Effective Spiritual Warfare
As we conclude our study of this amazing letter, let’s briefly review its three themes, using Watchman Nee’s key words for each major section:
1:1-3:21 tells us to “sit”—to receive and experience and appreciate the multi-faceted gift of God’s love through Jesus (1:3; JEWELER ADMIRING).
4:1-6:9 tells us to “walk”—to respond to God’s love by expressing his love in every human relationship (EXAMPLES), so that others are impressed with and attracted to Jesus (4:1; AMBASSADOR REPRESENTING).
6:10-20 tells us to “stand”—to trust God’s love by resisting and defeating the scheming attacks of Satan and his demons (SOLDIER FIGHTING).
Now I know that for some of you, the idea of spiritual warfare sounds strange and irrelevant. But Paul assumes that his audience knows this that subject is both familiar and relevant. He knows that everyone who “sits” and “walks” also understands the importance of learning how to “stand.”
That’s the way it still works. When I received Christ, I didn’t believe in Satan and demons. Fast forward one year, and I had no doubt of their existence. Why? Not primarily because the Bible told me they existed, but because as I began grow spiritually and share his love with others, I began to experience Satan’s reality in my life in ways that made the Bible’s teaching about them relevant.
It will be the same way with you. As long as you don’t receive Christ or prioritize commending him to others, this idea of spiritual warfare will remain strange and irrelevant. Satan will leave you alone because you are doing what he wants you to do—staying separated from God and/or staying uninfluential with others. But if you receive Jesus and begin to show and share his love with others, you will begin to experience his opposition—and passages like these will become very important to you! Seen in this way, experiencing spiritual attack is a sign of spiritual health (ANTI-AIRCRAFT FIRE OVER STRATEGIC TARGETS). Conversely, the absence of spiritual attack is not a spiritual compliment, but a danger signal!
2 important attitudes
Read 6:10-13. For those of us who are “sitting” and “walking,” this tells us that “standing” (effective spiritual warfare) involves a two important attitudes concerning spiritual warfare:
On the one hand, we are to be alert and ready. The whole image here is of a soldier getting ready for battle against a formidable foe. Paul says later (as do many other New Testament passages) “Stay alert” (6:18). Every day is a day of potential attack from an enemy that is vastly more powerful and intelligent and ruthless than any human terrorist. Our attitude should never be “if”—but only “when” and “how” he will attack. Pearl Harbor and 9/11 happened because the American military and security forces did not have this attitude—they were lax, over-confident, underestimating their enemy. Until Jesus returns, we should always be at level red/orange for ourselves and others!
On the other hand, we should be confident. We should not be afraid or intimidated, because we have all of the resources we need to defeat every attack of Satan. This is because we have “the full armor of God.” This is simply a colorful way of saying that we have Jesus with us, and he is far greater than Satan (1Jn.4:4). Paul’s analogy of spiritual armor is drawn in part from Roman soldiers (they were all familiar with them and Paul was chained to one; PICTURE)—but it is drawn more from Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah (Isa.11; 52; 59; Ps.18). Jesus has already dealt Satan a lethal blow on the cross, he will crush him completely when he returns—and he will protect us and push Satan back through us as we simply depend on him and appropriate what he has already given us.
The armor of God
What is this full armor of God? Read 6:14-17. Paul describes six elements: belt, body armor, boots, shield, helmet and sword. (He also speaks of two other spiritual resources that we’ll look at later.) Each piece of armor explains something about Jesus’ resources and how Satan attacks.
First, put on the “belt of truth.” Roman belts were not technically part of the armor, but they were crucial because they were the structure to which key armor pieces were attached. The breastplate was held in place by the belt, and the sword was attached to the belt. Without the belt, they would be ineffective.
Our belt is the belt of God’s truth. Jesus is the truth (Jn. 14:6), and the word of truth is the gospel, the message of God’s grace (Col.1:5,6). So to put on the belt of truth means not just to read the Bible regularly, but to consciously recall and focus on what the Bible tells us about Jesus and what Jesus has given us (Col.3:16a). Any other focus (including “good” things) will make us vulnerable. We’ll see what this looks like in the other five armor pieces...
Second, put on the “breastplate of righteousness.” Breastplates were crucial because they protected the vital organs. They were shirts of mail—light and flexible for combat, but effective in deflecting both long-distance arrows and blows from close combat.
Our breastplate is Christ’s righteousness. I am amazed that commentators would suggest that this refer to our righteousness, our integrity. One of Satan’s most effective attacks is to tempt us to believe what we naturally (and sinfully want to) believe—that our acceptance by God is based on our performance for him. Once we move back on to that ground, it easy for Satan to sever us from the key to our spiritual lives—that we are accepted or loved or delighted in by God not at all on because of what I do for him, but only because of what Jesus has already done for me. “We all automatically gravitate toward the assumption that we are (accepted by our performance), and when this posture is adopted it inevitably focuses our attention not on Christ but on the adequacy of our obedience. We start each day with our personal security resting not on the accepting love of God and the sacrifice of Christ but on our present feelings or recent achievements in the Christian life. Since these arguments will not quiet the human conscience, we are inevitably moved either to discouragement and apathy or to a self-righteousness which falsifies the record... But the faith that... is able to warm itself at the fire of God’s love, instead of having to steal love and self-acceptance from other sources, is actually the root of (spiritual health).”1 Putting on the breastplate of righteousness is daily and situationally remembering and affirming and rejoicing that “God accepts, loves, and delights in me as much as he does his Son Jesus.”
