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It seems to me that many (most?) theologically conservative Bible believers (which includes me) don’t think very much about spiritual warfare.  Maybe it’s because there are some wacky Christians who seem to only talk about spiritual warfare, the way some young wacky Calvinists only talk about predestination and election.  Or, maybe it’s because it all sounds a bit spooky or scary.  Or, perhaps we don’t talk about it much because we’re infected with the skepticism of modernistic and “scientific” thinking, leaving us to disdain “all that spiritual warfare stuff”?  I don’t know.  But I’m thinking that if we don’t have categories for spiritual warfare, then we’re probably losing the war in some area of our Christian lives.

But, what reader of the New Testament can doubt the reality of our struggle in the spiritual realm?  Just one classic example:

Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.  For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in he heavenly realms (Eph. 6:11-12).

Our Enemies in This War

We have three enemies in this warfare: the world, the flesh, and the devil.  Or, because I’m feeling oddly poetic: Of my enemies there are three/Satan, the world, and me.  These enemies were and are deadly to us:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world [the world] and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient [the devil].  All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts [the flesh].  Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath (Eph. 2:1-3).

These three enemies have a particular relationship to one another in their warfare against us.  The Devil, that serpent of old, is “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11).  As such, he governs the world system in an effort to hide the truth about God:

We know that we are children of God, and that the whole world is under the control of the evil one (1 Jn 5:19).

The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (2 Cor. 4:4).

The world, under the sway of the evil one, is a system of thoughts, values, ideas, and actions that expresses real hostility toward and rejection of God and God’s people.  The world is irreconcilable to God–so much so that to embrace the ways of the world is to join the world in hostility toward God.

Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For everything in the world–the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does–comes not from the Father but from the world.  The world and its desires pass away, but the man hwo does the will of God lives forever (1 Jn 2:15-17).

So, Satan has distorted and sabotaged the world God made, inventing a system that remains intractably hostile toward the Creator.  How does the world join the assault against the Christian?  Well, the world attacks by conspiring with and beguiling the Christian’s flesh, the sinful desires and thoughts that remain in the Christian.  Let me use four biblical comments regarding the Law as an illustration:

So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world. … Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods.  But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles?  Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? (Gal. 4:3, 8-9).

In the context, stunningly, Paul’s references to “the basic principles of the world” include the very law of God which was our school master, supervising us until the coming of Christ (3:23-25).  The apostle regards the law’s regulations about touching, tasting, and celebrating as part of the basic principles of the world:

See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. …Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of this world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules (Col. 2:8, 20).

Satan governs the world to make an attack on the Christian through their flesh in a lot of ways.  By God’s grace we are not ignorant of the enemy’s devices.  I’ll mention three.  First, he uses the world to conspire with our flesh by blinding the Christian with an ineffectual religious asceticism:

Since you died with Christ to the basic principles of the world, why, as though you still belonged to it, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!” These are all destined to perish with use, because they are based on human commands and teachings. Such regulations have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence (Col. 2:20-23).

Second, Satan uses the world to strengthen our conspiring flesh so that we might neglect living in/by the Spirit of God:

For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature [the flesh], God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering.  And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.  The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God.  It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.  Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Rom. 8:3-8).

Third, Satan uses the world to blind us to the fact that our sin nature is the root cause of our sin and temptation:

When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.”  For God cannot tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.  Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full-grown, gives birth to death (James 1:13-15).

How do we fight back?  

Three things:

First, since our own desires and thoughts are the battleground of this warfare, we must put our flesh to death.

Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation–but it is not to the sinful nature, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Rom. 8:12-14).

A dead flesh cannot be a tempting flesh.

Second, since the world conspires with our flesh against God, we must cultivate a holy hatred against the world system.

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will (Rom. 12:2).

Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him (1 John 2:15).

Third, constantly mortifying the flesh and renewing our minds and affections for God, we must take our stand against the devil:

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power.  Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. …Put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.  Stand firm, then… (Eph. 6:10-11, 13-14).

Of course, all of this is only possible if Christ Jesus the Son of God is our Victor and our hope is in Him who crushed the serpent’s head (Gen. 3:15), who brought judgment against the world and drove out its prince (John 12:31), and by His Spirit crucifies our flesh (Rom. 8:13; 2 Pet. 1:4).

The basic strategy for our warfare: Kill the flesh.  Hate the world system.  Stand against the devil.

Fight happily because we everyone in Christ overcomes the world by faith in the Son of God (1 John 5:1-5).


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20 thoughts on “Notes on Spiritual Warfare”

  1. Barchetta says:

    When ever I think of spiritual warfare Mark 1:21-28 comes to mind. I would love to know more about the man in verse 23 and what his dealings in the synagogue were.

  2. Dean P says:

    Until very recently I too was a “Spiritual Warfare” skeptic, but for another reason then what you mentioned above. I think because I was saved into more of a charismatic tradition with less theological roots I overcorrected myself, particularly when I began believing in both total depravity and a greater understanding of God’s sovereignty over the canonization of scripture. These two components caused me to have a more critical view of what is often construed as “works of the Holy Spirit” particularly tongues and word of faith experiences. Because of all of these factors I began noticing how so many evangelicals that I encountered when experiencing sin or some kind of spiritual failure would instead of taking responsibility for their sin blame the action solely on the devil and demonic spirits. Sin and the flesh were just taken for granted or totally left out of the picture. This was so much the case that whenever the devil or demons were ever mentioned I would just roll my eyes. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in spiritual warfare it was that I just got so tired of ‘the devil made me do it” mentality that I saw so often.

