The Reality of Spiritual Warfare

Did you know that the term spiritual warfare never appears in Scripture? It is a pastoral-theological term describing the conflict occurring at the heart of the Christian life. For good, biblical, and practical reasons, Christians have always understood that we face a three-fold moral enemy: the world, the flesh, and the devil. Over this unholy trinity hangs the specter of our last enemy—the shadow of death and death itself. Scripture teaches that all of these enemies are ruled by Satan, the prince of this world.

Even though the term doesn’t appear in Scripture, here are four ways to understand spiritual warfare biblically. I will make comments after each.

First, spiritual warfare is a metaphor for standing on the Lord’s side in the epic struggle between the Lord and his enemies. Your counselees are taking sides. Your aim as a Christian pastor, counselor, and friend is to protect children of light (Ephesians 5:8) from being wooed back into darkness and to woo the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:3) out of darkness and into the light.

Second, spiritual warfare is a moral struggle. It is a conflict over who you are, what you believe, and how you live. Our sufferings, whatever their form or cause—and Satan’s malice is in the mix of causes—provide occasions either to stumble into darkness or to stand in the light. Our warfare is over which it will be. So, for example, Satan instigated the deaths of Job’s children, the loss of his wealth, the disease that wracked his body, and his wife’s evil counsel. But, ultimately, the spiritual warfare was for the loyalty of Job’s soul. He had to make a moral choice: Who will he serve? Who will be his Shepherd?

Elsewhere in Scripture, the book of James focuses on the moral struggle within the heart. James zeroes in on two drives of the human heart: “I am” and “I want” (James 3:13—4:12). He takes the example of interpersonal conflict and shows how the self-exalting “I am god” leads to “I want my way.” And, “No matter the cost to others, it’s my will that needs to be done.” James emphasizes how Satan interacts with our own hearts, what James calls “the flesh.” Satan’s lies and distortions are part of the mix, but repentance and humility before God will cause him to flee (James 4:7). His searching indictment of the human heart ends with the call to submit to God, resist the devil, and humble your heart.

Third, spiritual warfare is a synonym for the struggles of the Christian life. There are no special insights or special techniquesthat kick in just because Satan’s fingerprints are on somethingthat is happening. It’s all one war—and his mark is on everystruggle that is wrong and dark.

Fourth, spiritual warfare is a battle for lordship. At its core, it’s the battle for who you will serve. In whose image are you being made? Will you resemble the good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep? Or will you grow more and more like Satan, the liar and destroyer? This is a battle that encompasses all of life. Not just for a few odd or bizarre moments, but in every moment of every day we are in a battle for who we will serve.

In summary, Scripture treats spiritual warfare as a normal, everyday part of the Christian life, and so we should as well. It’s not about spooky special effects. It’s about how we think, feel, live, desire, and act in the presence of our enemies. The ultimate question that runs through everyone’s life and through the whole Bible is: Who will be your shepherd? Will you be shepherded by your good heavenly Father or by the liar and murderer—Satan?

Christians are often confused about what role Satan actually does play in the world and in our own lives in particular. But God’s Word gives clarity and direction. So let’s look more closely at our enemy and what he is up to.


The Bible never ignores Satan and the forces of evil arrayed against God’s people. The Evil One is not the primary actor, but he does not only appear when something unusually strange or evil is going on. The real devil is utterly normal, and his role is fully integrated into daily life. Mundane evil is the devil’s business.

At the same time, Scripture never puts Satan and his activities front and center. God puts people and our relationship to him and each other front and center. Then, just often enough, so you don’t forget, he lifts the curtain and says, “By the way—” and gives you a glimpse of what’s happening backstage. Jesus gives us one of the clearest descriptions of who Satan is and what he is doing in John 8 as he speaks to the religious leaders who have rejected him.

“Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” (John 8:43–44)

This passage encapsulates the core aspects of Satan’s identity and purposes and works and motivations and intentions. Satan is intentionally evil, and he is up to no good. He has desires he wants us to follow. He is a father. He raises children. He disciples his children in evil. Jesus points out that this is nothing new. He traces Satan’s lies all the way back to Genesis 3 where the serpent’s lies led to death for the human race.

When the apostle John discusses the interplay of flesh, world, and devil throughout his first letter, he sums up the problem in one pithy sentence: “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5:19). John is not being spooky or seeing a devil behind every bush. As we’ve seen, human life is defined by the struggle between light and darkness, good and evil, true and false, life and death. The devil sums up all that is dark, evil, false, and deadly.

Similarly, the apostle Paul discusses the same interplay of evils throughout his writing, and most pointedly in Ephesians 2:1–3:

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.

Peter takes up Jesus’s theme of Satan as murderer in 1 Peter where he describes the work of Satan as oriented around the experiences of suffering and oppression from outside forces. The issue of moral likeness is also there, but the context is how to remain faithful as you are faced with his murderous threats and intentions. Peter is emphasizing how Satan is in the world as a roaring lion seeking to devour God’s people and destroy their faith by brute force (1 Peter 5:8).

Taking all of these passages together, we see that the devil plays an underlying, behind-the-scenes role in the everyday problems of sin, misery, and death. But, again, the Bible does not lead us to make the liar and murderer the focus of ministry. People and their relationship with God are the focus. So, do speak of the devil, but don’t talk too much. The way you pay attention to Satan is analogous to how you pay attention to other influencing factors: bodily problems, personal history, cultural and peer influences, situational stressors, and sufferings. They are in the mix, but the person as a moral responder always comes front and center.

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul emphasizes Satan’s work in the world through schemes and lies and gives us direction on how to stand against Satan’s lies. There we will see, this is not just a defensive posture. This is a call to active resistance.

Excerpted from Safe and Sound ©2019 by David Powlison, New Growth Press. May not be reposted without permission.

Safe and Sound: Standing Firm in Spiritual Battles

In this helpful guide, Powlison addresses many questions with gospel answers regarding the reality of spiritual warfare, including “What is spiritual warfare?” and “How does Ephesians disciple us in spiritual warfare?”

About the author

David Powlison

David Powlison, MDiv, PhD, (1949–2019) was a teacher, counselor, and the executive director of the Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF). He wrote many books and minibooks, including Speaking Truth in Love, Seeing with New Eyes, The Biblical Counseling Movement: History and Context, Good and Angry: Redeeming Anger, Irritation, Complaining, and Bitterness, Making All Things New: Restoring Joy to the Sexually Broken, God's Grace in Your Suffering, Safe and Sound, and Take Heart. David was also the editor of The Journal of Biblical Counseling.

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