The Bible speaks about the reality of a conflict we face as believers, and we popularly call that conflict “spiritual warfare.” Missionaries are often most aware of this reality as they engage those who don’t know Christ around the world. C. S. Lewis warned us decades ago, though, that believers usually fall into one of two camps when dealing with the demonic: we deny their existence, or we get fascinated with them. Either way, we too often miss the Bible’s basic teachings about this conflict.
The Bible is a book about God, not the devil.
The Bible doesn’t answer every question about warfare, nor does it grant us permission to focus our attention on the devil. Any approach to warfare that magnifies the devil’s power does not reflect biblical spiritual warfare.
Satan and his forces are real.
Some argue the concept of Satan and demons is only a first-century attempt to explain evil, but the Bible reveals them as real, supernatural beings who oppose God and his people. Our attempts to explain away these forces do not negate their reality.
Satan, however, is not our biggest problem.
We face three enemies: the world, our flesh, and the devil (Eph. 2:1–3). In some cases, the three are so interwoven that it’s difficult to tell them apart. Our primary problem is not Satan, though. We are our biggest issue.
God reigns, even over the enemy.
There is strife between human beings and the serpent because God put that conflict there (Gen. 3:15). That strife would lead to the cross, where the death of Jesus would break the back of the powers (Col. 2:15). Now, God sovereignly uses the spiritual battles to make us the followers he wants us to be.
The enemy we face is a defeated foe.
Satan has been bound through God’s judgment and through the cross; is being bound through the preaching of the gospel; and will be bound for eternity. We do genuinely wrestle against principalities and powers (Eph. 6:12), but the devil and his forces have never been outside of God’s control.
Warfare is the devil’s attempt to deceive and divide believers.
Since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, the devil has tried to bait us with false teaching, lure us into sin, and turn us against each other. He does this to keep us from glorifying God and doing the Great Commission. He seeks to devour us (1 Pet. 5:8) so we can no longer be a light to a lost world. The summary I commonly use is that the enemy wants us to mess up (fall into sin), give up (get discouraged), get puffed up (live in arrogance), split up (divide), or shut up (quit evangelizing).
But we are not on the defensive in this battle.
Yes, we’re to stand against Satan (Eph. 6:11, 13, 14), but standing is not simply waiting and deflecting the arrows of the enemy. Even Paul, who called the Ephesians to stand, sought their prayer so he would keep proclaiming the gospel boldly even when he was imprisoned (Eph. 6:18–20). His own “standing” meant that he would faithfully evangelize even if the war cost him his life. We put on the full armor of God not so we can defend ourselves, but so we can march into the enemy’s kingdom to do the work of the Great Commission.
Satan battles against us because we are God’s witnesses to the world.
When the apostle Paul described lostness, he often framed it in terms of spiritual warfare. Non-believers follow the prince of the air (Eph. 2:2). They are blinded by the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:3–4), bound in darkness (Col. 1:13, Acts 26:18), and caught in Satan’s snare (2 Tim. 2:25–26). His goal is to keep us from proclaiming and living out the gospel that sets people free.
The offensive nature of this battle demands evangelism & discipleship.
Evangelism requires intentionally taking the light into the darkness. Discipleship then requires teaching others to understand their position in Christ and to put on the full armor of God. If we don’t evangelize, non-believers remain in Satan’s kingdom. If we don’t disciple, we send believers into the war unarmed. Both can result in tragedy.
One of Satan’s subtle strategies is to entice us to operate in our own ability.
David the shepherd boy took on the giant in faith and dependence, knowing that the battle was not his in the first place but rather the Lord’s (1 Sam. 17:47). When he became the king, though, David sought to know just how mighty his own forces were as he leaned more on himself than on God (1 Chron. 21:1–5). The enemy delights when we go there—when we’re much more like David the king than David the shepherd boy.
The very task of missions places us in the sights of the enemy. Because we are seeking to reach non-believers, develop strong disciples, and plant healthy congregations that plant more congregations—all of which means that we are offensively engaging the enemy’s territory—we can know that the enemy will fight back.
We needn’t fear, however. In the power of God, we must simply love Christ and live and speak for him in such a way that God is glorified and an already-defeated Satan is threatened (Acts 19:11–16).
Chuck Lawless is vice president and dean of graduate studies at Southeastern Seminary and team leader for theological education strategists of the IMB. He is the author of several books, including Nobodies for Jesus, Discipled Warriors and Putting on the Armor. He writes at www.chucklawless.com. Follow him on Twitter @clawlessjr.