The Noble and Good Heart
by Steve Jones
In his Parable of the Sower, Jesus spoke of the seed sown on good ground that brought forth an abundant harvest. "But the seed on good soil," said Christ, "stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop" (Luke 8:15).
This is a parable known to all Christians. Most of us have heard a hundred sermons on it. The story is so familiar, it could hardly be a source of controversy.
Despite this, the story is out of harmony with the popular view of salvation. We are often told that no one really has a good heart. Rather, every man by nature hates God. Every son and daughter of Adam enters this world with a heart steeled in opposition to the Most High. Men, without exception, are totally depraved and incapable of good. The Welsh preacher Christmas Evans paints a bleak picture:
All the faculties of the soul are corrupted by sin; the understanding dark; the will perverse; the affections carnal; the conscience full of shame, remorse, confusion, and mortal fear. Man is a hard-hearted and stiff-necked sinner; loving darkness rather than light, because his deeds are evil; eating sin like bread, and drinking iniquity like water; holding fast deceit, and refusing to let it go. His heart is desperately wicked; full of pride, vanity, hypocrisy, covetousness, hatred of truth, and hostility to all that is good. This depravity is universal.Reference
No one would dispute, of course, that man is a sinner. Every one of us has felt inwardly these things spoken of by Evans. But some of us simply cannot agree with that godly man on the extent to which he traduces all humanity.
Are men incapable of any good whatsoever? Are even the converted to be denied the adjective "good"? Many Christians say so and assert that goodness is put out of court altogether in the scheme of salvation. But what then do we make of Christ's words in the parable? The approved ones are those "with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop."
In order to produce fruit, I must receive the word with a good heart and persevere. This does not sound like the common view of man as a wretched beggar who simply comes to Christ and goes away a "justified" beggar. I must become good and noble. I must cultivate an inner virtue. Otherwise, I will end up like those other soils that produce nothing.
I realize these words grate on many Christians who have been taught that goodness has no bearing at all on salvation. Many view real goodness as impossible for such a lowly worm as man.
The translators of the New International Version show their bias in this direction through their rendering of Matthew 6:1: "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them." They put quotation marks around "acts of righteousness," as if the Lord was being sarcastic - as if there is really no such thing as men doing righteous acts.
But the Scriptures speak often of good works and do not hesitate to apply such terms as "good," "blameless," and even "worthy" to mortals:
He [Barnabas] was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith (Acts 11:24).
Both of them [Zechariah and Elizabeth] were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly (Luke 1:6).
Now there was a man named Joseph, a member of the Council, a good and upright man (Luke 23:50).
You are witnesses, and so is God, of how holy, righteous and blameless we were among you who believed (1Thess. 2:10).
But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage (Luke 20:35).
Yet you have a few people in Sardis who have not soiled their clothes. They will walk with me, dressed in white, for they are worthy (Rev. 3:4).
How many have an urge to rebuke the Lord in this last quote, reminding him that no one is worthy and that all our righteousness is as filthy rags? But Jesus has spoken - let the theologian keep silence. Some in Sardis, said the Son of God, were worthy to walk with him.
The popular view teaches something very different than the simple doctrine of Christ: The moment the sinner believes, he is "declared righteous," even though he is really wicked. He is never truly righteous or holy or good, according to this view. The righteousness of Christ is imputed legally to the sinner's account and God now sees him as if he were perfectly righteous.
Jesus never taught such a thing. The unrighteous are to be made actually righteous. Those whose habit it is to do evil must do what is right. This is the measure of a righteous person. John wrote, "Dear children, do not let anyone lead you astray. He who does what is right is righteous" (1 John 3:7).
Some may interpret this as a denial of grace. It is not. Salvation by grace does not mean "salvation with no strings attached." One of the primary purposes of God's gracious kindness toward us is to produce goodness in His people. Paul writes, "For the grace of God...teaches us to say 'no' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age" (Tit. 2:11,12).
Not that anyone's obedience is perfect. Christians from the least to the greatest still sin. Forgiveness is available through the New Covenant, thank God. The sinning Christian confesses, gets up off the ground and resumes his walk as a righteous person.
The Christian progresses, grows in grace. He is not as good as he can be all at once. He learns, sometimes slowly, to follow his Lord. But he perseveres and brings forth "a crop, a hundred times more than was sown" (Luke 8:8).