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What is spiritual warfare?

A critical overview of various Christian perspectives

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Spiritual Warfare

We have just published two features on a type of spiritual warfare and casting out demons as practiced by some Protestant Christians in Brooklyn. . There are many viewpoints and practices among Protestant Christians. Here we are including an edited excerpt from Power Encounters by David Powlison, a counselor and professor at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. Some of the works that he mentions as well as some other approaches that he omits are listed in the sidebar. We have also linked in our feature “Demonic Possession in Crown Heights, Brooklyn” to similar religious ideas and practices among Catholic Christians, Jews, Muslims and Hindus.


In broad strokes, three competing visions vie for our allegiance. The first vision I will dismiss out of hand as … capitulation to the spirit of the age by radically reinterpreting the Bible’s "spirit" realities as mythical projections of psychological, sociological, political, economic, and medical phenomena. The second vision, encompassed by the demon deliverance ministries, will engage much of our attention. I will next describe these ministries at some length, interacting with their teachings and methods. Although I will describe the third vision--the "classic" Christian mode of spiritual warfare--more briefly at first, it will also play a significant role. But first we will tum to the demon-deliverance approach to spiritual warfare.

Many contemporary Christians have responded to the vital need to reclaim spiritual warfare by resorting to "deliverance" or "war­fare" ministries that seek to identify and cast demons out of believers. What should we call this movement? I used the reasonably accurate term "demon deliverance" above because the defining distinctive of these ministries is their goal to deliver Christians of evil spirits…

How about [the term] "exorcism"? Very few in contemporary deliverance ministries like or use the term. The Greek root word occurs in only one place in the New Testament--Acts 19:13. And even there it does not describe Christian ministry, but Jewish magic practice that undergoes a humiliating defeat. In addition, the word has overtones of paganism, sensationalism. or empty ritualism.  Exorcism is also associated with the idea of “demon possession.” Modem demon deliverance ministries do not use this phrase as a description of "demonization," for they assert that Christians cannot be “possessed” by the devil because they belong to God. But they would say that Christians may be "demonized" to a greater or lesser extent when held in bondage to sin by indwelling spirits. To label these ministers as exorcists of the demon possessed would be pejorative and not reflect their self-understanding.

These ministries typically describe themselves using the words deliverance, warfare, or spiritual warfare. But all Bible-believ­ing Christians believe in deliverance, warfare, and spiritual war­fare, and many disagree with the distinctives of "deliverance" ministries. These ministries assert a particular version of spiritual warfare that has developed in recent years…

[The demon deliverance movement] … is part of a grassroots practical theology – a way of addressing life problems – that finds varied expression both in pastoral ministry and in methods of personal growth. [Its] evangelism, for example, seeks to drive demons out of people and places so that individuals and groups can come to Christ who would otherwise be prevented.

…the key assumption [is] that demons of sin reside within the human heart… people undergo a moral demonization. For example, indwelling demons of rage, lewdness, terror, pride, rebellion, and accusation reinforce – and in some way control – anger, immorality, fear, self-absorption, obstinacy, and self-recrimination. Demons take up residency and, to a greater or lesser extent, take over functions of the human heart. As squatters in the soul, they exert the power of a behind-the-scenes government.

…to suggest someone may be having a “spiritual” problem is to suggest that it may be a “spirit” problem: unclean spirits blind the understanding, enslave the will, and explain why an otherwise well-meaning Christian seems powerless to change. Such "demonization" is not seen as a global takeover -- as "possession" -- but as a pocket of alien inhabita­tion within the human personality. We could use the metaphor of the human personality as a computer hard disk with demons acting as computer viruses. These viruses can overwrite and corrupt sectors of the hard disk, executing their own commands within those sectors. Such demons must be removed; [the “casting out demons” method] is viral protection software.

Proponents [of this viewpoint] say that demons gain access -- a "ground" in several ways. One is through our own sin. Such habitual sins as immorality, anger and unforgiveness, and addiction to drugs, alcohol, or food can give demons a foothold, which they can then solidify into a stronghold. Or occult practice and cultic objects can draw demons. Strong fears or anger can become occasions of demonization. Also the sins of ancestors -- for example, occultism or immorality-- can beset the present generation with inherited demons. Or the direct sins of others against us, such as physical, sexual, Satanic ritual, or emotional abuse, can provide an entry gate for unclean spirits. Such spirits may cause us to repeat the same sins, to grovel in self-blame and low self-esteem, to live enslaved to reactive bitterness, fear, and escapism, or cause various physical afflictions  The drama of human life is seen as a “spiritual” drama: infiltrators and invaders cluster around, looking for grounds to penetrate the defenses of the human personality. Such is the diagnosis for which … [“casting out demons”] is the treatment.

