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Spiritual Warfare and God's Provision in the Church (part 1): The Word of God Par Excellence

Covenantal Presence of God’s Kingdom Reign:[1]

The journey of conformity into the image of Christ, i.e., progressive sanctification, is a lifelong process.[2] Perfection cannot and should not be presumed on this side of heaven, while at the same time the apostolic agency floods the epistles with commandments and imperatives to secure the saints with endurance amid the presence of suffering, trials, and persecution (cf. 1 Cor. 10:13; 2 Tim. 2:10-12; 4:5; Heb. 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:20). The eschatological assembly functions in the already/not yet tension of the kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light. Though the victorious splendor of the Son is shown through the first fruit of His resurrection and ascension, the fullness of His triumph is awaiting its consummation in the second parousia (cf. Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Cor. 15:1-49; 1 Pet. 1:3; 3:21). In the meantime, “His people are empowered to carry on His prophetic work,” according to Patrick Schreiner, “because Christ’s presence is mediated to them by the Spirit. The ascension needs better narrative positioning because Christ’s prophetic work has not ceased—it has been thrust into a higher gear.”[3] Moreover, remnants of the old-self continue to linger as regenerate believers seek to renew their minds and hearts to the truths of God (cf. Rom. 12:2; Phil. 3:10-11; Col. 3:10). Persons of animistic background, correspondingly, find it difficult to reconcile on the one hand redemption in Christ while on the other maintaining a worldview that is constantly at war with the presence of spiritual/demonic forces.[4] How, then, does one’s ecclesiological framework grounded in pneumatological foundations assure believers of the living hope in Christ? What are the tangible markers to encourage believers amid the corporate gathering of the saints?


The thrust of covenantal signage in the new age is affirmed through the outpouring of the indwelling Spirit (cf. Ezk. 36:26-27; Jer. 31:33; Joel 2:28-32; Acts 2:1-11; Eph. 1:13). Herman Bavinck asserts that God “distributes His benefits in the way of the covenant.”[5] Yahweh’s presence, then, is the central marker throughout the biblical narrative and, in particular, within the new covenant epoch which assures that the nations of the earth “shall be My people, and I will be their God” (Jer. 32:38; cf.).[6] Simply put, the Spirit of God secures the people of God amid the redemption of God. Gentile inclusion, thus, is a fruit of Christ’s fulfillment through His vicarious life and sacrificial death upon the cross. His triumphant resurrection inaugurates the administration promised through the Abrahamic Covenant that “all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3).[7] The covenant with Abraham, in turn, is the bedrock to which the New Covenant head—the anticipated seed of Abraham—will springs forth in God’s redemptive mystery (cf. Gen. 12:7; Gal. 3:29; Eph. 1:9, 3:3-6, 9; 5:32).


Therefore, the corporate gathering is not merely construed upon sociological means nor anthropological intent. Rather, it is built amid a theological assertion designed to perpetuate the glory and renown of God to the ends of the earth.[8] The charge to gather as God’s covenant people has as its core motive divine incentives; that is, the corporate assembly (Gk. ekklesia; Heb. qahal) has sacramental value amid Word-centered conviction (Lat. sanctorum communio). Though the covenantal Lord safeguards His people, He brings such supervision through ordinary means—the means of grace (Lat. media gratia). John Calvin, consequently, asserts that “with the church, into whose bosom God is pleased to gather His sons, not only that they may be nourished by her help and ministry as long as they are infants and children, but also that they may be guided by her motherly care until they mature and at last reach the goal of faith.”[9] Bavinck similarly contends that the church “serves to perfect the saints, to build up the body of Christ, to preach the Gospel to all creatures, and to glorify God.”[10] The true markers of thechurch, then, encompasses a fundamental telos in aligning the people of God toward a biblical and, simultaneously, pneumatological existence. As the Apostle Paul asserts, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit” (Gal. 5:25). The premise of this paper, then, will seek to defend the missiological and theological notion that God safeguards the church from demonic threats by His indwelling Spirit through the markers of the true church, i.e., the faithful preaching of the Word and the administration of the ordinances.[11]


The Faithful Preaching of the Word:


