Results tagged “spiritual warfare” from Reformation21 Blog

A Reformed Demonology?


The rather measured and restrained work by John Livingston Nevius (1829-1893), Demon Possession and Allied Themes; Being an Inductive Study of Phenomena of Our Own Times, delivers exactly what the title promises, though what it promises is rather unusual by the author's own admission.

Nevius was a Presbyterian missionary with a Dutch Reformed background. He graduated from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1853 with the high regard for science but firm commitment to the supreme authority, pristine integrity, and complete trustworthiness of Scripture instilled in the students by the faculty he studied under (Archibald Alexander and Charles Hodge, for starters). Upon graduating he was promptly ordained and then went straight to China with his new wife in cramped quarters on a leaky old merchant ship out of Boston. He would serve there the rest of his life--over forty years--with just a handful of interludes due mostly to his wife's uneven health.

The Nevius Plan

Nevius is best remembered today for the "Nevius Plan" of mission work. In brief, he believed the missionary's task was nothing else but the old school task of preaching the gospel to all kinds of people at every opportunity and building up a self-propagating, self-governing, and self-supporting indigenous church. To do this required a robust program of systematic Bible study alongside evangelism in order to train up local leaders to rule and minister effectively.

Nevius's focus on a thorough indigenization of Christianity on the mission field was outside the box in his generation (and still is in some respects). Nevius did not believe we should be creating or maintaining lines of dependence that placed the missionary or mission team or mission agency--all foreign entities--at the center of the work. Yet he was also wary of dumping the Bible on people without instruction. He thought the word ought to be ministered to people by preachers and teachers who lived it out in their lives and served it up in the local language. Missionaries were to be so heavily invested and deeply devoted to their work that they lived and traveled lightly in the world.

Perhaps the great irony of his life's work is that his plan was never adopted in China. He published his views in Chinese Recorder and Missionary Journal in 1885 (subsequently published as a short volume under the title The Planting and Development of Missionary Churches, 1899). He was then invited to share the plan at length with missionaries to Korea at a formative time in the development of that new mission. The missionaries there fully embraced it and today the Nevius Plan is widely cited as a critical factor in the rapid indigenization of Christianity and Presbyterianism on the peninsula. Back in China, his plan was never really adopted until it was eventually hijacked by the Communist Party and twisted to support their anti-foreigner campaign.


Reformed Demonology

While on the field in China, however, he also witnessed and received numerous reports of supposed cases of demon possession. In Demon Possession and Allied Themes, Nevius attempts to sort through his observation of such a case on the field and reports of similar occurrences by others serving in China and elsewhere around the world. Prurient interest in demons was not his motive; rather, "the prosecution of his missionary work in China . . . repeatedly forced" this question on him, "so that if became absolutely necessary to examine it, and to form an intelligent opinion respecting it" (ix). As such, "this is not a work of the imagination." His object is simply to "present a truthful statement of facts, confident that from such a course, nothing but good can come to the cause either of science or religion" (x).

The facts were that he did encounter and receive reports of apparent demon possession in the field and the Chinese people understood these cases to be just what the appeared to be for as long as their history was known. When they heard the gospel accounts of instances of demon possession, this was something very familiar to them even though it was completely unfamiliar to the Western missionaries working among them.

Chinese converts were a bit baffled by this, and Nevius felt compelled to offer some answer. He was initially skeptical and confesses "it was my hope when I began to investigate the subject of so-called 'demon-possession' that the Scriptures and modern science would furnish the means of showing the Chinese, that these phenomena need not be referred to demons." His final report, which was published just after his death, reflects this intention.

The first third or more of the work relates supposed instances of possession and similar occurrences drawn mostly from China (and most often from Chinese reports), but also from other mission fields in the world. He then launches into an extended analysis considering evolutionary, pathological, and psychological theories of the facts he has established, before turning to "the biblical theory." One might wonder whether some of these reports are reliable or whether more of them might have a psychological explanation than Nevius permitted. Nevertheless, he is quit aware not all reports are credible and that there is a real difference between mental illness and demon possession.

