It’s language that I learned from reading the revival authors. Charles Finney (1792-1895) explained it like this –
To break up the fallow ground, is to break up your hearts, to prepare your minds to bring forth fruit unto God. The mind of man is often compared to the ground in the bible. The Word of God is the seed sown there, the fruit representing the actions and emotions of those who receive it. To break up the fallow ground therefore, is to bring the mind into such a state that it is fitted to receive the Word of God. Sometimes your hearts get matted down, hard and dry, until there is no such thing as getting fruit from them until they are broken up, and mellowed down, and fitted to the Word. It is this softening of the heart, so as to make it feel the truth, which the prophet calls breaking up your fallow ground.
And A.W. Tozer (1897-1963) wrote –
Here are two kinds of ground: fallow ground, and ground that has been broken up by the plow. The fallow field is smug, contented, protected from the shock of the plow and the agitation of the harrow… Safe and undisturbed, it sprawls lazily in the sunshine, the picture of sleepy contentment. But it is paying a terrible price for its tranquility… Fruit it can never know because it is afraid of the plow and the harrow. In direct opposite to this, the cultivated field has yielded itself to the adventure of living. The protecting fence has opened to admit the plow, and the plow has come as plows always come, practical, cruel, business-like and in a hurry… The field has felt the travail of change; it has been upset, turned over, bruised and broken, but its rewards come hard upon its labors… Nature’s wonders follow the plow.
There are two kinds of lives also: the fallow and the plowed…The man of fallow life is contented with himself and the fruit he once bore. He does not want to be disturbed… The spirit of adventure is dead within him… He has fenced himself in, and by the same act, he has fenced out God and the miracle. The plowed life is the life that has, in the act of repentance, thrown down the protecting fences and sent the plow of confession into the soul. The urge of the Spirit, the pressure of circumstances and the distress of fruitless living have combined thoroughly to humble the heart…Discontent, yearning, contrition, courageous obedience to the will of God: these have bruised and broken the soil till it is ready again for the seed. And as always, fruit follows the plow.
So, what’s the condition of the soil of your heart (Matthew 13:1-23)? And if it’s lying fallow, what can be done to ready it for the sowing of the seed and the harvest of righteousness? How can one do what Hosea 10:12 enjoins? How can one break up the fallow soil of the heart?
Well, I suppose that there are lots of answers that could be given to this question, but increasingly I find myself turning to the Puritans for insight into matters of spirituality and the heart. I got an incredible book for my last birthday that has become a regular staple in my theological diet: Joel Beeke’s and Mark Jones’ magisterial A Puritan Theology (Reformation Heritage Books. 2012). Until I actually started reading the Puritans I had dismissed them with H.L. Mencken’s famous swipe that a Puritan was somebody who suffered from “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Now I know that this is the worst kind of bearing false witness against the Puritans. A more accurate assessment of their very real and very important contribution to the Christian equation is J.I. Packer’s – a scholar who is sometimes called “the last Puritan” – assessment that –
The Puritans exemplified spiritual maturity; we don’t. We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-traveled Christian leader (an American himself)… has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, human-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, …3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep. The Puritans, by contrast, as a body were giants. They were great souls serving a great God. In them clear-headed passion and warm-hearted compassion combined.
And among the Puritans was one Dr. William Perkins (1558-1602) who had some very clear ideas about how God’s “preparatory grace” works in the human heart before salvation. Criticized by many of his fellow Puritans for these ideas, William Perkins nevertheless taught that before one becomes a Christian through the application of the finished work of Jesus Christ to the heart by the work of the Holy Spirit, that there is a prior work of the Holy Spirit on the human heart whereby a person’s will is made pliable — think: “breaking up the fallow soil”! This work of “preparatory grace” was no less a work of the Word and the Spirit Dr. Perkins argued than what happens to us in “saving grace,” the difference between them would seem to be primarily a matter of which part of the Word the Spirit applies to the human heart – the Holy Spirit uses the Law in “preparatory grace” to condemn the heart, and then the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel in “saving grace” to console the heart. Take a look at Romans 7:7-8:4 to get a clearer sense of how this works – what it looks and sounds like.
So, coming back around to the question of the condition of the soil of your heart, and what to do should you determine it to be fallow, my counsel would be to tether your heart to the preaching and the teaching of the Word. Consistently and consciously position yourself under the Word where the Holy Spirit can use it to break up the fallow soil of your heart. This is what the priest Ezra did in Nehemiah 8:1-12 that resulted in the post-exilic revival of covenantal faithfulness in Israel, and it’s what King Josiah did in 2 Kings 22-23 that produced the pre-exilic revival of covenant faithfulness in Israel (see 2 Kings 23:1-3). And I believe that the Word at work in the human heart in the power of the Spirit has the same potential for us. DBS+