Faith Comes by Hearing

Catechetical sermons preached in PCC Evening Worship Services, Feb 2013 to Dec 2017

WSC 89-90 of 107

Behold, a sower went forth to sow; 4 And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up: 5 Some fell upon stony places, where they had not much earth: and forthwith they sprung up, because they had no deepness of earth: 6 And when the sun was up, they were scorched; and because they had no root, they withered away. 7 And some fell among thorns; and the thorns sprung up, and choked them: 8 But other fell into good ground, and brought forth fruit, some an hundredfold, some sixtyfold, some thirtyfold.…

Matthew 13:3-8, 18-23

WSC 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.1

1Neh 8:8; 1 Cor 14:24–25; Acts 26:18; Ps 19:8; Acts 20:32; Rom 15:4; 2 Tim 3:15–17; Rom 10:13–17; 1:16.

WSC 90. How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?

A. That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence,1 preparation,2 and prayer;3 receive it with faith and love,4 lay it up in our hearts,5 and practise it in our lives.6

1Prov 8:34; 21 Pet 2:1–2; 3Ps 119:18; 4Heb 4:2; 2 Th 2:10; 5Ps 119:11; 6Lk 8:15; Jas 1:25.

We are continuing our study of what we believe as a church by considering the passages of scripture underlying our Shorter Catechism. Today, we have come to Questions 89 and 90:

WSC 89. How is the word made effectual to salvation?

A. The Spirit of God maketh the reading, but especially the preaching of the word, an effectual means of convincing and converting sinners, and of building them up in holiness and comfort, through faith, unto salvation.

WSC 90. How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?

A. That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practise it in our lives.

These two questions elaborate on how the word of God is one of the three primary means of grace and how it is to be used effectively. The other two primary means are sacraments and prayer. The answers are straightforward. There is nothing controversial in them that requires proof or closer investigation. But how many of us take them seriously?

For this reason, we must take another look at our Lord’s instruction on the subject. With the Spirit helping us, we will do so by expounding the Lord’s famous Parable of the Sower and the Seed.

This parable was preached while the Lord sat on a boat in the Sea of Galilee. This was the first of a series of parables, including the Parable of the Wheat and Tare, the Parable of the Mustard Seed, and the Parable of the Leaven. All these were preached on the boat.

But the Parable of the Sower is perhaps the most important of the Parables. It is recorded in three of the synoptic Gospel accounts. The Gospel of John does not record any of the Lord’s parables. The Parable of the Sower is one of the two parables in which the Lord’s interpretation is recorded. But it is the only parable for which the explanation is recorded in all three accounts.

Moreover, the Lord Himself indicates that He considers this to be the most basic parable, for where it is recorded in Mark, the Lord asks His disciples: “Know ye not this parable? and how then will ye know all parables?” (Mk 4:13). In other words, if we cannot grasp this parable, we will not understand the other parables!

What is this parable? Let me elaborate on it for the sake of all of us who live in urban situations and, therefore, know little about farming.

In our Lord’s parable, a farmer is sowing seed in his field. It is a plot reserved for barley or wheat. He has tilled his field. The seed must be sown by hand on the tilled soil. To access the rows of tilled soil, the farmer has made tracks across the field. These are the tracks that the farmers will use to access the field for sowing and, later on, for tending the plants. The tracks are simply hardened soil. They are hardened because of frequent trampling.

The sower has his bucket of seeds, and he is walking along the path. He takes a hand full of seed and straws it onto the tilled soil. But not all the seeds fall on good ground.

Some fall on the beaten track. When that happens, birds which have been waiting patiently immediately swoop down and devour the seeds. The farmer does not mind—as long as they do not eat from the tilled soil, he does not chase them away. So, after a while, the birds learn to pick up only the seed that falls on the wayside or the beaten track.

Other seeds fall on stony soil. This is not so much soil with gravel in it. Instead, it refers to the grounds with only a thin layer of soil above the bedrock. In Luke’s account, the seed is said to fall upon a rock (Lk 8:6). Many parts of Palestine are like that. Some of the rocks are exposed, but some are just beneath the surface. It is the kind of soil just above the rock beneath the surface that the Lord refers to. On this kind of soil, because the rock retains heat, the soil above is kept warm, and any seed that falls on it springs up very quickly.

In fact, since there is little space for the roots to grow downwards, the plant’s growth is concentrated on top, so it grows doubly quickly. However, since the plant has not much root, as it grows bigger, not only is there not enough water in the soil, but the root system can no longer support it, and so the plant gets scorched by the sun and dies.  

