Chapter 17


Spiritual Growth


“And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground; And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how. For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear. But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come.” (Mark 4:26-29)


In these verses Mark records one of our Lord’s parables that none of the other gospel writers was inspired to record. It was delivered by our Master shortly after the parable of the sower, just before the parable of the mustard seed. This parable about spiritual growth was delivered immediately after our Lord said, “With what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you.” If we have reason to hope we are Christians, we ought to be very interested in the teachings of our Lord in this parable. It is deeply instructive. “It summons us,” wrote J.C. Ryle, “to an examination of our experience in divine things.” This parable, though very short, is just as sweet and instructive as our Lord’s other parables. It sets before us a history of God’s work of grace in chosen sinners.


“I asked the Lord that I might grow

In faith, and love, and every grace;

Might more of His salvation know,

And seek more earnestly His face.


`Twas He Who taught me thus to pray,

And He, I trust, has answered prayer;

But it has been in such a way

As almost drove me to despair.


I hoped that in some favored hour,

At once He’d answer my request;

And, by His love’s constraining power,

Subdue my sins and give me rest.


Instead of this, He made me feel

The hidden evils of my heart,

And let the angry powers of hell

Assault my soul in every part.


Yea, more, with His own hand He seemed

Intent to aggravate my woe;

Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,

Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.


‘Lord, why is this?’ I trembling cried;

‘Wilt Thou pursue Thy worm to death?’

‘`Tis in this way,’ the Lord replied,

‘I answer prayer for grace and faith.


These inward trials I employ,

From self and pride to set thee free;

And break thy schemes of earthly joy,

That thou mayest seek thine all in Me.’”

John Newton


            Our Lord here uses the growth of a grain of a tiny seed into a strong and fruitful plant to teach us four specific lessons about every believer’s growth in grace. — “So is the kingdom of God.” Let’s look at these four lessons together, praying that God the Holy Spirit, who inspired Mark to record this parable, will be our Teacher.


The Sower


First, as the growth of corn requires that someone sow the seed, in God’s work of grace in his kingdom there must be a sower to sow the precious seed of the gospel. — “And he said, So is the kingdom of God, as if a man should cast seed into the ground” (v. 26).


            The earth never brings forth corn on its own. Left to itself, since the sin and fall of our father Adam, this sin-cursed earth brings forth nothing but weeds, and briars, and thorns. This produces weeds, but never wheat, thorns, but never corn. The hard earth must be broken up by the farmer’s plow and harrow. The seed must be sown by the hand of man. Otherwise, there would be no harvest.


            So it is with the heart of man. No man left to himself would ever turn to God in repentance, believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and obey the Word of God. The heart of man is totally depraved, void of all that is spiritual, good, righteous, and gracious. Man, by nature, is dead in trespasses and in sins, spiritually dead. The heart of man is enmity against God. No sinner is capable of any righteous, spiritual activity. A dead man can do nothing for himself. His condition is altogether and utterly helpless.


            The Son of God must break up the fallow ground of the depraved heart by his Spirit. He must sow the seed of life by his power, as his servants scatter the precious seed, and create life in the dead sinner. Otherwise, the lovely plant of grace will never spring to life in the city of Mansoul. Grace in the heart of man is an exotic plant. It is an altogether new thing. It comes down from heaven. Left to himself, no man would ever even know his need of Christ, much less seek after him. Grace, righteousness, and spiritual life, inward godliness, is the work of God alone.


            Yet, in this parable, and throughout the New Testament, our Lord teaches us that in communicating grace, God works by appointed means: – The Preaching of the Gospel! Those who despise the appointed means and yet hope to obtain God’s grace might just as well expect to see a field of corn grow in an uncultivated jungle where no seed has been sown.


            The man in this parable is a gospel preacher, one who is sent forth by Christ, bearing precious seed. Robert Hawker rightly observed, “The man who is said to cast seed into the ground, cannot mean our Lord Jesus Christ, for he neither slumbereth nor sleepeth; neither can it be ever said of him, that his seed springeth, and groweth he knoweth not how (Psalm 121:4: Isaiah 27:2-3).”


The Seed


The Seed sown is the Word of God, the Gospel of God’s free and sovereign grace in Christ, the incorruptible seed that lives and abides forever (1 Peter 1:23-25).


