If God is completely sovereign and knows all things, past present and future, then is spiritual warfare real?
Or to put it the other way round, given that the Bible talks about spiritual warfare and given our experience in life of an ongoing struggle between good and evil, doesn’t this challenge our understanding of God’s complete and detailed sovereignty over everything?What is Spiritual Warfare?
I want to suggest that there are three aspects to Spiritual Warfare.
First of all, we talk about Christ’s Victory at Calvary as spiritual war. It was at the Cross that God defeated the enemy, the powers of evil. It was when Jesus died that Satan lost. Paul says
“13You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins.14 He cancelled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. 15 In this way, he disarmed[d] the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross.”
You will see here that God’s victory is described in terms of the cancellation of charges. God won when Jesus took the penalty of sin upon himself. This is how Satan and his demonic forces were defeated. You see, their primary weapon is the ability to accuse us and shame us. That power was taken away from them when Jesus took the penalty for our sin.
Secondly, spiritual warfare includes the engagement of spiritual beings against each other. John Frame says:
“Angels participate in kingdom warfare. Above and around us are good and evil angels, engaged in spiritual warfare. Satan and his hosts engage human beings in the battle by tempting them to sin. The good angels however, are ‘ministering spirits sent out to serve for the sake of those who are to inherit salvation’ (Heb. 1:14). The two armies fight one another, as well as fighting against and for us (Dan 10:13, 21; Jude 9; Rev 12:7).”
Two particular examples of this include Jude 9:
9But even Michael, one of the mightiest of the angels,[a} did not dare accuse the devil of blasphemy, but simply said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (This took place when Michael was arguing with the devil about Moses’ body.)
And Daniel 10 where an angel messenger to Daniel is held up on his journey. He explains
“Don’t be afraid, Daniel. Since the first day you began to pray for understanding and to humble yourself before your God, your request has been heard in heaven. I have come in answer to your prayer.13 But for twenty-one days the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia blocked my way. Then Michael, one of the archangels, came to help me, and I left him there with the spirit prince of the kingdom of Persia.14 Now I am here to explain what will happen to your people in the future, for this vision concerns a time yet to come.”
The third type of Spiritual warfare is the one we all are engaged in. It’s the daily battle to resist temptation. Paul talks about this in Romans 8.
12Therefore, dear brothers and sisters, you have no obligation to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. 13For if you live by its dictates, you will die. But if through the power of the Spirit you put to death the deeds of your sinful nature, you will live.
And in Colossians 3
4And when Christ, who is your life, is revealed to the whole world, you will share in all his glory. 5So put to death the sinful, earthly things lurking within you. Have nothing to do with sexual immorality, impurity, lust, and evil desires. Don’t be greedy, for a greedy person is an idolater, worshiping the things of this world.”
I believe that this is the focus of Ephesians 6 too. It is as we live our daily lives in the world, engaging with ordinary things like marriage, family life, work life etc. that we engage in spiritual warfare. Paul reminds his readers that the opposition are not other human beings no matter how powerful or evil they appear to be, but the spiritual forces of darkness. Our responsibility is to stand firm and resist the devil. We do this through constant prayer.
The second type of spiritual warfare is the one that tends to get the headlines. It is a genuine aspect of spiritual warfare. However, whilst it tends to gain the attention of our imaginations, it is not the primary focus of Biblical teaching on spiritual warfare. This is good news because it means that we are not mere pawns in the battle, foot soldiers expendable in a cosmic conflict. That cosmic battle has already been won. No, the real focus is on the battleground of our hearts and minds as we seek to live for Christ.
How is this battle won?
The sense in Scripture is that we need to hold onto two vital strands of truth. On the one hand, God’s Sovereignty means that he is the one who has won the victory already and so success is certain. On the other hand, within the context of God’s sovereignty and certain victory, the Bible never underplays our responsibility. We have a clear role to play. If that’s a paradox that blows our finite minds, so be it.