Yet other seeds fall into the thorny ground. Like the stony ground, this is ground that has been tilled. It looks just like the ordinary tilled soil. However, in this kind of soil, there are stems, roots and seeds of thorny weeds left over when the ground is tilled.

Years ago, many of the fields in Singapore were infected with mimosa. Now, no one plants mimosa. But they spring up in every field. Why? Because mimosa grows naturally as a weed, and when the Parks and Recreation Department clears a piece of land to make it into a field, they would clear the undergrowth, add top soil and fertilise it, and then put slabs of grass over it. All looks well, but mimosa starts appearing within weeks, and they must be removed. Why? Because when the undergrowth are being taken away, mimosa seeds and plant fragments are left in the ground. And since mimosa plants are incredibly hardy, they compete very successfully for nutrients with the grass.

Now, it is similar in the wheat or barley fields. Sometimes, the seeds, stems, or roots of thorny weeds are left behind. And so if the good seeds fall on the soil that has these remnants, then you will find that the wheat or barley plants will have to compete with the thorns. The thorns will invariably do better. They thrive even when there are no fertilisers, but now the ground is tilled and fertilised! And so the thorns choke the good plants, which then become fruitless.

The rest of the seeds fall on good soils, i.e. tilled soils that have depth and no thorns. The seeds produce the barley or wheat, bearing fruit, some thirty, some sixty, and some a hundredfold.

What is the meaning of this parable? We are familiar with the Lord’s interpretation, given to us from verse 18 onwards. We’ll look at them shortly.

But what may we learn from this parable that we may be transformed by it? What does this parable have to do with Questions 89 and 90 of our Shorter Catechism?

Let me proffer three propositions:

  • First, the word, especially when preached, is a means of grace.
  • Secondly, the word is effectual only when received with the right attitude and preparation.
  • Thirdly, we must play our part if we are to benefit from the word.

1. the Word, Especially when Preached, Is a Means of Grace

The seed sown in the Parable refers to the word of God. In the account of Mark, the Lord says, “The sower soweth the word” (Mk 4:14). But who is the sower? Although the Lord does not say it explicitly, we do not doubt that the sower is Himself. In the Parable of the Wheat and Tare, He clarifies: “He that soweth the good seed is the Son of Man” (Mt 13:37).

When does the sowing occur? The sowing occurs mainly in the preaching of the gospel. Most, if not all, of the Ephesians Christians had never heard Christ personally. Yet Paul tells them that they heard Him and were taught by Him. “If so be that ye have heard him, and have been taught by him, as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph 4:21).

How so? Through the faithful preaching of the word of God! The person who preaches is really standing in the place of Christ. When the Lord sent out the twelve to preach in the villages, He told them: “He that receiveth you receiveth me” (Mt 10:40a). Preaching is like sowing.  When we hear preaching, we should seek to hear Christ. We should ask: what is He saying to me?

But can giving a tract containing the scripture or a sermon be considered sowing? It is different from preaching, but there is indeed some sowing. Can our witnessing about the Lord in our homes, offices and schools be considered sowing? Yes, I believe so. Can our own reading of the scripture be sowing? Yes, when we read we are sowing upon our own hearts! But preaching is the primary way appointed by the Lord. Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the word of God!

What is the purpose of such sowing, whether reading or preaching? It is clear from the parable that the desired end of the farmer’s sowing is that the soil should bear fruit!

What do the soils represent? No doubt, they represent persons hearing the word preached. And the conditions of the soils represent the conditions of their heart as they receive the word. Since the parable refers to ground that has not been sowed, we know that the Lord is not only thinking about Christians, but also about unconverted persons who come to hear the word of God as well. The Lord is not referring to sinners in general because nothing will grow where nothing is sown.

What is fruit-bearing? No doubt, it is salvation and growth in grace. How does it come about? For the unconverted sinners, by convincing and converting them; and then when they are converted, by building them and up in holiness and comfort unto salvation. You may recognise some of these words I am using from Question 89 of our Catechism.

What about for the saints? Of course, the word is preached not only to sinners but also to the saints. How does fruit-bearing or salvation and growth occur in the saints? Exactly the same as for sinners! They need to be convicted of their sin. They must be converted by repentance of their sinful attitude and actions or non-actions. They need to be reminded to turn to Christ and believe in Him for forgiveness. They need to be edified or built up. They need to grow in holiness and comfort unto salvation. Remember that believers are not only saved, but are also being saved in sanctification and shall be saved in glorification.

So here is our first proposition: The word, especially when preached, is a means of grace in the hand of the Holy Spirit.

