“The Forces of Evil”
February 17, 2002
v.10 The “finally” indicates that we have entered the final section of Paul’s exposition of the Christian life.
v.11 In 4:24, remember, we were commanded to “put on” the new man. Here is another way of saying the same thing. We are to put into practice the new life and its principles that Christ has put within us by his Holy Spirit. If you wish to know what it means to “put on the armor of God” consult 4:24ff. and if you want to know what it means to “put on the new man” consult 6:11ff.
Now this is not the first mention of the devil in Ephesians. In 2:2 Paul said that before these people became Christians they were subject to “the ruler of the kingdom of the air who is now at work in those who are disobedient.” They followed the devil’s ways. You remember that the Lord Jesus infuriated the religious leadership in his day by saying something similar: that the reason they would not receive the truth from him was because they belonged to their father the devil and wanted to carry out his desires. Then, again, in Ephesians 4:27 Paul commanded believers “not to give the devil a foothold.” So the devil has already been introduced in this letter as the lord of unbelievers and as the active enemy of Christians.
Both in 4:27 and here the devil is revealed to be a schemer who employs cunning more than direct assault to defeat Christians. He exploits weakness and gains advantage by surprise. He will rarely ask a Christian straight out to deny Christ, he will insinuate disloyalty to the Lord in more roundabout ways.
v.12 Paul’s point is that our real enemies are not going to be easily dispatched. We are going to have to fight and fight hard to remain faithful to the Lord and live for him in this world, for we have powerful adversaries opposing us at every turn. And we are going to have to fight with spiritual weapons, because we have spiritual enemies attacking us in spiritual ways. Christians have human adversaries to be sure. In 4:14 he has spoken about the scheming of men and the danger it poses to a Christian in this world. But lying behind that human opposition to God and Christ and rendering it so much more powerful is the power and the genius of the evil one and his minions.
There are many evil spirits – referred to here as rulers and powers in the heavenly realms – but they have a leader, Satan or the devil, who is referred to as the “ruler” of this kingdom in 2:2. That is why all of their evil opposition to the saints can be simply referred to as the “devil’s schemes” in v. 11.
The Apostle Paul has been at work in these latter chapters of his letter explaining the way that Christians must live. He has given us a general description of the Christian way of life from chapter 4 verse 1 to chapter 5 verse 20 and, then, he has broken down the church into its constituent parts and given specific instructions to various groups. Another way of organizing his instruction is to see 4:1-16 as describing the Christian’s life in the church, 4:17-5:20 as describing the believer’s life in comparison with and in the midst of that unbelieving society in which he or she lives, and then special instructions for various groups of Christians in 5:20 through 6:9.
But now Paul turns to the final question? How are we to manage to live such a life? A new believer may well think that it would come naturally and hardly require effort on our part. After all, God has loved us with an infinite love, he has unleashed on our behalf his mighty power – as we read in 1:19 – and Christ who died for us to save us from our sins is now at the Right Hand where he has been placed in authority over everything on behalf of the church. What is more, we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. All of this Paul has already said and said emphatically. We can pardon someone who thinks at first that the transforming grace and power of God are going to make Christians good and pure and loving and strong and that no power in the world can keep them from being so.
But, one doesn’t have to live very long or read very widely in the Bible to know that such a complete victory over sin is not given until the believer is in heaven and that, so long as he or she lives in this world, to follow the Lord fully, in heart, speech, and behavior, is going to be a struggle, a titanic struggle. And one reason for this is that we have an adversary of great cunning and terrible power who is seeking at every turn to render us useless to Jesus Christ. There is someone in this universe who has a limitless malice toward every true believer in Jesus. And this being, has many other beings who do his bidding in the same spirit of hatred toward all that Christians love, toward all that would serve the name and cause of the Son of God.
Now in much of the world today the existence of evil spirits is taken for granted. And all through human history men have devised means of dealing with them, mollifying them, or defeating them. Some have advised resignation: they can’t hurt you if you are willing to bear whatever they design for you. Others have urged sacrifices and offerings to appease them. Others have resorted to magical arts to control them. Paul and the other biblical writers scorned such methods and, in truth, they have never worked.
Nowadays, in our society, though by no means completely, there is a tendency to dismiss all of this as superstition, as incompatible with a scientific and modern view of reality. The devil is the butt of jokes and cartoons, not the subject of serious consideration. He is thought of in very much the same way as the characters in a fairy tale. We give him a pitchfork and a long tail and laugh at the very idea. And in public life there is never ever a comment to suggest that our political problems or social dysfunctions or widespread human misery are the consequence of the fact that this world is under the thumb of the Evil One. A politician who suggests such a thing is throwing his reputation away!