He is also aware that demon possession and similar phenomena "are taught clearly and unmistakably in both the Old and New Testaments" and that "these teachings are not occasional and incidental, but underlie all Biblical history and Biblical doctrines" (243). He then draws out the apologetic issue at stake with commendable clarity and precision, in my estimation. (Perhaps I can return to a bit of that in a future post.)

Nevius's Reformed demonology, if you will, is cautious. As noted, he focuses on establishing just the descriptive facts as far as he is able and then considers all the available explanations known to him. He does not take accounts at face value but neither does he lightly dismiss what seems credible. His central task is to bring it all under the judgment of Scripture. Having set out to convince the Chinese that supposed cases of demon-possession were in fact something else, however, "the result has been quite the contrary" (262).

Distinguishing between demon-induced temptation and demon possession, Nevius reasons that Christians are frequent objects of the former but never the latter since believers are indwelled by the Spirit of Christ who dispossesses Satan and his kingdom. He even indulges a bit of speculation that demon possession is more common in those parts of the world where the gospel has not made much progress, and that they "appear to our view, with comparatively few exceptions, only as the epoch when the advancing tide of aggressive Christianity comes into contact and collisions with the storm-tossed sea of heathenism" (278).



Nevius's arguments are not unfamiliar to contemporary readers, but they are both better constructed and more measured than those frequently encountered in popular literature on this topic--all the more commendable given the pioneering nature of his study. Demon Possession and Allied Themes is not just an interesting mission artifact but also a solid piece of theology with an apologetic pay-off. It is not a complete demonology. It is, however, a model of discretion in dealing with reports of this sort; it is also a thoroughly Reformed contribution to the field by a man working through his cessationist convictions on the mission field while addressing an increasingly anti-supernatural intelligentsia in America (see Newbold's New World review, 1897) who could do little more with this work than thank him for the effort and smirk at what its supposedly simple-minded, creed-determined conclusions.

The Consequences of Ideas in New York


By now, most Christians in America have seen the images: thunderous applause at the New York State Assembly and a festively decorated World Trade Center spire. And what is the great deliverance celebrated by this applause? The legal freedom to terminate babies until the moment they are born. One wonders how such a large segment of society - in New York and across America - could embrace such a diabolical legislation, against all scientific proof of sustainable human life within the womb?

One essential answer is that attitudes and behaviors are formed from ideas. And behind the gleeful celebration of the slaughter of pre-born babies is the idea that there is no God. The chief doctrine of secular humanism - embedded in the very expression - is that life does not originate as the creation of a personal and moral deity. The consequence of this denial of God is not only the rebellious egocentricity by which men and women would terminate their own children for the sake of convenience but also the loss of the very idea of humanity. Francis Schaeffer pointed out the consequences of atheistic naturalism forty-five years ago: "if we begin with an impersonal universe, there is no explanation of personality." His point was that our conception of human experience is tied to our conception of God: "when men try to explain man on the basis of an original impersonal, man soon disappears."1 Thus a society founded on the "no God" idea cannot fail to descend into a culture of death, so that life becomes a pawn in calculations of utility and contests of power.

Proof of Schaeffer's prediction is seen all around us. Not only do our fellow citizens rejoice in the slaughter of infants, but the language of violence and murder increasingly fills our political debate. In service of this dehumanizing of society we find not only the ultimate idea in the denial of God, but supporting ideas that buttress an ungodly worldview. Political violence is supported by identity politics and the ideas of cultural Marxism. The standard argument for abortion is the claim that women must have the right over their own body - a claim rendered illogical by the reality that a baby inside her is the body of another person. So it is that not only ultimate ideas but also supporting doctrines have deadly consequences. Out of ideas flow results, and by the pen the savage scalpel is unleashed.

