For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Ephesians 6:12
What comes to mind when you think of spiritual warfare? Perhaps images of Linda Blair’s contorted face or spinning head from the movie, The Exorcist. Those more biblically-minded might think of Jesus casting out a legion of demons, sending them into a herd of pigs to plunge over a cliff. Or, maybe you can find no other explanation for some experience of dark oppression, so you start to consider something demonic.
But The Exorcist was fiction and Jesus casting out demons was something that happened back in a unique period of time. That experience of evil oppression could just as easily be your overactive imagination.
Why bother with spiritual warfare? The reason is two-fold. One, it is evident throughout the Bible. Two, we are called by God to spiritual warfare. Spiritual opposition is part of a biblical worldview. Spiritual warfare is an aspect integral to Christian discipleship, for which believers must be equipped.
Spiritual opposition is the subject of both our Lord’s priestly work and our Lord’s priestly prayer. He came “to destroy the one who has the power of death, that is the devil” (Heb. 2:14). His prayer on the eve of the cross was that His sheep would be kept from the evil one (John 17:15).
Spiritual warfare is recognized by every New Testament writer. In his first letter to the persecuted and scattered exiles, Peter addresses an array of practical matters dealing with all sorts of ordinary issues related to suffering. He concludes the epistle with a discussion of spiritual warfare, not as something abnormal or tangential to the topic, but normal and integral. Peter remarks: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
But the vast teaching on the subject of spiritual warfare is found in the writings of the apostle Paul, as core subject matter in the curriculum of Christian discipleship. The division, disorder, depravity, and dysfunction highlighted in the first letter to the church at Corinth are shown in Paul’s second letter to involve spiritual opposition (2 Cor. 2:11; 10:3-6; 11:14; 12:7).
It is in his letter to the Ephesians, however, that the apostle establishes a center for the study of spiritual warfare. Every chapter touches on the subject, as Paul describes the deliverance of Christ, the call of the Christian, and the dark world in which we live as children of light, contending with spiritual forces of evil.
VJ (Victory in Jesus) Day
Though Ephesians 6 contains the most focused treatment of spiritual warfare in the letter that is not where the apostle starts the discussion. We can follow the stream of thought beginning with the headwaters in chapter 1 to its outflow in chapter 6.
The letter begins with a declaration of deliverance in Ephesians 1:3-14, one long sentence in the original language. This single statement unfolds in Trinitarian form, like the unfurling of the banner of our salvation, the flag of victory raised to herald the kingdom of God and His Christ. The Father appoints salvation in His predestinating love. The Son accomplishes salvation through His saving work on the cross. The Spirit applies that finished redemption as He unites us to Christ in our effectual calling, sealing us to belong to God.
This salvation rooted in our Triune God is expressed in Christ’s victory for His church over the dominion of Satan. The Sentence of verses 3-14 forms the ground for the prayer of verses 15-23 that showcases the kingdom authority of Christ.
…that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church (Eph. 1:20–22; cf. Col. 1:11-14).
Paul provides for us an important principle for spiritual warfare right from the start. Deliverance from the bondage of sin and the tyranny of the devil comes not from our conquest of Satan but Christ’s. Jesus is the strongman who binds the enemy. The victory is His; the spoils are ours. We fight in His strength, living out His victory. This tells us something about why Paul will later emphasize “standing firm in Christ” as the approach to the conduct of spiritual warfare.
Ephesians 2:1-3 moves from the general to the personal, as Paul speaks of this grace of God reaching to our personal experience.
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience (Eph. 2:1–2).
We were dead in sin, following the god of this age (2 Cor. 4:4), of our father the devil (cf. John 8:44; 1 John 3:10). We were citizens of the fallen kingdom by natural birth, being sons of disobedience and children of wrath, along with the rest of humanity sharing the guilt of Adam’s first transgression.
The prayer of Ephesians 3:14-21 discloses the strength we need to live in this world in the face of continued spiritual opposition. That ability will be found not in ourselves but in the power of Christ alone. That power is ours through the Spirit who unites us to Christ. This prayer directs us in faith to know the love of God from which neither demons nor powers can separate us (cf. Rom. 8:38-39).
Now as ones alive in Christ and freed from sin’s bondage we are to walk in a manner worthy of the name of Christ (4:1). We are to no longer walk as the Gentiles do, those still in Satan’s grip (4:17-19). Though we are no longer of the world, we remain in it, on guard, at work. The church has the job of training us in sound doctrine (4:12-16) to defend us against our spiritual foe and to equip us to advance against the kingdom of darkness, as Christ builds His church through us as His instruments.
Ephesians 5 continues God’s call to us to conduct our lives in keeping with Christ’s deliverance of us from the power of sin and hold of Satan over us. Those things that characterized us under the dominion of darkness, such as sexual immorality and impurity, are to characterize us no more. We are no longer “sons of disobedience” upon whom the wrath of God will come but now “beloved children of God” from whom the wrath of God has been turned aside.
Paul reminds us that our identity is in Christ. We are children of light. He tells us what that means.
for at one time you were darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light (for the fruit of light is found in all that is good and right and true), and try to discern what is pleasing to the Lord (Eph. 5:8–10).
Instead of participating in deeds of darkness we are to oppose them and expose them (5:11).