And that pervasive prejudice has influenced Christians in their thinking. There are many Christians, even evangelical Christians, nowadays who express reservations about belief in a personal being such as the devil. But, even those who believe in what the Bible teaches them about the principalities and powers do not always take that teaching with full seriousness. We do not as often as we should consider our lives in terms of a great struggle being waged with spiritual beings. We can be so bowed down with personal problems and so concerned with our own happiness, ease, and comfort in this world, that we do not see, we do not grasp, we do not face the larger problem. We are so introspective and subjective, that we do not reckon with this tremendous reality that Paul has set before us here. [Lloyd-Jones, Ephesians, vol. vii, 48]
But, let us be clear about this at the outset. You cannot dismiss this teaching about the devil, about his malice toward believers in Christ, about his influence over human beings, about the strength he adds to the force of evil in this world, without stepping off biblical ground entirely. The Bible teaches the reality of evil spirits and weaves that teaching into the sum and substance of its doctrine.
It was Satan who was instrumental in engineering the fall of man into sin and death, however culpable and inexcusable were Adam and Eve themselves. It was Satan who bent all his powers to trip up the Son of God when he came into the world to save his people from their sins. It is Satan who, as Jesus taught, snatches away the seed of the word of God when it is preached to people so that they do not believe. It is Satan who blinds the eyes of men and women so that they cannot and will not see the truth when they are staring it in the face. Hell itself is a place prepared for the devil and his angels. All of this the Bible teaches and much more.
You cannot dismiss the Bible’s teaching about the devil without dismissing its teaching about the spiritual realm in its entirety. If there is no devil, why should we believe there are angels? And if neither devil or angels, why should we believe that there is a heaven or hell? If there is no devil, why should we believe in the Son of God who clearly believed in the existence of Satan and even claimed to have done spiritual battle with him? And, if there is no heaven or hell and no Son of God, why should we believe that there is a God at all? But, of course, the argument for the one is the argument for the other and vice versa. We know there is a God, we know that he has revealed himself in his Son, we know that he has given us the truth in Holy Scripture, and so we know that what is taught there about Satan is true. Like it or not, Satan is an important piece of that view of reality taught in Holy Scripture.
But, there is more than that. What we read in Holy Scripture is what we see in the world around us and, even more, in the world within us. The virulence of evil – the terrible ugliness and violence and destructiveness and implacability of evil in this world – the blindness of even the most highly educated people to the truth, the willingness of people to swallow what C.S. Lewis called “the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone” of our own day, the failure of man, for all his achievements, to gain any mastery of his own evil heart, I say, who can tell me that belief in the devil as it is taught in Holy Scripture is not entirely rational, even necessary to explain the world we live in. How is it that so much pure evil can be done by people who are so sure that they are right. How is it that the lesson is never learned and that human beings do not and have not improved morally and spiritually over time? Why is it that the most sophisticated century of human life in this world, the 20th, was the most inhumane century of all and that the greatest inhumanity was perpetrated by those who were most convinced of their virtue?
How are we to explain the astonishing reality of human foolishness, venality, empty pride, cruelty, weakness, and selfishness all masked behind a façade of virtue? There is nothing remotely like this in the animal kingdom! Why is it everywhere and always the punishing reality of life among human beings? And it is! It is only the universality of evil, the fact that we cannot evade it, that we meet it everywhere in forms both small and large, and the fact that we do not wish to face it and its implications, that keep people from giving this dismal and disheartening reality its proper due. Man is in the grip of a dark power. He knows better, but he does evil. But when we face the fact of human sin and blindness, how are we to explain it? What is an adequate explanation for what we actually see and hear and read every day? This is what John Newton meant when he wrote about Voltaire, one of the most influential unbelievers of his day, “Perhaps such a one as Voltaire would neither have written, nor have been read or admired so much, if he had not been the [secretary] of an abler hand…” [Cardiphonia, paperback ed., 59]
Was it rational, was it scientific for the modern world, the modern church even to give up its belief in the existence of a spiritual world and of powerful evil spirits exercising dominion in this world? As Dr. Packer puts it,
“The natural response to denials of Satan’s existence is to ask,
who then runs his business? — for temptations which look and
feel like expressions of cunning destructive malice remain facts
of daily life. So does hell in the sense defined by the novelist
John Updike – ‘a profound and desolating absence’ (of God, and
Good, and community and communication); and ‘the realisation
that life is flawed’ (Updike goes on) ‘admits the possibility of a
Fall, of a cause behind the Fall, of Satan.’ Belief in Satan is not
illogical, for it fits the facts. Inept to the point of idiocy,
however, is disbelief in Satan, in a world like ours; which makes
Satan’s success in producing such disbelief all the more impres-
sive, as well as all the sadder.” [God’s Words, 83-84]
Satan may be but one aspect of the biblical doctrine of the mystery of evil, but, very clearly, it is an important aspect and one that we must grasp if we are to understand our lives and live them rightly and well. If you are at war, you must recognize your enemy and know how to fight him.
