and are choked with cares, riches, and pleasures of life, and bring no fruit to maturity: Some people are like the seed that fell among the thorns. They receive the word but allow the interests and cares of this world choke it out.
    e. The ones that fell on the good ground are those who, having heard the word with a noble and good heart, keep it and bear fruit with patience: Some people are like the good ground, and receive the word with a good and noble heart. They keep the word, and thus bear fruit, thus fulfilling the purpose of the seed.
    f. These four categories apply to those who hear the gospel of salvation, but they also apply to those who are already saved who continually hear the word of God.

As Jesus said this is about people's reception of the word, and does not really speak to whether or not they received salvation.

The following is an excerpt from John Gill's commentary:

Now the parable is this, &c] "Or this is the sense of the parable", as the Arabic version renders it: "the seed is the word of God", the Gospel, as preached by Christ, his apostles, and faithful ministers, which has God for its author, is concerning the grace of God, and is what he blesses, and makes effectual to answer any good purpose.

Those by the wayside are they that hear,.... The word of God, though only by accident, and very carelessly, and without understanding what they hear:

then cometh the devil; signified by the fowls of the air:

and taketh away the word out of their hearts, or memories; that little of it, which is retained there, and diverts their minds from it by other objects; so that they quite forget what they have heard;

lest they should believe, and be saved: this clause is only in Luke; and with it may be compared 2Co 4:4 for with true faith in Christ the sum and substance of the word salvation is connected; and Satan being an enemy to the salvation of souls, does all he can to hinder their faith in him.

They on the rock are they, which when they hear,.... The seed that fell upon the rock, or stony ground, signify such sort of hearers,

who receive the word with joy. The Ethiopic version reads, "with joy of heart". But, this sort of hearers receive not the word into their hearts, or with their hearts believe it, and from their hearts obey it, only into their heads; and have only, an historical faith of it; nor with hearty, spiritual, solid joy, or joy in the Holy Ghost: for their hearts remain like a rock, unbroken by the word; but with a flash of natural affection, which quickly goes off.

And these have no root; neither "in themselves", as the other evangelists say, they have no true grace in them; nor have they any root in Christ, nor in the love of God:

which for a while believe: their faith is a temporary one, like that of Simon Magus; which shows it is not true faith; for that is an abiding grace, Christ, who is the author, is the finisher of it, and prays for it, that it fail not. The Persic version renders it, "in the time of hearing they have faith"; and such sort of hearers there are, who, whilst they are hearing, assent to what they hear, but when they are gone, either forget it, or, falling into bad company, are prevailed upon to doubt of it, and disbelieve it. The Arabic version renders it, "they believe for a small time"; their faith do not continue long, nor their profession of it, both are soon dropped:

and in the time of temptation fall away: "or go back", as the Vulgate Latin version, they draw back unto perdition; or "forsake that", as the Arabic version reads, the word, they have heard, and received, their faith in it, and profession of it: "and soon become apostates", as the Persic version renders it. By "the time of temptation", is not meant any particular and sore temptation of Satan, but a time of affliction and persecution, as appears from the other evangelists; which is a trying time to professors of religion, and when those who have not the root of the matter in them, fall away.

And that which fell among thorns are they,.... The seed that fell among thorns, or were sown on thorny ground, represent such hearers:

which, when they have heard, go forth; from hearing the word to their worldly business; or go on in the pursuit of their worldly lusts and pleasures notwithstanding; for the word translated, "go forth", belongs to the next clause;

and are choked with cares and riches, and pleasures of this life; and with it to be read thus, "and going on in or under", that is, under the power and influence of, "the cares, and riches, and pleasures of life", they are choked; to which agrees the Arabic version, which renders it, "in which they walk", or "which they follow". The Vulgate Latin version is, "and from the cares, and riches, and pleasures of life, going, they are choked": but it is not going from them, but going on in them, which chokes them, or suffocates the word they have heard, whereby it becomes of no effect; unless it should be rendered, "by the cares", c. "they are choked, and bring no fruit to perfection" for what fruit such hearers do bring forth, in a way of profession, soon drops off, and perishes.

But that on the good ground are they,.... The seed that fell on good ground design such hearers,

which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it: who hear with an honest and good intention, and faithfully keep it, and hold it fast:

and bring forth fruit with patience; with great constancy, suffering much for the sake of it; and the more they suffer, the more fruitful they are.

From Jesus explanation and by dissecting them with the use of these two plus other commentaries we see that it is not just the hearing of the word and the mulling it over in the mind that establishes salvation, but heartfelt acceptance of the fact that Jesus did in fact pay our penalty of death and that that left us sinless. Jesus' explanation of the reception of the word does not tell us where the dividing line between salvation and not being saved intersects the narrative. For instance we do not know whether those who gleefully accept the word and then fall away have received salvation or not. Jesus' sacrifice paid for all the sins of those who receive him, but we do not know if those people will join us in Heaven or not, only Jesus can make that determination.

There are far too many Scriptures dealing with Salvation to enumerate them here, and even Jesus' teachings would turn this into a book. One verse which seems to be quite cogent here though is:

Matthew 10:38 KJV And he that taketh not his cross, and followeth after me, is not worthy of me.

But that does not say they will be denied the Kingdom only that they are not worthy. and another of Jesus' teachings tells us:

Matthew 18:3 and 4 KJV And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.

the full answer to your question lies in the Gospels themselves, what opinion any group or individual may have concerning Salvation, is of little value, but how you accept the Gospel is of paramount importance since only Jesus' judgment has any eternal value.

Hope this helps.

  • John Gill certainly counts as a "once saved, always saved" theologian, but after perusing David Guzik's commentary, it's clear that he is not committed to that position (see his analysis of Hebrews 6, for example). I'm not sure that his views are relevant here, given the framing of the question. Commented Jan 26, 2016 at 14:40

How do “once saved, always saved” advocates explain the Parable of the Sower?

There is a frame of reference issue here that needs to be clarified first. Everything that Jesus said, taught, and did was consistent with a legitimate offer of the Kingdom to the nation of Israel. He never winked and said, “I know you guys are going to blow it so here is the real plan”.

This taken with an understanding of salvation in the Old Testament economy (righteousness imputed according to faith) combines to differentiate salvation from the New Testament economy. We have the example Paul gives us of Abraham;

Romans 4:20-22 He staggered not at the promise of God through unbelief; but was strong in faith, giving glory to God; And being fully persuaded that, what he had promised, he was able also to perform. And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness.

We can see that those who have the opportunity to specifically trust in Christ receive their new and eternal life in Christ while they are still alive;

John 5:24 Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that heareth my word, and believeth on him that sent me, hath everlasting life, and shall not come into condemnation; but is passed from death unto life.

2 Corinthians 1:22 Who hath also sealed us, and given the earnest of the Spirit in our hearts.

Hebrews 11:39-40 And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise: God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect.

The Old Testament saints receive their new and eternal life at what Revelation calls the first resurrection;

Revelation 20:6 Blessed and holy is he that hath part in the first resurrection: on such the second death hath no power, but they shall be priests of God and of Christ, and shall reign with him a thousand years.

Daniel 12:2 And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt.

This has bearing upon the parable of the sower in that none of the four examples receive new and eternal life at that time so the idea of “once saved always saved could not apply. The metrics to determine which type of person had sufficient faith so that righteousness would be imputed to them is not given.

I am sorry I am not able to quote any published theologian as I am unaware of any who might hold to this differentiation between Old and New Testament saints and thus would be able to consider the application to the parable of the sower.

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