The World, the Flesh, and the Devil

CHAPTER 1- TAKING THE FIGHT TO ALL OUR ENEMIES

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the 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. ~Ephesians 2:1-3

I have a confession to make: I’m a history nerd. I teach American history to sixth graders, and I often get unduly excited about all the obscure, interesting stories that probably made your eyes glaze over when you were that age (don’t feel bad for them, though; history is fun!). I read big tomes about the Civil War just for the enjoyment of it. And so I’m very tempted, in this book on spiritual warfare, to draw every illustration from some great battle in history. But don’t put this book down in disgust, because I promise I’ll try my best to restrain myself. However, please permit me just one historical illustration here in the first chapter.

I particularly love World War II; I think it’s one of the most fascinating, inspirational episodes in American history. There’s a reason that your grandparents or great-grandparents are often called “The Greatest Generation;” the entire nation dedicated all its blood and treasure to fighting the evils of totalitarianism, and we owe them our freedom today.

For nearly half my life, America has been engaged in the “war on terror,” first in Afghanistan, then Iraq, and now, at the time of this writing, the Islamic State. But there’s one particular aspect of World War II that is very different from the war we’re fighting today. During WWII, the home front was completely engaged in the struggle that was taking place on distant battlefields. There was rationing and recycling drives, people planted “victory gardens” to grow food for their families so that more food could be shipped overseas, wives went to work in the factories, people bought war bonds. The home front was gladly and fully engaged in the war effort.

Now compare that to today’s war, and you’ll see the difference. America is at war again—our longest war, in fact. But looking around, you wouldn’t know it. There’s no difference here on the home front. We’re at war, but we’re living like we’re at peace.

The Christian life is war. There is a war going on all around us—and within us— with eternity hanging in the balance, and yet most of us are walking around like nothing is wrong, like there is no war and no danger and no enemy. We have been successfully lulled to sleep by the enemy’s strategies; surrounded by comfort and ease and success and prosperity, sitting in air conditioned church buildings with padded seats, it’s easy to think that the Christian life is a gentle stroll instead of an all-out war.

And yet the Christian life really is war. At the end of his life, the apostle Paul summarized his life and ministry with these words: “I have fought the good fight.” Could we say the same thing? We have enemies opposed to us—without and within, bent on our destruction—and yet for most of us, myself included, we’re living like it’s peacetime. We don’t have a wartime mindset or a wartime lifestyle.

But the news from this battlefield is even more sobering than that, because it turns out that in this war we have more than one enemy; in fact, we have three. The trifecta of what the Bible calls “the world, the flesh, and the devil” sum up the forces arrayed against us, bent on derailing our spiritual life, silencing our witness, and stifling our love and passion for God.

These three enemies are seen throughout the New Testament. In Ephesians 2, as Paul is describing our desperate situation prior to the saving grace of God, he describes how these three enemies have conspired to work together to keep us in that spiritually dead condition.

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of the 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. ~Ephesians 2:1-3

Do you see the three enemies mentioned? Prior to God’s converting, awakening grace, we were dead in our sins, “following the course of the world.” There’s the first enemy: the world. Like a dead fish that floats with the current, our natural pre-conversion bent was to go along with the rest of the world, blindly participating in our culture’s unique rebellions against God. We were satisfied with worldly possessions, power, and prestige instead of delighting in the God who gives those things. This is the enemy that Jesus points out in his parable of the sower; he calls them thorns: “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches and the desires for other things enter in and choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” That’s worldliness.

Keep reading Ephesians 2, and you’ll meet our second enemy in the very next phrase: “following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience.” Paul is referring to Satan here, and what he’s saying is that our problem is greater than just worldliness; in following the course of the world, we’re really following the prince of darkness who has authority over this fallen world. Systems of worldly thought and worldly temptations are really demonic systems of thought and demonic temptations. That means, on one hand, that our first enemy is no small potatoes: the allure of worldliness is owing in large part to Satanic influence. But it also means that we can’t just focus on worldliness in the struggle for holiness; we also have to recognize the reality of the demonic and the role that Satan plays in our temptations and struggles. This enemy also makes an appearance in Jesus’ parable: “These are the ones along the path, where the word is sown: when they hear, Satan immediately comes and takes away the word that is sown in them.”

