Put on the full armor of God,” Paul writes in Ephesians 6:11, “so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.” Spiritual warfare is important, because we do not struggle “against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (v. 12).
Since spiritual warfare is important, it is also important that we understand what it is, and stay away from any nonbiblical ideas that sometimes go under the name “spiritual warfare.” Because of various excesses and abuses, some people stay away from all forms of “spiritual warfare.” But as Paul said, we have spiritual enemies, and it will be helpful for us to discuss how we fight them.
The armor of God
Paul mentions the “armor of God”: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the strong boots of the gospel of peace, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, which Paul says is the word of God, and prayer in the Spirit (verses 14-18). We can drawinteresting analogies for each of these, but I think some of the popular expositions stretch the analogies further than Paul intended.
The main point is that we need spiritual attributes for a spiritual battle. We need truth, because the truth sets us free. We need righteousness, the gift of righteousness that God gives us through faith in Christ, which leads us to live righteously in him.
Faith in God helps us endure with God’s peace the accusations of Satan, for we know that no matter what he accuses us of, we have been forgiven; we need not be burdened by guilt or be afraid of failure. In addition, faith gives us endurance and peace in the face of life’s tragedies, injustices and trials.
When our feet are protected by the gospel of peace, we are ready to go wherever we have to in the peaceful assurance of God’s faithful word. When God is for us, who can be against us? When Jesus was tempted by Satan, he resisted by quoting the word of God. We are stronger spiritually when we know and trust what God has said.
Paul ends his list of spiritual armor by reminding us that spiritual strength comes from God alone, so we need to pray—“on all occasions, with all kinds of prayers and requests…. Always keep praying for all the saints” (verse 18). The battle depends on the Lord, and since we never know in advance when the enemy will attack, prayer needs to characterize our lives.
Paul gives a complementary list of spiritual armor in 1 Thessalonians 5:8: “faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet.” Here he uses the trio of faith, hope and love. The point is that we will be spiritually stronger, less likely to stumble or fall, if these qualities are at work in our lives.
Fighting on three fronts
Our spiritual battle involves three main areas: the flesh, the world and supernatural evils. Sins of the “flesh” include sins of the mind, such as pride. Paul describes this struggle in Galatians 5:17: “The sinful nature [sarx] desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” And the sins of the flesh include jealousy, selfishness and hatred, as well as sexual immorality and drunkenness (verses 19-21).
Often, our spiritual troubles come from within, from genetic weaknesses, from sins that were done to us when we were children, or from bad habits we have acquired. Paul exhorts us to count ourselves dead to sin, to put to death the deeds of the flesh, to not let sin reign in us (Romans 6:11-12; 8:13; Colossians 3:5). This is spiritual warfare. Greed (for example) is a spiritual matter, even when evil spirits are not involved. Sin is a spiritual power, and the only effective way to fight it is with the Spirit of God in us.
Our environment and culture can also be opposed to our spiritual health. Western culture promotes materialism and individualism, for example. Culture influences our attitudes toward sex, money, power, success, other ethnic groups and other religions. Sometimes these influences are positive; often they are not. We need to use the word of God to evaluate whether cultural customs are good, bad or neutral.
1 John 2:15-17 addresses our attitude toward culture: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world—the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does—comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives forever.” We should never fall in love with the things of the world, for everything this world offers will eventually be swept away. Our priority must be the things of God.
Notice in this passage that the world appeals to the desires of the flesh; these two spiritual enemies work together and are sometimes indistinguishable. The people of the world have fleshly desires, too, but are less likely to resist them, and so society often promotes self-indulgence and self-reliance. We need to be aware of it, not so that we hate the people, but that we can be properly suspicious of the values that many people take for granted.
By his death, Jesus destroyed the power that Satan had over us. The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom.
Our third spiritual enemy is the supernatural world—the evil spirits that some people want to emphasize and other people want to ignore. Paul clearly says that we struggle against evil powers in the heavenly realms—not heaven itself, but the spiritual world in general. We were once influenced by “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses…” (Ephesians 2:2-3, NRSV).
This evil spiritual realm works in conjunction with culture and our sinful nature, and it is rarely necessary to distinguish the exact source of the evils that tempt us. All three are involved in our spiritual warfare.
But we need not fear Satan, for we have been rescued “from the dominion of darkness and brought ... into the kingdom of the Son he loves” (Colossians 1:13). By his death, Jesus destroyed the power that Satan had over us (Hebrews 2:14). Because we are allied with Christ, we can be confident, as Paul was, that “the Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom” (2 Timothy 4:18).
