by Mike Ratliff
And he said to his disciples, “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. Pay attention to yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him, and if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.” The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. (Luke 17:1-6 ESV)
There are many parallels between what is going on the visible church at this time with what Charles Spurgeon called “the Down-Grade Controversy” in his time. In the latter part of the 19th Century, he began addressing the growing apostasy in the Baptist Union in Great Britain. This apostasy was fueled by those leaders who wished to move Christianity from its historical focus, i.e. preaching the Gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit with emphasis on sin and the need of a Saviour, to one that was more in line with “Modernism.” He compared Biblical truth to the pinnacle of a steep, slippery mountain. The margin for error is very precise because one step away, and you find yourself on the downgrade. The following excerpt is from one of his sermons preached at the height of this controversy.
Doth that man love his Lord who would be willing to see Jesus wearing a crown of thorns, while for himself he craves a chaplet of laurel? Shall Jesus ascend to his throne by the cross, and do we expect to be carried there on the shoulders of applauding crowds? Be not so vain in your imagination. Count you the cost, and if you are not willing to bear Christ’s cross, go away to your farm and to your merchandise, and make the most of them; only let me whisper this in your ear; “What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul? 1
Spurgeon preached the sermon from which this excerpt is taken just after he was censured by the Baptist Union for his stance against the majority’s efforts to “modernize” their churches with de-emphasis of the biblical gospel in favor of being more open to those who would be offended by the cross and the insistence that they were sinners in need of a Saviour.
In or own time, we are in the midst of a different form of the very same downgrade. This downgrade is made up of all those forms of seeker-sensitive and emergent approaches to Christianity. This is so because they are contaminated with the very same disease, which is pragmatism. I suggest that each one reading this take the time to listen to this interview by Chris Rosebrough with Doug Pagitt who is an integral part of what has become Emergent Christianity. As I listened to the interview I was somewhat surprised at how personable and “nice” Pagitt really is, but it doesn’t take very long in the interview to see the “assumptions” made at the beginning of this movement which lead to what we have now. Those assumptions, of course, are all wrapped around changing how church is done from a “marketing” perspective, which is nothing more than pragmatism instead of ministering before God by faith.
The assumptions made by these “emergents” right at the beginning are still prevalent in both the seeker-sensitive and Emergent churches. These assumptions also include the concept that to correctly market Christianity what was offensive has to be either removed or de-emphasized. That would be the preaching of the Biblical Gospel. Non-Christians do not like it when they are confronted by their sin and their need of a Saviour so that has to be downplayed or left out completely. This assumes, of course, that the easy-believism version of the Gospel is more effective than taking the risk of offense by preaching the full Gospel. Then the second error takes center stage. That would be to look at their results, i.e. numbers of converts, as proof of how effective this is. This mistake, of course, is that all they are doing is creating larger and larger ministries that are full of tares rather than born-again Christians.
This approach to ministry is the fruit of unbelief, απιστια. This Greek word, “apistia,” speaks of unfaithfulness and unbelief in the power of Christ Jesus. There are some very religious people who walk through each day and even minister completely in their απιστια, that is, their unbelief, instead of walking and ministering in humble submission to Christ in self-denial with a crucified life. They are depending on their own efforts or the efforts of their groups to be the effective framework that will ensure the success of their ministries. Απιστια can be found in the following passages in the New Testament in both positive and negative contexts: Matthew 13:58, Matthew 17:20, Mark 6:6, Mark 9:24, Mark 16:14, Romans 3:3, Romans 4:20, Romans 11:20, Romans 11:23, 1 Timothy 1:13, Hebrews 3:12, and Hebrews 3:19.
Carefully read the passage I placed at the top of this post, Luke 17:1-6. What was the emphasis from our Lord to His disciples that would enable them to obediently forgive those who had wronged them? It is faith, πίστις, or “pistis.” This is belief, trust, and assurance in the truth given to us from God. It is a believing of God and then walking within that belief in trust and obedience. This is powerful stuff.
In Matthew 17:14-20, we are given a short account of a healing by our Lord of a boy with a demon. Here is the entire passage.
And when they came to the crowd, a man came up to him and, kneeling before him, said, “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is an epileptic and he suffers terribly. For often he falls into the fire, and often into the water. And I brought him to your disciples, and they could not heal him.” And Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” And Jesus rebuked the demon, and it came out of him, and the boy was healed instantly. Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:14-20 ESV)
The disciples of our Lord could not cast out the demon. However, when He is told of it, what was His response? In v17, He said, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you? How long am I to bear with you? Bring him here to me.” Here is our Lord’s response in Greek: “ω γενεα απιστος και διεστραμμενη εως ποτε μεθ υμων εσομαι εως ποτε ανεξομαι υμων φερετε μοι αυτον ωδε” The word translated in the English as “faithless” is απιστος, which is related to απιστια. The latter is faithlessness or uncertainty, distrust, or unbelief, while the former is a description of those who are not worthy of confidence. They are untrustworthy and this could mean that they are unbelievers. Who is our Lord referring to here? Notice that the phrase says, “ω γενεα απιστος και διεστραμμενη,” which literally says, “O generation untruthful and having been perverted…” The majority of the people who witnessed our Lord’s mighty works and listened to His incredible teaching did not place their faith in Him as their Messiah. The word διεστραμμενη describes people who have a distorted perception of Jesus, the truth about Him, and what it really means to be His disciple.
Of course, Jesus took the boy, rebuked the demon and it left instantly. The disciples privately came to Him to ask why He could do that and they could not. He responded in v20, “Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith like a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move, and nothing will be impossible for you.” Here is His response in Greek, “δια την ολιγοπιστιαν υμων αμην γαρ λεγω υμιν εαν εχητε πιστιν ως κοκκον σιναπεως ερειτε τω ορει τουτω μεταβα ενθεν εκει και μεταβησεται και ουδεν αδυνατησει υμιν.” That little word δια, “through,” is vital to our understanding of the faith principle. It is a primary preposition that denotes the channel of an act. That is why it is translated in this passage as “because” in most translations. There is a cause and effect for these men’s inability to cast out the demon. It is their ολιγοπιστιαν, “oligopistian,” their “little faith.” Some Greek manuscripts have a different word here, which is form of the word απιστια, which would make the rendering, “because of your unbelief.” In any case, our Lord is not saying these men have no faith, but that their faith is weak instead of strong. They were immature in their faith. They were focused temporally rather than eternally. They looked at the temporal as the true reality instead of it just being the preparation for them to be in eternity.
Our Lord tells them and us that those with this temporal focus can only do temporal things. They will do things like try to minister pragmatically, which is useless in the Kingdom. On the other hand, those who walk by faith, minister by faith have faith as a “mustard seed,” “κοκκον σιναπεως,” which literally says, “a kernel of mustard.” This is pretty small, but it is real. It is definite. It is focused on God through belief (πίστις) instead of attempting to be religious pragmatically, which is nothing more than unbelief (απιστια).
So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. (2 Corinthians 5:6-7 ESV)
To walk by faith is to have faith that is real and definite. It is based in hearing and believing God. It is looking at His truth, believing it, and obeying Him instead of looking at the temporal and responding pragmatically. Walking by faith is not blind faith for it is based on belief in one who never lies and all He does and says is based in His Truth. To walk by sight is to do the opposite. It is to walk through each day or minister with a temporal focus. Those who do this are in unbelief for they discount the truth, God’s Word, and operate pragmatically in all things. Which are you my brothers and sisters?
Soli Deo Gloria!
1”Holding Fast the Faith,” The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, Vol. 34 (London: Passmore and Alabaster, 1888), 78.