Pragmatism and Mustard Seed Faith

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.





20 thoughts on “Pragmatism and Mustard Seed Faith

  1. Hi Mike,
    You have put it perfectly. I listened to the interview.I couldn’t find anything relating to what I understand as Christanity, ie as the bible describes it. You could take out the word church and put in business model and it would make just as much,( actually more) sense. Worldly language, method and man.The idea that our wonderous Lord could be ‘marketed’ in any way is utterly aborant. HE works HIS glorious and just will ,and mercifully and gracefully allows us to be part of it. ‘Innovators’ indeed !! Oh!
    I felt spiritually starving after listening.
    Through reading the passages you quoted in your post and the exegesis,Jesus satisfied that hunger. Praise the Lord we have such blessed and free access to His word.
    May our Father continue to bless with in it Mike.


  2. Hey Mike, I am glad you listened to the interview, but it is striking how far off your interpretation is of what I was saying in regards to pragmatism and marketing approaches.
    Trying to make the Gospel more palatable was never the goal nor the practice. In fact, just the opposite. We are trying to free it from the cultural restraints that 5th century, 17th century, and 20th century movements have put on the Gospel.
    I think you have read your own bias into what I was saying.
    And, ironically, that was, and is, the kind of thing that many of us are trying to recognize and honestly work with – that we all have biases that change our understanding of the Gospel.
    When we recognize cultural influences on Christianity we are not bemoaning that they exist (because there is no way for people to communicate without cultural assumptions and biases), we are admitting that they are powerful and try to not let the Gospel be limited to only people of any age.
    So, by freeing the Gospel from the limited cultural setting of Augustine or the reformers, or any other interpretive lens is not simply making it more palatable – it is being missional.
    If you want more on this I write all about it in my book A Christianity Worth Believing.


  3. Doug,

    It is that very effort to change the Gospel’s place in ministry that has lead to what is used in these churches as something other than the Biblical Gospel. I in no way have a bias pertaining to the Gospel other than the clear reading of Scripture. If you had read what I have trying to say in this blog since 2006 you would know that that is the case. I reject what your business model thinking and marketing strategies have done for this is nothing more than a parallel with the great Down-grade of the 19th Century, which, of course, was the move to “modernize” the church. Be honest Doug. You guys are attempting to do the very same thing those men were doing and look at the result.

    True Gospel preaching is something that will offend. It will step on toes. It will, however, be totally under the control of the Holy Spirit who will use it to break people’s hearts and draw them to Christ. The marketing version is nothing more than an invitation to make Jesus part of your life, to have a relationship with Him. That Jesus is not the Biblical Jesus and that is not the Gospel. You may call what you do as being “missional,” but it is not obedience to our Lord to preach the Gospel. You guys are overlooking something, perhaps intentionally, that it is the “foolishness of preaching” that God has chosen to save His people from their sins, not works righteousness, which is all “missional thinking” is.

    By-the-way, the Reformers and Augustine have it right. The reason they have it right is that they rely totally on Word of God being led by the Holy Spirit. Any attempt to move from that is not Reformation. It is, rather, an attempt to make the Gospel into little more than a sales pitch. Forget it. I want nothing to do with it and, as God directs, I will continue to prayerfully focus my efforts of exposing this nonsense to the Church.

    Repent Doug…

    In Christ

    Mike Ratliff


  4. Mike,

    Another great post! A church that moves away from orthodoxy & theology into the seeker/purpose/emergent methodology reminds me of the song from Casting Crowns…”Slow Fade”. Applicable in our personal lives certainly but, also a reminder to churches & pastors that their seemingly good intentions can lead to apostasy very easily when they make the Gospel secondary to their mission.

    Your posts have been a great encouragement for those who’ve experienced first-hand the results of churches embracing man-centered methods to make themselves more attractive to the unsaved world. In the process of finding a good Bible teaching/Gospel preaching church, I’ve been “reminded” often by Pastors & Elders to stop making waves; stop being divisive and critical of what they’re doing. Any questioning of their methods or watered-down messages brings the usual responses…

    “Look at how many people are coming to church as a result of our contemporary style of doing church!”

    “Lives are being changed!” (what does this mean? Watching Oprah can change your life too but that doesn’t make it true or right).