It is, John Gill wrote, “so called for its smallness, the diminutive character it bears, and contempt it is had in by some; and for its choiceness and excellency in itself, and in the account of others; and for its generative virtue under a divine influence. The Gospel is like the manna, which was a small round thing, as a coriander seed; and as that was contemptible in the eyes of the Israelites, so the preaching of the Gospel is, to them that perish, foolishness. And yet it is choice and precious seed in itself, and to those who know the value of it, by whom it is preferred to thousands of gold and silver. As worthless and unpromising as it may seem to be, it has a divine virtue put into it; and, under the influence of powerful and efficacious grace, it is the means of regenerating souls, and produces fruit in them, which will remain unto everlasting life. Yet, as the seed is of no use this way, unless it is sown in the earth, and covered there, so is the Gospel of no use for regeneration, unless it is by the power of God let into the heart, and received there, where, through that power, it works effectually.”


            Casting the seed into the earth is the preaching of the gospel. Faithful gospel preachers do not spread divers and strange doctrines. Their ministry is one. They all see eye to eye (Isaiah 52:7-8). They always sow the same precious seed, without any mixture of the tares of free will, works religion. God’s servants do not deal out the truths of the gospel in a narrow and niggardly way. They do not restrain and conceal any part of Holy Scripture. They proclaim pure gospel truth from the housetop and set before their hearers the whole counsel of God. I quote Gill again…


“Though there may be many discouragements (that) attend them, many temptations arise to put off from sowing the word; the weather bad, storms and tempests arise, reproaches and persecutions come thick and fast, still they go on; using all that heavenly skill, prudence, and discretion God has given them, preaching the word in season, and out of season; and when they have done, they leave their work with the Lord, knowing that Paul may plant, and Apollos water, but it is God only that gives the increase.”


            The ground into which the Seed is cast are the different hearers of the Word. In this parable our Lord is describing those who hear and receive the gospel as seed sown in good ground. Those whose hearts are broken up by the Spirit of God, the stoniness of them taken away, are made receptive hearers of the good Word of God.


The Growth


Second, in the growing of corn and in the work of grace there is much that is beyond man’s comprehension and control. — “And should sleep, and rise night and day, and the seed should spring and grow up, he knoweth not how” (v. 27).


            The sleep mentioned here is not a natural sleep. Our Lord is teaching spiritual lessons, not natural lessons. God’s servant ministers to his people (Galatians 3:5). Yet, as the seed of the gospel takes root in the hearts of sinners and grows, he readily acknowledges that, “he knoweth not how.” Though every faithful gospel preacher watches over the garden of God, soaking the Word sown with tears and prayers, the fruit is brought forth as they sleep. I am confident that our Savior did not use the word “sleep” here to refer to slothfulness on the part of faithful men, though faithful men know their own slothfulness. The sleep mentioned here may refer either to the sleep of death or to the confidence of faith.


            Our Lord may be talking here about the sleep of death. Frequently, the fruitfulness of a faithful man’s labor is not known until after he sleeps in his Master’s arms. The churches and people among whom and for whom he has faithfully labored bring forth fruit after he has been taken from the scene. As Robert Hawker put it…


“The harvest arrives not, to their consciousness, in the fields of their labors in numberless instances, until they themselves have fallen asleep in Jesus. Many a seed time, and many a day’s labor, followed up with prayer, do faithful ministers of Jesus leave behind them, which are answered, when their poor bodies are mouldering in the grave.”


            Perhaps our Lord’s words refer to the confidence of faith in which faithful men labor. Faithful men believe God. They labor with confidence and satisfaction, leaving the work in God’s hands. They are confident that God who sent his Word will make his Word fruitful. Thus, when the day is done, they sit down with the confidence of faith, with the satisfying security that their labor will be fruitful in the souls of men, in the kingdom of God and for the glory of God. God’s servants do not despair of success. They know that they shall be successful (Isaiah 55:11; 1 Corinthians 15:58; 2 Corinthians 2:14-17).


            Like diligent farmers, faithful pastors “rise night and day.” They constantly attend to their work. It is always on their minds. It is a weight in their souls and a burden in their hearts. It never leaves them. Yet, they know that it is God alone who gives the increase; and they wait for him to do so.