Satan is a defeated enemy, but he is still an enemy, still harassing us with guerrilla warfare. His attacks are usually unannounced, usually disguised. “Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness” (2 Corinthians 11:14-15).
Paul describes the devil as a lion on the prowl. “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). So what do we do? “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast” (verses 9-10).
The strategy is simple: resist. How? By faith! The Bible does not prescribe any special words or rituals; no special anointings or prayers. We do not have to learn special names or go on special walks.
Neither Jesus nor the apostles went searching for demons to rout as the key to spiritual growth or effective evangelism. They expelled demons when the problem was unavoidable, but they did not search for hidden demons or territorial spirits. Jesus defeated Satan not through aggression, but by resisting him with the word of God, and then by dying on a cross.
“Resist the devil, and he will flee from you,” James 4:7 tells us. Resist, and the devil (or demon) will take flight, looking for an easier target. When we trust God, the devil has no foothold. His fiery darts cannot penetrate that shield. No one can snatch us out of Jesus’ hand (John 10:28). Christ keeps us safe. When we trust in him, evil spirits cannot harm us (1 John 5:18; 2 Thessalonians 3:3).
Therefore we should stand in faith and resist the temptations the devil offers, the temptations that appeal to our fleshly desires, our pride, our selfishness or ungodly cultural influences. How do we resist? Put on faith and righteousness, truth and the gospel, and pray always.
Let me address a few misconceptions that sometimes go under the name of spiritual warfare. The Bible gives no support to these concepts:
Territorial mapping of demonic powers
Claiming geographic areas or repeatedly “binding” demons
Seeking the names of demons as a source of power over them
Trying to get information from the demons
Searching for crystals or amulets that supposedly give demons power
Repeated prayers over inanimate objects, such as rocks
Looking for generational curses, as if words had inherent power.
Some of these techniques give evil spirits far more attention than they deserve. It treats them as legitimate powers instead of usurpers. These ideas are superstitious, borrowed from the ideas of magic, seeking power not so much in Christ as in techniques. If such techniques ever work, it would be a case of casting out demons by using the techniques of Beelzebub. We can win only through Christ, and he did not advocate any such strategies, and we cannot improve on what he himself did.
Curses and hexes have no real power of their own. Someone might put a curse on something, and a demon might well carry out the act—but this is by the demon’s choice, not by any inherent power of the words. There is no need to explore the demonic world to try to find hidden curses; there is no need to come up with special words to counteract the first words. All we need is Christ.
Some people see a demon behind every bad attitude, and behind every abnormality of personality. Many mental illnesses that used to be blamed on demons have now been shown to be caused by physiological malfunctions. Although they have spiritual repercussions, they are not caused by evil spirits. So we should be slow about diagnosing anyone as having a demon.
Claims of demon possession are often wrong—but not always. In general, symptoms could include 1) a hostile reaction to the name of Jesus, 2) the presence of an unnatural, foreboding feeling of evil, 3) involvement in the occult and witchcraft, 4) prominent feelings of unforgiveness, bitterness and anger, 5) supernatural strength, and 6) self-abusive behavior. None of these are guarantees of demon possession, and a diagnosis should be made only with careful counsel.
When such a situation is encountered, a minister can simply take authority in Christ’s name, and command the demon to leave. No shouting is necessary, no conversation is needed. There is no need to find out the demon’s name or anything else about the demonic world (whatever the demon says is likely to be false, anyway). The demon might try to stall for time, diverting attention to something else, so we need to be firm in commanding the demon to leave, by the authority of Christ.
Then we need to teach the person to resist re-infection, giving them the truth of salvation, the gospel of hope, faith in Christ, encouraging them in a life of righteousness, prayer and Bible study, surrounded by people who help them.
We do not need to fear the demonic world. Its power is limited. Satan’s main strategy is not outright possession, but sneaking in the side door through deception. Demons work through the society around us, appealing to our own sinful nature, trying to deceive us into wrong ways of thinking and wrong ways of behavior. They use fear, guilt and ignorance. The antidote is faith, forgiveness and the truth of the gospel.
Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare, by David Powlison (Baker, 1995)
Demon Possession, by John W. Montgomery (Canadian Institute for Law, 1976)
Counseling and the Demonic, by Rodger Bufford (Word, 2000)
Three Crucial Questions About Spiritual Warfare, by Clinton Arnold (Baker, 1997)
Overrun by Demons: The Church’s New Preoccupation With the Demonic, by Thomas Ice and Robert Dead Jr. (Harvest House, 1993)
Seeing God: Twelve Reliable Signs of True Spirituality, by Gerald McDermott (InterVarsity, 1995)
Money, Sex and Power, by Richard Foster (HarperCollins, 1985)