FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About The Christian Life - Chapter 9

Chapter 9

What is spiritual warfare?


Can the devil come to church?” The young man who asked me that question was both sincere and intense. He had heard a television preacher say that the devil comes to church all the time. How do you answer a quesdon like that? As I thought about it later, two comments came to mind. First, I am sure that the devil feels right at home in some churches, especially those that no longer believe the Bible or preach the gospel. Second, the people in those churches would probably laugh at the question and also at my answer. Many people today doubt the exis­tence of a personal being called the devil. That there is evil in the world, they readily admit. Who could deny it? But in the minds of many, that evil stems from a bad environment, a flawed home life, or perhaps a lack of good education. If only we could change our circumstances, we could change human nature. Or so we are told.

But thousands of years of human history point to a different answer. Evil is in the world because evil is in us. When the London Times asked various leaders to explain what was wrong with the world, G. K. Chesterton offered a terse reply: “What is wrong with the world? I am.” His answer was entirely biblical. Something has gone wrong with the world because something has gone wrong with us. And that something is called sin. All of us feel it, know it, and if we are honest, we confess that sin is not simply “out there"; it is also deeply embedded in who we are.

If we are willing to admit the truth about ourselves (that we are sinners), it should not be difficult to admit that there is indeed a malevolent being called the devil who actively makes war against us. And since the devil is a spirit being, that means he can go wherever we go, including to church with us.

Spiritual warfare begins with the observation that we are in a bat­tle against the world, the flesh, and the devil. All believers instinc­tively realize that they are called to fight—to be good soldiers, to put on their armor, to take up the weapons of righteousness, to enter the fray unafraid, to stand against the fierce assault of evil, and having done all, to stand victorious at the end of the day.

Here are a few questions that come to mind as we begin our discussion:


• What is spiritual warfare and how should we engage in it?

• What part does Satan play in this great drama?

• How do we fight so that we might win?

• In what sense is Satan already defeated?

• What role do demons play in spiritual warfare?

• What is warfare praying and why is it important?

• How much influence can Satan have over me if I am a gen­uine believer?

• Will there be any end to spiritual warfare in this life?

• What is the “armor of God” and how do I put it on?


Before we deal with those questions, let’s pause to consider why the topic of spiritual warfare has become so popular in our day. One obvious reason stems from a new interest in the occult in Western thinking. The last thirty years have seen an unprecedented openness to witchcraft, channeling, reincarnation, and all sorts of paranormal experiences. The rise of spiritual warfare teaching is a natural response to this trend. This new openness to the supernatural stems from the collapse of Enlightenment rationalism and the entrance of postmodernism. For several centuries science was thought to have the answer for everything, including the realm once reserved for theol­ogy. Today the notion of truth as an absolute concept has nearly dis­appeared. This has opened the door to a new emphasis on various kinds of supernatural experiences.

The contemporary interest in the occult illustrates the spiritual starvation of this generation. Because God has put eternity inside every heart (Eccl. 3:11), we are all born with a desire to understand the world around us. We want to know who we are, where we come from, who made us, why we are here, and what the universe is all about. We can seek those answers in the Bible and discover the truth, or we can turn to mediums, witches, and wizards and discover another completely different set of answers. If we don’t fill the “God-shared vacuum” inside the heart with God himself, we will fill it with the spiritual junk food we find all around us.

For many people personal experience is the arbiter of all truth claims. Recently I had an exchange on an Internet discussion board with a young man who defended a particular religious activity by say­ing, “I cannot deny my own experience.” This evidently is meant to trump any arguments based on Scripture. But the experience orien­tation (which isn’t altogether bad) has opened up a whole generation to certain practices that may not be spiritually healthy.

Popular Christian fiction has made spiritual warfare accessible to millions of readers. While on the one hand we can be thankful that many people have awakened to the contemporary reality of angels and demons, there is also reason to be concerned that some people have lost their spiritual balance and have focused on the demonic in a way that is not productive for spiritual growth.


A Place to Begin

Here are a few statements that will help us think biblically about spiritual warfare.

Satan is a real being and the demons who follow him are also real. Satan is a fallen angel and the demons are fallen angels who are in perpetual rebellion against God. The demons are spirit-beings whose only purpose is to further Satan’s evil purposes in the world (Matt. 12:24; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; Eph. 6:12). Satan and the demons are active in the world today, and their activity will increase as we near the end of the age (Rev. 12:9-12).

