What impact would it have had on the church in our late-modern, scientific day and age if the author(s) of the Apostles’ Creed had included a statement about the reality of angelic activity and spiritual warfare in the Christian life? I envision such a statement as reading like this: “I believe in principalities and powers, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places with whom we wrestle; I believe that Christ has conquered them by His death on the cross; I believe that I need the armor of God to overcome them in my warfare with them throughout the time of my sojourn here.” I desperately wish that this was a part of our weekly confession of faith, because in many theologically informed congregations where holiness, wrath, righteousness, justice, sin, grace, mercy, and forgiveness are unashamedly proclaimed, there is sometimes a noticeable lack of teaching about the reality of spiritual warfare in the believer’s life.
Though many ministers, in our day, have given inadequate attention to a biblical exposition of spiritual warfare, this was not always the case in the church. Among the Puritan ministers in seventeenth-century England, there was no such shortage of works on spiritual warfare. The more well-known works include Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christopher Love’s The Christian’s Combat, and Richard Gilpin’s Demonologia Sacra.
What accounts, then, for the disparity of emphasis among seventeenth-century Protestant pastors and pastors in more theologically minded churches in our day? First, many mature Christians rightly seek to avoid giving the sense that we are not responsible for our own sin. Far too many professing believers have dismissed their responsibility by functionally blaming Satan for their sin. In the epistle to the Romans, there is only one reference to Satan (Rom. 16:20), whereas there are fifty-seven references to sin. Our sin is a major theme of biblical revelation. We must keep in proportion what God keeps in proportion in His Word.
Second, it is all too common for believers to overreact to the unbiblical teaching they endured in churches in which the leadership approached the subject of spiritual warfare as something more akin to New Age, science fiction gnosticism than faithful biblical exposition. A wrong view of spiritual warfare leads to a wrong view of the Christian life. Nevertheless, the New Testament does include an abundance of teaching about the reality of spiritual warfare. The most full-orbed treatment comes at the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus in his exposition of the armor of God (Eph. 6:10–20).
At the opening of the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul reminds believers in the church that God has already blessed them “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3; emphasis added). At the close of the letter, he reminds them that the entirety of the Christian life is one in which they will be engaged in hand-to-hand combat “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12; emphasis added). “The heavenly places” is shorthand for the heavenly origin of the Christian life. It is also shorthand for the spiritual realm in which we fight against spiritual hosts of evil. The great Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper once captured the essence of this spiritual sphere when he wrote:
If once the curtain were pulled back, and the spiritual world behind it came to view, it would expose to our spiritual vision a struggle so intense, so convulsive, sweeping everything within its range, that the fiercest battle ever fought on earth would seem, by comparison, a mere game. Not here, but up there—that is where the real conflict is waged. Our earthly struggle drones in its backlash.1
When we admit that we are wrestling with spiritual hosts of evil in the heavenly place, we must also recognize that the battle is being fought in our everyday interactions in the church and in the home. The reality of God’s having blessed us in Christ in the heavenly places and our living in constant warfare with evil spirits in the heavenly places bookends the teaching about Christian living in the church (Eph. 4) and in the home (Eph. 5–6). These are the primary areas in which spiritual warfare occurs. During our sojourn here, we are living and moving in enemy-occupied territory. This means that it is incumbent on us to be acutely aware of the battle raging all around us and in which we are engaged. To be aware of the battle, we must next be familiar with the enemy.
No sooner have we acknowledged that we are wrestling with “spiritual hosts” (i.e., an army of evil spirits) in the heavenly places than we have to turn our attention to the leader of that army of evil spirits. The Apostle Paul describes him as “the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2). Martin Luther poetically named him “the Prince of Darkness grim.” The Scriptures reserve the following titles for him: “Satan,” “that great serpent of old,” “the accuser of the brethren,” “the father of lies,” “a murderer,” “our adversary,” and “a roaring lion.” These names denote something of his attributes. In Demonologia Sacra, Richard Gilpin highlighted the following four preeminent attributes of Satan:
1. His hatred and hostility. Satan is full of enmity toward Christ and, therefore, also toward all those who belong to Christ. He is full of iniquity and therefore aims all of his sinful hatred toward those in the kingdom of God. We must remember that our enemy is strong in his malice. There is, Gilpin noted, also an increase to his rage against the saints. His power may increase at times, commensurate with the agenda he has to destroy one of Christ’s little ones. We must never underestimate the hatred of Satan in his seeking to destroy believers.
2. His power. Satan is not only full of hostility; he is full of relentless malice. Though his power is a delegated and limited power, it is nevertheless real power. It is based on the commission that he was given at creation. His fall did not negate what God had endowed him with in the beginning—it merely redirected its original intent. If angels are “ministering spirits sent forth to minister to those who will inherit salvation,” fallen angels are now evil spirits roaming the earth, seeking whom they may spiritually kill and destroy. Satan is chief among them.
When God permitted Satan to attack Job and all that he had, Satan exercised that power over the army of nations (Job 1:15, 17), over the natural elements (1:16, 18–19) and over disease (2:7). Though Satan and his army of evil spirits may not possess a true believer, he may and will most certainly oppress any of God’s children, as the Lord grants him permission to afflict.
In Scripture, Satan’s power is best conceived of by the analogy of a lion: “a beast of prey, whose innate property is to destroy, and is accordingly fitted with strength, with tearing paws, and a devouring mouth; that as a lion would rend a kid with ease, and without resistance, so are men swallowed up by him, as with open mouth.”2 This is the power of our adversary.
3. His cruelty. Satan is cruel in his dealings with God’s children. He wastes no time in exerting his malice and power against them. Satan loves to wound believers by snaring them in temptations suitable to their own inclinations. When they have fallen, Satan loves to press in on their wounded consciences. Satan directs his cruel malice and power toward believers, seeking to paralyze them and move them away from fruitful service in the kingdom of God and Christ.
The evil one also loves to stir up one believer against another and to destroy the reputation of believers among their fellow believers. The Apostle Paul tells us that one of Satan’s cruel motives is to move believers to act in censorious ways to other repentant believers who have stumbled or fallen (2 Cor. 2:5–11).
Satan’s cruelty toward Christ’s own is also manifest in the persecutions that he aims at through the malice of the world. He loves to stir up the hatred and hostility of unbelievers in persecuting the church of God. This is among his foremost tactics in attacking Christ’s people with his cruel intentions.
4. His diligence. Satan is unrelenting in the exertion of his hostility, power, and cruelty toward believers. Though God has promised us that if we resist him, he will flee from us, he knows that he has a little time and therefore he seeks to cut off the legs of every child of God he can. He is diligent in seeking to steal the seed of God’s Word from the minds of those who are on the brink of conversion. He is always diligent in seeking to deceive “if possible, even the elect” with false teaching, signs, and wonders. He is ever seeking to divert the minds and hearts of believers away from Christ and the work of redemption.
God has not left us ignorant of the sphere of warfare or of the enemy himself. Much biblical revelation from the first promise of Christ’s victory over the evil one (Gen. 3:15) is taken up with a revelation about the nature of spiritual warfare. In the forthcoming posts in this series, we will consider the weapons and the strategy of the warfare in which we are daily engaged.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on March 29, 2019 and is part of a series. Next post.