Many variations of the basic … methodology exist, but I will describe a generic version. Usually a troubled person seeks help because some form of public teaching awakens the concern that one’s life problems are rooted in inhabiting spirits that have not been recognized or dealt with. Or a troubled person may be brought to the … expert by concerned friends and relatives who think there may be a "spiritual component."

A counseling process begins. Often the minister or counselor takes time to get to know the person, gathering such background information as prior involvement with the occult or specific sins. A family history is usually taken. Often the minister introduces the subject of demonization as a possibility, teaching the basics of … spiritual warfare. An extended time of prayer might follow with the counselor claiming certain promises and protections and “coming against” evil powers. The person would be called to renounce sin patterns and involvement with occult activities.

After this time of prayer, possible indications of inhabitation by demons are seen in the residue of bondage or the obsessive thoughts that remain or manifest themselves. Perhaps, the person shows marked boredom or an antipathy to prayer. Or the counselee may experience thoughts, impulses, emotions, mem­ories, and fantasies alien to his or her conscious volitions, beliefs, and self-image. For example, someone renounces anger and prays to forgive a parent but experiences some disturbing and otherwise inexplicable remnant of fierce bitterness or unforgiveness.

At this point the counselor may suspect that indwelling demons control parts of the person… The …practitioner will seek to identify demons by name through inviting them to manifest, through a direct revelation, or through the counselee's free associations. Some effort is often made to identify the "ground" by which demons gained entry into the person's life and the "right" by which they maintain residence. Such conversation may occur with either the person or the demon.

The actual encounter with the demons then takes place: the minister takes authority over them, binds them, and commands them to leave in Jesus' name. In less dramatic forms…, the counselee is simply invited to believe and affirm biblical promises while praying certain prayers against the evil spirits  In some power encounters there are such physical effects as sneezing, coughing, shouting, bizarre voices, vomiting, and convulsions  In others, the counselee might simply report a sense of relief. After the … encounter, basic discipleship follows as the way of "maintaining one's deliverance." …


Many varieties, one movement

… They all share fundamental features but diverge in various particulars of both teaching and method. Authors frequently cite one another across the spectrum, usually favorably. Although there is intramural skirmishing on secondary matters, they are close enough in their distinctive emphases to be considered one movement.

Charismatics were the first popular exponents of this new view of spiritual warfare. Pastor Don Basham's best-selling Deliver us from Evil in 1972 created enormous interest and notoriety. Basham teamed with other well-known charismatics, such as Derek Prince, to publicize this approach widely. The theology was crude and developed as the movement grew … the fireworks were spectacular. This version continues, for example the ministry of Benny Hinn.

Dispensationalists [a particular theological movement emphasizing prophesy and Biblical preaching] developed the second variety of .., demon­-deliverance ministry. A pointedly non-charismatic approach arose in the circles around Dallas Theological Seminary and Moody Bible Institute. Authors of well-known books include Mark Bubeck (The Adversary, 1975), Merrill Unger (What Demons Can Do to Saints, 1977), and Fred Dickason (Demon Possession and the Christian. 1987). This variety has a more restrained feel, operating more through private pastoral counseling and prayer than through extraordinary encounters with demons. …

A third variety has arisen in what has been called the “third wave of the Holy Spirit," centering around Fuller Theological Seminary. Well-known leaders include John Wimber, Peter Wagner, Charles Kraft, John White, and Wayne Grudem. Well-known emphases include “signs and wonders,” church growth, and third-world missions. The variety is characterized by a comprehensive and systematic theological rationale that centers on the coming of the kingdom of God a strong concern for multicultural evangelism. The notion of “territorial spirits”—ruler demons that hold entire cities or regions in bondage to unbelief and sin – is a recent innovation within third-wave teaching.