The first tangible, cogent, and, thus, defensive marker of a true church is built upon her view and usage of the Word. The church’s logocentric devotion is foundational to the vitality of, first, her epistemological foundation; second, her self-identification; and third, her witness to a dying and opposed world. This theological notion is paramount when analyzing the ecclesiological significance within an animistic worldview, which by its nature is dualistic. The Word, then, provides proper symmetry into the confines of corporeality and immateriality. The initial contours of the Hmong perspective is called Yajceeb which refers to the material world or the World of Light, and the second refers to Yeebceeb which corresponds to the metaphysical spirit world or the World of Darkness.[12] Within these structures are multiple layers of spiritual entities interacting between the material world and the spiritual world.[13] In facing such realities, it is imperative, then, that conversion from animistic paganism be equally met with discipleship built upon the renewal of hearts and minds.[14] Thus, Bavinck is right when he asserts that the church does not stand as a means of grace alongside the Word and sacraments, but rather administers grace through these means in safeguarding the church.[15] To this end, it is imperative that the church abide in the Word of God (Jn. 15). Graham A. Cole alludes to the necessity of logocentricism when he concludes, “The Genesis 3 narrative reveals the serpent to be the enemy of the word of God, a slanderer against the good character of God by insinuation, and a deceiver of the innocent.”[16] For this reason, Satan does not have the power in himself to create ex nihilo, but rather strives otherwise to pervert the content and outworking of God’s Word in reaching its eschatological telos.


It is imperative, then, to perceive the Scriptures as theopneustos; that is, it finds its origin and permanence simultaneous to the triune God Himself (2 Tim. 3:16; cf. Ps. 12:6; 119:142; Isa. 55:10-11; Heb. 6:18; 1 Thess. 2:13). “The word of God is never separate from God, from Christ, from the Holy Spirit;” Bavinck argues, “it has no permanence or existence in itself.”[17] Hence, the Apostle Peter contends that Scripture does not solely derive from the will nor innovation of man but, definitively, through the concursive operation of the Spirit (2 Pet. 1:21). Calvin, then, rightfully construes against the fanatics of his time in the mantra of “Word and Spirit” which articulates distinctiveness while negating any notion of total autonomy from one another. Meaning, though the Spirit is not the inscripturated words of the text themselves, they are the product of His content and, thus, He works through them as a vehicle to bring forth His redemptive purposes (Lat. per verbum).[18] Simply put, to know the Spirit is to know the Word.[19] Calvin further articulates by writing,

[The] Holy Spirit so inheres in His truth, which He expresses in Scripture, that only when its proper reverence and dignity are given to the Word does the Holy Spirit show forth His power. . . For by a kind of mutual bond the Lord has joined together the certainty of His Word and of His Spirit so that the perfect religion of the Word may abide in our minds when the Spirit, who causes us to contemplate God’s face, shines; and that we in turn may embrace the Spirit with no fear of being deceived when we recognize Him in His own image, namely, in the Word. . . Certainly a far different sobriety befits the children of God, who just as they see themselves, without the Spirit of God, bereft of the whole light of truth, so are not unaware that the Word is the instrument by which the Lord dispenses the illumination of His Spirit to believers. For they know no other Spirit than Him who dwelt and spoke in the apostles, and by whose oracles they are continually recalled to the hearing of the Word.[20]

Thus, the faithful preaching of the Word is indispensable to the outworking of the Spirit. What, then, is the relationship between Word and Spirit? How does the presence of the Word signify the work of the Spirit? How does the Word safeguard the assembly of saints amid demonic temptation? In this section we will identify—considering pneumatological emphases—trinitarian authorship, divine power, and the sacramental Word as the means of grace par excellence.


The Contours of Trinitarian Authorship. The triune God of Christianity is a relational Being. To this point, He is a speaking God who operates within His divine nature through the distinct personhood of Father, Son, and Spirit. That is, the Father initiates revelation, which is expressed through the Son and, in turn, terminates upon the Spirit (Gen. 1:3, 6, 9, 11, 14, 20, 24, 26; Jn. 1:1-3; Heb. 1:1-3; 2 Pet. 1:21).[21] There is, then, a trinitarian effort to the construct of Scriptural inspiration. Jesus, in His earthly ministry, does not speak on His own authority, “but speak just as the Father taught Me” (Jn. 8:28; cf. Phil. 2:6). In the same way, the Spirit does not convey new nor divergent revelation. Rather, the Parakletos takes “what is [Jesus’] and declares it to you” (Jn. 16:14). “Therefore if the Spirit takes what is mine and makes it known to the disciples,” contends D. A. Carson, “the content of what is mine is nothing less than the revelation of the Father Himself, for Jesus declares, All that belongs to the Father is mine (v. 15).”[22] Concurrently, the three Persons of the Godhead speak in one voice to convey one message in order to establish one kingdom reign in all of creation (Heb. 6:5). The Spirit, then, is the touchpoint within the Godhead who applies the plan of God the Father through the accomplished work of God the Son. Consequently, God the Spirit is, as Millard J. Erickson describes, “the point at which the Trinity becomes personal to the believer.”[23]


