What is spiritual warfare?
The term “spiritual warfare” has occupied the forefront of much Evangelical teaching and missiological thought. But what does it mean?
Is “spiritual warfare” mostly casting out demons? “Binding” spirits in people and “binding” spirits ruling cities or districts? What about physical and emotional healing – what place does that play in spiritual warfare?
Perhaps we should re-visit this subject. The main passage on spiritual warfare is Ephesians 6:10-22. Its context and contents of this passage give a clear guide to spiritual warfare
Context of Ephesians 6:10-22
God’s plan for His people 1:3-14
Paul begins his letter with a paean of praise to God for His magnificent and munificent plan, which is nothing less than a determination to bestow spiritual blessings upon his people (1:3). These include election unto holiness (4); predestination unto adoption into fellowship with God (1:5); redemption through the blood of Christ, namely, the forgiveness of sins (1:7); the unification of “all things” in Christ when the times will have come to fullness (1:10); bestowing an inheritance upon his children (1:11 – or, alternatively, making them his inheritance); and sealing them with the Holy Spirit = and all to the praise of His glory (1:6, 12, 14).
Union in Christ stands at the center of this plan. In Christ, believers enjoy unity with both their God , along with fellow Christians (2:1-13). At the same time, they are joined in a close bond with other believers of all sorts (2:14-18). Indeed, these two sorts of unity are inseparable (2:19-22).
When you think about it, placing unity at the center of his will for us makes sense, for all our sorrows come from alienation. Separation from God involves objective guilt, inner bondage to the world, the flesh, and the devil; and the inevitability of eternal punishment. Estrangement from each other leads to conflicts of all sorts, from divorce to war, and fills our days with bitterness and anxiety.
The plan we have just sketched is carried out both by God and by men. Throughout, God takes the initiative. Furthermore, Christ is the Father’s active agent. “In Christ” appears repeatedly in this passage. All blessings come to us in, with, through, and by Jesus his Son. The “subjective” experience of God’s blessings flow to us by the Holy Spirit (1:13-14). Thus, the entire Trinity works together to bestow life and liberty and God’s love upon us.
But the Lord also works through men. Human beings engage in proclamation of the truth of the Gospel (1:13); prayer (1:15 ff; 3:14 ff; 6:18 ff.); and the performance of good works (1:15). These good works, which God prepared for us to walk into, consist mostly of various expressions of love.
But what is love? Paul opens the second part of his letter with an urgent plea for mutual love, especially a commitment to the preservation of unity - “With all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”(4:1-6).
Indeed, union in Christ forms the motive, goal and core of all his ethical teaching – not to mention that of Christ himself (see, for example. John 17). Why? Because unity with each other stems from, and reflects, God’s own unity Father, Son and Spirit in unbroken, loving fellowships despite their distinctions (4:4-6).
Paul discusses in turn various spheres of our common life as he rings the bells of harmony amidst differences. He starts with unity in the church (4:1-5:21). Thus, we note that spiritual gifts are meant to build unity (4:7-13), and that all church growth springs from, and depends upon, love and truth in complementary balance.
The rest of this ethical section can be understood only in the light of this passion for unity. The apostle prohibits against lust, wasting time, and substance abuse, which break fellowship by feeding selfish passions (5:1-14). He urges unity in worship, which then produces mutual submission.
The justly-famous sections on marriage, family life, and fairness in the work place build upon this fundamental theme: With God there is no partiality. Among us, differences of sex, age, or position must not be turned into excuses for exploitation or rebellion.
In conclusion: God wills for us to be united with Him and with each other in Christ through faith, hope, and love=holiness and righteousness, expressed through self-denying, God-honoring, truth-keeping, and Christlike service to each other
Contents of Ephesians 6:10-22
When we turn to the actual contents of the only explicit discussion of spiritual warfare in the Bible with this in mind, we see that Satan seeks to disrupt our relationships with God and man. As the spirit now at work in the children of disobedience, he employs guile and deceit to sever us from our Lord and from each other (2:2; 6:12).
Thus, spiritual warfare consists mainly in resisting Satan’s attempts to keep us from doing God’s will, and in persevering in our struggle to fulfill all that He has commanded us (6:13) – commands which Paul has already detailed in 4:1-6:9.
As from the beginning, the adversary uses crafty wiles as his main weapon. (6:11). Heresy creates conflict; sinful ignorance alienates us from God; evil desires grow out of deceit (4:14, 18, 22).
Our main defense will be truth in all its forms – the truth of the saving Gospel; truth that issues from lips speaking in love (1:13; 4:21, 24). Truth engenders faith, which produces knowledge, especially knowledge of God which transforms our lives (1:17 ff; 3:14 ff; 4:11-16; 17-24, 25; 5:6; 6:10-20).
