God has chosen not to annihilate Satan and his forces, but to get the victory for his people through great conflict over sin. He decides to defeat it, not abolish it. Think about that fact for a moment, because it’ll help you understand many things about Christianity and the Christian life. God allows Satan and his hosts to continue their work. God refuses to give Satan the satisfaction of accomplishing the divine will by simply abolishing evil. God accomplishes this will by defeating evil. This means that there’re great battles that we Christians must fight, and they’re great battles of the heavenly realm, and many of those battles include angels arriving to answer our prayer (read Daniel 10).
Therefore, if you’re praying, and praying for a long time, and your prayers aren’t answered, don’t stop praying. Don’t assume that your prayer isn’t in God’s will. Only rarely in the Bible does God reveal that the prayer of a godly person is not in his will. In the vast majority of cases, he answers the prayer of his righteous people, because righteous people pray righteous prayers (Jas. 5:16). This, by the way, distinguishes biblical prayer from the heretical health and wealth gospel and the prosperity gospel. God isn’t interested in answering the prayers of worldly narcissists. But he delights to answer the prayer of his righteous people who wish only to please him.
A massive front in the battle is Gospel preaching. In the Parable of the Good Sower (Mt. 13), Jesus says that when people don’t understand the Gospel, the evil one (Satan) comes and snatches away the good seed that was sown in their heart (v. 19). There’s never gospel preaching without spiritual warfare. Satan has a vested interest in preventing and perverting the gospel, and he does it all the time.
Jesus uses the same metaphor of planting seeds in the very next parable, the Parable of the Weeds (v. 24f.). The Lord himself sows good seed in the field of the world. The good seed is the people of God, “the sons of the kingdom.” Simultaneously, Satan sows the weeds, “the sons of the evil one.” In this parable, Satan’s not removing good seed; he is sowing bad seed, and the bad seed is actually people. This isn’t a pleasant thought for modern Christianity, but it is a biblical truth. Satan uses evil people to disrupt the kingdom of God, and places them near the people of God in the world. This is a tactic in his warfare. So we can’t pretend that everybody near us is either a Christian or neutral. Satan intentionally places people in the world to thwart the growth of the kingdom of God. And God will only remove them finally at the end of the world.
Then think of the false apostles in 2 Corinthians 11. Paul says that Satan’s ministers, the angels or fallen elohim (gods), have begun impersonating ministers of righteousness. We’re not entirely clear what the specifics are of their teaching, but they were leading the Corinthians away from the simple, pure gospel of devotion to Jesus Christ. They were well educated and loved their rhetoric, and there’s nothing wrong with either, but they used these gifts to detract from the purity of the gospel.
Whatever detracts from simple, single-hearted devotion to Jesus Christ is satanically inspired, and anybody who does this as a teacher is a satanic minister. It could be the idea that the Mosaic law can stand on its own apart from Jesus Christ. That’s false doctrine in both the New Testament and the Old Testament. It could mean that you had to become an ethic Jew in order to become a part of the people of God. That’s also false doctrine. It could be that since you’re saved by grace, you don’t have to quit sinning. That’s false doctrine. A grace strong enough to forgive you but not change you isn’t the grace of the Cross and resurrection. Any teaching that obscures or detracts from salvation in Jesus Christ alone, any Gospel that says there is good news apart from our Lord and his death and resurrection, is devilish. That’s at the heart of our warfare.
Consider next Luke 22:31–34. Jesus foretells Peter’s denial at his trial. He then says something truly remarkable. Jesus tells Peter that Satan has desired to have him so he could sift him like wheat: in other words, to wreak havoc on his very soul. But, listen to these powerful words: “I have prayed for you that your faith does not fail.” There’s warfare for the souls even of the people of God. Satan wants to destroy their faith and their trust in God. He wants to unleash torment and tribulation on them so that they turn their back on God, just as he tempted Job for that reason.
What Jesus prayed for Peter I trust he prays for us. And God answered Jesus’ prayer. Peter failed temporarily, but he won permanently. Why? Because of the prayer of Jesus Christ. But make no mistake: there was a battle, and it was a fierce battle for Peter’s very soul.
Today when we see family members and church members and friends of people we look up to fall from the Faith, never assume this is simply as result of rational, mental calculation and “falling into sin,” or mere backsliding. Satan and his minions are wrecking their lives. They’ve suffered the onslaught, the havoc-wreaking forces of hell. This realization will cause us to be a little more patient with them, while, of course, warning them of the grave danger of turning their back on the Lord.
Healing and exorcism
If you read the synoptic Gospels you know that a big part of Jesus ministry was casting out demons and healing the sick. But what he claimed to be doing was defeating Satan (see Mt. 10:1; 12:22–28; Lk. 13:11–16). With the Advent of our Lord, the incursion of the kingdom of God entered a new and accelerated phase. Satan had bound the nations, particularly God’s chosen people Israel, and Jesus came to unbind. How can you plunder the house of the mighty man, if you don’t first bind the mighty man who has bound others? In that metaphor, Jesus depicts Satan as the mighty man that he is come to bind and plunder (Mt. 12:22f.). By the way, Jesus gave this metaphor after he had healed a blind and mute man. That healing was a mark of defeating Satan. It was hand-to-hand spiritual combat that Jesus seemed almost constantly to be engaging in. As much as we might deplore healing ministries and reprobate cash-four-health schemes, we can’t avoid the Bible’s plain teaching: part of spiritual warfare is battling illnesses. The same is true of battling demon possession. This is the biblical world.
And if you wonder why we don’t see more evidence of demon possession in our world while we hear about it a lot more in places like Africa and the Asian bush, it’s because those places aren’t as Christianized as the West; the power of the gospel has pushed Satan to the margins. As we as a culture turn our back on God and revert to paganism, we can expect more demon possession.
Sovereignty and battle
Incidentally, have you noticed that when Jesus confronted those who are possessed by demons, he never laid the blame on them? Today we talk a lot about people’s sins that invite demon possessions, and they certainly can (Mt. 12:43–45). But Jesus looked at these poor, pitiful creatures as the victims of Satan’s hatred for God and for his kingdom. They were casualties of war. This of itself shows us that there’s a great evil in the world, and it’s not the results only of man’s sin but of Satan and his insurrectionist minions.
People sometimes ask the perennial question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” The Bible’s answer is simple. Because there is great evil in the world. We can’t say, “Well, God is sovereign, and he could stop it.” Of course he could. But in stopping evil he would have to stop the entire universe. He chose to create both human and nonhuman beings with the capacity for choices, and those choices are sometimes evil. This doesn’t mean they can overthrow his sovereignty. God can and will still accomplish his purposes, but he will accomplish them partly by means of human and nonhuman choices. And those choices, tragically, are often evil. In this way, God got can use sin for his own purposes without being the author of sin. God’s not the author of little babies being burned and buried alive by ISIS, but he’s still working all things for his own glory.
In short, there is evil in the world, great evil, and it won’t overthrow God’s plan, but he is also not the source of it.
The Cross of Jesus Christ was the greatest act of spiritual warfare in human history, and it was God’s greatest victory. Gordon Rupp writes:
There are forces at work in human history which represent human solidarities, perverted and twisted and full of danger. They’re part of the pattern of evil. They’re part of the conflict in our human existence. If the Christian gospel were only concerned with the moral problems of individual men and women, it would be defective indeed. But the first Christians knew better when they affirmed, ‘Christ has conquered sin and death and principalities and powers’.E. Gordon Rupp, “Principalities & Powers”
Our war is bigger than we think.