What Is Spiritual Warfare?

Jayson Bradley

The Bible tells the story of the world’s creation, humanity’s fall and God’s plan to reconcile the world to Himself through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It goes on to explain the church’s responsibility to go into the whole world and make disciples (Matthew 28:19–20). 

The narrative of humanity’s fall introduces us to the devil, who is also called Satan, and the forces he has brought to the world. These forces were responsible for tempting humankind to stray from God’s will (Genesis 3) and have worked to undermine God’s plans at every turn. In fact, the Bible repeatedly shows that the world is a warzone, and humans find themselves in the middle of an ongoing battle between God and His enemy, Satan. 

Spoiler alert: God wins! 

Here are some shortcuts to specific sections of content if you’re in a hurry:

God and the Devil Are in Conflict

In the Bible, the Gospel of Matthew offers a glimpse behind the curtain into the conflict between these two kingdoms:

Then they brought him a demon-possessed man who was blind and mute, and Jesus healed him, so that he could both talk and see. All the people were astonished and said, “Could this be the Son of David?”

But when the Pharisees heard this, they said, “It is only by Beelzebul, the prince of demons, that this fellow drives out demons.” (Matthew 12:22–24, New International Version)

The man brought to Jesus in this story is blind and mute. These are conditions naturally attributed to physical causes but not necessarily considered signs of demonic oppression. In this case, Matthew says demonic oppression was the reason for these problems. 

In response to Jesus freeing the man from his demon and healing his blindness and muteness, a group of religious leaders called the Pharisees accuse Jesus of using Satan’s power to drive out demons. They say He is trying to fool people into following Him. But Jesus answers them:

Jesus knew their thoughts and said to them, “Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined, and every city or household divided against itself will not stand. If Satan drives out Satan, he is divided against himself. How then can his kingdom stand? And if I drive out demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your people drive them out? So then, they will be your judges. But if it is by the Spirit of God that I drive out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you.

“Or again, how can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man? Then he can plunder his house.

“Whoever is not with Me is against Me, and whoever does not gather with Me scatters.” (Matthew 12:25–30, NIV)

Jesus tells the Pharisees that what they’re saying doesn’t make any sense. There’s a lot at stake in this conflict, and Satan isn’t playing games. The very fact that Jesus is casting out demons should be seen as a confirmation of His message that the kingdom of God has come. 

Then Jesus lays out a fundamental truth: There are no sidelines in this war. The kingdom of God has come, and we’re either with Jesus or against Him. There are a million ways to oppose Jesus’ work in the world, but those who are with Him are focused on the same goal: building His kingdom by both knowing and following Him and by helping others to know him too.

On the Cross, Jesus Won the War

There are multiple times in the Bible when Jesus calls the devil “the prince of this world” (John 12:31; 14:30; 16:11, NIV). Before Jesus’ ministry began, He traveled into the wilderness alone. There, Satan came and tempted Him by showing Him all the kingdoms of the world and saying, “I will give You all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If You worship me, it will all be Yours” (Luke 4:6, NIV).

Jesus didn’t challenge the truth of this statement because the devil really does have authority over the world. Instead, He quoted Deuteronomy 6:13 in response: “It is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only’” (Luke 6:8, NIV).

When Jesus asked the Pharisees, “How can anyone enter a strong man’s house and carry off his possessions unless he first ties up the strong man?” He was addressing a significant problem. To bring humanity away from the power of Satan and back to a relationship with God, He would have to deal with Satan’s power and influence among the kingdoms of the world. 

Paul, a follower of Jesus who wrote several of the books of the Bible, says that Jesus dealt with Satan’s power and influence when He died on the cross. Writing to a group of Christians in one city, he said:

You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for He forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, He disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by His victory over them on the cross. (Colossian 2:13–15, New Living Translation, emphasis added)

Because people do bad things that go against God’s best for them (which is what the Bible calls “sin”), they are destined for death without Christ. The “spiritual rulers and authorities” — that is, the devil and his evil forces — want to see God’s creatures die because they hate God. The name “Satan” comes from a Hebrew word that means “accuser.” The devil accuses people of their sins before God so that they can be punished for them.

This helps explain why Jesus described His purpose this way: “The Son of Man” —  which is what Jesus often called Himself — “did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, NIV). 

A ransom is a payment made to free a hostage. On the cross, Jesus set people free by paying their ransom with His life. When He died, He made it possible for God to forgive people’s sins. He took away the power Satan has over people when he accuses them of sin. This is how Jesus won His victory for us.

To top it off, Jesus didn’t even stay dead. He rose from the dead.

The Devil Still Has Influence

But God’s triumph on the cross doesn’t mean the conflict is over. In many ways, it has escalated. When some of the first Christians were suffering because of what they believed, another one of Jesus’ followers, Peter, warned them, “Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8, NIV).

Even though Jesus has demonstrated His power and glory on the cross, the devil is still hard at work. One of Jesus’ early followers wrote, “We know ... that the whole world is under the control of the evil one” (1 John 5:19, NIV).

If you are a follower of Jesus, you are on the frontlines of this cosmic battle. Jesus introduced His kingdom into the world like a tiny seed (Matthew 13:31–32), and it is growing as people discover the truth of the gospel message and turn to Him. But it’s pushing against a firmly established demonic structure in this world. That structure is fighting tooth and claw against people knowing Jesus personally and growing in His righteousness. 