As many have noted, every piece of the “whole armor of God” which Paul instructs us to put on involves truth.
“Belt of truth” is obvious: Earlier, Paul had told them that the body of Christ grows as we are “speaking the truth in love,” and urged them to “speak the truth with his neighbor” and contrasts that with hurtful words (4:15, 25-32)
The breastplate of righteousness follows naturally, for authentic righteousness comes from the truth (4:17-24). Here, the apostle probably speaks not of imputed righteousness [justification] but righteous actions, as explicated in 4:25-6:9.
So also with the “shoes of the preparation of the gospel of peace,” for we have already heard it called, “the gospel of truth (1:13; see 4:21). From the Great Commission, we know that our readiness consists in preparing to proclaim the truth at all times as the main goal of life (Matthew 28:18-20). Paul himself suffered imprisonment for this gospel (4:1; 6:19-20).
The shield of faith (16) also implies truth, for this is not just any sort of blind belief, but faith in the “word of truth, the gospel of your salvation” (1:13). Nor is it “faith in faith,” but trust in God’s faithfulness, namely His truth. Indeed, the Hebrew word for “faithfulness” is the same as “truth.”
This shield allows the believer to resist all of Satan’s deceptive lies, called “fiery darts” here. Sometimes the enemy attacks through ”every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting” (4:14). Other assaults issue from false ideas the engender fatal lusts and obsessions (4:22) and deadly complacency (5:6).
In the face of Satan’s wiles, the Christian rests in God’s wisdom and light (5:8-17), which endues him with spiritual power (1:19 ff) and allows him to enjoy the indwelling of Christ (3:17). The same faith produces knowledge of God’s love (3:17 ff.) and thus guards him from doubt and despair.
The helmet of salvation (17) protects our minds from Satan’s lies, for it assures us that we have been saved (2:8) by believing the truth (1:13). The enemy seeks to discourage us, often, by questioning God’s goodness, especially when we suffer. By holding to the truth (4:14-15), we resist the temptation to think that suffering proves that God does not love us, for we remember that “salvation” consists mostly in “spiritual blessings” which God has lavished on us (1:3- 2:22).
God’s truth tells us that the source of salvation is God’s love and grace (1:4-7; 2:4, 5, 8) and its fruit includes happiness and joy (1:3 ff.; 5:20) and holy living (2:10). Understanding and believing in this salvation, we avoid falling into Satan’s traps that would cause us to lose faith in God, hope in our future, and love for others.
Nothing could be clearer than the connection between the sword of the Spirit with truth, for Paul further defines at as the word of God (17). This is the word of truth, the gospel of salvation (1:13). In particular, the apostle may refer here to God’s Word quoted from the Bible which, for him, was the Old Testament (see, for example, 4:25; 5:31; 6:2-3).
But this weapon also refers to the words of the Paul himself in this epistle and his other letters, and of course, the words of Christ ( Matthew 7:24-27; John 15:7). Perhaps Paul may be writing of words of God quoted in prayer or vocally when tempted, as Jesus did in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11).
Certainly, he does NOT mean some subjective “word” from God, such as a promise that you will marry someone in particular, or get some job, or receive some healing.
As an aside, let me remind you that the popular distinction between “rhema” (the word used here) and “logos” lacks Biblical foundation. A careful study of the Scriptures (both in the Greek translation of the Old Testament and in the Greek New Testament) will reveal that these two terms are often used interchangeably, and cannot therefore be sharply contrasted as an abstract principle (“logos”) and a particular subjective revelation or insight (“rhema”). As so often in this discussion of spiritual warfare, we must critically examine widely-accepted notions without Scriptural support.
All these weapons have to do with truth, and involve the mind. That is why Paul urges his readers to “be renewed in the spirit of your mind” ( 4:23); to “walk circumspectly, not as fools but as wise” (5:15); and to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (5:17).
What about prayer? Though not itself listed as part of the panoply of God, prayer of all sorts obviously functions as the energy and provides the effectiveness, of all that we do.
“Praying always in the Spirit” (618) has been taken by some to mean praying in tongues. Though that meaning cannot be excluded as a possibility here (see 1 Corinthians 14:14, etc.), we know that praying “with the understanding (1 Corinthians 14:14-15, 19) must also be in the apostle’s mind. Why? Because he tells them (a) for whom to pray: “all the saints… and for me” (18,-19) and (b) for what to pray: “That I may open my mouth boldly…” Here he reminds us of the importance to pray for preachers, especially that they might be bold and faithful to the Gospel. Notice, again, the prominence of truth: We must ask God to enable them to “make known the mystery of the gospel” – the message of truth!