But Secondly, …

2. the Word Is Effectual only when Received with Faith and Right Attitude

The Lord tells us that when the word is preached, it is received in four ways, as represented by the four different grounds. Let’s look at each one of them.

First, there is the wayside:

When any one heareth the word of the kingdom, and understandeth it not, then cometh the wicked one, and catcheth away that which was sown in his heart. This is he which received seed by the way side

v. 29

The wayside is best represented by one who attends the preaching of God’s word drowsily or does not understand what is said and makes no effort to understand. The preaching has no positive effect on him. So we are told that the wicked one catches away what is sown in his heart. The devil loves such hearts!

Are you receiving the word preached like that? If you find yourself disinterested and always falling asleep or dreaming about something else, or drawing something during service. You are such a person. If you find yourself waiting impatiently for the sermon to end, you could be such a person. You may be here because of family pressure, or because of pride because everyone knows that you are a Christian and a Christian must attend church. This parable challenges you: how long will you remain in this state, treasuring up wrath unto the day of judgement?

Secondly, there is the stony ground:

But he that received the seed into stony places, the same is he that heareth the word, and anon with joy receiveth it; 21 Yet hath he not root in himself, but dureth for a while: for when tribulation or persecution ariseth because of the word, by and by he is offended

v. 20-21

The stony ground is represented by a hearer who is actually interested in what he hears. In fact, he seems happy to receive the gospel. He receives it with joy. He may even say, “This is it! This is the truth!” This is very commendable, but alas, his belief is not firm. He has not thought it through carefully, and his heart only appears soft. His faith, if it may be called faith, is temporary. As long as things remain status quo, he appears to believe and to live like a Christian.

But comes tribulation or persecution on account of the word, and he is offended. We think of the Jewish Christians who were threatened with death unless they recanted Christianity. We think of the Roman Christians who were threatened with revocation of their rights of citizenship unless they offered a sacrifice to the emperor. How many caved in?

In our days, we hear of persecution in numerous places: in the Middle East, in Africa, in North Korea, in Vietnam, etc. How many have caved in under persecution?

What about Singapore? We don’t have that kind of persecution. But we do have many today who profess to be Christians, and are very excited about Christianity. But they are excited carnally by the emotions generated through upbeat songs and music. Or perhaps they are excited that they have learned some precious doctrine they can argue with their friends about. But then they begin to experience what they perceive to be persecution when they realise that the Christian faith is not only about going to heaven but about a holy walk. It is too demanding! They try to hide their double life. But soon, it is exposed, and they are offended.

Are you such a person?

Thirdly, there is the thorny ground.

He also that received seed among the thorns is he that heareth the word; and the care of this world, and the deceitfulness of riches, choke the word, and he becometh unfruitful

v. 22

Like rocky ground, the thorny ground also receives the word with excitement. He professes to be Christian. But there is little change in his life. He is bogged down by the cares and pleasures of the world, so that he spends little time studying the word of God, and finds little interest or energy for additional lessons. He has little time for personal devotion, not to mention family devotion.

By and by, it becomes evident that he is not growing in the faith because his faith is not genuine. It is dead faith. Therefore, he does not bear the fruit of grace. His character remains the same as before: callous and irritable. His attitude remains the same: selfish, materialistic and covetous. His motivation remains selfish and lustful. Though he goes to church week after week, the word of God does not make any difference to him. His priorities are worldly, and anything that will interfere with his ambition, including Christian virtues and God’s law, is simply brushed aside. By and by, like Demas, he begins to forsake the word of God and Christ.

What is the problem with this kind of heart? The problem is that old things are not passed away, and all things have not become new. The roots and stems of the worldly thorns were never removed in the first place.

Are you such a person? If Christ is not central in your life. If you care not to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, you are such a person. If your priority is in pleasure, in your career, in your business, in the things of the world, you are such a person. If you constantly choose to watch television or play computer games rather than read the Bible or a good Christian book, or do something for God’s glory, you are such a person. You may look very much like a true believer, but you are not.

Finally, there is the good ground:

But he that received seed into the good ground is he that heareth the word, and understandeth it; which also beareth fruit, and bringeth forth, some an hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty

v. 23

This fourth kind of ground is different from the other three. One whose heart is good ground receives the word with joy. It is not just an emotional joy. It is a joy founded upon a proper understanding of the word of God. It is such a heart that receives with meekness the engrafted word, which can save the soul (Jas 1:21). And it bears fruit. The word preached does not fall to the ground but is effectual. He is convicted of sin. He repents and is converted. He grows in grace. He grows in holiness and comfort.