The Bible tells us just enough to pique our curiosity but not enough to answer all our questions. Imagine yourself at a play in a majestic the­ater. As you wait for the program to begin, you can hear noise from behind the curtain, and occasionally the curtain itself is jostled by something or someone hidden from your view. Suddenly the curtain opens for a moment, just for a second, and you can clearly see the action on the stage. Almost before you can focus your eyes, the cur­tain closes again. You know what you saw, but you wish you had been able to get a better glimpse. In numerous biblical passages we are allowed to peek behind the curtain of history to see things that are normally invisible.

It is easy to go to extremes in this area. On one hand, you can give Satan too much credit and build your Christian life around what Satan is doing. Or you can ignore Satan, pay no attention to his schemes, and fall into his clutches through carelessness.

The only things we know with certainty about spiritual warfare are the things revealed in the Bible. Some well-known Christian leaders have written extensive descriptions about the spirit world that come not from the Bible but from personal counseling experience. The danger is that we may unconsciously elevate what someone said in a counseling session to a level equal with the Bible. And we may even make spiritual decisions on things allegedly said by demons speaking through troubled individuals. That road leads eventually to spiritual confusion. Experience may illustrate biblical truth; it cannot replace it. Furthermore, experience must not be used to “fill in the blanks” in areas where the Scripture is silent.

Spiritual warfare rightly understood is not a minor biblical topic. In some ways it might be termed the whole story of the Bible. The con­flict between God and Satan started in heaven when Lucifer rebelled, came to earth when Adam and Eve sinned, and continues in every generation in the ongoing struggle between good and evil. That con­flict will not end until the devil is finally cast into the lake of fire and the New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven (Rev. 20-22).

Spiritual warfare is the ongoing battle between the believer and the devil. The devil uses the power of the flesh and the allure of the world to cause us to turn away from God. His ultimate goal is the capture and destruction of every human being. This explains why the Christian life is a battleground, not a playground.


Some Myths about Spiritual Warfare

Because spiritual warfare is controversial, it is important that we deal briefly with three popular but wrong ideas.


Myth #1: Spiritual Warfare Is Unreal, Unbiblical, and Unhistorical

This is the viewpoint of liberalism and anti-supernaturalism. Some people simply don’t believe in the existence of a personal devil. For them the whole subject of spiritual warfare is something like a medieval fairy tale. Sometimes untaught believers share this viewpoint.

Against it we have the whole testimony of holy Scripture. From beginning to end the Bible testifies to the reality of a personal being called the devil and Satan who is the enemy of God, the opponent of God’s people, a liar from the beginning, and a roaring lion who would destroy us if he could (1 Pet. 5:8).

We also have the testimony of the saints of God of every age. During the Puritan era a man named William Gurnall published a thick book called The Christian in Complete Armor. His subtitle tells the whole story: “The saints’ war against the devil, wherein a discov­ery is made of that grand enemy of God and his people, in his poli­cies, power, seat of his empire, wickedness, and chief design he hath against the saints; a magazine opened, from when the Christian is furnished with spiritual arms for the battle, helped on with his armor, and taught use of his weapons; together with the happy issue of the whole war.” That does seem to cover the whole topic!

This battle between the saints and Satan is as old as the Garden of Eden. It is also a part of every believer’s life.


Myth #2: Spiritual Warfare Must Be Carried On by Professionals or It Requires Special Training

The Bible says nothing about a special class of “spiritual warfare experts” who are trained in confronting demons, casting them out, and so on. Some people even believe there is a “gift” of spiritual war­fare. If there is, the Bible says nothing about it. The biblical empha­sis is always on the responsibility of every believer. All believers are to put on the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-17). All believers are told to be good soldiers of the gospel (2 Tim. 2:3-4). All believers are warned to be on the alert against Satan (James 4:7). The danger of this myth is that we may end up with a “priestcraft” of spiritual warriors who are exalted above the rest of the body of Christ.


