God has not left us ignorant of the sphere of warfare or of the enemy himself. Much biblical revelation from the first promise of Christ’s victory over the evil one (Genesis 3:15) is taken up with a revelation about the nature of spiritual warfare.
What impact would it have had on the church in our late-modern, scientific day and age if the author(s) of the Apostles’ Creed had included a statement about the reality of angelic activity and spiritual warfare in the Christian life? I envision such a statement as reading like this: “I believe in principalities and powers, spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places with whom we wrestle; I believe that Christ has conquered them by His death on the cross; I believe that I need the armor of God to overcome them in my warfare with them throughout the time of my sojourn here.” I desperately wish that this was a part of our weekly confession of faith, because in many theologically informed congregations where holiness, wrath, righteousness, justice, sin, grace, mercy, and forgiveness are unashamedly proclaimed, there is sometimes a noticeable lack of teaching about the reality of spiritual warfare in the believer’s life.
Though many ministers, in our day, have given inadequate attention to a biblical exposition of spiritual warfare, this was not always the case in the church. Among the Puritan ministers in seventeenth-century England, there was no such shortage of works on spiritual warfare. The more well-known works include Thomas Brooks’ Precious Remedies against Satan’s Devices, William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor, John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, Christopher Love’s The Christian’s Combat, and Richard Gilpin’s Demonologia Sacra.
What accounts, then, for the disparity of emphasis among seventeenth-century Protestant pastors and pastors in more theologically minded churches in our day? First, many mature Christians rightly seek to avoid giving the sense that we are not responsible for our own sin. Far too many professing believers have dismissed their responsibility by functionally blaming Satan for their sin. In the epistle to the Romans, there is only one reference to Satan (Rom. 16:20), whereas there are fifty-seven references to sin. Our sin is a major theme of biblical revelation. We must keep in proportion what God keeps in proportion in His Word.
Second, it is all too common for believers to overreact to the unbiblical teaching they endured in churches in which the leadership approached the subject of spiritual warfare as something more akin to New Age, science fiction gnosticism than faithful biblical exposition. A wrong view of spiritual warfare leads to a wrong view of the Christian life. Nevertheless, the New Testament does include an abundance of teaching about the reality of spiritual warfare. The most full-orbed treatment comes at the end of Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus in his exposition of the armor of God (Eph. 6:10–20).
At the opening of the letter to the Ephesians, the Apostle Paul reminds believers in the church that God has already blessed them “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places” (1:3; emphasis added). At the close of the letter, he reminds them that the entirety of the Christian life is one in which they will be engaged in hand-to-hand combat “against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (6:12; emphasis added). “The heavenly places” is shorthand for the heavenly origin of the Christian life. It is also shorthand for the spiritual realm in which we fight against spiritual hosts of evil. The great Dutch theologian and statesman Abraham Kuyper once captured the essence of this spiritual sphere when he wrote:
If once the curtain were pulled back, and the spiritual world behind it came to view, it would expose to our spiritual vision a struggle so intense, so convulsive, sweeping everything within its range, that the fiercest battle ever fought on earth would seem, by comparison, a mere game. Not here, but up there—that is where the real conflict is waged. Our earthly struggle drones in its backlash.1