Several years ago I read David Powlison’s book, Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare. (Sadly, no longer in print—though I believe a second edition may be forthcoming.) I found it extremely helpful and persuasive. I took notes, and thought it might be worth posting them here.
Reclaiming: Spiritual Warfare
“A great deal of fiction, superstition, fantasy, nonsense, nuttiness, and downright heresy flourishes in the church under the guise of ‘spiritual warfare’ in our time…. But the warfare we need to wage engages and implicates our humanity, rather than bypassing it for a superspiritual, demonic realm.”
Reasons for the Urgency
- We live in a society where the modern agenda has largely failed.
- We live in a society that has become increasingly pagan.
- Missions, anthropology, and modern communications make us aware of the practices and beliefs of animistic cultures.
- We live in a society of high-profile bondage to “addictions.”
- Bizarre or troubled behavior, often related to experiences of extreme abuse, seems to be appearing more frequently.
- Many people have sometimes experienced an uncanny, heightened sense of the presence of evil.
- A growing number of Christians teach and practice “deliverance” ministry in the quest to cast out inhabiting demons.
Truly all Christians believe in spiritual warfare; we all believe that Christ delivers us from evil. Powlison seeks to answer two crucial points of confrontation regarding spiritual warfare.
The first question engages how we understand the Christian life. What are we fighting? How does the evil one actually work? How does he exert—or attempt to exert—his dominion?
The second question engages our practice of the Christian life. How should we fight? What is the way God delivers us—and tells us to deliver ourselves and each other—from bondage to the devil? What is the mode of warfare?
Our Common Ground
The large majority of Christians give assent to four propositions, whatever our other differences.
- We are involved in spiritual warfare.
- Jesus Christ is the triumphant Deliverer and King.
- The modern age deadens people to the reality of spiritual warfare.
- Errors and excesses occur in deliverance ministries.
If deadly rationalism saps spiritual vitality on the one hand, the exorcistic mentality spawns mutant spiritualities on the other. Both the disenchanted world of modern rationalism and the charmed world of premodern spiritism are wrong.
What Is Spiritual Warfare?
Three competing visions vie for our allegiance:
- Capitulation to the spirit of the age by radically reinterpreting the Bible’s “spirit” realities as mythical projections of psychological, sociological, political, and medical phenomena. (Inadequate for all serious followers of Christ.)
- The demon deliverance ministries
- The “classic” Christian mode of spiritual warfare
The “Ekballistic Mode” [EMM] of Spiritual Warfare
An invented term to describe the demon-deliverance movement that might seem awkward at first. It is a grassroots practical theology that finds varied expression both in pastoral ministry and in methods of personal growth. It envisions the warfare of Christians as a battle against invading demons, either to repel them at the gates or eject them after they have taken up residence. Obviously based on the key assumption that demons of sin reside within the human heart.
The “Classic Mode” of Spiritual Warfare
Evangelism, discipleship, and personal growth. Follows the pattern of Jesus facing Satan in the desert. The textbooks are the Psalms and Proverbs, the ways that Jesus addressed moral evil, and the teachings of the NT epistles.
- They recognize and challenge the spiritual barrenness—the practical atheism—of the secular modern age.
- They encourage conservative Christians to reenvision the world as a spiritual place so that the fight for Christ’s kingdom and glory might be more effective.
- They challenge the notion that people’s personal problems can be reduced to purely psychological, social, physiological, or circumstantial factors.
- Many “spiritual warriors” demonstrate admirable love and self-sacrifice.
- They show that prayer matters.
- They usually believe and practice classic-mode spiritual warfare much of the time.
Cultures Dark with the Occult
There are three important features of the occult worldview and its degraded existence.
- Demonological explanations for all events and actions—good or bad—predominated.
- Occult idolatry and practices were the norm.
- Nations that practiced the occult also pursued other generic addictions, such as gluttony, drunkenness, varied forms of immorality, greed, blood thirst, and power.
All the contemporary “causes” are in place in the OT, but the Scriptures never identify or address spirit inhabitants as the problem nor cast them out as the solution. The OT, as a voice into these demon-filled cultures, exhibits two striking features.
- It minimizes Satan.
- The OT maximizes human responsibility.
Lifting the Curtain
Every so often in the OT God lifts the curtain to show the spirit realities at work behind the scenes. Six major passages:
God’s Sovereignty in an Evil World
God uses evil for his glory and the comfort of God’s people. EMM advocates simply do not articulate this understanding of God’s sovereignty in the mist of evil. Consequently, their understanding of spiritual warfare becomes skewed. The demons become increasingly autonomous; sin becomes demonized; the world gains the look and feel of superstition rather than biblical wisdom. EMM advocates rightly seek to reestablish a worldview that recognizes spirit beings, both good and evil. But the drift in EMM thinking toward demonological explanations creates a world more precarious and spooky than the Bible’s world. Ironically, in the end, the EMM worldview has more affinities with the occult worldview than the Bible.