    “Preaching is too offensive; we need to communicate practical advise for living to people”

    “You’re judging people!”

    “God isn’t boring and church doesn’t have to be either”

    “We don’t want people to feel uncomfortable”

    “Our Sunday experience is designed to be light and relaxing; The seeker isn’t interested in hell-fire preaching”

    “If they see that we’re just like them and we like Jesus, then they’ll like Jesus too!”




  5. Doug-
    What IS the gospel to you?

    When does God’s Word need to be altered and become “missional”?
    This is what God’s Word says- “Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us,* but our sufficiency is from God*” 2 Cor. 3:5
    God Almighty- Sufficient and so is His Word. Outside God’s Word you have human practices and methodologies which are in error: False Teaching!
    “Missional”- the “cool” name for what?’ Man’s contrived ideas on how “spiritual” people should be or what they do?
    Those directions lead to God’s Wrath.- Rev.6:17- His judgment IS on those who do not come to repentant faith in Jesus. John 3:36
    So, Doug? What is the message?
    What is your testimony? What do you believe? Whom is your Lord and Savior?
    One day we will stand before God Almighty, righteous judge.

    For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness Romans 1:18

    “Truth in unrighteousness” – need we read more?

    “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth”- John 17:17

    “But he said, Yea rather, blessed are they that hear the word of God, *and keep it.*” Luke 11:28

    HEAR and KEEP! amen.


  6. There is a clear doctrinal teaching that is not open to anyone’s interpretation:
    John 14:15
    “If ye love me, keep my commandments.”
    That ought to be plain enough for anyone.
    If we follow what has been Written in Holy Scripture, we know what the Lord’s Commandments are regarding the Gospel.
    If, however, we set about to “modernize” the Gospel according to our (not Jesus’) ideas, we violat3 John 14:15.
    No one is currently using outhouses, bustles or cod pieces today, and the Holy Scriptures we have are perfectly useable, even if they are the same ones used by the “old” Reformers.


  7. Dear Mike,
    Continue!, as I know the Holy Spirit will give you the ability to teach all men with patience as the Lord leads and has been leading you to do.
    Some men seek fame and fortune and book sales, ever plugging thier books, tapes and plans for public appearances at thier so-called ‘churches’, blogs, and web sites are about drawing disciples ‘unto themselves’ rather than Christ and Him alone) they prove this by the bottom line, do they gain in this world for the so-called truth they teach or does the body of the Lord gain in SPIRIT. Earthly gain at the ‘merchandising’ of the ‘church’ is thier business and they have 501c3 corps to prove it. Everything they do is considered ‘ministery’ by thier accountants and tax preparers, attorneys and counslers ( because if it isn’t considered ministery there is a tax consequence to them). Numbers…numbers…numbers (people=dollars) is what ‘it’ is always about with this type. I hope and pray God will bring them to the glimps of TRUTH they haven’t met and that they would repent of thier works that is called ‘spiritual’ but is nothing more than the ‘rudiments of this world’.
    2 Peter 2


  8. Mr. Pagitt,
    I have never read Augustine, Luther or Calvin. I just read my Bible. It says that Jesus said, ” And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.”

    “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”

    It’s not a question of whether you are sharing the gospel better than the previous church or generation. Are you preaching it better than Jesus? Are you preaching it AT ALL?


  9. “We are trying to free it from the cultural restraints that 5th century, 17th century, and 20th century movements have put on the Gospel.”

    Interpretation: Move away from Jesus and replace the added space with works.


  10. Pingback: Pragmatism and the Wisdom of God « Possessing the Treasure

  11. Mike, what is the point of responding to Doug? Just interpret his comment as “yea and amen mike!” and we’ll all be fine. After all, in the quantum physics level, A can equal Not-A and the law of noncontradiction no longer applies.

    As far as a conspiracy, anyone who works against the truth, bliblically, is conspiring against the Lord and his work. That includes Doug who disagrees and flippantly dismisses a clear gospel presentation such as he did in that interview on his own show.

    the followup interviews with Chris were son insanely boring I could not even pay attention. Doug prattles on so verbosely trying to couch everything he says in phrases indicating subjectivity that I can’t follow him. Then he accuses people of misunderstanding him. Well maybe he should be clearer. But I doubt that will happen, because then he’d have to take a stand.


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