Spiritual Warfare: What It Is, What It’s Not & How to Fight (according to the Bible)

person wearing armor with a sword and an arrow in motion representing spiritual warfare

C. S. Lewis famously observed that

there are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.1

The only way to get this right is to tie ourselves to what God says in Scripture. So what does the Bible say about spiritual warfare and the demonic realm?

What does the Bible say about spiritual warfare?

The apostle Paul issues a stark warning to the Church in Ephesus about the reality of spiritual warfare.

We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. (Eph 6:12)

He exhorts them to put on “the whole armor of God,” because he wants the Ephesians to remember that they are not simply fighting physical foes: there are enemies we cannot see, and they cannot be fought using conventional weapons.

The Bible makes clear that there are spiritual forces which are hell-bent on keeping the world plunged into its present darkness.

We don’t get a lot of detail in Scripture about these cosmic powers which oppose God’s kingdom, but from what the Bible does say, it’s clear that we’re involved in an all-out battle with them whether we think we are or not, so we can’t afford to be naive about their diabolical intent.

God promised to defeat Satan

Paul’s military language of “the armor of God” taps deep into a thematic vein which runs throughout the entire Bible.

Even from the first chapters of Genesis, the story of God’s redemption of the cosmos is framed as a conflict between God and the forces of darkness, and even the very first humans find themselves caught up in this spiritual war.

After God pronounces curses on Adam and Eve as a result of their sin, he turns to the serpent to warn him about the final outcome of this spiritual war that has already begun. God promises a “seed of the woman” who will crush the serpent’s head (Gen 3:17).

With this promise, God assures Adam and Eve that he will put down Satan’s rebellion and release them from their bondage to their sin.

This means that when God took on flesh through being born of the woman Mary, he came to fulfill this promise which he had made to Adam and Eve all the way back in Genesis 3.

Jesus’s mission on earth was to defeat that old serpent who tried to separate human beings from loving communion with their God.

We share in God’s victory over Satan

Jesus talks about his own ministry as an offensive campaign against the powers of this world.

If it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. (Matt 12:28–29)

Jesus is comparing himself to a robber who has bound Satan in his own home so that now Jesus can rob him blind!

The message is clear—Jesus came to plunder Satan’s house.

Even better, Jesus brings those riches back to share with us.

The good news of the gospel is that we participate in this victory which Christ achieved through the paradoxical power of his cross.

Jesus promises to his disciples that he will continue to build his church, and that “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt 16:18).

Notice that the church is on the offensive in this image. With our commander Jesus in the lead, we are the ones beating down the gates of hell!

At the end of Scripture, John the apostle witnesses a heavenly vision of Satan, death, and hell all being thrown into the lake of fire where they will be tormented forever (Rev 20).

This great judgment is presided over by one on a great white throne—God with us, who in the next chapter of Revelation ushers in a new heaven and new earth in which all conflict has come to a final end.

We know how this war ends

In his letter to the Colossians, Paul takes up the spiritual warfare theme again by describing Jesus’s death on the cross using the imagery of a military victory:

Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross. (Col 2:15)

These three actions—disarming the powers, making a spectacle of them, and triumphing over them—are the standard practices of a victor who has subjugated a rebellious people and is putting them to open shame.

Therefore, as we investigate what Scripture and the church have said about spiritual warfare, we must always keep in mind that we already know the outcome: Jesus has won the victory in this spiritual war, and we live in the Spirit and power of his victory.

In the power of the Spirit, we can take up a peaceful and confident posture, knowing that our Lord has vanquished all our enemies.

When we rest in Christ and trust God’s promises, we can say with the Psalmist,

I put no trust in my bow,
my sword does not bring me victory;
but you give us victory over our enemies,
you put our adversaries to shame.
In God we make our boast all day long,
and we will praise your name forever. (Ps 44:6–8)

What are the different types of spiritual warfare?