Highlighting the role of facts – truth – in prayer, Paul tells them that he has sent Tychicus to them, “that you also may know my affairs and how I am doing” (21-23). In other words, he wanted them to utter petitions based on specific knowledge of his situation.
Furthermore, can we say that the magnificent prayers of Paul himself recorded in 1:15-23; 3:3:14-21), not to mention the paean of praise with which he beings the letter (1:3-14), were not uttered “in the Spirit”? What about the description of the Spirit-filled life as “speaking to one another in psalms and hymn and spiritual songs, …giving thanks always for all things to God the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ”? Do not most of those manifestations of the Spirit’s activity in us presuppose an active mind expressing itself in intelligible speech?
We remember, also, that Jesus called the Holy Spirit “the Spirit of truth” (John 14:17), and that not long after He had promised them, “Whatever you ask in My name, that I will do” (14:13).
“All prayer” encompasses, then, all sorts of prayer, including praise, thanksgiving, and petition, and assumes the use of a mind transformed by truth. “Supplication” may refer to specific requests, of the sort that Paul offered in his prayers in Ephesians and for which he asked their intercessions. And “alertness and perseverance” presuppose a mind set on the promises of God revealed in the Bible.
Interestingly, Paul enjoins us to intercede “for all the saints,” not for the world. In this he followed his Master (John 17:17). Unlike much teaching on prayer today, the Bible seems to direct us to focus on the people of God. Perhaps if the church were truly walking as Christ did, filled with praise and thanksgiving, overflowing with love, denying sin and doing good, then the world would flock to our doors, as at Pentecost.
We do not deny the necessity of praying for unrepentant sinners. Jesus did so on the cross when He pleaded, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34), and Paul confessed that his “heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that may be saved” (Romans 10:1).
Still, the emphasis falls clearly upon intercession for Christians, unlike much teaching on spiritual warfare today, not to mention costly “prayer walks” involving types of “prayer” not necessarily found, or taught, in the Bible.
Many writers have pointed out that Paul addresses his readers in the plural. Roman soldiers never fought alone! We wage spiritual warfare together, as the church in unity.
In fact, as Paul in Ephesians strives constantly to declare: Our goal is unity. Our major strength is in unity. Division defeats! Discord destroys!
But what about “spiritual warfare”?
Ephesus had a huge temple to Diana (Artemis). Paul had cast out demons there, and others had tried to imitate him. Why, then, do we find absolutely no mention in this letter of casting out demons; “binding” evil spirits; “claiming” promises of God over towns; “claiming” victory; or physical and inner healing?
Of course, we know that Jesus gave His apostles authority over demons, and that the church has always used this to deliver demon-possessed people. We have full biblical warrant for expelling unclean spirits in the name of Christ (Matthew 10:8; Acts 19:12-20; etc.). The same is true for prayer for physical healing (Matthew 10:8; 1 Corinthians 12:9; James 5:14).
But how do we explain the total absence of many popular practices in the one passage of the Bible that explicitly describes the conduct of spiritual warfare?
Could it be that Chuck Lowe (Territorial Spirits and World Evangelization) is right? Have we been engaging in activities that receive virtually no mention in Scripture, and are of dubious validity and usefulness?
“Honor your father”
Our current fascination with the latest fad sometimes reflects an ignorance of what has gone before. The recent attention given to a certain sort of “spiritual warfare” differs significantly from the insights in such classics as William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armour and John Bunyan’s The Holy War.
Can we claim that these Puritans were unaware of the works of the devil and how to overcome him in the power of the Spirit? Perhaps they did not encounter the numbers of blatant cases of demon-possession that we see in many parts of the world, including Asia. But exorcism, as we have seen, falls into another Biblical category altogether. Maybe we should return to their studies to see what we can learn.
If the letter of Paul to Ephesians is any guide to spiritual warfare, then:
- Our chief goal is to glorify God by faith and hope in Him, expressed in love for each other.
- Spiritual warfare consists in seeking to do God’s will in the face of Satan’s temptations.
- Satan works primarily by deceit and guile.
- Spiritual warfare consists mainly in believing, preaching, and living the truth, relying on the power of God through prayer.
The goal is to strengthen our experience of union with God in Christ and with each other in faith, hope, and love.
Christian unity is not only the principal objective, but the major means, of spiritual warfare.
Victory in spiritual warfare is measured by the degree of our love for God and each other.
All else is potentially fleeting, possibly futile, and perhaps even false.