Discipleship: A Biblical View of the Spirit World

The spirit world is widely discussed in secular as well as religious circles. However, it is important to remember that some popular ideas today are at variance with the biblical view. Some points of importance in the biblical view are:

  • There is not an ongoing struggle for universal supremacy between the forces of darkness, led by Satan, and the forces of good, led by God. We have already victory through faith in Christ, and God is sovereign (Colossians 1:13; 2:15; 1 John 5:4; Psalm 93:1; 97:1; 1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 19:6).
  • However, Satan seeks, through temptation and through the sway of society under his control, to get us to alienate ourselves from God. We separate ourselves from God through choosing, out of our own free will, to sin by giving into our own sinful human nature, thus following Satan’s degenerate ways and accepting his considerable deceitful influence (Matthew 4:1-10; 1 John 2:16-17; 3:8; 5:19; Ephesians 2:2; Colossians 1: 21; 1 Peter 5:8; James 3:15).
  • Even the activity of Satan and his demons, including Satan’s tempting us, falls within God’s sovereignty. God allows such activity to happen because God’s will is that we have the freedom (free will) to make spiritual choices. (Job 1:6-12; Mark 1:27; Luke 4:41; Colossians 1:16-17; 1 Corinthians 10:13; Luke 22:42; 1 Corinthians 14:32).
  • The principal prescribed response for the believer to Satan and to his tempting is to resist (Matthew 4:1-10; 1 Peter 5:9; James 4:7). Resisting Satan involves praying for protection, submitting to God in obedience to Christ, being aware of how evil can attract us, acquiring spiritual attributes (which Paul calls putting on the whole armor of God), and having faith in Christ, who looks after us through the Holy Spirit (Matthew 6:31; James 4:7; 2 Corinthians 2:11; 10:4-5; Ephesians 6:10-18; 2 Thessalonians 3:3).
  • From time to time in the Gospels and in the Book of Acts, Jesus and those whom he authorizes to do so cast out demons from some who are physically and/or mentally afflicted. The motivation includes both compassion for the afflicted and attestation to the authority of Christ, the Son of God. The casting out of demons was related to the relief of mental and/or physical affliction, not to the spiritual issue of the removal of personal sin and its consequences (Matthew 17:14-18; Mark 1: 21-27; Luke 8:26-29; Luke 9:1; Acts 16: 1-18).

With reference to some modern interpretations of the spirit world, one should observe that noticeably absent from the biblical narrative are:

  • There is no support for superstitious notions;
  • The Bible does not give demonological explanations for everyday problems and sin;
  • There are no references to curses being pronounced by Satan, evil spirits or human demonic agents;
  • There are no demonic curses or “spells” that are passed on from generation to generation;
  • There are no demons that make an individual sin against the individual’s free will and that therefore need to be bound and cast out (the biblical response to sin is not to cast out an oppressive demon or spirit but for the individual to acknowledge his or personal responsibility for sin and to repent through the sacrifice of Christ);
  • There are no ritual procedures for the casting out of demons;
  • There is no use of the name of Jesus or references to the blood of Jesus as a phrase that has inherent power of itself;
  • There is no ministry devoted to the search for and the casting out of demons.

Let me make a few additional comments on the subject of curses. As noted above, the Bible does not validate the idea of curses being pronounced by Satan and/or his cohorts. In the Old Testament curses are often perceived pronouncements from God to indicate judgment for or consequences of wrong behavior – e.g. the expulsion from Eden, Deuteronomy 28, etc. Sometimes curses are made by men where cursing is used to mean to wish evil or speak evil against someone – e.g. Shimei cursed David, bless as opposed to curse your enemy, etc. The main concept of curse in the New Testament is the divine judgment of (self-induced) alienation from God as a result of personal sin, and we are redeemed from that curse through the sacrifice of Christ (Galatians 3:10-13; Revelation 22:3). In the few instances in the Bible of cursing with a view to calling on spirits to possess or influence someone or something, those who do so operate out of idolatry and out of a pagan worldview of the spirit realm (e.g. Goliath in 1 Samuel 17:43 and Balaam in Numbers 22).

A book that gives helpful perspectives on this subject is Power Encounters: Reclaiming Spiritual Warfare, by David Powlison, published in 1995 by Baker Books.

Deliverance Ministry

A number of questions have been asked about Deliverance Ministry. Deliverance Ministry typically refers to regular ceremonies and liturgical practices, sometimes within the context of weekly services, during which ministers and/or lay members seek to expel demons or remove demon influence from the whole congregation or from individual believers and/or non-believers. It also sometimes involves procedures for the unbinding of recent or generational curses. In addition, there can be activity surrounding what is known as Strategic Spiritual Warfare, which involves attempting, usually from a viewpoint of advancing the kingdom before the imminent return of Christ, to identify and attack demonic strongholds in communities, cities and nations. In our denomination, we do not practice either of these.

