While we may expect unregenerate men to have no discernment on this issue, it has to be a matter of concern when – given the prominent warnings of the New Testament – the demonic ceases to be a vital part of the belief of professing Evangelicals.
For the apostles, understanding the existence and wiles of Satan was essential to Christian living: ‘Be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might … For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age’ (Ephesians 6:10, 12). This teaching determines the biblical view of human need.
Non-Christians are in a condition of blindness and bondage. They are under a power greater than the will of man and from which only Christ can set them free. Here was the recognition which led the apostles to repudiate all the world’s methods for winning disciples. Supernatural power had to be met with supernatural power: ‘For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:3-4).
Darkness and confusion
The biblical revelation on evil spirits is no less relevant to the way in which the church is to defend herself against the demonic. We are constantly warned that Satan works principally through doctrinal deception and falsehood. He was the inspiration for all the false prophets of the Old Testament: ‘He is a liar and the father of it’ (John 8:44).
His great intent is to bring darkness and confusion into the church as he did among the Jews. It was a lie of Satan which brought judgement into the infant church at Jerusalem (Acts 5:3). It was Satan who at Paphos opposed Paul on his first missionary journey by using a sorcerer ‘to turn away the proconsul from the faith’ (Acts 13:8).
The church at Corinth was in danger of allowing ‘a different gospel’ to be unopposed because ‘the serpent who deceived Eve by his craftiness’ was working to mislead her (2 Corinthians 11:3).
False prophets arise within the church yet they do not appear as such: ‘And no wonder!’, writes the apostle, ‘For Satan himself transforms himself into an angel of light’ (2 Corinthians 11:14). The idea that Christianity stands chiefly in danger from the forces of materialism, or from secular philosophy, or from pagan religions, is not the teaching of the New Testament. The greatest danger comes rather from temptations within and from those who, using the name of Christ, are instruments of Satan to lead men to believe a lie. ‘False christs and false prophets will arise and show great signs and wonders, so as to deceive, if possible, even the elect’ (Matthew 24:24).
No one can rightly believe this without seeing the seriousness of error. Wrong belief is as dangerous as unbelief. To deny the deity and the work of Christ will shut men out of heaven as certainly as will the sin of murder (John 8:24; 1 John 2:22-23).
To preach ‘another gospel’ is to be ‘accursed’ (Galatians 1:6-9).Those who support heresies ‘will not inherit the kingdom of God’ (Galatians 5:20-21).This means that a large part of the preservation and defence of the church lies in resolute resistance to falsehood and in forthright teaching of the truth. Such warnings as ‘beware of the doctrine of the Pharisees and Sadducees’ (Matthew 16:12), for they ‘shut up the kingdom of God against men’ (Matthew 23:13), run right through the New Testament.
The apostles, filled with the Spirit of Christ, suffered no toleration of error. They opposed it wherever it arose and required the same spirit of all Christians. Eusebius, the early church historian, wrote of their outlook: ‘Such caution did the apostles and their disciples use, so as not even to have any communion, even in word, with any of those that thus mutilated the truth, according to the declaration of Paul: “An heretical man after the first and second admonition avoid, knowing that such a one is perverse, and that he sins, bringing condemnation on himself”.’
Consistent with love
Yet today this kind of witness against heresy and error, if not altogether silenced, has become muted to an extraordinary degree. ‘Even the mildest assertion of Christian truth today sounds like a thunderclap because the well-polished civility of our religious talk has kept us from hearing much of this kind of thing’ (Wells, No place for truth, p.10).
The explanation often given by Evangelicals for the lack of confrontation with error is that a harsh militancy has done more harm than good. As Christians, it is said, we do not want to be party to the kind of strident controversy which has too often marred the faith. Dr Billy Graham has often blamed ‘fundamentalists’ for this fault.
But the fact that what the New Testament says on love has been ignored, is no reason why its injunctions against error should not be obeyed. That some have followed these injunctions in a contentious spirit is no excuse for others not to follow them at all.
A biblical contending against error is fully consistent with love; indeed it is love for the souls of men which requires it. The command to contend for the faith is not abrogated because some have failed to speak the truth in love.
However, there would appear to be a far more probable reason for the contemporary absence of opposition to error. It is the way in which the instrumentality of the devil in corrupting the truth has been so widely overlooked.
In this, as I have already said, we differ widely from Scripture. Instead of believers in the apostolic age being directed to listen to all views ‘with an open mind’, they were told how to ‘test the spirits, whether they are of God’ (l John 4:1). For there are ‘deceiving spirits and doctrines of demons’ (1 Timothy 4:1); false teachers ‘who will secretly bring in destructive heresies’ (2 Peter 2:1). There are words which ‘spread as a cancer’ (2 Timothy 2:17).
– Iain Murray