The Bible gives an opposite, theocentric explanation. There the love of God—love for his name’s glory and his people’s welcome—strikes the deciding blow in the battle. Psalms and Proverbs are the supreme manual for spiritual warfare, for fighting both flesh-and-blood and spiritual enemies. Knowing that the devil is God’s devil brings us incalculable joy and confidence in battle with our adversary.
A Different Mode
The OT teaches a worldview and method of fighting spiritual evil that is essentially different from EMM.
- There is a radical focus on the Lord—God is at absolute center stage.
- Human beings are always responsible moral agents and share center stage with God.
- Although the OT acknowledges the activity of Satan and his demons, it shows that God is sovereign and the demons are constrained.
- God’s sovereignty has striking implications for the OT’s mode of spiritual warfare, mode of ministry, mode of living the godly life, and mode of fighting multifaceted evil. The mode of warfare God taught was having faith in the Word of God, fearing God, turning from evil involvements, taking refuge in the Lord, and obeying his voice. EMM is never the mode of warfare.
Sin and Suffering
Proponents of EMM make two major arguments:
- Because Jesus and the apostles cast out demons, we should do likewise.
- Because EMM is not forbidden by Jesus or the rest of the NT, there is no reason not to use it.
Powlison argues that the Bible does not teach us to wage spiritual warfare using EMM. Rather Scripture teaches us a different way to live the Christian life and fight our ancient foe.
The Dominion of Darkness Entails Sin and Suffering
One key to understanding spiritual warfare in the ministry of Jesus Christ is to notice that he mounted a twin-pronged offensive against the powers of evil—against moral evil and situational evil. Jesus employed two modes of warfare to address two different facets of the evil works of the devil.
- Moral evil = the evil people believe and do.
- Situational evil = the evil we experience (suffering, hardship, unpleasant and harmful events, death)
The two meanings of evil are closely linked; Satan employs both for his evil purposes.
God consistently portrays inhabiting evil spirits as situational—not moral—evil that hurt and abuse people. Sins, such as unbelief, fear, anger, lust, and other addictions, point to Satan’s moral lordship, but never to demonization calling EMM. Jesus usually approaches the sick from the angle of sufferers needing relief, not sinners needing repentance. Contrary to EMM teaching, unclean spirits are never implicated as holding people in bondage to unbelief and sin.
Whenever and wherever Jesus addressed Satan’s attempt to establish or maintain evil moral lordship, he used the non-EMM, classic mode of spiritual warfare. Jesus always used the classic mode to deal with moral evil; he used both the classic and ekballistic modes to deal with situational evil.
Jesus’ Mode of Ministry and Ours
“Eleven examples of Jesus’ works that we are called to do in a fashion different from our master. Notice three things after each example.
First, Jesus addresses genuine human needs that continue today.
Second, Jesus performs a particular action in an unusually striking and authoritative way, a command-control mode: ‘I say it, it happens.’
Third, we are told—by precept or example—to accomplish the same work but in a different way, the classic faith-obedience mode.” (p. 77)
- Pay taxes
- Catch fish
- Walk on water
- Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty
- Speak with God’s authority
- Call people to ministry
- Forgive sins
- Confront and curse sin
- Raise the dead
- Control the weather
- Heal the sick
Dealing with Demonic Affliction
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and Acts portray Jesus and the apostles as using the command-control mode to address sickness, the weather, paying taxes, speaking with personal authority, and so forth. The rest of the New Testament, following the main approach in the Old Testament, exemplifies and commands a different mode. Is there a similar switch for dealing with demons associated with ailments and afflictions?
We certainly will not be surprised to find a mode shift. Scripture is ‘silent’ on the issue in the same way it is silent on paying taxes, performing resurrections, or stilling storms by words of command. The silence thunders. The mode of addressing demonically induced sufferings reverts to the classic mode: Live the Christian life of receptive faith and active obedience in the midst of life’s hardships….
The modern demon-deliverance ministries are predicated on two fundamental errors. First, they misread the biblical record and fail to distinguish between moral and situational evil. They cast out ‘demons’ of moral evil, something neither taught nor illustrated anywhere in Scripture. Second, they fail to reckon with the general mode shift away from the command-control mode and toward the classic mode.
Steps to a Far More Powerful Way
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through discovering the Creator God who rules heaven and earth.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through learning to find refuge in the Lord Jesus Christ.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through learning to dig into the Scripture in search of true wisdom.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through stopping fighting alone.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through growing to understand the thoughts and intentions of his heart.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through speaking words that do genuine good to others.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through honest work
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through learning to aim your heart at what true prayer intends.
- Fight and win spiritual warfare through not giving in to cultivated lusts