Not everyone in this group grows at the same rate. Some bear fruits thirtyfold, some sixtyfold, some a hundredfold. But all persevere to the very end, even when persecution is intense. And all remain sensitive to the voice of their conscience and the word of God.

Are you such a person? Blessed are you!

What is the difference between this person and the other three? In this parable, the Lord tells us the different effects of the word of God on them, but he does not tell us why they are different. Why are they different? It is not difficult to conclude that the man with good ground as his heart is an elect of God whose heart is changed by the Holy Spirit in regeneration. This man has received the gift of saving faith, which the other three have not. Along with this gift of faith is a whole new attitude that loves the Lord and all that pertains to Him.

Thus, we may say that the word preached is effectual only when received with faith and the right attitude, even an attitude that is wrought by the Holy Spirit!

Finally, it may be inferred from our text that …

3. We Must Play Our Part if We Are to Benefit from the Word

It may not be apparent to some of us, but we must realise that although there are four types of ground, only two groups of people are involved. Notice how the Lord says, v. 9: “Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.” By this statement, the Lord is saying that there are two kinds of people: those with spiritual ears and those without. Those with spiritual ears are those who are born again. Those who do not have spiritual ears are not.

Only the good ground represents the elect and the true believer. Thus, as our catechism puts it, the Spirit of God makes “the word an effectual means… through faith unto salvation.”

Faith is a gift of God. It is the Spirit of God who gives the faith that those who receive the word effectually need.

So, in the first place, if you would use the word of God effectually, you must be born again. Of course, you cannot give yourself new birth. But you can seek the Lord diligently through using the means of grace, and it is often in the context of such fervent seeking that God grants the new birth. But do not be mistaken: it is not the seeking that produces the new birth, for God regenerates whom He wills at whatever times He chooses.

Secondly, let us note that although this parable emphasises the different kinds of soil or hearts, it indirectly talks about the four different ways we read the word or hear a sermon. Indeed, to a certain extent, we all use one of these four ways whenever we listen to a sermon. In that case, how can we ensure that we hear as a good ground should?

Well, our text does not give us an answer. But the answer may be found in many places in scripture, and our Catechism, Q. 90, gives us an excellent summary of what we should do:

WSC 90. How is the word to be read and heard, that it may become effectual to salvation?

A. That the word may become effectual to salvation, we must attend thereunto with diligence, preparation, and prayer; receive it with faith and love, lay it up in our hearts, and practise it in our lives.

Here are seven pointers we should note if we want the word read and heard to be effectual for our salvation.

a.    First, we must attend thereunto with diligence, that is, with care and earnestness, not carelessly, half-heartedly or sleepily. As Luke records it, “The good ground are they, which in an honest and good heart, having heard the word, keep it” (Lk 8:15).

b.    Secondly, we must attend thereunto with preparation. We must prepare spiritually by repenting of sin and disabusing our minds of wrong ideas. As Peter puts it, we must lay aside all malice, guile, hypocrisies, envy, and all evil speaking as we partake of the sincere milk of the word (1 Pet 2:1-2). We must also prepare physically by, for example, getting enough sleep each day, especially on Saturday nights.

c.    Thirdly, we must attend thereunto with prayer. Learn to pray as we are given in Psalm 119:18, “Open thou mine eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of thy law.”

d.    Fourthly, we must receive it with faith. Without faith, it is impossible to please God. “For unto us was the gospel preached, as well as unto [the multitude at the Exodus]: but the word preached did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in them that heard it” (Heb 4:2). Without faith, the word preached is just a lecture: You hear not the voice of Christ.

e.    Fifthly, we must receive it with love. If you love not the word, you will not treasure it or obey it. Thus, Paul tells us that those who perish “received not the love of the truth, that they might be saved” (2 Th 2:10).

f.     Sixthly, we must lay it up in our hearts. “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee” (Ps 119:11).

g.    Seventhly, we must practice it in our lives. “For if any be a hearer of the word, and not a doer, he is like unto a man beholding his natural face in a glass: For he beholdeth himself, and goeth his way, and straightway forgetteth what manner of man he was” (Jas 1:23-24). 


What shall we do with these things? Simply this: Memorise WSC 90, and examine yourself honestly before the Lord to see if you are indeed receiving the word read and preached as we are taught. Are you receiving the word as good ground, and so hear Christ speaking to you and grow in holiness and comfort? Or are you a wayside, stony ground or thorny ground? If so, will you not repent of the hardness, shallowness or thorniness of your heart while there is yet time? Amen.

—JJ Lim