The world we live in is filled with spiritual pitfalls and perils. We must be alert and discerning, our wits sharp and not dulled, knowing the days are evil (5:15-16). The Word of God must be the light to our path, defining for us the way our God would have us walk (5:10, 17). We need the camaraderie of Christian community to help one another and to keep one another from spiritual harm (5:19-21; cf. Heb. 3:12-14; 10:23-25).
Each chapter in Paul's letter to Ephesus provides us with foundational coursework to the practical internship of Ephesians 6.
Now at letter’s end, the stream of thought that has wound its way through the epistle opens up for practical consideration. Ephesians 6 deals with our enemy, our battle plan, our weapons and our strategies.
Paul presents our enemy as “…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). Our attention is directed to a spiritual enemy (v. 11) that we fight by standing firm in Christ and finding our strength in the Lord (v. 10).
Paul goes on to lay out the armor of God for us. While it is true that most of the armor listed is defensive, in no way does that suggest passivity in spiritual warfare. Armor was donned for protection in the waging of the battle. Awareness of Satan’s schemes (cf. Eph. 4:14; 2 Cor. 2:11) helps us to understand the nature of the armor for the conduct of the battle.
All the panoply provided by God has to do with what Christ has accomplished in the power of God that is received by grace through faith. To wage spiritual warfare is to walk in the reality of the gospel of the kingdom Paul has been driving home throughout his letter. That’s why Paul speaks so pointedly of “standing” as the strategy for spiritual warfare in the course of everyday life (6:13-14).
How do we go about standing in Christ? How do we wage war with spiritual weapons? If standing is our strategy, how do we combat Satan’s schemes? Satan has at least three primary tactics he employs: accusation, deception and temptation. We combat each of these through standing in Christ, in the exercise of the gospel.
First, Satan is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:9-10). He is the adversary. In verb form his name means to accuse. But Jesus bore our sins. They were nailed to the cross. We bear them no more. Christ triumphed in our stead. He disarmed the devil.
Against Satan’s tactic of accusation, we stand firm in Christ’s righteousness. We preach the gospel to ourselves, reminding ourselves that in Christ there is no condemnation. His righteousness is ours. Satan points out our sin to drive us to despair. The Spirit convicts us of our sin to drive us to the cross.
Second, Satan is a deceiver. When he lies he speaks his native language. He is the ruler of this world. His lies are proffered by false religious teachers, the pundits of pop culture and the secular educational establishments offering a secular worldview. Satan employs those still subject to him (cf. 2 Thess. 3:2-3; 1 Tim. 4:1-2; 1 John 4:1-6).
But God has given us His truth. His Word is truth. God has given shepherd-teachers to communicate this truth. Why? Paul told us in Ephesians 4.
…so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes (Eph. 4:14).
In Ephesians 5:6-10 Paul cautions us against deception and calls us to discernment (cf. Col. 2:6-8).
Against Satan’s tactic of deception, we are to stand firm in Christ’s truth. We are to follow Christ the truth and the truth of Christ. We are to take every thought captive to the obedience of Christ as the way to destroy strongholds and arguments that would oppose the truth of God (2 Cor. 10:3-5). We are to bring His word to dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16), that we might walk in truth against the adversary’s lies (Col. 2:6-8).
Finally, Satan is a tempter. He whispers, “Did God really say? Is God really good? Does He really love you? ” Satan is the seductress of the book of Proverbs. Spiritual adultery is expressive of spiritual warfare. The enemy woos our hearts. He wants our worship. He urges us to spiritual desertion and seeks to lead us to shipwreck on the rocks of spiritual destruction.
Against Satan’s tactic of temptation, we are to stand firm in Christ’s strength. Dependence on Christ through whom we can do all things is the lesson learned by Paul through the instrumentality of Satan (2 Cor. 12:7-10). Pride is an ally of the evil one and brings us to resist God rather than the devil (1 Peter 5:5b-9).
Overarching our conduct of spiritual warfare is prayer. Paul’s reference to prayer in Ephesians 6:18 is not a new thought nor is it another article of armor. Rather, prayer is an overlay. We pray in continual alertness, aware of our enemy, on guard to his schemes (cf. Mt. 26:41). We pray in the Spirit who unites us to Christ. We pray for ourselves and our brethren that we might abide in Christ, standing firm in Him and the power of His redemptive might.
I received a call from a friend planting a church in Kentucky. He knew of my interest in spiritual warfare and he wanted to tell me a story. His small congregation met for worship in a Methodist church building. Things had gone well. But then the church hit a wall. Conflict started breaking out. Members were falling into sin. My friend spoke with the elderly Methodist pastor who asked him, “Have you ever thought about spiritual warfare?”
That got my friend thinking, and praying, and studying. He began to teach and equip his people. They began to pray not only for but against, seeking Christ for His mighty intervention. That’s when the church began to once again move forward toward particularization, strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.
Spiritual warfare cannot be an elective in the curriculum of Christian discipleship. Nor can it be neglected by those appointed to lead Christ’s church in kingdom mission.
Stanley D. Gale has been a PCA pastor for 30 years. He has authored two books on spiritual warfare: Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism and What is Spiritual Warfare? (Basics of the Faith Series).