Myth #3: Spiritual Warfare Necessarily Involves Spectacular Confrontations with the Devil and His Demons

This appears to be the view of some contemporary leaders who speak of “power encounters” with the devil. Some even cast out demons publicly and with great fanfare. Into this whole category would go such things as exorcisms, deliverance meetings, and so on. In mentioning these things I do not wish to question the motives of those leaders. Only God can judge the human heart. However, a con­frontational mentality often seems to develop. Some even talk about hand-to-hand combat, wrestling with the demons, sensing, seeing, naming, rebuking the demons one by one, and striking them down with dramatic words of authority. Whatever truth may lie in this direction, it can also lead to spiritual pride because we may end up thinking we control the spirit world. Our pride may open us to unwitting spiritual disaster.


How God Uses Satan to Accomplish His Purposes

In thinking about spiritual warfare, it’s crucial that we base our beliefs on good theology. That is, we need to make sure that what we do and say in this area corresponds with what the Bible actually teaches. Some Christians attribute more power to Satan than he pos­sesses. Although the precise details of Satan’s fall are shrouded in mys­tery, this much is certain: He was always only a created being whom God allowed to rebel. That statement is all-important because some people have exalted the devil to a position where he is “almost-but-not-quite-God.” They attribute so much power to him that he becomes in their minds a “junior God” who can do almost every­thing God can do. But the Bible teaches no such thing. Although mighty in power when compared to humans, Satan is nothing at all when compared to God. The Bible never presents him as omni­potent, omnipresent, or omniscient.

This raises a question that is difficult to answer precisely. How much power does Satan have? Clearly he is the most powerful of all the created angels (Isa. 14:12-15). He came to Eve as a serpent (Gen. 3:1). In Revelation he appears as a fierce dragon (Rev. 12). Peter calls him a “roaring lion” (1 Pet. 5:8). Paul says he masquerades as an “angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:14). The Lord Jesus called him the “father of lies” and a “murderer from the beginning” (John 8:44). He is also called the “prince of this world” (John 12:31), the “god of this age” (2 Cor. 4:4), the “ruler of the kingdom of the air” (Eph. 2:2), and the “accuser of our brothers” (Rev. 12:10). Obviously he is a created being with powers that are supernatural and go far beyond what any human possesses.

But we must not exaggerate his power either. Satan has exactly as much power as God permits him to have—not one iota more. As Martin Luther said, the devil is “God’s devil,” meaning that God puts limits on what he can do. For instance, when Satan wanted to cause Job to curse God, God told Satan he could touch him physically but he could not take Job’s life. Likewise, Jesus said that Satan had asked to “sift” Peter (Luke 22:31), meaning that he had to ask God’s per­mission before tempting Peter to deny Christ. This raises many ques­tions about the relationship between God’s permission to Satan and the temptations we face every day. Two things should be very clear to every Christian. First, Satan serves God’s purposes in ways we cannot fully understand. Second, when we are tempted, we must not blame Satan for our weakness. We are fully responsible for the moral choices we make.

William Gurnall states the truth about Satan in colorful language that may seem shocking to our ears: “When God says ’Stay!’ he must stand like a dog by the table while the saints feast on God’s comfort. He does not dare to snatch even a tidbit, for the Master’s eye is always upon him.” This simply means that Satan, as powerful as he is, is not autonomous. He has no independent power of his own. Like any other created being, he must submit to God’s control.

This leads to a further question. Why is it important to see Satan in his proper biblical light? There are several clear answers to that question. First, so that we might worship God as the supreme Lord of the universe. Second, so that we will have the courage to stand against the devil and his attacks against us. Third, so that we will not give the devil more credit that he deserves. Good theology and spiritual victory always go hand in hand. We should respect the devil’s power and not take him lightly, but we should not live in cringing fear of what he might do to us. If we live in fear, we are defeated before the battle begins.

One final question and we can move on. If the devil is always sub­ject to God, why is he alive and apparently doing so well today? Why hasn’t God destroyed him yet? We must say with great reverence that we can’t answer this question completely. The secret things belong to the Lord our God (Deut. 29:29). But this much we can say with cer­tainty: In some way that is not fully understandable to our finite minds, Satan serves God’s purposes in the world today. Certainly this comes as a result of creating men and women with the ability to make uncoerced moral choices. Perhaps in a world where we can choose to do wrong, a being like the devil must exist. When God’s purposes have been fully served, the devil will be cast in the lake of fire where he will remain in perpetual torment for all eternity (Rev. 20:10).

On a personal note, I have found it helpful, when facing what seems to be an onslaught of evil and spiritual confusion, to para­phrase the words of Joseph: “Satan means it for evil but God means it for good.” With that perspective even in the worst moments, we may see God’s hand at work.