  3. Sam L says:

    Dean’s comments lead well to my questions. I have no doubt that there is spiritual warfare occurring. My problem is with understanding how it happens — that is, how the devil makes things occur.

    Yes, the world wars against the saints of God. But how does the devil cause that to happen? Does he have the ability to make individuals do certain things, think certain thoughts, kind of a “temporary possession” thing? “The devil made me do it” – – is that ever actually true? Can he make me (if I’m an unbeliever) think a certain thing or take a certain action that I wouldn’t otherwise? Do the demons who are (I guess) under him have the same power to do that?

    Does a politician or civil leader do what he or she does because the devil made him do it? What is the mix of “devil power” and “human failing” involved? Is there any good answer for any of this, or do I just say, “Well, I don’t understand how spiritual warfare works, but I know it happens, because the Bible says it does”?

  4. Dean P says:

    Sam L. I recommend Tim Keller’s recent podcast sermon on spiritual warfare. It has been very helpful for me in gaining a practical understanding of how we can approach it. This sermon along with seeing Satan’s blatant and strategic attack on the Biblical institution of marriage have been very effective wakeup calls for me in a renewal of interest in spiritual warfare. Here is a link to the sermon.

    http://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/timothy-keller-podcast/id352660924

    1. Hans Danheven says:

      Sam L: Couple useful links to John MacArthur’s sermons here:
      http://www.gty.org/search/devils%20and%20demons

  5. Leonardo says:

    What does it really look like putting the flesh to death?

  6. jeremiah says:

    Amen, there is a war going on an to sit on the sidelines and discuss who is fitting the right way or being to zealous is being part of the problem. We must engage. Thanks T

  7. Lucy Y says:

    Spiritual warfare is definitely a conversation that needs to be more discussed and understood, and it’s probably not discussed due to our personal fears and ignorance (intentional or unintentional). And in effect, this lack of discussion is what the enemy desires. To maintain this void in knowledge and understanding among followers of Christ so we will remain ignorant of his schemes and not know how to better engage in bringing God’s Kingdom in our cultures and in our lives.

    In my opinion, Dr. Clint Arnold, Dr. Neil Anderson, and Dr. Chuck Kraft are some of the most reputable names, who can better explain what spiritual warfare is based on their biblical knowledge and personal experiences.

    I strongly recommend reading Dr. Clint Arnold’s books (who is now the Dean of Talbot School of Theology, after having been a Talbot professor for many years), “Powers of Darkness” and “Three Crucial Questions about Spiritual Warfare” for a better understanding and excellent biblical discussion. His books are available on Amazon.

    However, one subject that has not been addressed in battling spiritual warfare is the crucial ingredient of prayer. Apostle Paul listed this as a foundational spiritual weapon (Ephesians 6:18). As such, spiritual warfare should be approached both defensively and offensively with prayer. Paul clearly stated that our true warfare is not against what is seen but what is unseen, the supernatural forces behind all things. And I’m reminded how Daniel’s fasting and prayers (Daniel 10:12-13) clearly illustrate this truth as well.

    Definitely, let us become more informed and engaged on this topic!

  8. Brinn Clayton says:

    Thanks Pastor T

  9. Hans vanHaven says:

    A personal and family tragedy recently is what the Lord used to deal with my aparthy towards spiritual welfare. Our MO in college was to say: “Charismatics will deal with that topic and we will go and preach doctrine”. The past two months of learning have been hard, scary sometimes (why?) but wholly beneficial. Just last night, I listened to John MacArthur speak to one aspect of this topic in a sermon of 1972 (I think) found at this link.
    http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/1218/demons-and-magic
    So thanks pastor T.

    1. Karen Butler says:

      Let’s not leave it to the Charismatics anymore. They are seriously messing lives up, and in many cases doing catastrophic damage to whole countries. This is one example of what their model of ministry –the popular technique of ‘Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare’– has done to the country of Guatemala through the collaborations of former School of World Missions professor C.Peter Wagner, and his friend, the Super Apostle Harold Caballeros.
      http://thenface2face.wordpress.com/2012/09/06/a-short-history-of-c-peter-wagners-strategic-level-spiritual-warfare-in-action-guatemala/

  10. Matt says:

    I was recommended the course by Gary Breshears on TGC a few days ago and found it very helpful and biblical. He does not subscribe to either J. Macaurthers view nor the Peter Wagner approach, though he covers both of these and the scriptures that they feel support their perspective. Even if you did not lock-step agree with him, he covers very well what the scripture teaches on spiritual warfare. I found the coverage of Jesus’ temptation helpful. I am a conservative Calvinist myself but I do not think the cessationist approach(to gifts, or spiritual warfare) holds water. Breshears was a missionary to the Philippines and I’m an MK from there. In places like that these realities are obvious and not questioned much. http://www.biblicaltraining.org/spiritual-warfare/gerry-breshears

  11. John says:

    I’m not sure we are programmed to think of this world as having a spiritual component. The traditions of Christianity, including regeneration, presume that there is an unseen spiritual dimension. In older times, the world was thought of as spiritual first, and physical second (although I think this is swinging the pendulum too far). Today, we have virtually nothing outside of church in our culture that is predicated upon a spiritual understanding of the universe. Everything from our automobile to the library is predicated upon a materialistic understanding of the universe. As a result, discussions of spiritual warfare or even regeneration are barely understood any more.

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Thabiti Anyabwile


Thabiti Anyabwile is a pastor for Anacostia River Church in southeast Washington, DC and a council member of The Gospel Coalition.

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