Yet another way ideas have consequences is that there is, in truth, a God. Moreover, this God inflicts righteous judgment on those who deny him. This consequence of ideas - the wrath of God on idolatrous rebellion - also is necessary to account for the spectacle of a great city and state rejoicing for the right to slay innocents. Romans 1:21 says that "although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened." Here is an explanation for the irrationality inherent to the pro-abortion position. More than the mere moral consequence of unbelief, Scripture shows that in judgment "God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false" (2 Thess. 2:11). Is this not a likely explanation for the moral insanity of the New York pro-abortion law and its adoring applause? After all, here are secularists who claim science for their beliefs, while the overwhelming consensus of science declares the full humanity of preborn infants. Thus, as Christians watch bewildered, we should realize that the consequences of ideas involve a spiritual dimension of cursing and bondage. The apostle John reminds that there is more than one spirit in the world, so that to turn from God in faith is to secure a dark enslavement to the personal spirit of evil that is at work in this world (1 John 4:1-3).

Because ideas have consequences, it is as important as ever that Christians learn how to discern truth from error and that we become again a people of truth from God's Word. But discernment is not enough - there must be courage as well. Now is not the time for cultural accommodation and dreading fears that our tone might be thought unkind. As we witness the brutalization of our culture and tearfully wonder how our fellow citizens can celebrate such slaughter, the Christian response must include a commitment to speak truth fearlessly from God's Word. We are staring the consequences of ideas in the face. And while a spirit of evil is at work through the ideas of death and darkness, the Bible reminds us of the great power at work through the ideas of biblical truth: "he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world" (1 John 4:4).

1. Francis A. Schaeffer, Collected Works (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1982), 2:11.

Rob Ventura on Spiritual Warfare

Reformation21 contributor Rob Ventura was recently interviewed on the podcast Calvinist Batman. He was joined by Brian Borgman, his co-author on the book Spiritual Warfare: A Biblical and Balanced Perspective

Listen as they discuss Ephesians 6 and what spiritual warfare really is. The podcast is titled "Spiritual Modern Warfare"; you can find it on iTunes

The privilege of dangerous seasons


You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, "We do not have it so bad." However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor's conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?

My gut instinct - and, I hope, my scriptural instinct - is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to "know this, that in the last days perilous times will come" (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: "men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2Tim 3:2-5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into - if we are not already in - a perilous time.

And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: "Whatever you do, boy, don't try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don't make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side."

What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5)

So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.

But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?

Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? "You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2Tim 2:3-4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, "A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns" (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?

We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case - it certainly has been in past conflicts - that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: "Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off" (1Kgs 20:11).

All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, "when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Lk 17:10).

Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called "the greatest fight in the world." It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.

Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: "Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.

A Key Strategy Against Satan

The Dutch reformer Wilhelmus à Brakel (1635-1711) writes insightfully in his magnum opus, The Christian's Reasonable Service:

[The devil knows] that faith is the fountainhead of spiritual life, and he therefore seeks to obscure faith in all its activity. He suddenly interjects irrational suggestions, such as, "Is all this in truth? Is not all this imagination?" He will then continually stir you up to mentally reflect upon theses suggestions and to search them out. If we then begin to listen, he gets hold of us and begins to present arguments upon which he demands an answer. And if he gets you that far that you begin to respond by reasoning, he will proceed with his argumentation and will, time and again, present new proofs. When the ability to reason fails, he then proceeds to bring you from fleeting atheistic thoughts to embrace atheism itself. You will then be grievously caught in the net and be incapable of having either comfort or peace, and will not be able to be encouraged in whatever you are doing. Therefore, be on your guard against giving heed to these initial fleeting interjections. Let them pass by, and proceed as before, relying upon the word of God.[1]


[1] Wilhelmus à Brakel, The Christian's Reasonable Service, vol. 4 of Ethics and Eschatology (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 1995), 237-238.