Practical Steps in Resisting Satanic Attack

In 2 Corinthians 2:11, Paul comments that we are not unaware of Satan’s schemes. He comes to us in many different ways and in many different guises. Some days he may reason with us as he did with Eve in the Garden of Eden. Other times he will suggest evil thoughts that fill our minds with anger, bitterness, hatred, lust, and greed. He also works through false teachers to promote false doc­trine in the church. In those cases he may first seem like an “angel of light.” But he always reveals his true colors sooner or later. We know he attempts to seduce believers through pornography, sexual immorality of all types, drug and alcohol abuse, and through any involvement in the occult. Above all, remember that Satan does not warn before he strikes. That is why we must constantly be on our guard.

How should we respond to Satan’s attacks on us? Martin Luther said that when the devil comes knocking at the door, just send the Lord Jesus to answer it. Here are some practical ways to do that.

Cry out to God for help. This may seem elementary, but it is not. One part of resisting the devil is to ask God for his help. When we are tempted, we must immediately call out to the Lord and confess our weakness. The precise words don’t matter so much as the attitude of our heart. If we think we can defeat Satan on our own, we will soon learn the truth the hard way. When we confess that we are help­less and will soon be defeated, the Lord will rush to our aid. He loves to help those who call on him.

Don’t be discouraged when the battle is hard. The word resist is a military term. It means to erect a defense in the face of repeated attacks. But it also contains the idea of swarming over the battle­ments at the right moment, moving to the offensive, and sweeping the enemy from the field. Just as Satan came to Christ three times, we should not be surprised that he comes to us again and again and again. Sometimes we will face the same temptation hundreds of times over many months or years. And we may struggle with some spiritual issues for a lifetime. Since Satan does not give up easily, we must not think ourselves to be unworthy saints when the battle is fierce. Spiritual warfare lasts until we die. There are many battles, many skirmishes, many foes to face as we march along the highway from earth to heaven.

Take the way of escape the very first time. When faced with temp­tation, we must take the “way of escape” God provides for us (1 Cor. 10:13). This includes fleeing sinful situations (2 Tim. 2:22), confess­ing Christ openly (Matt. 10:32; Heb. 10:32; Rev. 12:11), putting to death the deeds of the flesh (Rom. 8:13), yielding our bodies to God (Rom. 6:13), relying on the power of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:16), and choosing the path of costly obedience (Luke 9:52). God isn’t required to give us a second or third “way of escape” if we have spurned his first one.

Put on the whole armor of God. It would be a useful spiritual exer­cise to memorize Ephesians 6:10-17. In that passage we are told to “put on” the belt of truth (commitment to integrity and honesty), the breastplate of righteousness (commitment to obeying God in every circumstance), and to have our feet fitted with the gospel of peace (being ready to share the Good News with others). We are to “take up” the shield of faith (choosing to believe God is who he said he is, and acting accordingly), the helmet of salvation (your assurance that you are truly saved by God), and the sword of the Spirit (reading, meditating on, quoting, and believing the written Word of God). Finally, we are to “pray in the Spirit” (v. 18), which means to be in constant communication with God. As we use the armor God has provided, we will find ourselves fully equipped for every battle that may come our way.

Use Scripture the same way Christ did. When Jesus faced the devil after his forty days in the wilderness, he countered the devil’s every move with a quotation from Scripture (Matt. 4:1-11). Satan has no answer when the Word of God is used correctly by a believer who is walking in the power of the Spirit. This means we must become people of the Book. We must read it daily, meditate upon it, learn what it says, memorize key verses, and most of all, we must actively stand upon what it says.

Use the resources of the body of Christ. Sometimes Satan wins a bat­tle in our lives because we are ashamed to admit we struggle in a cer­tain area. But it is precisely at this point that we need our brothers and sisters. This is why we have local churches, Sunday school classes, Bible study groups, and accountability partners. The Christian is a soldier serving in an army, not a guerilla fighting a lonely battle in the jungle. Satan’s lures won’t seem so attractive when we talk them over with concerned Christian friends. Remember, it’s better to ask for prayer when you are tempted than to wish you had.