The Word of God as Divine Power. The Word of God having many renderings within the biblical canon, can be, for our purposes, furnished amid the notion of power (Gk. energeitai). Bavinck interjects that “it is always a word of God, that is, never just a sound, but a power, not mere information, but also an accomplishment of His will.”[24] That is, creation ex nihilo (Gen. 1 & 2), the calling of a people (Gen. 12:1-3; Matt. 28:18-20; Act. 1:8), the calming of a storm (Mk. 4:38), the casting out of demonic entities (Matt. 8:16), and the resurrection of the dead (Lk. 7:14; 8:54; Jn 5:25, 28; 11:43; cf. Rom. 8:11) are all due to the power of His Word. This power, in turn, is not merely one of origin but encapsulates through the Spirit (Lat. per verbum) a sustenance to achieve His intended telos. Simply put, the Word of God is the sword wielded by the Spirit to navigate toward His ends. Accordingly, the Word is “continually sustained, preserved, and made powerful by that Spirit, so it is with the word of God, that taken from Scripture, is preached in some fashion to people.”[25] The proclamation of the Gospel through the vehicle of the Word, consequently, is never void of efficiency (cf. Isa. 55:11). It either raises people from the dead and, continually, sustains them, or the Word hardens the heart and, thus, affirms their depravity. As such, Origen contends, “the sun, by one and the same power of its heat, melts wax indeed, but dries up and hardens mud not that its power operates one way upon mud, and in another way upon wax; but that the qualities of mud and wax are different, although according to nature they are one thing, both being from the earth."[26]


In addition, Bavinck argues that the nature of His Word is not empty vibrations nor sheer immaterialism. Such a notion falsely dichotomizes form (word) and substance (influence/power). Rather, it should be rendered that each scheme is interwoven into a corpus of value; that is, words are not void of impact nor is their influence disposed of verbal texture. They, form and substance, are interdependent. Bavinck, in response, goes on to say that “God is the creator of heaven, yes, but also of the earth; of the soul, yes, but also of the body; of spirit, yes but also of matter.”[27] Meaning, God is Creator and Lord of both form and substance and, therefore, to polarize one notion over the other is to minimize divine intent. Thus, if human words in themselves hold influential weight amid intellectual and emotional conviction, how much more does the Word of God distill power in being theopneustos? To this point, the church wields the Word in sanctifying herself through its power and efficacy in the Spirit. To disengage, then, from such faithful renderings would be to deprive oneself of life and sustenance. “The Holy Spirit, who in regeneration applies nothing other than the word, power, and merit of Christ,” cites Bavinck, “also automatically leads the conscious life of the person toward the word that he took from Christ and caused to be recorded by the prophets and apostles.”[28] Simply put, the Word of God is the power of God in sanctifying the people of God into the image of the Son of God (Jn. 17:17; Rom. 8:29; Col. 3:10). Consequently, the church does not graduate from the necessity of the Word, but rather are saved onto righteousness for good works conveyed forth by the Spirit through that very same Word (cf. Matt. 5:17; Rom. 6:17-19; Eph. 2:10; Jas. 2:18).


The Word as the Means of Grace Par Excellence. The Word of God, therefore, is the primary vehicle to govern and transform the covenantal people of God (Jn. 17:17). Whereas Rome built the Scriptures upon the authority of the church, the Reformation sought to reverse those structures (sola Scriptura); that is, the Scriptures became the means of grace par excellence.[29] The magisterial Reformer himself, Martin Luther, concludes,

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself conquered by the Scriptures adduced by me and my conscience is captive to the Word of God.[30]

The ordinances, then, are affirmed and secured through the proclamation of the Word. They are not as Rome would contend ex opere operato (“from the work performed”). Rather, their efficacy is generated and tempered by what Calvin asserts as verbum sacramentale (“sacramental Word”). He stresses that “the sacrament requires preaching to beget faith.”[31] Furthermore, “when we hear the sacramental word mentioned, let us understand the promise, proclaimed in a clear voice by the minister, to lead the people by the hand wherever the sign tends and directs us.”[32] That is, the Word grants meaning, definition, and direction for the covenant people to see and understand the grace that the Spirit distributes. And yet, it is the Spirit without which the sacraments would be of no benefit. Nonetheless, “nothing prevents them from strengthening and enlarging faith in hearts already taught by that Schoolmaster.”[33] Meaning, neither the sacraments nor the Spirit are hindered where the Schoolmaster, i.e., the Scriptures, are present in faithful proclamation to the regenerate people of God. It is the Word, then, working through the power of the Spirit that generates faith and, in turn, formulates a true covenant community of saints through the faithful administration of the ordinance.