But we can’t just stop with those two enemies; there is a third in this text as well: “among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind.” “The flesh” is the New Testament’s term for our sinful nature; it’s the natural bent of our hearts away from God and towards self-love and self-rule. We are born as fallen people, and without God’s regenerating grace, our hearts and minds will never respond to God with the reverence, love, and obedience that he is due. At the moment of salvation, when God sovereignly takes the blinders off of our darkened hearts and we first see and respond to Jesus as beautiful and compelling (2 Corinthians 3:3-6), we are indwelt with the Holy Spirit and given a new nature that is alive and responsive to God. But even as Christians, this sinful flesh, this indwelling sin, still remains in us, and our sinful hearts are constantly tugging us away from God and towards temptation.

These are the three enemies of our souls. Apart from God’s sovereign grace, we have no hope of ever escaping Ephesians 2:1-3; the triple-team of the world, the flesh, and the devil make it impossible for us to ever even want to choose to follow Jesus.

But here’s the question: once we are saved, and rescued from the damning, dominating effects of the world, the flesh, and the devil, how do we go about fighting them? The battle still rages, whether we realize it or not. You may have been rescued from worldliness, freed from Satan’s clutches, and given a new heart, but worldliness still allures, Satan still tempts, and your sinful heart still loves its sin. We need strategies that recognize all three of these enemies, and engage in the full battle for our souls.

The reason I’m writing this book is two-fold: my conviction that everything in the Christian life is connected to the cross, and my concern that our strategies in this battle are sorely lacking.

CROSS-CONNECTED WARFARE

The first reason is that I am convinced that the heartbeat of the Christian life, and the primary motivation that God uses to change us, is the gospel. Over and over again, the biblical authors draw lines of motivation from the cross to various areas of our lives. From “we love because he first loved us” to “forgive one another as God in Christ forgave you” to “husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church,” the cross is the engine of the Christian life. The way that God designed the Christian life to be lived is by plugging every area of our lives into its power.

This arena of spiritual warfare and the fight of sanctification is no different. In fact, each one of these enemies was decisively defeated at the cross. We’ll unpack the implications of these verses later, but for now, I just want you to see how the cross deals with each of our enemies:

THE WORLD

Far be it from me to boast, except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. ~Galatians 6:14

THE FLESH

We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin. ~Romans 6:6

THE DEVIL

God made us alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. ~Colossians 2:13-15

The cross and the gospel are bigger than just “Jesus died to forgive my sins.” The cross is the decisive event by which God defeated all three of our enemies and applied that victory to us. What that means for us, both theologically and practically, is what we’ll unpack in Part Two and Three.

EXPANDED BATTLE STRATEGIES

The second reason I’m writing this book is that I have been coming to the growing realization that for most of us—including me—our strategies for fighting the fight of sanctification are lacking, for the simple reason that we’re not recognizing and engaging all three of our enemies. Typically, we’re only aware of one at a time. And because we’re not recognizing how the world, the flesh, and the devil are all involved in this war, our strategies have only limited success. Could it be that the reason we’re not seeing more breakthroughs and victories in our struggle against sin is because we’re only fighting one of our enemies, and not all three?

Most churches and denominations and individual Christians tend to focus on one of our three enemies. Let’s think through what that looks like. As we briefly examine each enemy and the pitfalls of focusing on only one of them, think and pray about which one you tend to gravitate towards.

THE WORLD

Some believers, especially those from particularly conservative backgrounds, tend to focus most of their sanctification fight on worldliness. To them, worldliness is the main enemy. Temptation arises from the sinful world and culture around them, and so it is of the utmost importance in the Christian life to separate yourself from worldly influences. Don’t watch R-rated movies, don’t listen to secular music, dress modestly, homeschool your kids.

