Someone who grew up in a more liberal religious tradition than mine once told me the sermons in his church were always boring, especially on Easter Sunday. “That was the day the pastor had to deal with the Resurrection,” a doctrine about which he was at best squeamish and at worst skeptical. “We would have to wait to see what metaphor the Resurrection turned out to be—one year it was restarting one’s life afresh, another would be the importance of recycling, or whatever.” A secularized account of the Resurrection does indeed lack the punch of the real thing (and that’s the least of its problems).
We evangelical Christians aren’t likely to secularize our beliefs about the Resurrection, but we are well on our way to secularizing something else: spiritual warfare.
Some outside the church incorrectly see spiritual warfare as a recent innovation, traced back to C. Peter Wagner and the Fuller Seminary church growth classes of the 1970s (thus tying it to the New Apostolic Reformation) or to Frank Peretti’s This Present Darkness and other novels of the 1980s.
But the concept of spiritual warfare has been firmly established in every era and wing of the Christian church, back even earlier than Saint Anthony wrestling demons in the desert, all the way to the New Testament itself.
There’s no absence of spiritual warfare talk from Christians these days. But listen closely to it and you’ll notice something: Rarely is this language of warfare directed toward evil spirits. Instead, it’s usually employed to describe ideological opposition toward fellow human beings. “This is spiritual warfare!” we hear as the lead-in to a call to arms about some political or social stance. But this way of thinking about spiritual warfare reveals a significant disenchantment with the world of the Bible.
Moreover, our conflation of spiritual war with culture war communicates the exact opposite of the message of the Bible, both in terms of who our enemies are and how to wage the battle. The apostle Paul told us that “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” (Eph. 6:12, ESV throughout).
According to the apostles—and Jesus himself—there are indeed malevolent spiritual beings in the universe, usually imperceptible to us. These beings mean us harm. They are not our fellow image bearers. Even the human being most hostile to the gospel or to the church or to the moral order could one day be our brother or sister in Christ (2 Cor. 5:11–6:2). Knowing that frees us to rage against the old reptile of Eden but constrains us to be gentle toward his prey (2 Tim. 2:23–26).
The way we do spiritual battle with the Devil is to realize how he works: through deception (Gen. 3:1–5) and accusation (Rev. 12:10). We do not combat that with the sound and fury of tribal conflict but with the same weapons our ancestors did: “by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony” (Rev. 12:11). It is the gospel that undoes the work of the forces of evil.
We aren’t to view spiritual warfare the way we do the pseudo-warfare of our fractured age. And we aren’t firing salvos “out there” against our enemies; instead we focus in here. For one can only engage the Devil, Paul wrote, by putting on the “full armor of God.” He defined that armor not as arguments meant to humiliate, isolate, or exile one’s opponents but as the cultivation of oneself by God’s Spirit, through the means of the gospel, the Bible, prayer, and the church (Eph. 6:10–20).
Maybe our secular neighbors will find it strangely medieval that we actually believe the old stories of a “world with devils filled.” But we believe far stranger things than that. We believe the words Martin Luther taught us to sing:
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.
To hell with the Devil. Let’s remember the good news that the foot on the old snake’s head has nail prints on it. That’s spiritual warfare for real. That’s a battle worth fighting—a battle, really, that’s already been won.
Russell Moore is editor in chief of Christianity Today.
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