Even though spiritual warfare runs through both the Old and New Testaments, the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:1–3 helps us to identify the three main types of spiritual warfare in Scripture, which are

  • The world
  • The devil
  • The flesh

You were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this 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. (Eph 2:1–3, emphasis added)

The miraculous works of Jesus mirror this same triad of spiritual enemies:

  • By healing the diseased and opposing society’s elite, Jesus shows his authority over the powers of this world, whether they be natural or human.
  • By casting out demons, Jesus demonstrates his overwhelming power over Satan and his demonic forces.
  • By the advent of God’s saving love, Jesus empowers us to fight against the flesh and its desires which lead to death.

1. Spiritual warfare with the world

What does it mean that we are engaged in spiritual warfare with “the world”? On the one hand, Jesus says that we are not of the world, even though we are in it (John 17:14–16). But Jesus also famously declared in John 3:16 that his coming to offer salvation is an expression of God’s love for the world. In what sense then is the world our enemy?

The salvation which Christ brings from the Father is extended to all the world, and includes the redemption of creation itself from the curse of sin under which it is groaning. This is why Scripture ends with a new heaven and new earth which God makes his dwelling place.

However, Paul helps us see in Ephesian 2:1–3 that the world is our enemy when it follows after Satan in his disobedience against God. When Christians experience the death, decay, and misery of creation breaking down from the consequence of sin, or when they struggle and lament under the oppression and pain of humans sinning against each other, these are the powers of the world which Jesus declares war on, and over which he promises ultimate victory.

2. Spiritual warfare with the Devil

Satan is a recurring character in Scripture, and although he loses in the end, he’s no joke. Peter tells us to “Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet 5:8).

The details about Satan’s origin story are pretty sparse and a little bit cryptic, but we can gather that he’s a spiritual being who opposes God and his people at every step in the story of creation and redemption. He’s powerful, and he commands a whole host of demonic forces.

Since he is a spiritual being, we know that Satan was created by God. So he’s not a rival or equal opposing force to God, but rather a prideful rebel who will employ any means necessary to get his way. He’s constantly scheming about how he can inflict misery on humankind, and especially how he can separate God’s creation from a loving relationship with its Creator.

As Paul points out in Ephesians 2:1–3, Satan is the spirit at work in those who are disobedient, and the world and the flesh come into conflict with God when they follow after Satan’s example.

Even though Satan isn’t omnipotent or omnipresent, he in some sense heads up the rebellion against God in the cosmos, and thus his character and schemes actively embody every aspect of what is abhorrent in the eyes of a holy, just, and loving God.

3. Spiritual warfare with the flesh

Spiritual warfare doesn’t simply rage at the cosmic level—it’s also in our bodies and minds!

Paul describes better than anyone the struggle that the Christian experiences against their flesh:

I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. (Rom 7:18–20)

In Philippians 2:13, Paul also says that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” This means that the Spirit of God which works in us is at war with the passions and desires of our flesh which run contrary to God’s will.

Satan allies with our flesh, enticing us with the desires of our hearts and planting subtle lies which cause us to doubt the truth about who God is and what he has said about himself. “Did God really say?”

Ultimately, the world, the flesh, and the devil all agree on this single aim: disobedience against the will of God.

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How should I fight spiritual warfare?

When we hear the words “spiritual warfare,” we might be tempted to picture a scene from a horror movie in which a priest brandishes a crucifix and splashes holy water on a demon-possessed person.

While the Vatican’s head exorcist has a few things to say about these type of situations, these are not the dramatic events which define the spiritual warfare for which the New Testament warns Christians to prepare themselves.

When Paul tells Christians to put on the whole armor of God, he’s not talking about physical implements or incantations. Rather, he’s pointing us to the promises and works of God, which we humbly rely on to protect us in the midst of our conflict with the forces of darkness.

God is strong and we are weak

The most important biblical principle for fighting spiritual warfare is understanding that God is strong and that we are weak.

The Bible repeatedly emphasizes how strong God is in comparison with his enemies, and the Old Testament especially is full of stories which demonstrate God’s power to save and protect his people.

In contrast, the story of Scripture emphasizes again and again our human weakness. God picks people who are weak, sinful, and unqualified for the tasks which he gives them, and he protects and forgives his people when they least deserve it.

The paradox of the Christian life is that we are strong and victorious only through Christ. We fail when we trust in ourselves, but when we humbly admit our weakness and turn to God in faith, he becomes an unassailable stronghold for us.