Now here’s the thing: to a great extent, believers who think this way are right. We live in an increasingly post-Christian, hedonistic, sexually perverted and promiscuous culture. We are told in no uncertain terms to flee from sexual immorality (Ephesians 5:3) and that friendship with the world is enmity with God (James 4:4). So to be on guard against all forms of worldliness is commendable. There is a lot of wisdom in avoiding things that would tempt us or outright cause us to sin. Modesty is important. The biblical command to train up your children in the fear and discipline of the Lord leads many parents to prayerfully decide to homeschool their kids. These are all good things.

But the pitfall in focusing on the dangers of worldliness is that we often underestimate our other two enemies, to our own peril. And Satan is crafty and our hearts are deceitful; it is way too easy for a good guard against worldliness to turn into being sheltered, naïve, narrow-minded, legalistic people who have so many external rules that we can never get past them to reach a culture that is perishing. A focus on worldliness to the exclusion of our other enemies quickly turns into an emphasis on externals and performance: don’t wear certain clothes, don’t listen to certain music, don’t go certain places, don’t smoke or chew or go with girls who do. Pretty soon our “sanctification” has devolved into the plot of Footloose, and we’ve deceived ourselves into thinking we’re holy, when we’re really just Pharisees.

THE FLESH

Other groups of Christians, while certainly not discounting the reality of worldliness, put much more emphasis on the flesh. Full disclosure: this is the theological pool I swim in, and I tend to focus on this area of sanctification to the dangerous exclusion of the other two. This kind of believer has a deep and robust understanding of the sinful nature. They are the first to assent to the doctrine of total depravity, and have spent many hours in accountability groups discussing their heart motives and root idols. They (okay, me) have John Owen’s The Mortification of Sin on their bookshelf and admire the Puritans for their deep understanding of the sinfulness of the human heart.

Just like the first group, these are all really good things. A sober, biblical view of human nature is a fount of wisdom, and people who have plumbed the depths of the human heart and are well acquainted with its deception are some of the wisest, most winsome, humble people on the planet. But as I survey wider American Christian circles, I don’t see a lot of this kind of wisdom; I think our view of the sinful nature is too often weak and shallow and unbiblical. Much of the American church could use a good dose of the humility and wisdom that comes with emphasizing the role of the flesh in our temptations and struggles. Especially when this emphasis is combined with a good grasp on the gospel, a proper understanding and appreciation for the power of the flesh is a potent weapon for sanctification. Most of my own growth in godliness has come from seeing the root idols behind patterns of sin in my life, and most of my counseling and discipleship centers on getting the gospel down to the root issues in the heart.

But just like we’ve seen before, when the role of the flesh is emphasized to the exclusion of our other enemies, the result is imbalance, weakness, and error. I don’t need to look farther than my own life to see the fruit of this. How many hours have I spent soaking in the banality of television, only to be left wondering why my heart is so cold to the things of God? I spend hours in accountability groups dissecting the idols in my heart and the lies I unconsciously believe, trying to get to the heart of my struggle with lust, never realizing that the worldly entertainment and immodesty that fills my life makes it nearly impossible to cultivate a heart of purity. And while I can understand all the root issues in my heart in given areas of sin, I still find myself frustrated and defeated year after year, never considering that patterns of sin open my heart to demonic influence and oppression that keep me chained in those same cycles of sin. Paul made this connection in Ephesians 4: “Do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity for the devil.” Apparently, unresolved anger opens opportunities for Satan to exploit and oppress. But that never crosses my mind in accountability; I’m too focused on “getting to the root of the problem.”

THE DEVIL

Our third enemy, Satan, is the most polarizing of all our foes. It seems like Christians either act like the devil doesn’t exist, or live like he’s lurking in every dark corner. These twin errors shouldn’t surprise us, of course; if Satan is the father of lies then it makes sense that he would go to great lengths to deceive believers as to his true power and purpose.

Christians who emphasize this third enemy over the other two tend to hail from Pentecostal or Charismatic camps (although that’s not always the case). These are the believers who read books on intercessory prayer, attend conferences on spiritual warfare, and are frequently found praying for deliverance and healing for themselves and others.

