Jesus presented another parable to them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went away. But when the wheat sprouted and bore grain, then the tares became evident also. The slaves of the landowner came and said to him, ‘Sir, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?’ And he said to them, ‘An enemy has done this!’ The slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us, then, to go and gather them up?’ But he said, ‘No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, “First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn.'”” (Matthew 13:24-30)
What does the work of Christ accomplish in the life of the believer? Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and the Tares provides us with a word picture that I think answers that question: God creates something genuinely real and eternal in the life of the believer. The wheat that will be gathered into the barns is already growing in the field. Until the harvest, however, God’s new creation is radically (i.e. at the root) entangled with the tares of this fallen age.
Jesus’ allegorical interpretation of the parable in Matthew 13:36-43 identifies the good seed as the children of the kingdom and tares as the sons of the evil one.
Then He left the crowds and went into the house. And His disciples came to Him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the tares of the field.” And He said, “The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man, and the field is the world; and as for the good seed, these are the sons of the kingdom; and the tares are the sons of the evil one; and the enemy who sowed them is the devil, and the harvest is the end of the age; and the reapers are angels. So just as the tares are gathered up and burned with fire, so shall it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send forth His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all stumbling blocks, and those who commit lawlessness, and will throw them into the furnace of fire; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then “the righteous will shine forth as the sun” in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.” (Matthew 13:36-43)
Matthew’s vision is simple: God’s children will live side-by-side with evil doers in the world until the end of the age. Then, the unrighteous will be destroyed; the righteous will live perfectly in God’s ideal kingdom.
This view of the world is often called “dualistic”; in it, everyone ultimately belongs to one of two groups: the saved and the damned (left to natural decay, annihilated or sentenced to eternal punishment, depending on your point of view). Please note that I don’t use the word “dualistic” as a pejorative as some others do. When it comes right down to it, everyone must logically fall into one of these groups at the end of the age. Universalists believe that everyone falls in the “saved” category. Folks like Carl Sagan believe we all fall in the “worm food” category. If there is a day of resurrection and judgment coming, after which life in God’s eternal kingdom is possible, then you’re either in it or your not. An eschatological world view like this doesn’t posit the possibility of being “half saved.” “Dualism” is not a dirty word.
Even this dualistic interpretation, however, contains the seed of a more complex view of life in this age. The Son of Man, Jesus says, will send the angels to gather up all “stumbling blocks” (skandalon) or “causes of sin,” in addition to those individuals who commit lawlessness. There are more problems in this world than simply the existence of bad people.
The word translated “tares” is “zizania,” most likely referring to darnel which, like wheat, is a grassy plant. Darnel resembles wheat in its early stages, but it produces worthless or toxic grain. Whatever plant Jesus had in mind, it was good for nothing but fuel. When it grew next to good grain, it could not be removed without uprooting (ekrizoō) and destroying the intended product of the field.
To me, the image of wheat and tares growing together, roots entangled, sometimes difficult to distinguish, paints a profound picture of existence in this world. The parable of the wheat and the tares can help us think about both the personal and social aspects of salvation. The remainder of this article will look only at individual participation in God’s salvation of the world.
Mental Models of Christian Salvation
It will be helpful at this point to identify (and oversimplify) some ways that Christians have looked at the Christian life through the ages.
Some view Christian salvation something like a light switch: it’s either off or it’s on.
In one version of the light-switch theory, one is lost in one’s sins until God acts to change the person. In this version, the person is actually and completely changed at the moment of salvation. The saved person is perfect. Experience tends to smack down this point of view among those who hang around the church for any length of time. Let’s call this “Theory One.”
Another version of the light-switch theory is at the opposite end of the behavioral spectrum. A person is saved by an act of God, but salvation is a legal transaction, not a moral transformation. God declares the person righteous, but no real change takes place in the person’s character. This is the “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven” point of view taken to the extreme. Let’s call this “Theory Two.”
Still another view of Christian salvation envisions the human soul as existing somewhere on a single continuum of righteousness.
Sin <- – -> Conviction <- – -> Justification <- – -> Sanctification <- – -> Perfection
Everyone is at some point on this continuum. The purpose of the Christian life is to move along the continuum toward perfection. Every movement toward God is a movement away from sin. It is a zero-sum game: more God = less sin. Let’s call this “Theory Three.”
Every one of these Christian models of salvation is (or at least can be) built on God’s grace in Jesus Christ. It is grace working through faith that flips the light switch and changes a person’s essential character in Theory One. It is grace working through faith that flips the light switch and changes a person’s legal status before God in Theory Two. It is grace working through faith that leads, forgives and empowers a person every step of the way in Theory Three.
Wheat and Tares: A Synthesis
The Wheat and Tares model that follows actually sees some truth in each of the three oversimplified theories.
Envision an individual human being as a field in which wheat and tares are fully enmeshed. There is genuine good in human beings created in God’s image; the fall of humankind and human civilization has not destroyed every vestige of natural goodness in people or in the world. Furthermore, genuinely new spiritual life exists within those who are united to Christ in faith. By faith in Christ, a person is born from above as a new creation. This soul, created in God’s image and redeemed in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, is the human “wheat” of creation. It’s the intended product.
As in Theory One, then, the “New Birth” is an objective reality. The children of God are given spiritual birth in the very same divine act by which they are justified. One is born from above as a new creature – with a new heart, and a new mind and a new will – by God’s grace working through faith in Christ. There is something genuinely new and different about the person born from above.