A Few Controversial Areas

In recent years much discussion about spiritual warfare has focused on such things as territorial spirits, generational demons, naming the demons, casting out demons, and whether or not a true Christian can be demon-possessed. In a book like this it is not possi­ble to discuss these issues in any depth. In all things our theology must be based on what the Bible actually says. We need not and should not go beyond what is revealed in Scripture. It is clear that believers can be harassed in various ways by demons and that we may resist that harassment by the steps I have already suggested. That cov­ers the vast majority of issues most of us are likely to face on a daily basis. Spiritual warfare is less about the details of demonology and much more about our own determination to walk in obedience before the Lord.


Warfare Praying

If you hear someone mention “warfare praying,” it’s important to remember that this is not a special category of prayer. It simply means that prayer is crucial in our ongoing battle against the devil and all his works. The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13) offers a useful model for all our praying. We begin by focusing on God:


• His name—hallowed be your name.

• His kingdom—your kingdom come.

• His will—your will be done.


Then we focus on our own needs:


• Provision—our daily bread.

• Pardon—forgive us our debts.

• Protection—lead us not into temptation.


I take it that “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” means something like “Lord, when I have the desire to sin, may I not have the opportunity. And when I have the opportunity, may I not have the desire. Deliver me from Satan’s power because without your deliverance I will fall into his trap every time.”


Let the Battle Begin

We can wrap up this chapter with a few concluding comments. It’s important to seek a biblical balance in this area. We want to believe everything the Bible says about spiritual warfare, and this means tak­ing the whole Bible into account. We must base our theology on the Bible, not on human experience. We needn’t listen to the demons when we have the Word of God as our infallible guide to the truth.

We should expect testing and should not be surprised when it happens. Robert Murry M’Cheyne put it this way: “There can never be peace in the bosom of the believer. There is peace with God, but a constant war with sin.” Remember that God allows spiritual war­fare as a crucial component of your spiritual growth. Salvation is free, but becoming a disciple of Christ will cost you all that you have. God uses the attacks of Satan to bring us to new personal dependence on the Lord. That’s why daily obedience is more important than spec­tacular experiences. We need not have “power encounters” with the devil or his demons in order to walk in spiritual victory. The most important secret to victory is getting up each day and doing what God has called you to do. That counts for more than talking to the devil or casting out demons.

Finally, rest on this truth: God has given you everything you need to fight and win the battle:


• The Word of God

• The Holy Spirit

• The armor of God

• A new nature

• A new position

• The body of Christ

• The weapon of prayer

• Christ interceding for you in heaven


Martin Luther summed it up well in his great hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:


And tho’ this world, with devils filled,

Should threaten to undo us,

We will not fear, for God hath willed

His truth to triumph thro’ us:

The Prince of Darkness grim,

We tremble not for him;

His rage we can endure,

For lo, his doom is sure,

One little word shall fell him.


That “little word” is Jesus. The cross proved that Jesus is the vic­tor over the devil for time and eternity. We’re in a battle whose out­come was determined before the universe began. From our standpoint we smell the smoke of battle and see the flash of musketry as Satan and his hosts move against us. We feel the rumble of the mighty cannon and sense that a huge battle is being waged on every side. Sometimes we stumble and sometimes we fall under the crush­ing blows of the enemy.

But God says us to us, “Arise, my child. Rise and face your enemy. He is already defeated. Stand and fight in my power and you cannot lose.” Let the battle begin.


A Truth to Remember:

God has given you everything you need to fight and win the battle.


Going Deeper

1. How would you define spiritual warfare? Why is this a subject every Christian should know about?

2. Who is Satan and where did he come from? What happens when we exaggerate or underestimate his power?

3. Using the New Testament as your guide, list at least ten dif­ferent resources Christians can rely on in our struggle against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

4. Think of a time when you consciously resisted the devil in your life. How did you do it? What was the specific circum­stance? What was the outcome?

5. Of the six steps for resisting Satan’s attacks, which one do you most need to put into practice right now?

6. Why is it dangerous for Christians to dabble in the occult? What harm can come from such things as reading your horo­scope or calling a psychic hotline or consulting a fortune­teller? Should Christians be concerned about television shows or movies with heavily occult themes? Why or why not?


Taking Action

Read Ephesians 6:10-17 out loud several times. Then write down each piece of armor and what it might look like in your life. Be very specific—for example, Belt of Truth: “Speaking only the truth when I try to close a sale.” Use this as a prayer guide for the next seven days.
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