Just like the other two groups we’ve looked at, this emphasis has a lot of positives. In many areas of the church, our knowledge and experience with spiritual warfare is sorely lacking. Paul said of Satan, “We are not ignorant of his schemes (2 Corinthians 2:11).” How many of us could say that today? Christians who take Satan and spiritual warfare seriously know what the armor of God is and are well-trained to obey the biblical command to put it on and take their stand against evil. Most of the great prayer warriors that I’ve known—saints who are deeply committed to intercessory prayer—have also been very focused on this enemy. There’s a reason for that; when you recognize the power, deception, and spiritual nature of this enemy, you’re pushed to your knees in a more urgent way than the fight against worldliness and flesh tend to provoke. Believers like this often have great stories of victory over oppression and miracles of healing. Perhaps the reason that those sorts of things aren’t seen as much in other corners of the church is that the rest of us aren’t taking this battle seriously enough.

But as in everything, a strong emphasis on Satan and the demonic inevitably leads to error and imbalance (isn’t it ironic that Satan will use a strong emphasis on his own power to blind us to the reality of our other enemies!). It seems to me that many Christians who put a strong emphasis on Satan’s power have a correspondingly weak understanding of the power of the flesh. In their view, sin is primarily something that comes from without, through the temptation and deception of Satan, rather than arising from our own twisted, deceitful hearts. While the devil does prowl around like a roaring lion, I am much more afraid of my own sinful heart than I am of him, and I think that’s biblical. But when Satan is the be-all and end-all of spiritual warfare, every struggle against sin ends up boiling down to a “pray to claim the power of Jesus” expectation of victory, rather than rolling up the sleeves for a long, hard, prayerful look at the condition of our own hearts.

In addition, an undue emphasis on Satan tends to cause us to see his activity everywhere, often in ways that the Bible doesn’t warrant. Recently my 14-month old son was seriously sick for about a week, and a dear friend who hails from this camp (who is also a wise, godly saint and fervent prayer warrior) suggested that perhaps the cause of his sickness was that a spirit of illness had taken up residence in our home. She gave suggestions as to what sort of strategies work against that kind of evil spirit. Maybe she was right… or maybe he just had the flu. Either way, identifying various kinds of spirits and attaching battle strategies to each of them goes beyond the information that we’re given in God’s Word, and leaves us with the tendency to see demons under every doily. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t want to discount the reality of the demonic and Satan’s hand in our trials. If you don’t think that he’s involved in any of your trials, read the book of Job and 1 Peter. But not everything is demonic, and even those things that do have his fingerprints on them can often be effectively addressed by the amazing grace of medicine as well as the amazing grace of prayer.

Jesus himself saw the difference and used divine discernment to distinguish maladies that were rooted in the physical from those that were rooted in the spiritual. In Luke 13 he saw a woman “who had a disabling spirit.” He cast out the demon and she was free from her crippling paralysis. But many other times when he saw a crippled person, we’re told he healed them, not that he cast out demons. Jesus saw the difference, and we should pray for the ability to see the difference too. I think that sort of wise discernment will grow as we learn to broaden our understanding of the war and begin to fight all our enemies, not just Satan.

TAKING THE FIGHT TO ALL OUR ENEMIES

You can see from these observations that most Christians tend to emphasize one of our enemies over and against the other two. You yourself probably fall into one of those three groups. While there are helpful insights to be gained by understanding each one, our failure to appreciate and engage in the full scope of the battle inevitably leads us into defective battle strategies. We need to learn to take the fight to all our enemies.

That’s what I’m praying this book will be useful for. In Part 1, we’ll take some time to better understand the world, the flesh, and the devil—what they are, and how they are opposed to our witness and growth in godliness. In Part 2, we’ll celebrate how each of those enemies were disarmed at the cross and see what that means for our lives now. And finally, in Part 3 we’ll look to God’s Word for some practical strategies in fighting each enemy.

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