We can fight mighty spiritual battles when we renounce the ability to win in our own power.

Jesus shows us how to fight spiritual warfare

To learn about how to live in this humble but victorious stance of reliance on God’s strength, we can look to our savior, who modeled for us how to rely on God the Father at each moment.

Jesus’s temptation by Satan in the wilderness (Matt 4:1–11) presents us with one of the clearest episodes of spiritual warfare in Scripture, and Matthew includes it in his account in order to present Jesus to us as a model for how to resist the enemy’s machinations.

This temptation which Christ undergoes bears a marked resemblance to what we are told to expect from our enemy, Satan. He is cunning, deceitful, desirable, subtle. And this account in Matthew’s Gospel opens our eyes to the way that Satan likes to operate.

This is what spiritual warfare feels like. Satan entices us with what we desire, tempting us to take what we think we deserve, and encourages us to follow a path of destruction, often dragging others down along with us.

How does Jesus fight in the midst of spiritual warfare? When he resists Satan in the desert, Jesus shows us the two primary tactics which the Christian can rely on in the midst of spiritual warfare:

  1. Speaking the truth
  2. Trusting God

Speaking God’s truth

To combat Satan, Jesus does not resort to religious implements or sacred objects, but rather to the truth of God contained in his Word. He quotes Scripture back to Satan!

This is the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God, which Paul talks about in Ephesians 6:17. With the sword of his truth, God equips us to resist the enemy’s lies which would lead us down to death.

Scripture calls Satan the “father of lies,” which means that he hates the truth, preferring to reject the truth entirely or to twist it for his own selfish ends.

But Hebrews 4:12 says that the Word of God is like a two-edged sword, because it cuts right to the heart of the matter, and reveals Satan’s lies for precisely what they are. That’s why we rely on God’s truth when we find ourselves in the crosshairs of the enemy.

Trusting God’s protection

In his battle against Satan, Jesus doesn’t rely on his own strength. Remember, he has gone without food or water for forty days at this point. He’s on the verge of death. However, even in these moments, he wholly rests in the Father’s care.

Consider how Jesus rejects Satan’s suggestion that he turn rocks into bread in order to feed himself—he resists Satan’s temptation because he trusts that the Father will provide for him instead.

When the trial comes to an end, the Scriptures say that angels arrived to minister to Jesus’s weakened and needy body, just as he had trusted that his Father would.

Jesus’s radical trust in God, even in the midst of his own physical and mental weakness, provides us with the ultimate model for how to fight in the midst of spiritual warfare.

Jesus’s radical trust in God, even in the midst of his own physical and mental weakness, provides us with the ultimate model for how to fight in the midst of spiritual warfare.

How do I prepare to fight spiritual warfare like Jesus did?

We see throughout his ministry that Jesus consistently withdraws to pray, and this is the most vital way that Jesus cultivates this orientation of dependence on the Father and trust in his care.

Jesus would leave his disciples, often during the early morning, to go pray. This signals to us as his followers that this practice was key for his ability to consistently resist the forces of darkness which opposed his mission and wanted to undermine his authority.

To foster a relationship of trust where we are rooted in God, we need to follow Jesus’s example of consistent prayer. This will prepare us to be ready when the time calls for us to stand firm against the world, the flesh, and the devil.

How to pray through spiritual warfare

Job’s prayer

In the book of Job, God gives Satan permission to send trials and afflictions upon Job, because God knew that Job would prove himself to be a faithful servant. Even in the midst of the immense suffering of losing his children, his wealth, and his health, Job was still confident in God’s promise to save him, and he prayed with a faith that testifies to a deep trust in the Lord.

We can pray Job’s words today to revive our souls, and to stir up confidence to trust that God will protect, provide, and save.

I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him with my own eyes—
I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me! (Job 19:25–27)

The Lord’s Prayer

When the disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, both Matthew (6:9–13) and Luke (11:2–4) record for us that Jesus provided them with a model of how to address God in prayer.

Today Christians call this the Lord’s Prayer or the “Our Father,” and this prayer has been used for thousands of years, being prayed countless times by Christians in all times and all places.