Missiological Conclusion.


Hmong animism holds that spiritual forces safeguard the tribal unit and, thus, the living are compelled to honor and worship the ancestral deceased. The demonic entities, in turn, are intimately woven into the everyday routines of life; that is, “the spirit of their ancestors reside inside the house and [the family is called to] worship them as part of the household demons.”[34] Contextually, Christ Jesus in His threefold office of Priest, Prophet, and King speak directly to the Hmong animist dilemma. The Gospel of Christ directs familial structures and constitutes federal headship which grants kingly oversight for covenantal members. The priestly task of Christ, successively, secures and provides supervision for the children of God (Heb. 7:25). Moreover, redemption in Christ transfers covenant members from the domain of darkness into the kingdom of the Beloved Son (Col. 1:13). All of which is initiated and sustained through the prophetic work of the proclaimed Word of God. Thus, the logocentric notion of ecclesial plight does not terminate upon intellectual nor naturalistic ends, but rather is the divine means to which the triune God safeguards and sanctifies His children through His indwelling Spirit. As Matthew Barrett rightfully contends, “God’s Word is covenantal because it is a saving Word to His people.”[35] The sacramental Word, then, is the hedge of protection employed by the Spirit to ensure covenantal security for the people of God. The Word, then, is ground zero in defense of the covenant saints.

 

***footnotes***

[1] This is taken with permission from an assignment in the doctoral seminar “Biblical Ecclesiology” at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.

[2] Grudem identifies three stages of sanctification which are helpful in distinguishing the progressive nature of one’s conformity into Christ through redemption. See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 2020), 925-930.

[3] Patrick Schreiner, The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 20-21. Brandon D. Crowe helpfully articulates the necessity of the resurrection within the economy of redemption; that is, the triumph over the grave vindicates the messianic notion of Jesus’s claim as the new federal head. This is the basis of Gospel proclamation. See also Brandon D. Crowe. The Hope of Israel: The Resurrection of Christ in the Acts of the Apostles. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2020.

[4] See Long Khang, Hmong Animism: A Christian Perspective (Maitland, FL: Xulon Press, 2015), 29-40.

[5]Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, Holy Spirit, Church, and New Creation. ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 447.

[6] According to Horton, this language in the biblical narrative is consistent with covenantal language within the ANE context. Michael S. Horton, Introducing Covenant Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2006), 23-34. Lister rightly contends that “while the presence of God is an end of redemption, it is simultaneously the means by which the Lord reaches this end. The presence of God, then, is eschatological and instrumental: the Lord becomes present in redemption to direct His people to His eschatological presence.” See also J. Ryan Lister, The Presence of God: Its Place in the Storyline of Scripture and the Story of Our Lives (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 25.

[7] “Here is a close connection, as readers would expect by this point in Acts, between the lordship of Jesus and the kingdom of God. Indeed, it is best to understand the message about the kingdom of God to be a message about the glorified Lord Jesus Christ. The kingdom inclusio in Acts is therefore a framework focused on the resurrected Jesus. . .. The apostles had to be eyewitnesses of the resurrection because in large measure their task was to testify about the resurrection of Christ. The apostles are central to the book of Acts, and central to the task of the apostles is their role as witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus.” See Crowe, The Hope of Israel, 17. Renihan asserts that the “typology of the Abrahamic Covenant and its special relation to Christ according to the flesh make it a covenant of guardianship. The purpose of the Abrahamic Covenant is to bring the New Covenant into existence by bringing its founder, head, and mediator into existence.” See Samuel Renihan, The Mystery of Christ His Covenant and His Kingdom (Cape Coral, FL: Founders Press, 2019), 100.

[8] The covenantal Lord not only redeems a people but, simultaneously, uses that people as a means to reconcile the world back to Himself through the proclamation of the Gospel. Thus, the church exists for the missio Dei; that is, it serves the glory of God as its end goal. To this point, the church gathers and scatters for the fame and renown of Christ in seeing the kingdom progress forward through the agency of the corporate body. See Andreas J. Köstenberger and T. Desmond Alexander. Salvation to the Ends of the Earth: A Biblical Theology of Mission. 2nd ed. NSBT. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2020; Craig Ott. The Church on Mission: A Biblical Vision for Transformation among All People. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2019; Arthur F. Glasser. Announcing the Kingdom: The Story of God’s Mission in the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003.

[9] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), 4.1.1.

[10]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 447.

