Preaching to the Soils: The Kinds of People to Consider as You Apply Scripture in Preaching (Expansive List)


“Apply yourself wholly to the Scriptures, and apply the Scriptures wholly to yourself.” 

—Johann Bengel

If we don’t apply God’s Word to our lives, we tend to become Christians who know a lot of information in their minds, but have unchanged hearts and lives.

Believers can only grow if they see, by God’s Spirit, the specific ways in which the truth of God’s Word can come into and affect their own life situation by changing who they are and how they live their lives.

One of the chief ways believers grow is by listening to God’s Word clearly explained and applied from the pulpit. It not only fills their mind with a relevant application of the Scripture, but also models proper application, equipping them to apply Scripture for themselves.

One question Tim Keller suggests in his new book on preaching for preachers applying Scripture to their audience is, “What does this text say to the groups represented by the “four soils” of the Mark 4 parable?”

The Mark 4 parable describes four different soils the preached word can fall on:

  1. Those who reject the faith
  2. Those who hear the Word with joy, but drift away due to trial and persecution
  3. Those who hear the Word, but are choked out by pleasures and cares of the world
  4. Those who receive the Word, accept it, and bear fruit

Thinking through these four types of listeners will help preachers apply Scripture to the beliefs and potential situations of their audience.

Keller expanded the four types of soils in the bullet-pointed list below to help preachers survey the spectrum of belief and experience that fill our pews each Sunday.

Download List as PDF

Related Resource: 9Marks Blank Sermon Application Grid (PDF)

Here are the different kinds of people you may be speaking to. Does the text speak to any of them?

  • Conscious unbeliever: is aware he is not a Christian.
    • Immoral pagan: Is living a blatantly immoral/illegal lifestyle.
    • Intellectual pagan: claims the faith is untenable or unreasonable.
    • Imitative pagan: Is fashionably skeptical, but not profound.
    • Genuine thinker: Has serious, well-conceived objections.
    • Religious non-Christian: Belongs to an organized religion, cult, or denomination with serious mistaken doctrine.
  • Nonchurched nominal Christian: Has belief in basic Christian doctrines, but with no or remote church connection.
  • Churched nominal Christian: Participates in church but is not regenerated.
    • Semi-active moralist: Is respectably moral but his religion is without assurance and is all a matter of duty.
    • Active self-righteous: Is very committed and involved in the church, with assurance of salvation based on good works.
  • Awakened: Is stirred and convicted over his sin but without gospel peace yet.
    • Curious: Is stirred up mainly in an intellectual way, full of questions and diligent in study.
    • Convicted with false peace: Without understanding the gospel, has been told that by walking an aisle, praying a prayer, or doing something, he is now right with God.
    • Comfortless: Is extremely aware of sins but not accepting or understanding of the gospel of grace.
  • Apostate: Was once active in the church but has repudiated the faith without regrets.
  • New Believer: Is recently converted.
    • Doubtful: Has many fears and hesitancies about his new faith.
    • Eager: Is beginning with joy and confidence and a zeal to learn and serve.
    • Overzealous: Has become somewhat proud and judgmental of others and is overconfident of his own abilities.
  • Mature/growing: Passes through nearly all of the basic conditions named below but progresses through them because he responds quickly to pastoral treatment or knows how to treat himself.
  • Afflicted: Lives under a burden or trouble that saps spiritual strength. (Generally we call a person afflicted who has not brought the trouble on himself.)
  • Physically afflicted: Is experiencing bodily decay.
    • The sick
    • The elderly
    • The disabled
  • Dying
  • Bereaved: Has lost a loved one or experienced some other major loss (e.g., a home through a fire)
  • Lonely
  • Persecuted/abused
  • Poor/economic troubles
  • Desertion: Is spiritually dry through the action of God, who removes a sense of his nearness despite the use of the means of grace.
  • Tempted: Is struggling with a sin or sins that are remaining attractive or strong.
    • Overtaken: Is tempted largely in the realm of the thoughts and desires.
    • Taken over: has had a sin become addictive behavior.
  • Immature: Is a spiritual baby who should be growing but is not.
    • Undisciplined: Is lazy in using the means of grace and gifts for ministry.
    • Self-satisfied: Has had pride choke his growth, is complacent, has perhaps become cynical and scornful of many other Christians.
    • Unbalanced: Has had either the intellectual, the emotional, or the volitional aspect of his faith become overemphasized.
    • Devotee of eccentric doctrine: Has become absorbed in a distorted teaching that hinders spiritual growth.
  • Depressed: Is not only experiencing negative feelings but also shirking Christian duties and being disobedient. If a person is a new believer, or tempted or afflicted or immature, and does not get proper treatment, he will become spiritually depressed. Besides these conditions, the following problems can lead to depression:
    • Anxious: Is depressed through worry or fear handled improperly.
    • Weary: Has become listless and dry through overwork.
    • Angry: Is depressed through bitterness or uncontrolled anger handled improperly.
    • Introspective: Dwells on failures and feelings and lacks assurance.
    • Guilty: Has a wounded conscience and has not reached repentance.
  • Backslid: Has gone beyond depression to a withdrawal from fellowship with God and with the church.
    • Tender: Is still easily convicted of his sins and susceptible to calls for repentance.
    • Hardening: Has become cynical, scornful, and difficult to convict.

Credit: From pages 289-292 of Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism by Timothy Keller, published on June 9, 2015 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright by Timothy Keller, 2015. Used with Permission.

Kevin Halloran

Servant of the Word. Husband. Blogs weekly at Anchored in Christ. Content Strategist/Trainer in Latin America with Leadership Resources International.