Spiritual warfare is a tricky subject. Definitions of it vary. Some define it broadly as fighting against the world, the flesh and the devil. Others define it more narrowly as combat against the devil and his demonic entourage. For this brief treatment, I will define spiritual warfare as that aspect of our common struggle as Christians against the evil workings of certain spiritual creatures – the devil and his demon followers – who are intent on spoiling God’s plan to save his human creatures.
The Angelic Order
There are good angels and there are evil ones led by the devil. The good angels are those that never fell from God. They are ministering spirits who serve God’s purposes (Heb.1:14). Since the Scriptures are addressed to us and not to angels we only have glimpses of their nature and roles. No surprise then that over 2000 years there has been enormous speculation to fill in the gaps in our knowledge. But like Calvin we need to stick within the boundaries of knowledge that Scripture supplies, and if we speculate we need to say so.
The Great Defection
The devil and his entourage are those angels who rebelled against their creator. Scripture has little to say about the fall before the human fall. What we know that there is an order – or better disorder- of spiritual creature bent on malevolence. Traditionally pride has been seen as the devil’s great sin and the root of his rebellion . Genesis 3 pr(esents a creature who questions God’s character and God’s word in an attempt to lead God’s human creature to defect from the word and will of God (Gen. 3:1-5). This is still the demonic game plan.
The Grand Recovery Plan
But God so loved the world that he has a rescue operation in place as he seeks to restore true worship throughout creation (cf. John 3:16 and 4:23-24). The centerpiece of that plan is a person, a cross and an empty tomb. Jesus is the faithful divine Son of God who did not fail when tempted by the devil (Matt. 4:1-11). The other two sons did fall for temptation; Adam in the garden (Gen. 3:6-7), and Israel in both the wilderness and the land of promise (Ps.106). The Bible from one perspective is the story of these three sons: two who failed when tempted and the one who didn’t. Thanks be to God!
Life in Between
When we think of ourselves, we are live after that pivotal coming, cross and coming to life again of the faithful Son and before his return in glory to set the world to its rights. We live in the last days in the setting of a groaning creation (Heb. 1:1-2 and Rom. 8:18-25). This is the arena for spiritual warfare. Oscar Cullmann provided a classic analogy for our location in time and space. We live in between D-Day and VE-Day. D-Day was the turning point in the war against the Nazis, when the allies landed at Normandy. It took place in June 1944. But VE-Day i.e. victory in Europe day tool place elate in May 1945. Much fighting took place between those dates but the decisive battle had been fought and won. In the plan of God, the cross of Christ was the victory (Col. 2:11-15). His resurrection was his vindication.
In the arena for spiritual warfare, the devil has two main guises. One guise is as a roaring lion persecuting believers. This was Peter’s image of him (1 Peter 5:8-9). There are parts of our world where the roaring lion is the experience of God’s people (e.g. North Korea). Paul’s image is a striking contrast. He wrote of the angel of light working through human agents teaching false doctrine (2 Cor. 11:12-15). I believe that the angel of light is especially the challenge we face in western cultures.
When it comes to spiritual warfare, for a start we need to be alert. Alertness assumes awareness. As Harry Blamires argues in his classic work, The Christian Mind, the awareness of evil is defining characteristic of such a mind. Alert but not obsessive, nor blasé. C. S. Lewis was right to argue we can be overly concerned with the demonic or under concerned. Next, we need to be prayerful. The Lord’s Prayer sets the agenda for Christian praying and famously it includes the petition “Deliver us from the evil one” (Matt. 6:13). If we never pray the substance of this petition in our context and that Jesus will bind the strongman and spoil his goods, then we are living with blinkers on (Mark 3: 22-27). Nothing spoils the goods of the strongman than the preaching of the gospel of Christ, the Victor and his cross (1 Cor. 15:3-5).
The Apostle Paul argues that we need to be equipped with the whole armor of God to fight against the devil and his forces. Unlike the Puritan, William Gurnall (1617-1679) I do not have the pages to explore Ephesians 6:10-20 at depth. (His great work, The Christian in Complete Armor, is 1244 pages in the volume I consulted.) Suffice to say that every aspect of the armor is gospel related: belt of truth, breastplate of righteousness, shoes of the gospel of peace, shield of faith, helmet of salvation, and sword of the Spirit. Indeed, Paul contends that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of God which in this context of the preached gospel in the first instance.
The important point to make in this brief article is that the stance of the believe is defensive not offensive. We are to stand and withstand (Eph. 6:11-14). There is no suggestion that the church should go looking for the devil. If our church faithfully preaches the gospel then the devil will come in his subtle ways looking for us of us. He is the enemy of the character of God, the Word of God and the people of God as Genesis 3 shows.
God’s people also need to be wise about spiritual warfare and its practice. Wisdom sticks to the boundaries that Scripture establishes and avoids the fanciful. To illustrate, there was a time when it was popular in some quarters to cast out demons on church premises. Since Jesus gave the demons in one incident permission to enter pigs which they did before the herd rushed into the water and drowned, a strange practice was adopted. A bucket of water was placed in the corner of the room so the demons had somewhere to go. The hermeneutical mistake here is to turn a biblical description into a biblical prescription (Mark 5:1-20).
So much more could be said but I will make one last point. Believers can be oppressed by the demonic but not “possessed by the demonic.” (I would prefer to stay inhabited by the demonic.) The reason has to do with Pneumatology. As Paul teaches us, the believer is the temple of the Holy Spirit how can God’s temple have another occupant, a demonic one (1 Cor. 6:19-20)? Be assured, believers cannot be demon inhabited.
An Important Rule of Thumb
I have found the following to be a very helpful rule of thumb when it comes to our expectations. We need a such a rule because over two thousand years of church history a plethora of beliefs and practice have grown up which are not found in Scripture. So I ask when confronted with a belief or practice I ask this question, “Would my New Testament lead to expect such a belief or practice?” For example, would I expect Mary to be my intercessor when Paul writes that Christ is the one mediator between God and ourselves, and Hebrews speaks of Christ as our great high priest? Likewise with spiritual warfare, would I expect from my New Testament that I would go on a prayer walk to reclaim territory from the devil as some argue we should? Again, if such a practice were biblical then why didn’t Paul command the Philippians or Colossians to do it?
The devil and his demons are real. There is a war on. We have our part to play, especially by prayer. Even so, God’s people need to keep a sense of proportion. Christ is victor and the demonic is on borrowed time. Christ must always be in the foreground of thinking and living and not the evil one. In brief: be alert, be prayerful, be equipped, be wise and be assured.
Editor’s Note: This post originally appeared at the blog for Credo Magazine and is used with permission.