Paul explained this to another church:

Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. (Ephesians 6:10–12, NIV)

Paul’s emphasis is on being able to withstand the devil’s assault. But he also wants to make sure God’s people understand the boundaries of spiritual warfare. Christians aren’t to consider themselves at war with other people. The kingdom of God is in conflict with satanic authorities and the systems of oppression they use to keep people enslaved and downtrodden.

Spiritual Warfare Is Resistance

The tricky thing about spiritual warfare is that you’re never really instructed to attack the enemy. Paul encourages the Ephesians to put on their armor to stand against the enemy’s schemes. In fact, you destroy Satan’s domain not through combat but by sharing about Jesus with others and standing firm in doing good and obeying His will. But as you do this, you need to be aware that the enemy is out to trip you up and make you ineffective. 

Another of Jesus’ followers, James, sums up the key to spiritual warfare: “Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and He will come near to you” (James 4:7–8, NIV).

You’re not equipped to fight hand to hand with an enemy you can’t see, especially since that enemy wants nothing more than to distract you from growing in your knowledge of Jesus and walking with Him. Instead, you engage in this conflict by submitting yourself to God and ridding yourself of Satan’s influence. The goal of spiritual warfare is to resist the devil’s schemes as you give yourself to God’s work. 

Peter reinforces this in the letter he wrote to suffering Christians. This is how he follows up his warning that the devil is prowling around like a lion: “Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings” (1 Peter 5:9).

Like James, Peter encourages you to repel the enemy’s assaults by being faithful. Peter says you resist Satan by standing firm in the faith. People often say that a good offense is the best defense. But when it comes to the enemy of your soul, the Bible wants you to understand that a good defense is the key to tearing down demonic strongholds. 

Spiritual Warfare and the Full Armor of God

One of the key biblical passages on preparing for spiritual warfare was written by Paul. It’s the next part of the verses quoted from Him above:

Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:13–17, NIV)

Like James and Peter, Paul’s concern is the ability of the believer to stand their ground. To illustrate how to do that, he invokes armor imagery. But it’s important to notice that the focus is on the protective, defensive nature of the armor

Let’s take a closer look at Paul’s metaphor:

The belt of truth.
In the same way that armor is held together and supported by the belt, the Christian life is supported and held fast by truth. If you understand the truth about who God is, your identity as His child and heir and the nature of spiritual conflict, you’re not easily taken in by the devil’s schemes.


The breastplate of righteousness.
When it came to protecting yourself in battle in ancient times, the focus was on protecting the heart and the head. You didn’t scrimp on a breastplate; your torso was the largest, most vulnerable target. In the same way, the enemy attempts to target your good works. Not only does moral failure hurt you personally, but it undermines the gospel. So be careful to protect yourself from getting knocked out of the battle by moral carelessness. 


Feet fitted with readiness from the gospel of peace.
This readiness comes from the peace of knowing that you have been made right with God. This peace can make you ready not only to stand firm in the Lord but also to share that peace with those around you. You have been given readiness to persevere in pursuing Christ. And even though you are in a battle, you are a minister of a gospel of peace.


The shield of faith.
Every attack Satan launches at you can be blocked by faith. By simply trusting in the Lord — and acting on that trust — you create a barrier that the enemy cannot penetrate. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll never suffer difficulty or harm, but in the midst of these trials, don’t let the enemy shake your confidence in God’s goodness and plan.


The helmet of salvation.
The head is the other vital area that a soldier needs to protect. What’s interesting here is that you protect your head with what’s inside of it: the knowledge of your salvation. If you are a follower of Christ, the Lord has already delivered, redeemed and liberated you. Satan’s armies can never do anything to take that away from you. This means that while he may attack you, his plans are ultimately futile.


The sword of the Spirit.
The one offensive element of God’s armor is the sword. Paul tells you that the sword of the Spirit is the Word of truth. He’s not telling you that you should attack people with God’s Word. Rather, as Jesus demonstrated during His temptation (Matthew 4:1–11), you counter the enemy’s attack by relying on scriptural truths. And as you proclaim God’s truth, the Spirit goes before you.


Taking Spiritual Warfare Seriously

Spiritual warfare is serious business. That’s why you need to be careful in the way you approach it. You need to be aware that God has an enemy who is committed to making you ineffective by whatever means necessary.

But you need to remember that it’s not your battle. Like a sheep surrounded by wolves, you are safest when you remain close to the Good Shepherd — Jesus. It’s when you get off on your own that you are at your most vulnerable.

The enemy is on the warpath because he knows his time is short (Revelation 12:12). It’s true that he’s doing a lot of damage right now, but he’s in full retreat. The good news is that the victory is the Lord’s. He has already dismantled the enemy’s kingdom. And, for that, you should rejoice.   

For some practical ways to deal with spiritual warfare, read “How to Pray Through Spiritual Warfare.”

A Legacy of Changed Lives

See how students are making a lasting impact through summer missions with Cru.

Related Topics:
Walk in the Spirit

©1994-2024 Cru. All Rights Reserved.