A fourth variety might be characterized as broadly evangelical.. Neil Anderson (Freedom in Christ), Timothy Warner (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School), Tom White (Frontline Ministries), and Ed Murphy (OC International) have all recently written books. Anderson is probably the most popular author now. His approach is distinctive for its pronounced general self-help emphasis, but he has wisely distanced himself from the flamboyant “power encounters,” and has instead emphasized truth and faith as aspects of self-deliverance from demon inhabitants.

Novelist Frank Peretti has his own special place in the ­movement. The world he portrays is most like the early charis­matics: demons lurk everywhere and the confrontations are spectacular  But he also grants a significant role to territorial demons. Peretti makes a sharp divide between demonized non-Christians and Holy Spirit-filled Christians. His demon deliverances are not woven into the subtleties of the sanctification process as they are for some of the more counseling-minded authors listed above…

The long dominant view is what I will call the classic Christian mode of ministry in spiritual warfare.


The “classic mode” of spiritual warfare

Most Christians who have written on the issue of spiritual war­fare throughout history have not taken the [viewpoints discussed above]. They have described the in-working power of Satan to produce human bondage to sin and lies without demonizing sin. Thus, the classic mode of warfare -- of evangelism, discipleship, and personal growth has followed the pattern of Jesus facing Satan in the desert. The textbooks for spiritual warfare in this mode have been the Psalms and Proverbs, the ways that Jesus addressed moral evil, and the teachings of the New Testament epistles.

Puritan pastoral theologians, for example, wrote frequently and with great depth on spiritual warfare. As they wrote about Scripture, the devil, and human nature, they were alert to the incredible evil and deceptive strategies of Satan. At the same time they made a heart-searching analysis of the human condition  The Puritans were not demythologized moderns; they lived in a spirit-filled world and were well aware of spiritual warfare…Books still in print after over three hundred years include Thomas Brooks' ­Precious Remedies Against Satan's Devices, John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress and Holy War, and William Gurnall’s The Christian in Complete Armor.

Numerous modem Christian authors have written about spiritual warfare …as well. C S. Lewis' The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, and the space trilogy articulate the devil's immoral suasion and cruelty while never demonizing sin or positing a solution that casts the demons out. Such popular pastoral theologians as Ray Stedman, Jay Adams, and John MacArthur, writing more didactically, also call Christians to the sturdy forms of classic-mode spiritual warfare. …

The leading elements of the classic mode of spiritual warfare are best captured by Ephesians 6:10-20; reliance on the power and protection of God, specific obedience, fervent and focused prayer, and the aid of fellow believers… [see Tim Keller audio below]

The best of contemporary "spiritual warfare" ministries have six positive aspects. First, they recognize and challenge the spiritual barrenness – the practical atheism – of the secular modern age…

Second, they encourage conservative Christians to re-envision the world as a spiritual so that the fight for Christ's kingdom and glory might be more effective. To live and pray as if seeing invisible realities is at the heart of Christian life. In reminding us of invisible powers -- both God and the enemy -- ­they challenge common perversions of the classic mode of war­fare that seem in practice to underestimate the forces of darkness and the forces of light.

Third, they challenge the notion that people’s personal problems can be reduced to purely psychological, social, physiological or circumstantial factors …

Fourth, many "spiritual warriors" demonstrate admirable love and self-sacrifice. … They seek to help the addicted, the confused, the depressed, the angry. Many are willing to "get their hands dirty" in real problems as they weave awareness of spiritual warfare into both pastoral care and evangelism. …

Fifth, they show that prayer matters. …

Sixth, they usually believe and practice classic-mode spiritual warfare much of the time…

But some features of the recent resurgence of interest in spiritual warfare are not so good. Some aspects, in fact, are downright dangerous to the church's view of God, sin, the devil, the Christian life, prayer, and ministry. … At their best, they bring us back, afresh, to John Bun­yan's Holy War and Pilgrim's Progress. But the "new truths" and "distinctive teachings" of modem deliverance ministries are more problematic and need to be explored.


Timothy Keller on "Supernatural evil and you" (Ephesians 6)


  • I've come across a really interesting Zen ebook on Amazon; it's calledThe Pier. A young doctor has a vision of danger to researchers in the Caribbean, unaware of the impending Hurricane Katrina. The doctor realises the only way to help them is to bargain with the spirit of the island. It's really good fun!

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