            Whether he knows it or not, every good farmer exemplifies faith in and resignation to the sovereign will of God. He labors with great diligence, sows his seed with great care, and waits for God to give the increase. Though he labors with great care, the seed springs to life and grows up, he knoweth not how.” He sows good seed, and plenty of it, in good ground. Yet, no farmer can command the grain to grow, keep the crows from stealing it, or even tell you exactly what corn is in all of its components, though he knows corn when he sees it. He cannot tell you exactly when the corn sprang to life; but he knows whether the seed has sprung to life. He cannot define what life is; but he can discern it.


            So it is in the works of grace in the hearts of chosen sinners. The greatest abilities, the most powerful preaching, and the most diligent labors cannot command success. Only God can give life to dead sinners (John 3:8). Yet we labor with confidence, knowing that our only work is to sow the seed. God alone can and will, as he sees fit, cause the Seed sown to spring forth into life. — “God giveth the increase!


            Mysterious as nature is, grace is indescribably more mysterious. We sow good seed under the clods of the earth. There, the seed dies before it springs to life, grows, and brings forth fruit. In God’s mighty operations of grace, the gospel, planted in the heart by the Holy Spirit, becomes the engrafted Word. But no man can know when or how God’s saving grace is, by this means, implanted in the heart (John 3:8). These things are not even known to the sinner who experiences them, let alone to others. Suddenly, the sinner, who could not believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, finds himself trusting the Son of God and rejoicing in his salvation; but he cannot tell how it happened. This marvellous, wondrous work of grace, this mighty operation of God is done secretly and powerfully, under the influence of divine grace, without their knowledge.


            Particularly, our Lord here teaches us that it is accomplished without the knowledge of the instrument God uses to perform the work. Though God uses men as instruments to sow the Seed, it springs to life and grows up “he knoweth not how,” in the night as he sleeps. Though the sowing and planting are the preacher’s responsibility, all the increase is God’s work alone. The earth (the regenerate heart) is said to bring forth fruit, as the man who sowed the seed sleeps night and day, while the seed is growing without his knowledge, because God’s work in the heart is “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit, saith the Lord” (Zechariah 4:6). — “Salvation is of the Lord!


Gradual Growth


Third, in both the cultivation of corn and in the work of grace life is made manifest gradually by degrees. — “For the earth bringeth forth fruit of herself; first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear” (v. 28). Two things are set before us in this verse.


1.    The earth bringeth forth fruit of herself.” — Once the seed is sown, and watered, and fertilized, the farmer’s work is over. And once the gospel is preached, watered, and fertilized by prayer, the preacher’s work is over. As the fruitfulness of the earth is God’s production and God’s work, so the fruitfulness of the Word is God’s production and God’s grace (Romans 9:16).


            No one would imagine that our Lord means for us to understand that the earth actually produces life. Yet, many would have us believe that man himself brings forth fruit unto everlasting life by his own will! Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole work of grace is God’s work. Repentance is the gift of God (Romans 2:4; Acts 5:30-31). Faith is the gift and operation of grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Colossians 2:12). Love is the fruit of the Spirit. Joy is the result of God’s work in us. Peace is the product of grace (Galatians 5:22-23). Sanctification is God’s work for us and in us, not our work for God (Hebrews 10:10-14; Jude 1:1). Commenting on our Lord’s words here, John Gill wrote…


“All these things are owing to the Spirit, power, and grace of God. Men are regenerated according to the abundant mercy of God, of water and of the Spirit, by the word of truth, through the sovereign will and pleasure of God. They are quickened, who before were dead in trespasses and sins, and were as dry bones, by the Spirit of God breathing upon them.


Conversion in the first production, is the Lord's work; turn thou me, and I shall be turned. Faith in Christ is not of ourselves; it is the gift of God; and so is repentance unto life. Love is one of the fruits of the Spirit. In short, the whole work of grace is not by might, nor by power of man, but by the Spirit of the Lord of hosts; who begins and carries on, and performs it until the day of Christ.


The work of sanctification is therefore called the sanctification of the Spirit. It is through him the deeds of the body are mortified. Indeed, without Christ, believers themselves can do nothing at all; even cannot perform good works, or do any action that is truly and spiritually good.