Any central teaching needs a sound theological foundation. A practice without a well informed supporting theological theory can become an end in itself, and is usually hard to correct. Just because people claim success does not mean that the approach is right. Many people say, “Deliverance Ministry works,” meaning that clear results are sometimes evident. However, the concept of “it works” is highly subjective and anecdotal. We need to consider the theology behind a practice or a teaching, and determine whether that theology is founded on adequate biblical reflection and research. We do not advocate looking to presumed experience alone as a means of developing doctrine and practice. In other words, just because we are caught up to feel that a practice makes us spiritual, or because it makes us feel good about ourselves, does not make the said practice in itself acceptable. All teachings and practices must come under the scrutiny of careful study of the Word of God, in other words, the discipline of careful, Christ-centered theology.

Some specific questions have been asked by a number of people:

1.      What is our position on praying for Satan to be bound at the beginning of church services?

We do not seek to be overly prescriptive on the question of congregational prayer. Obviously we would expect everything that is said and done to be to the glory of God and for the edification of the believers. From a pastoral perspective, we need to ask ourselves if we think it wise to draw attention to Satan at the beginning of church services. The answer is no, it is not appropriate and not wise. I have been to some church meetings where the first organized event is a prayer to cast out/bind Satan; sometimes this is in the form of a command. Therefore the immediate focus is not on God and on his influence on our life but on Satan and his possible past, present and future influence. Maybe Satan is happy, if he is ever happy (which I doubt), with the priority attention he receives! Theologically, we have the victory already in Christ, and any implication that somehow at the beginning of church there is a struggle with Satan is out of order.

2.      Are there guidelines on how to identify demon possession?

This is a big subject, and theologians and scholars have written much about it. Please remember that this is not a priority issue in ministry – we have not been called into the ministry in order to identify those who are possessed by the devil. Ministry is about helping people identify their Savior, Jesus Christ, and to serve those whose are his. Also, remember that, historically, a lot of superstition has revolved around this issue, and the symptoms of some now recognized diseases and psychological conditions were regarded erroneously as indications of demonic possession. As ministers and leaders, we should not encourage superstition, but rather dispel it. Remember that an essential part of our ministry is when to consider referring people with serious personality disorders to qualified professionals in the fields of medicine, counseling, psychiatry and psychology. Let’s be slow to conclude that someone is possessed by a demon. Let any such conclusions be where possible with the multitude of counsel of other ministers, and be sure to involve your ecclesiastical superior in the discussion, and be sensitive to any legal or reputation implications of actions taken.

3.      Is exorcism a gift of the Holy Spirit, and, if so, is it likely that lay members of the church are endowed with this gift and therefore can guide the ministry in these matters?

The Christian world is divided on the subject of miraculous gifts, including the casting out of demons. An interesting book that covers many of the arguments involved is Are All Miraculous Gifts for Today? Edited by Wayne A. Grudem, published by Zondervan (1996). It has not been shown that the reference to the “discerning of spirits” (1 Corinthians 12:10) is necessarily alluding to the casting out of demons. A more likely view is that it is referring to the giftedness in ministry of being able to discern attitudes and motives in individuals and congregations, and that the giftedness may possibly include but not be limited solely to the identification of demonic activity.

From the perspective of biblical precedence, the casting out of demons was performed by specific people who were authorized to do so and/or by the representative ministry, in particular by the apostles. There is no scriptural record of demons being expelled on an ad hoc basis by lay members of the congregation.

4.       Is there a specific ceremony recommended by the church for the casting out of demons?

The church has no public ceremony (that is, to be performed in the presence of the congregation) for the casting out of demons. As in the case of the anointing with oil (James 5:14) usually the setting is more private. Remember the general rules – do not be alone in this situation, be careful to respect laws involving minors, avoid the appearance of evil, etc. Having cautiously considered the situation and arrived slowly at the conclusion of suspected possession or influence, let there be at least two ministers present. Consider praying and fasting – draw close to God beforehand. Also, remember that demons respond to the authority of Christ, not to our authority – do not assume that you have authority of yourself, and do not seek to address demons and engage them in conversation – Jesus is the one who has addressed them for us. In addition, remember that this is not about magic – it is about faith. Nor is it about shouting and dramatic effect – it is about compassion for the afflicted individual, as illustrated by the ministry of our Lord.

During the prayer it is fitting to pray fervently that the Lord will rebuke Satan and his demons (Jude 9) and that the person be released from the mental and/or physical affliction involved. Afterwards, be encouraging. Pray that, through Jesus Christ who strengthens the believer (Philippians 4:13), the person involved be led to submit to God so that the devil will flee from him or her (James 4:7); pray that the peace of God, that surpasses all understanding, will guard his or her heart and mind through Jesus Christ; pray that he or she will not meditate on negative things but on the positive values of Christian thought (Philippians 4:7-8).

Remember to explain to the individual involved the importance of spiritual disciplines; warn against destructive habits; surround him or her with the community of believers; and follow up with encouragement and counseling.

The preceding remarks in response to question 4 are given as general guidelines and are not meant as a legalistic or formulaic pattern that must be followed in every situation. It would be superstitious to look to specific words and actions as effective, when the authority belongs to God.

Author: James R. Henderson

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