The practical consequence of this is significant: as I live my life in Christ by faith in what he has done for me, I see myself as a genuinely new creature in Christ, with a new purpose for living, new values, new commitments, and so forth. This self-understanding changes the way that I actually live in this world.
As in Theory Three, however, there is a need for growth and forward movement.
The new person genuinely loves both God and neighbor by the power of the Holy Spirit, but does so immaturely. Just as young plants grow from seed to tender shoot to full maturity, so the “new person” born from above grows in Christ. Those who are born again are not born into full maturity. Some growth may come gradually; some may come in spurts. It all comes from God, however, to whom the believer is united through Christ. It’s not simply a natural human process.
Again, this has great practical significance. To be wheat destined for harvest, one remains planted in Christ, from whom all spiritual life flows. To switch metaphors somewhat, we mature and bear fruit as we abide in the vine (John 15:1-7). My new spiritual life originates in my union with Christ and its continued existence depends on my remaining in Christ. As I remain firmly planted in Christ I expect spiritual growth to take place. I expect my life to bear more fruit as I mature in Christ.
And as in Theory Two, the tares remain. One need not look far to see the tares of the soul, and it really doesn’t matter if the tares are volitional, intellectual, psychological, physiological or social. In this age, sin entangles everything we do and everything we are. People are messed up in their intentions, thoughts, feelings, biology and relationships. At least I am.
More importantly, I believe that I am a sinner, not simply because I see it in my life, but because the Word of God reveals my enmeshment in sin.
Even if I feel guiltless and content in my spiritual life, the entire scope of God’s Word reveals how prone God’s people are to sin, spiritual blindness and hardness of heart.
Even when I am acutely aware of my own sinfulness, I cling to God’s promise by faith: those united to Christ are forgiven of their sins, reconciled to God the Father and made new creatures.
Because I am entangled in sin, what I consider great and wonderful signs of my new life in God may also be (or rather be) signs of my spiritual pride, ignorance and self-deception. In this age the wheat is always entangled with tares.
The knowledge of both my sin and my righteousness transforms my self understanding and affects my behavior. Real change takes place, and it is the work of God. It is fruitless, however, to spend inordinate hours trying to untangle sin and righteousness in my thoughts and feelings. Ultimately, it will not be I who untangles the wheat from the tares. Self-knowledge is good, but confidence in God’s grace and power is better.
If both justification and the new birth are acts of God that come through faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, then they are not something that can be fully seen by the human eye or comprehended by the human mind. “The wind blows where it wills,” Jesus said. “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8). It is more important that I have faith that God IS putting his life in me than that I understand HOW God is putting his life in me.
Justification and the new birth are objectively real whether I think about them correctly, feel them in my heart or grasp them existentially. Those who belong to Christ produce a harvest for eternity. That’s true whether I can tell the wheat from the tares in this age at all. God will sort it out at the end of the age, destroy that which is harmful and worthless, and preserve all that by his grace is good and worth saving.
Multi-Dimensional Model: Simul Iustus Et Peccator
Theories One and Two are essentially punctiliar; they focus on a particular point in time, before which one is lost and after which one is saved. Theory Three is truly linear, with movement from utter sinfulness to saintly perfection. The wheat and tares model is multi-dimensional, seeing two realities at work simultaneously and independently.
The Lutheran phrase simul iustus et peccator is often used to describe this multi-dimensional view of Christian salvation. I think Luther was right in that we are fully simul iustus et peccator, not a little of each and not one after the other. The wheat is fully wheat; the tares remain fully tares. We know both our “wheat-ness” and our “tare-ness” most importantly through faith in God’s word, not through understanding or experience. The evidence of reason and experience remain ambiguous in this age. We cannot disentangle the wheat from the tares at any level.
What Luther may have failed to appreciate sufficiently, however, is the degree to which the one justified with God is truly holy and spiritually alive by the power of the Holy Spirit. (At least that is how he is sometimes represented). There is real continuity between what we will become in the age to come and what we already are, through faith, by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Christian is not simply “legally” righteous now and “actually” righteous later. The harvest is already present in budding seed. The wheat is already growing in the field. I’m told that this is actually close to Calvin’s view, although I know so little about Calvin’s own writings that I could not say for sure. In the end, it matters not who says what. What matters is that we grasp God’s truth as closely as we can.
Lord of Harvest, Grant that We Wholesome Grain and Pure May Be
All of this is about more than words and mental models. I’ve mentioned some of what I see as the the practical consequences of these issues above. Just as significantly, our understanding of God affects how we worship. The word “orthodox” means “right praise.”
One of my favorite hymns is often sung for Thanksgiving, but it is really an eschatological hymn built around Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares. I think it conveys a beautiful understanding of Christian hopes and aspirations. In 1844, Henry Alford wrote Come, Ye Thankful People, Come:
All the world is God’s own field, fruit unto his praise to yield;
wheat and tares together sown unto joy or sorrow grown;
first the blade and then the ear, then the full corn shall appear;
Lord of harvest, grant that we
wholesome grain and pure may be.
For the Lord our God shall come,
and shall take his harvest home;
from his field shall in that day all offenses purge away,
giving angels charge at last in the fire the tares to cast;
but the fruitful ears to store in the garner evermore.
Even so, Lord, quickly come, bring thy final harvest home;
gather thou thy people in, free from sorrow, free from sin,
there, forever purified, in thy presence to abide;
come, with all thine angels, come,
raise the glorious harvest home.