How did our Savior explain the implacable opposition to himself on the part of the church of his own day? He said that they were doing the will of their father the devil! And how is it that over this past century the great Protestant churches of the world, the churches that so valiantly sent the gospel of Christ to the four corners of the earth through the previous century, have become but the pale shadows of their former selves. Their love of the gospel of Christ, their commitment to serving the kingdom of God, their confidence in the Word of God, has all but collapsed and now these churches, like the church in Jesus’ own day, are in large part enemies of the gospel rather than its servants. Nowadays, those churches are more likely to promote paganism and to defend it against attack than stand up for the gospel of Jesus Christ. What is this but testimony to the skill and the thoroughness with which the Devil has done his work. These are realities that provoke us to take seriously what Paul says to us here about reckoning with the evil one in our daily lives.
Now, it is true that some Christians over the ages took the reality of the devil almost too seriously. They were so worried about him and his wiles that they did not enjoy the peace of God that is the inheritance of all who believe in Jesus Christ. This fear was one of the original motives of those who in the early church became monks and hermits. They thought that they must battle the devil full time lest they fall into his clutches. The biblical emphasis on our deliverance in Christ and of his power to protect us was lost sight of, the notion of the Christian life as a matter of believing in the victory of Christ over the devil and living in that victory was diminished. They did not see resistance to the devil in terms of the faithful living of the Christian life in the midst of the world as Paul describes it here in Ephesians.
However, the greater problem in our day is that people do not take the devil seriously enough. They do not realize what it means to have a powerful adversary opposing every holy interest in a Christian’s life. They do not see that the existence of the devil means that they must commit themselves to struggle and battle if they would be faithful Christians. They do not face the fact that a cunning enemy absolutely requires of them that they master the truth of God so that they will know how to see through his deceptions, as Jesus did when he was tempted by the devil and replied time after time with the Word of God which he had hidden in his heart.
It seems to be taught in the Bible that Satan has two great lies with which he seeks to deceive and destroy human beings. He is an evil being, a hateful being, and being judged to doom himself, he wishes to carry with him as many as he possibly can! And to do so he sells these two deceits. The first is the lie he used on Adam and Eve: “you surely shall not die.” He persuades human beings in so many ways not to take their sin and guilt seriously and to give no credit to the holiness and justice of God. The American entertainment industry, the American university, the largest part of the psychology profession, and so on, are just so many instruments in his hand in selling this, his first “big lie.” This is the lie he uses to keep multitudes from ever becoming Christians: for,
“…what comfort can a Savior bring
to those who never felt their woe.”
But, he uses the same lie to keep many Christians, and every Christian to some extent, from taking his or her sin as seriously as it deserves to be taken and to work as furiously, God helping us, to put that sin to death, as we ought to work.
The second lie he employs when the first does not work; when, by the grace of God, a man or woman, a boy or girl sees all too clearly the full measure of their own sinfulness and badness and the awful purity of the glory of God. Now, the devil undertakes his roll as “the accuser of the brethren,” and in one way after another seeks to persuade us that people as bad as we are cannot possibly be of any interest to a holy God, that he would never forgive or love people who have done as little with his gifts as we have done. That sinners like us are beyond saving.
Is this not in large part where the unbelief of the world and the weakness of Christians comes from? These two great lies, pressed home to the mind and heart by a subtle, crafty enemy, driven by virulent hatred of God, who knows how to attack at the weakest spot. He was the first sinner – how and why we do not know, only that he was – and, ever since, he has been enlisting human beings in his cause.
