Perhaps like me you’ve heard the term spiritual war being used a lot recently, particularly in the context of our current political environment. Perhaps you’ve also heard that the combatants in this war are the conservative right and the liberal left and that the way to victory is to open the eyes of the left to their error of liberalism or to meme them into oblivion. That’s a general summary for the spiritual war is declared these days, but it’s ripe with several fatal flaws, not the least of which is a misunderstanding of what spiritual war is. As we will see there are two primary offensive strategies that Satan uses in spiritual warfare, namely temptation and deception, that we will examine in order to better arm ourselves in defending against them and better inform our language when talking about the nature of this warfare. First, temptation.
It is not an exaggeration to say that there is indeed a battle between good and evil going on daily, but in order to properly understand who the combatants are, where the battle is fought, we must turn to Scripture as our sole authority – not social media platforms and their legion CINO (Christians in Name Only) influencers. The first thing we need to realize is that God is in control, specifically the Lord Jesus Christ who has been given all authority on heaven and in earth (Matthew 28:18). This principle undergirds any and all discussions or engagements within the context of spiritual warfare. While God allows His servants to actively engage in spiritual war, He is not in active opposition against anyone, i.e. being, devil, god, etc. If He were, then He would by default be reactionary and God most certainly is not. Everything he does is according to His sovereign will and plan. This is critically important to understand. All of the memes that depict a fierce looking Jesus flexing against a red-faced, horned devil are false and misguided. God is sovereign, nothing is outside of His control, including Satan. He is not God’s arch-enemy because he is a created being and therefore a subordinate. How can we be certain of this? Satan cannot be omnipresent, meaning everywhere at once, and he is not omniscient, that is knowing all things. Those attributes belong exclusively to God. What he does have over us is summarized well by William Spurstowe, a 17th century Puritan who writes, “…the two chief parts in which the art of the devil’s subtlety in tempting consists are the greatness of his natural knowledge and the length of his experience.” In other words, because Satan is a created being, having lived and experienced far longer and more than any individual human, then he has the upper hand, anthropologically speaking. But again, it should be a great comfort to us that he is completely within God’s control.
While this is indeed a mystery as to how this great truth should be reconciled, two examples immediately come to mind, that of the case of Job and Peter. In the former case, we ought to be familiar with the opening chapter of Job where Satan had to have permission to touch Job on any level (Job 1:1-22). In the latter, with Peter, we find a nearly identical situation as our Lord informs Peter that, “31 Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, 32 but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Luke 22:31-32 Further examples of Angels encountering demons are also relevant, but just as God allows, controls, and permits the interactions with His children, so too with His angels. There are of course the Scriptural examples of human encounters with demons, which we will address later on.
Knowing that God is in control and that He permits Satan enough room to engage believers on a personal level, should encourage us (though Satan is singular, he certainly engages his demonic hoard). But we ought to remain clear that God’s authority is not our authority, we are never instructed on “binding” Satan, and we are never even told to engage Satan. Rather our posture is defensive in this respect. It is in effect taking a stand and remaining steadfast. Our Lord’s earthly encounter with Satan sets the pattern for how believers are to engage and defend against the wiles of Satan. Matthew 4:1-11 provides for us the account of Jesus’ interaction with the devil at the beginning of His ministry. Recall that Jesus had been baptized and led into the wilderness by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. The prepositions here are instructive as Jesus was led by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil. In other words, the entire episode of Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, subsequent to fasting for forty days and nights, was orchestrated, ordained, and permitted by the Holy Spirit. But what of His spiritual war? First we note that in the Spirit’s leading of Christ into the wilderness, the devil was to perform in his natural role as Tempter. Satan’s primary maneuver against individual believers is temptation. This of course was seen in the Garden with Eve as he tempted her to partake of the forbidden fruit. As Satan approaches Jesus in Matthew 4:3, we find confirmation that he is indeed called the Tempter. This is also seen in 1 Thessalonians 3:5 and 1 Corinthians 7:5 both supporting the truth that Satan’s attack comes by way of temptation. In using temptation, he may of course act on his own (more likely to use his fellow fallen angels) or use the world to percolate our sinful desires.
This of course brings up the question, what is temptation and how does Satan utilize it?
If we are to understand spiritual war at all, beyond social media’s lobbing of the term around incorrectly, then we have to not only understand that God is supremely and sovereignly in control with no equal or rival opposition, but also the nature of temptation. Puritan John Owen helpfully describes temptation as occurring either positively (strengthening) or negatively (leading to sin) as he writes, “So temptation is like a knife, that may either cut the meat or the throat of a man, it may be his food or his poison, his exercise or his destruction.” This helps us better understand how our Lord was tempted, as the temptation itself strengthened Him, unable to gain a foothold onto sinful desires. James 1:13-15 is perhaps the most instructive passage in Scripture concerning the modus operandi of temptation leading to sin:
13 Let no one say when he is tempted, “I am being tempted by God,” for God cannot be tempted with evil, and he himself tempts no one. 14 But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death.James 1:13-15
Here we find that temptation is an allurement, an enticement, a drawing away of the affections. In reality, it is bait for our desires. Writing on the subject of Satan’s devices, Puritan Thomas Brooks concludes that the, “first device to draw the soul to sin is: To present the bait and hide the hook; to present the golden cup, and hide the poison; to present the sweet, the pleasure, and the profit that may flow in upon the soul by yielding to sin, and by hiding from the soul the wrath and misery that will certainly follow the committing of sin.” This is how Satan uses temptation to lure the desires of our hearts out. This is a critical point worth meditating on. Temptation has no power in and of itself, as we have seen. Consequently, because it is Satan’s chief tool against us, he has no power through it in isolation. When we considered the victory of our Lord in the wilderness against Satan’s temptation, we better understand that His sinless nature and perfect obedience gave Satan no leverage with which to capitalize on sinful desires. Therefore, our Lord’s defense was His sinlessness, and His offense was the Sword of the Spirit in confronting Satan with the written word three times.
With this understanding before us, we can now see that the real danger, the real spiritual war is within us with our own indwelling sin first and foremost. Satan, and his demons, being external to believers, capitalize on our indwelling sin and desires in order to tempt us to sin. Therefore, the battle is not primarily external, it is with the danger from within. Before turning next to the use of deception, let us conclude our brief study on temptation with a final word from Owen:
There may be many outward temptations and provocations that befall men, which excite and stir them up unto these evils (Matt. 15:19); but they do but as it were open the vessel, and let out what is laid up and stored in it. The root, rise, and spring of all these things is the heart. Temptations and occasions put nothing into a man, but only draw out what was in him before.John Owen, The Nature and Power of Indwelling Sin