Our Father in heaven
Hallowed by your name
Your kingdom come,
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
Forgive us our debts,
As we have forgiven our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.

The Lord’s Prayer is a powerful prayer for fighting spiritual warfare. It holds a special place because it was given to us by our Lord Jesus himself, and it’s also short and simple, so we can pray it at any time or in any circumstance.

The Psalms

The Psalms provide us with powerful prayers to pray in the midst of spiritual warfare.

Many of the Psalms were written by King David who knew what it was like to be surrounded and hated by his enemies. The Psalms were born from spiritual warfare, and thus they provide us with a mighty model for how to speak God’s truth and rely on his power for our protection.

1. Psalm 18

Psalm 18 is a psalm of David. It consists of fifty verses, and opens with these lines:

I love you, Lord, my strength.
The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer;
my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge,
my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. (Ps 18:1–2)

David describes how God came to rescue him in a mighty display of power, and he praises and thanks God for saving him from his enemies.

The Lord lives! Praise be to my Rock!
Exalted be God my Savior!
He is the God who avenges me,
who subdues nations under me,
who saves me from my enemies.
You exalted me above my foes;
from a violent man you rescued me. (Ps 18:46–48)

Click here to read Psalm 18 in the Logos App.

2. Psalm 35

Psalm 35 is another Psalm of David. David was a man of war, and he was well-acquainted with being pursued by his enemies. However, he never stops calling on God to be his strength:

Contend, Lord, with those who contend with me;
fight against those who fight against me.
Take up shield and armor;
arise and come to my aid.
Brandish spear and javelin
against those who pursue me.
Say to me, “I am your salvation.” (Ps 35:1–3)

This psalm describes all sorts of calamities that befall David, from his enemies laying a trap for him to cruel witnesses standing up to accuse and interrogate him about matters he doesn’t understand. He also describes being repaid evil even when he has done good to these enemies.

We can pray this psalm when we feel surrounded and hit from all sides, just like David did at many points in his life. This psalm calls out to God to be our champion, and to protect us from all our enemies.

Click here to read Psalm 35 in the Logos app.

3. Psalm 91

This psalm is interesting because it’s the one that Satan quotes to persuade Jesus to throw himself off the Temple! The Psalmist writes about how God protects his servants:

If you say, “The Lord is my refuge,”
and you make the Most High your dwelling,
no harm will overtake you,
no disaster will come near your tent.
For he will command his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways;
they will lift you up in their hands,
so that you will not strike your foot against a stone. (Ps 91:9–12)

Jesus doesn’t deny that this Scripture means that God will protect those who put their trust in him, but his response counter-balances Satan’s interpretation by pointing out that we don’t get to decide what God should and should not do for us. We don’t get to test him.

This psalm expresses how the author places his trust wholly in God, calling him a shelter, a refuge, and a fortress.

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.” (Ps 91:1–2)

Click here to read Psalm 91 in the Logos app.

12 Bible verses for fighting spiritual warfare

These Bible verses can prepare us for spiritual warfare by calling to mind God’s truth about who our enemies are and the victory which Jesus had achieved over the forces of darkness.

  1. James 4:7—”Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”
  2. Romans 16:20—“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you.”
  3. Ephesians 6:11—“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil.”
  4. 1 Peter 5:8—“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”
  5. 2 Corinthians 10:3–4—“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.”
  6. Colossians 2:15—“He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.”
  7. 2 Timothy 2:3—“Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus.”
  8. 1 John 4:4—“Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.”
  9. Jude 1:9—“But when the archangel Michael, contending with the devil, was disputing about the body of Moses, he did not presume to pronounce a blasphemous judgment, but said, “The Lord rebuke you.”
  10. Matthew 16:23—“But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
  11. Revelation 2:10—“Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Behold, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have tribulation. Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life.”
  12. Matthew 6:13—“And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

How did the early church view spiritual warfare?

Casting out demons in the book of Acts

Jesus set an example during his earthly ministry by casting out demons wherever he went, and he trained his disciples how to do it, too.

The apostles continued to follow Jesus’s model of rebuking demons to cast them out of people, but instead of invoking their own authority as Christ had done, they appealed to the authority of Jesus’s name instead.