Third, put on the “shoes of the gospel of peace.” Roman soldiers’ wore leather sandals that had cleated soles (PICTURE) to keep their footing stable during battle, because to fall was usually fatal.
Some commentators say that this refers to being ready to share the gospel with others. This is very important—and Paul asks us to pray for him to be able to do this in 6:19,20—but this is not what it means to put on the shoes of the gospel of peace. The NLT captures the meaning: “For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared.” You need stability to be effective in spiritual warfare, you need to be protected from being knocked off your feet by the debilitating anxiety in your heart. You need your mind and heart to be guarded by God’s peace (Phil.4:6,7). And this kind of peace is available only through the good news that Jesus is with you. He is sovereign and faithful—nothing can happen to you except that it first comes through his wise and loving hands, and he will protect you from ultimate harm and work through your adversities to do good to you and through you to others. Putting on these shoes is daily and situationally remembering and affirming Jesus’ sovereign hand on your life.
Fourth, put on the “shield of faith.” The Roman scutum (PICTURE) was large enough (4’ by 2’) to shield the entire body from terrifying fiery arrow assaults. They were coated with leather soaked in water to catch and extinguish these pitch-dipped flaming arrows.
Taking up the shield of faith is simply protecting yourself from Satan’s lies by recalling and affirming God’s promises. In one way, every piece of weapon we’ve talked about so far is a shield in this sense. Maybe Paul is simply generalizing this principle for emphasis. Or maybe he has specific spiritual attacks in mind. I apply it to particularly devastating lies like: “Your spiritual life is washed up;” “You are so sinful in this area that you can never be delivered;” “Everything in the church is in free-fall;” “This adversity will destroy you and there is nothing anyone can do about it;” “Your whole relationship with God is a fraud.” These thoughts, coupled with negative circumstances and intensely negative feelings, buckle my knees and knock the wind out of me. They tower above me and beat down on me with a relentless pressure that seems sure to crush me. They obscure the sunshine of God’s love with a cloud so dark that it makes my heart despair. What can I do? I can put up the shield of faith. I can recall what God promises and I can affirm them to him and hold on this way until the arrow assault passes—and it will pass (Jas.4:7; 1Pet.5:10). Sometimes it passes quickly, sometimes it goes on for days or weeks (LAST SUMMER)—but it will pass if you hold up the shield of faith!
Fifth, take up the “helmet of salvation.” Roman helmets were made of bronze and were padded inside with sponge or fur (PICTURE). They protected the head from all but the most crushing blows.
Our helmet is our “salvation” or “the hope of salvation” (1Thess. 5:8). This probably refers to the absolute guarantee of our entrance into God’s eternal kingdom. Especially if other attacks fail, Satan will try to intimidate us with the fear of physical death (Heb.2:14,15). Whether through overt persecution (as is the norm in church history) or by working on our fears about physical illness or the fact of our mortality, he will try to get us to compromise or despair instead of serving Christ all the way to dying well as a witness of his life and love. Jesus is our helmet of salvation, because he conquered death through his death, and his resurrection guarantees our physical resurrection if we belong to him—and his Spirit can fill us with confidence about our eternal destiny so that we can confident of our future (Stephen; Dave Chilcoat). Furthermore, when we focus on having eternity sewed up, this cuts hardships down to size by comparison (Rom. 8:18) and makes us spiritually buoyant (2Cor.5:16-18).
Sixth, take up the “sword of the Spirit.” This is the short sword, the machaira, that was holstered on the soldier’s belt (PICTURE). It was a devastating weapon for close combat, and soldiers were trained to stab in the gaps between enemy armor.
Our sword is the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Paul is calling attention to the spiritual power of God’s Word. When we speak it (rema) in response to the Spirit’s guidance (not as a magical incantation), God’s Spirit will energize it to expose Satan’s lies. Since the other armor pieces refer to using God’s Word in our own defense, I believe Paul is referring here to using God’s Word as a weapon to help others who are being deceived and attacked by Satan. Whether by a word of counsel or warning or encouragement or instruction or evangelism, Spirit-led utterances of God’s Word go deep into people’s souls. They break Satan’s deceptive spell, and shine the light of hope that provides people with the opportunity to turn to Jesus. I have received this help many times, and I know that it is the main thing I have to offer people who need help.
There are two more keys to spiritual warfare that Paul doesn’t fit into his armor analogy.
One is prayer (read 6:18). Prayer is personal dependence on God, and every part of armor that we’ve talked about must be interwoven with prayer. Turning to God is personal, dependent prayer at the beginning of each day and in the intervals between your daily situations is crucial to effective spiritual warfare. But prayer is not to be only by and for me; it is also to be with and for other Christians, which brings us to the other key...
The other is spiritual friendship with other Christians. This is implied by the plural verbs, and by the Roman maniple (PICTURE; Col.2:5). I learned the hard way that “isolated Christians are defeated Christians.” Have you learned that you are no match for Satan by yourself? Are you involved enough with some Christian friends that you regularly share about the state of your spiritual lives, and regularly pray together concerning these matters? Are you in spiritual friendships that are committed to watching each other’s spiritual backs? If not, you are not only missing a crucial part of your armor—you are missing one of the most wonderful features of the Christian life! Ask God for this and take a step in this direction (HOME GROUP; WORKER TEAM; etc.)!
1 Richard F. Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1979), pp.211-213.