[11] I chose these two markers of a true church because they have been the talking points for the church historic. Church discipline was first added, according to Deusing, by Martin Bucer in the Strasburg Confession during the Reformational era. Though I find it necessary in the outworking of ecclesiology, I did not include it into the final analysis here because I wanted to focus upon, what I would deem as, the initial covenantal markers. In saying that, I would not categorize church discipline any less covenantal but, in turn, a rear guard in ecclesial life. See Jason Duesing, “The Church,” Historical Theology For the Church, ed. Jason G. Duesing and Nathan A. Finn (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2021), 236. In addition, I realize and am aware of modern and recent developments of markers for a sound biblical ecclesiology. See Dever, Mark. Nine Marks of a Healthy Church. 3rd ed. 9Marks. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013. Another point of contention that I would like to briefly address is the idea that a proper understanding of ecclesiological oversight will eradicate demonic attacks. The author does not hold nor promote this notion, but rather would contend that the Word and the ordinances are a means to strengthen and protect saints; that is, demonic attacks may not cease but the saints through ecclesial engagement are strengthened to endure such incursions.

[12] Timothy T. Vang, “Coming A Full Circle: Historical Analysis of the Hmong Church Growth 1950-1998” (DMinn Diss., Fuller Theological Seminary, 1998), 90. Vang identifies a myriad of spirits ranging from “house spirits” (plig vaj plig tsev) to “the center post spirit” (dab ncej tas) to the spirit of origin or hierarchical rulership (Ntxwj Nyoog). Another facet that is critical to the Hmong worldview and, thus, to our purposes with ecclesiological assurance is the “house item spirits.” There are a variety of items composed of stoves (dab qhov txos), doors (dab roog), cooking fire (dab qhov cub), lofts (dab nthab), and the back door (dab qhovrooj). All this shapes the believers’ worldview prior to conversion and necessitates a proper reconstruction by the church through discipleship. See Ibid., 89-107.

[13] One of the central premises for Walton and Walton is to undo the notion of conflict theology; that is, the approach that there is a cosmic (spiritual) war between dual powers of good and evil. Though spirits are apparent in the biblical narrative, they should not be, according to Walton and Walton, used to perpetuate an excessive fascination over demonic entities. Walton and Walton even question the magnitude of the demonic role within the Gospel narrative. See John H. Walton and J. Harvey Walton, Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology: Reading the Biblical Text in its Cultural and Literary Context. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2019.

[14] See Walter Wink, Unmaking the Powers: The Invisible Forces That Determine Human Existence (Philadelphia, PA, Fortress, 1986), 34. Wink seeks to find a middle ground between the demythologization and excessive fascination over spiritual entities. In assessing the supernatural world, the character Satan becomes a point of emphasis to which Wink strives to articulate as a personality personified amid the material world as well as the spiritual sphere. Satan, according to Wink, is “the archetypal representation of the collective weight of human fallenness.” See ibid., 24. See also Graham A. Cole, Against the Darkness: The Doctrine of Angels, Satan, and Demons, FOET (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 101, 141-162. The kingdom reign and the Christus Victor model of atonement are helpful in contextualizing a theological grid in order to understand the benefits of salvation.

[15]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 447.

[16] Cole, Against the Darkness, 85.

[17]Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 459.

[18] Ibid., 457-460.

[19] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.9.2

[20] Ibid., 1.9.3.

[21] Gregg R. Allison and Andreas J. Köstenberger, The Holy Spirit, TFTPG (Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, 2020), 307-309.

[22] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John. PNTC (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 541.

[23] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 772.

[24] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 449.

[25] Ibid., 459.

[26] Origen, On First Principles, trans. G. W. Butterworth (Notre Dame, IN: Christian Classics, 2013), 3.1.11.

[27] Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 4, 458.

[28] Ibid., 460.

[29] Ibid., 444.

[30] Martin Luther, Verhandlungen mit D. Martin Luther auf dem Reichstage zu Worms (1521), WA 7:838.4-7.

[31] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 4.14.4.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Ibid., 4.14.9.

[34] Khang, Hmong Animism, 212.

[35] Matthew Barrett, Canon, Covenant and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel, NSBT (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2020), 43. See also Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2013), 47-78.

 

McYoung Y. Yang (MDiv, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; ThM, Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the husband to Debbie and the father to McCayden (12), McCoy (11), McColsen (9), and DeYoung (5). He is a Teaching Pastor at Covenant City Church in St. Paul, MN and a homeschool dad to his four children. McYoung is continuing his doctoral studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. His ambition is to use his training as a means to serve the local church in living life through the Gospel lens.