Andrew Lincoln, commenting on Ephesians 6 puts it this way:
“It is a mistake to interpret the call to stand as implying that the battle is open ended and its result in doubt… but not to see all temporal assumptions about the battle done away with and believers having no historical responsibilities before victory is automatic. The decisive victory has already been won by God in Christ, and the task of believers is not to win, but to stand, that is to preserve and maintain what has been won.”
Let’s unpack that a little more.
God’s Sovereign Part
All of the Bible passages that talk about our involvement in spiritual warfare are set in the context of God’s Sovereignty and victory over sin. For example, the call to stand firm against the devil in Ephesians 6 comes at the end of a letter where we have discovered that God is sovereign and has already triumphed. His salvation plan was put into effect before time began. That plan is for Christ to reign supreme over everything and whilst there is a future fulfilment dimension to this, it is also clear that He is already exalted and reigning and that we are safe and seated with him. There is no question or suggestion that this plan can be thwarted.
The victory of Christ includes our redemption. In the language of Ephesians, this means that:
“He is so rich in kindness and grace that he purchased our freedom with the blood of his Son and forgave our sins.”
“5that even though we were dead because of our sins, he gave us life when he raised Christ from the dead. (It is only by God’s grace that you have been saved!) 6For he raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus.”
So Lincoln concludes: “It is because this victory has been won that believers are involved in the battle at all” because
“They are in a decisive new situation in contrast to their previous condition described in 2:2-3, where there could be no battle or resistance because they were in total bondage to the enemy. So the call to the readers to stand against the powers is also a reminder of the liberation from the tyranny of these powers.”
In fact, the greatest part we play in spiritual warfare is by participating in Christ’s victory parade as evidence to his enemies of their complete and utter defeat.
“7So God can point to us in all future ages as examples of the incredible wealth of his grace and kindness toward us, as shown in all he has done for us who are united with Christ Jesus.”
“10God’s purpose in all this was to use the church to display his wisdom in its rich variety to all the unseen rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. 11This was his eternal plan, which he carried out through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
When we come to Romans 8, we find that everything Paul says about our responsibility to put to death sinful desires is framed by the assurance that we are completely forgiven and that there is no condemnation in Christ and no separation from Christ. This is the context in which Paul sets up the contrast between those who are controlled by the flesh and those who are controlled by the Spirit.
The verses that talk about how we are now to live follow on from and are firmly rooted in Romans 8:1-5 where the emphasis is on Christ winning the battle through his death on the Cross, taking away condemnation. This is something we cannot do for ourselves and we are not asked to do for ourselves.
The whole point is that our salvation is Christ’s work and so we are dependent upon him. Because he is dependable, we find security and assurance in him. This means that even when Paul challenges us about our responsibility to live new lives, this is not intended to introduce an element of uncertainty into our future.
Douglas Moo says:
“Paul’s purpose in pursuing the series of contrasts is not ‘paranetic’; that is, he is not warning the Christians about two different possibilities they face in order to encourage them to live according to the Spirit. Paul certainly does this, and in language similar to the language here (c.f. Gal 5:16-26). But, as we have noted, ‘being in the flesh,’ (v 8) is not a possibility for the believer; and when we add to this the lack of imperatives and the general, third person language of the paragraph, we are warranted in concluding that Paul’s interest here is descriptive rather than hortatory.”
In other words, when Paul tells us to be controlled by the Spirit and not by the flesh, he is not entertaining the possibility that we might fail to live by the Spirit and end up under Satanic or fleshly control again. Rather, he is saying, “Look at how different your new life is. You have nothing whatsoever to do with the World now.”
So, the Sovereign God has acted in Christ to defeat sin and death according to his eternal plan. We can now enjoy the assurance of salvation in Christ and look forward with certain hope to the future day when this victory will be fully revealed and consummated.
Our human responsibility
However, this does not mean that we simply sit back and enjoy the victory, nor do we “let go” and “let God.” We have a part to play in our salvation.