The apostles did not have the power which Jesus had to command demons, but they trusted in the power and promise of their resurrected Lord who had sent them into all the earth to spread the good news of the coming of his kingdom.

In the book of Acts, Paul casts a demon out of a servant girl who followed him around constantly shouting about who he was. It annoyed him so much, he commanded the demon in the name of Lord Jesus Christ to come out of the little girl, and the demon left her “that same hour” (Acts 16:16–18).

Evidently casting out demons in the name of Jesus was becoming so popular that even non-Christians started to try it, because we find a story in Acts of the seven sons of Sceva who were Jewish exorcists.

They started to invoke the name of “Jesus whom Paul proclaims,” but the demons saw right through that tactic, and it was said that a single demon-possessed man beat, wounded, and stripped the seven sons of Sceva naked (Acts 19:13–16).

However, the story immediately goes on to show how this nonetheless brought glory to God, because the magicians and practitioners of witchcraft living in that city began to fear the name of Jesus.

In an act of spiritual warfare, these magicians brought together their spell books and occult texts in order to burn them in a massive bonfire, and the Scriptures say that “the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).

The desert fathers and demons

Some of the most famous accounts of spiritual warfare in the early church come from the sayings and writings of the desert fathers. The desert fathers were monks and ascetics living around the fourth century who lived in the desert in order to serve God and practice holiness.

One of the most famous of the desert fathers was Anthony the Great, who garnered a reputation for fearlessly fighting demons in the desert. Athanasius wrote a famous biography of him called The Life of Anthony, which records a time that he spent the night in an empty tomb and faced a whole host of demons.

Many of the desert fathers emphasized the need to practice various forms of asceticism in order to be prepared to resist demonic forces and the temptations of the flesh. Asceticism refers to a lifestyle in which a practitioner intentionally deprives themselves of pleasures, and even basic bodily needs.

One common example of an ascetic practice is fasting. In one situation in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus says that some of his disciples were struggling to cast out a demon because “this kind can only come out by prayer and fasting” (Mark 9:29).

While asceticism can sometimes encourage an unbiblical attitude of hatred towards the body, the apostle Paul does talk about “disciplining the body,” not in the sense of punishing the body, but rather gaining mastery over ourselves in order to bring all that we are into full alignment with God’s will and commands.

When he talks about disciplining the body, Paul uses the analogy of someone running a marathon or training for a boxing match: we put in the work so we are ready when the moment arrives to stand firmly in the truth of God and in his Spirit.

The desert fathers saw the importance of mastering their bodies, because they knew that to follow their desires and to indulge the ways of the flesh would make them more susceptible to attacks from the enemy. If they were reliant on the things of this world, they would have a harder time relying on God when the moment called for it.

Where can I find more resources about spiritual warfare?

Logos worked with Dr. Michael Heiser to produce a documentary called Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness to shed light on a biblical understanding of demons.

Dr. Heiser has written extensively about angels and demons in Scripture, and has a passion for equipping Christians with wisdom and understanding on the perplexing topic of spiritual warfare.

Where Do Demons Come From?
Baptism as Spiritual Warfare
The Kingdom of God: The Great Unfolding Drama of Salvation
The Sword of the Spirit: What It Is & How It Empowers Us
How the Divine Armor of the Messiah Becomes Ours

More resources for deeper study

Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness

Demons: What the Bible Really Says About the Powers of Darkness

Regular price: $19.99

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Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host

Angels: What the Bible Really Says about God’s Heavenly Host

Regular price: $19.99

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The C.S. Lewis Collection (30 vols.)

The C.S. Lewis Collection (30 vols.)

Regular price: $399.99

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Take Your Bible Study Deeper, Faster
  1. C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, special illustrated ed. (New York: HarperOne, 2011), xi.
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Written by
Matthew Stanley

Matthew Stanley is a writer who lives in Sacramento with his wife and son. He publishes a free newsletter at Samsara Diagnostics where he writes about religion, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. He also hosts the podcast Samsara Audio. His work focuses on finding the freedom in finitude. He studied philosophy at Wheaton College, and is currently completing a Masters in Philosophy and Religion at the University of Wales Trinity St. David. 

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