The design is to show, that as the earth without human power, without the husbandman, under the influence of the heavens, brings forth fruit. So without human power, without the Gospel minister, the word having taken root under divine influence, through the Sun of Righteousness, the dews of divine grace, and operations of the blessed Spirit, it rises up and brings forth fruit.”


2.    God’s works of grace in us are gradual works. — Nothing in nature grows suddenly except weeds. The same thing is true in the kingdom of God. The seed does not burst forth into life as soon as it is sown. The ripe corn does not appear the day after the first green blade shoots out of the ground. It takes a while. The plant goes through many stages of growth before it is ready for harvest, — “first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." Yet, the plant is living.


            In the kingdom of God things are exactly the same. God’s works of grace in the hearts of his elect proceed by degrees. None of the Lord’s children are born full grown. None of them are born with mature and perfect faith, hope, knowledge, and love. Our beginning is a “day of small things.” We see in part and know in part. We see our sinfulness, but only in small measure. We see Christ’s fulness, but only in small measure. We know that God’s grace is sufficient, but have no idea how sufficient it will prove to be!


            Yet, wherever there is faith, even as a grain of mustard seed, there is life. Without question, there is weakness and infirmity; but still there is life. The seed of grace has come up in the heart, though perhaps only as a tender plant, a tiny blade shooting out of the ground.


            There is much instruction here. He that is wise will lay it to heart. The strongest man was a helpless baby once. Everything must have a beginning. We must never despise the day of small things. We must never look upon, or treat, a brother or sister in Christ as though they are unregenerate because they are babes in grace or weak in faith. As it is in nature, so it is in grace. The child, though perfect in all its parts, must grow from the babe to the young man, and at length to the father.


“And,” as Hawker wrote, “when grace is ripened for glory, like the fruit ripe for harvest, Jesus takes home his redeemed to him, to his harvest in heaven. The seed cast in the renewed heart, made so by grace, is the sure earnest of the harvest. Though men sleep, and know not how the advance is made, Jesus both knows, gives the needed supply, and watches over the whole plantation. To you, to me, things may at times appear, as in a wintry dispensation. But to Jesus the progress is advancing. The promise is absolute from God the Father. ‘I will pour my spirit upon thy seed, and my blessing upon Mine offspring (Isaiah 44:3; 59:21). And a soul renewed in Christ, must be separated from Christ, before those promises can fail (Romans 8:39). Blessedly, therefore, the Apostle sings, to the full assurance of faith, when he saith, ‘Now he that hath wrought us for the selfsame thing is God, who hath also given unto us the earnest of the Spirit (2 Corinthians 5).”


Seedtime and Harvest


Fourth, in the cultivation of corn and the kingdom of God there is both seedtime and a time for harvest. — “But when the fruit is brought forth, immediately he putteth in the sickle, because the harvest is come” (v. 29). There is a time appointed for the harvest. No farmer thinks of cutting his wheat while it is green, or gathering his corn before the ears are formed. He waits for the sun and rain, the heat and cold to do their work. Then, when the golden grain bows and the ears are full, but not until then, he puts in his sickle and reaps the harvest. Things are exactly the same in the kingdom of God.


            God never gathers his people out of this world until they are ripe for harvest. He never takes his chosen until grace has made them ready. He never removes his elect until their work is done. God’s children always die at precisely the right time. The great Husbandman never cuts the corn early or late.


“So now the future holds no fear,

God guards the work begun;

And mortals are immortal here,

Until their work is done.”


            And our blessed Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, will come at exactly the right time to gather his harvest out of the world. When all things are ready, when everything has been done that God purposed to do, when all the elect are saved, then the Lord will come again and gather in his harvest. He is gathering his harvest by gospel preachers today. He gathers his harvest by his holy angels as he calls his elect up to heaven at death. He shall gather his harvest personally in resurrection glory at the last day.


            May God the Holy Spirit enable us to carry the teachings and the comfort of this small, but instructive parable in our hearts. The next time a brother or sister is taken in death, remember this parable. Our Lord only gathers his harvest at the right time. There are no chances, accidents, or mistakes with our God. He knows best what to do in his own garden and with his own wheat.


            It is our responsibility to sow the Seed. God will give the increase as he sees fit, when he sees fit. Wherever there is life there is growth. The growth is gradual, but sure; and it is God’s work. At his appointed time, the harvest will come.



Don Fortner



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