We see it all the time, when we ourselves and others we know and love cannot see the truth, cannot see it even when everyone else can see it plain as day. Satan has blinded them. When we see ourselves and others in the grip of foolish and destructive attitudes and thoughts and behaviors that cannot take a person anywhere but down, down, down. There is Satan at work. That is what led William Gouge, the great Puritan, to say that when we find someone hurting us because he or she is in the grip of foolishness and unbelief and desires that have run amok, we should better pity them than hold a grudge against them. They are under the devil’s thumb and do not even know it. Sad, sad, sad! [In I. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, 257n.]
The difference between Satan and the worst human beings we know is that Satan is pure evil and, in this world at least, we have never met anyone like that. We cannot really understand what pure evil must be, just as we struggle to imagine what it must be like to be perfectly good from the inside out. Milton, in Paradise Lost, still gave some nobility to Satan. Even C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape had a sense of humor and a kindly goodwill toward his nephew, but the Bible teaches us to think of the devil as pure evil, “more cruel, more malicious, more proud, more scornful, more perverted, more destructive, more disgusting, more filthy, more despicable, than anything our minds can conceive.” [Packer, God’s Words, 88]
Accept reality as it is, as the Bible describes it to be, you have not only an adequate explanation for human experience, an explanation that satisfies the mind and heart, but you have the beginnings of an understanding of how that great and powerful evil can be overcome in your life and in the lives of others and in the world as a whole.
When you accept that Satan is such a being and then hear the Scripture warn us that he is like a roaring lion ranging through the earth seeking whom he may devour, when you hear the Bible warn us that he often disguises himself as an angel of light, when we hear of his “snares,” when we read that he gave even the Apostle Paul a thorn in the flesh and that he hindered the great Apostle’s work at certain points, when we are told that he can insinuate thoughts in our minds and feelings in our hearts [John 13:2; Acts 5:3], that he can affect our bodies, and the outward circumstances of our lives [Rev. 2:10]; I say, when you accept all this as true, as it is, you will not take lightly Paul’s urging you here to take steps to be on guard against the devil and to stand against his devices in your own heart and life.
But, you will also know, for a certainty, that you cannot defeat a foe so powerful and so implacable in his hatred of you by your own devices and in your own strength. You will find your strength instead in the victory that Christ has won over the devil, that he came into the world “to destroy the works of the devil” [1 John 3:8]; you will remember that the power of the gospel when it is preached and believed causes Satan “to fall from heaven,” as the Lord once memorably put it; you will remember that you, by faith in Christ, have been delivered from “the dominion of darkness and transferred to the kingdom of God’s beloved Son [Col. 1:13-14]; that Satan is a beaten foe, and so, when you resist him, he will flee, he must flee. When you stand with Christ, Satan cannot harm you and you are more powerful than he! “Resist him,” Peter says, “firm in your faith…and…the God of all grace…will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you” [1 Pet. 5:9-11]
John Bunyan was a man who took the Bible seriously and believed every word in it. To John Bunyan Satan was as real as he was to Adam and Eve, to Job, to our Lord in the wilderness, and to Martin Luther in the Wartburg Castle. John Bunyan downright believed in every syllable that he read in Holy Scripture and he acted on what he read. And when he struggled to believe and to obey, when he found his own heart resistant to what he knew was true, he knew, he knew, that he was in combat with the evil one. Early on in his Christian life, he tells us in his spiritual autobiography, Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners, he struggled mightily to believe that God would be gracious to a man as sinful as himself. And he knew that he was in that struggle fighting not with flesh and blood but with principalities and powers and against the devil’s schemes. The Lord had promised, “he who comes to me, I will never drive away.” But, did that word apply to John Bunyan? That was the question. Satan said it did not! John Bunyan knew it did!
“If ever Satan and I did strive for any word of God in all my life,
it was for this good word of Christ; Satan at one end of it, and I at the other. Oh, what work we did make! It was for this in John [chapter 6], I say, that we did tug and strive. He pulled and I pulled. But, God be praised, I got the better of him.” [The above from A. Whyte, Bunyan Characters, vol. iv, 174]
Now, where is Satan pulling in your life now? What promise of God, what truth of his Word is he seeking to pull out from under you, to cause you to forget or to disbelieve? Well, pull back; pull back hard in the strength of the Lord and in confidence of his victory over the devil and all his kingdom of darkness. And you will prevail. Bunyan’s story should be our story, day after day after day.
“But, God be praised, I got the better of him!”