This means that we are to “stand firm” against temptation. In doing so, we are taking advantage of the victory Christ has won. The sense is that we are occupying the land claimed, possessing the benefits. The benefits of course are, in this life, a restored relationship with God and the ability to live obedient, holy lives.
The battle is real in that there is struggle. We don’t suddenly become perfect. Each of us will be aware that there are temptations that don’t seem to go away, habits that are hard to kick, failings that when we think we have overcome them come back to bite us. Yet, the point is that though we may experience struggle and setbacks, this does not take away from the certainty of the final victory.
Lincoln puts it this way:
“The major victory has been achieved, but the eschatological tension with its indicative and imperative characteristic of Paul’s thought remains Believers must appropriate what has already been gained for them and do so against ongoing assaults, and this is not automatic. Indeed there may be minor defeats along the way; hence the urgency of the imperatives. The writer’s focus, however, is not on the possibility of such minor defeats but on the ability of his readers to make the assured outcome of the overall battle their own by standing and maintaining the ground that has been won.”
This is because salvation “has not removed us from contact with, and influence from the flesh.”
There is the sense that although we were once dead and are now alive and that our enemy is defeated and disarmed, he is not yet ‘dead’. That’s why our part in spiritual warfare includes putting to death sinful desires.
“Believers are exhorted to put the deeds of the body to death. The verb θανατοῦτε demonstrates that the desires to carry out the deeds of the body are incredibly strong, so strong that the overcoming of them is best described as putting to death that which is longing to burst into life.”
How do we do this?
So practically, what does this entail on our part? Well, I think that the secret is in identifying what it is that gives sinful desire that appearance of life and then cutting off its life source at root. Let me suggest some practical examples for how we can do this.
- Sin appears alive and lively to me because it appears attractive. The devil promises me all the benefits of gratification. So I put sinful desires to death when I see them in their true colours. I learn to see and name sin as ugly. I talk honestly about its destructive power. Sin loses its attractive power when I recognise that any apparent benefits are false and temporary. Sin loses its attractive power when I see the greater rewards and joy that come from following Christ. Meditation on God’s Word enables me to take my mind captive and to rebuild my thought life around what is good and noble.
- Sin appears alive and lively to me when I feel trapped and isolated so that there is no way out. Sin appears powerful to me when it is secret and hidden. I believe that I won’t get found out. I feel safe to indulge my desires but also at the same time I feel shame and fear. True Christian fellowship is a great weapon in the war on temptation.
- Sin appears alive and lively to me when I think there’s no hope. I repeat sinful behaviour patterns because I think I’m already defeated. Satan’s primary weapon is guilt. He is the accuser. I learn to believe that I am so bad and have already done so much wrong that there is no point changing now. The Doctrine of Justification is a vital weapon here. I have a new identity in Christ. I am declared righteous. My sin has been wiped away.
- Sin appears alive and lively when I struggle with pride and envy. I think I am different to others. I see myself as entitled to a little self-indulgence. Humility, self-awareness and a greater love for others become vital if we are to win the battle.
- Sin appears alive and lively to me when I think I am fighting in my own strength. I need to remind myself daily of the Gospel. I need to be filled with the Spirit and live in submission to him.
 Colossians 2:13-15, NLT.
 Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, 255.
 Daniel 10:12-14.
 Romans 8:12-13.
 Colossians 3:4-5.
 Andrew T Lincoln, Ephesians (WBC 42, Word 1990), 442-443.
 Ephesians 1:4.
 Ephesians 1:10.
 See Ephesians 1:3 & 19-22.
 Ephesians 1:7.
 Ephesians 2: 5-6.
 Lincoln, Ephesians, 443.
 Lincoln, Ephesians, 443.
 Ephesians 2:7
 Ephesians 3:10.
 Douglas J Moo, The Epistle to the Romans (NICNT. Grand Rapids, MI.: Eerdmans, 1996), 486.
 Ephesians 6:9.
 Lincoln, Ephesians, 443.
 Moo, Romans, 494.
 Thomas R Schreiner, Romans (BECNT. Grand Rapids, MI.:Baker Acdemic, 1998), 421.