by Mike Ratliff
1 He said to His disciples, “It is inevitable that stumbling blocks come, but woe to him through whom they come! 2 It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause one of these little ones to stumble. 3 Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him. 4 And if he sins against you seven times a day, and returns to you seven times, saying, ‘I repent,’ forgive him.”
5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 6 And the Lord said, “If you had faith like a mustard seed, you would say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and be planted in the sea’; and it would obey you. Luke 17:1-6 (NASB)
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 new evangelism approaches to Christianity. This is so because they are contaminated with the very same disease, which is pragmatism. This pragmatism begins with basic assumptions. Those assumptions, of course, are all wrapped around changing how church is done from a “marketing” perspective, which is nothing more than works righteousness instead of ministering before God by faith.
The assumptions made by these “pragmatists” right at the beginning are still prevalent in both the seeker-sensitive and new evangelism 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, ἀπιστία (apistia). This Greek noun, ἀπιστία, 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 ἀπιστία, 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. Απιστία 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 (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.
14 When they came to the crowd, a man came up to Jesus, falling on his knees before Him and saying, 15 “Lord, have mercy on my son, for he is a lunatic and is very ill; for he often falls into the fire and often into the water. 16 I brought him to Your disciples, and they could not cure him.” 17 And Jesus answered and said, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.” 18 And Jesus rebuked him, and the demon came out of him, and the boy was cured at once.
19 Then the disciples came to Jesus privately and said, “Why could we not drive it out?” 20 And He *said to them, “Because of the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you. Matthew 17:14-20 (NASB)
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, “You unbelieving and perverted generation, how long shall I be with you? How long shall I put up with you? Bring him here to Me.” Here is our Lord’s response in Greek, “ὦ γενεὰ ἄπιστος καὶ διεστραμμένη, ἕως πότε μεθʼ ὑμῶν ἔσομαι; ἕως πότε ἀνέξομαι ὑμῶν; φέρετέ μοι αὐτὸν ὧδε.” The word translated in the NASB as “unbelieving” is ἄπιστος, which is related to ἀπιστία. 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, “ὦ γενεὰ ἄπιστος καὶ διεστραμμένη,” 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 διεστραμμένη 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 the littleness of your faith; for truly I say to you, if you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you.” Here is His response in Greek, “διὰ τὴν ὀλιγοπιστίαν ὑμῶν· ἀμὴν γὰρ λέγω ὑμῖν, ἐὰν ἔχητε πίστιν ὡς κόκκον σινάπεως, ἐρεῖτε τῷ ὄρει τούτῳ· μετάβα ἔνθεν ἐκεῖ, καὶ μεταβήσεται· καὶ οὐδὲν ἀδυνατήσει ὑμῖν.” That little word διὰ, “because of,” 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 of” in most translations. There is a cause and effect for these men’s inability to cast out the demon. It is their ὀλιγοπιστίαν (oligopistian), their “little faith.” Some Greek manuscripts have a different word here, which is form of the word ἀπιστία, 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 (ἀπιστία).
6 Therefore, being always of good courage, and knowing that while we are at home in the body we are absent from the Lord— 7 for we walk by faith, not by sight— 2 Corinthians 5:6-7 (NASB)
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.