We have seen that the devil is never quite so subtle, and never quite so successful, as when he succeeds in persuading people that he does not exist at all! That, as we have suggested, was his supreme masterpiece, and it is certainly a part of our problem at the present time. The tendency now is to say that we must not talk about ‘the devil’ but only about ‘evil’. We must not tell people to ‘renounce the works of the devil’, we must tell them to ‘resist evil’. In other words, the whole tendency today is to say that our fight is only against a principle of evil that is in ourselves and in others, and perhaps in the very environment into which we are born. But it is not considered to be ‘consistent with modern knowledge’ to believe still in a personal devil. We must not even make that principle of evil positive. What has been called ‘evil’, we are told, is simply the absence of good qualities rather than something positive in and of itself!
But the whole emphasis of the Apostle here is on the devil as a person. A principle cannot be subtle. It is only a person who can be subtle. ‘The wiles of the devil!’ The Apostle’s whole object is to tell us that we are not fighting merely against flesh and blood, merely against some principle, or absence of principle, which is within us as flesh and blood, as men and women. He goes out of his way to say that it is quite otherwise. In other words what he says is the exact opposite of what is being taught commonly at the present time.
But somebody may ask, ‘Does it matter whether you believe in a personal devil or not?’ The answer is that the Apostle most certainly assures us that we are fighting personalities and ‘spirits’ of evil, the world ‘rulers of this darkness’, not the ‘darkness’, but ‘the rulers’ of the darkness. His whole object is to get us to see that we must not be deluded in this respect, but realize that there are these spiritual entities, personalities, headed up by the devil himself, who are warring a terrible, subtle, vicious warfare against God and all His people. This is not a matter of opinion, it is not just a matter of accommodating our teaching to suit the modern mind and modern knowledge and understanding; if you do not believe in the person of the devil you are rejecting not only the teaching of the Apostle Paul but you are rejecting the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself!
The problem that arises here primarily is the problem of revelation. Was the Apostle Paul just a creature of his age, or was he given this revelation by the Lord Jesus Christ through the Spirit? Was our Lord Himself but a creature of His age? He obviously believed in a personal devil, and in these powers. He addressed demons as persons, saying ‘Come out’. You cannot say that to a principle! You cannot dismiss the devil, as it were, in that way; you are denying at the same time the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. You are saying that you are in a superior position to Him, that your knowledge is greater, that you have greater understanding. You are involved in the whole question of revelation and of authority.
This digression is important, for the business of preaching is to relate the teaching of the Scriptures to what is happening in our own day; and if this teaching in Ephesians is true there is nothing more dangerous than to substitute for a personal devil a principle of evil! The whole of our faith is ultimately involved in the matter. The trouble with the critics is that they really do not believe in the spiritual realm. Many of them are equally doubtful, as I have shown, of the Person of the Holy Spirit. He is just a principle, a power, an influence. There is, in fact, nowadays, a fundamental lack of belief in the spiritual realm and the reality of these spiritual personalities. Never was there a time when it was more necessary that we should consider carefully what the Apostle has to teach us, and what all parts of the Bible teach us, concerning ‘the wiles of the devil’.
Having looked at the wiles in general we must now become more particular in our approach. Here, again, I would sub-divide our treatment of this matter into two main sections. First, we must consider the devil’s activity in general, and then his activity in detail, for it is quite clear that there are certain general activities of the devil described in the Scriptures, and which are seen very clearly in the history of the Church throughout the centuries, and in the Church today. These in turn can be sub-divided into strategy and tactics. It is the same classification as is used in military warfare.
We start with these generalities, these matters of broad strategy. There have been certain movements initiated by the devil which have affected the life of the whole Church, and which in turn have affected the lives of individual believers in the Church. We are, indeed, involved in these very things at the present time. ‘To be forewarned is to be forearmed.’ Let us use again the analogy of international problems. The last War came upon this country suddenly and unexpectedly because people would not face the facts, because we were nearly all believers in, and supporters of appeasement, surrendering this and that, saying that war could not happen again, and that two World Wars do not occur within a quarter of a century! This country kept on refusing to face the plain facts of the international situation. Men wanted to be happy and to enjoy themselves, and dismissed the man who kept on warning us as a ‘warmonger’, a ‘difficult person’ with whom nobody could work, an ‘individualist’. Precisely the same, it seems to me, is happening in the realm of the spiritual today. People say, ‘Do not be negative; let us be positive; let us just preach the simple gospel’. But the Bible is full of negatives, full of warnings, ever showing us these terrible possibilities. If you find in yourself a dislike of the warnings of the Scripture and of this negative teaching, it is obvious that you have been duped by the wiles of the devil. You have not realized the situation in which you are placed.
The movements to which I am referring can be best classified and considered along the following lines. We start with Heresies within the Church, which have been caused and produced by the devil and his powers. I am not concerned to go into the detail of heresies; I am simply concerned to emphasize the fact of heresies, the fact of movements within the life of the Church that have so often led to terrible trouble and produced a state of chaos.
A heresy is ‘a denial of or a doubt concerning any defined, established Christian doctrine’. There is a difference between heresy and apostasy. Apostasy means ‘a departure from the Christian truth’. It may be a total renunciation or denial of it, or it may be a misrepresentation of it to such an extent that it becomes a denial of the whole truth. But a heresy is more limited in its scope. To be guilty of heresy, and to be a heretic, means that in the main you hold to the doctrines of the Christian faith, but that you tend to go wrong on some particular doctrine or aspect of the faith. The New Testament itself shows us clearly that this tendency to heresy had already begun even in the days of the early Church. Have you not noticed in the New Testament Epistles the frequent references to these things? There is scarcely one of them that does not include mention of some particular heresy that was creeping in, and tending to threaten the life of some particular church. It is seen in this Epistle to the Ephesians; it is still more plain, perhaps, in the Epistle to the Colossians where heretical tendencies were entering through philosophy and other agencies. It is found likewise in the Epistles to Timothy.
Incipient heresy can be detected from the very earliest days. There is an enemy who comes and sows tares. I am not applying that parable in detail, I am using it as an illustration to show the kind of thing we are considering. The enemy’s object, of course, is to disturb the life of the Church, to shake the confidence of Christian people, to spoil God’s work in Christ. The Epistles were in a sense written to counteract these evils. The threat was already there in many different forms, for before the New Testament closes, all the major heresies were beginning to show their heads in the Early Church.
But from the second century of the Christian era the evil becomes still more evident and obvious. The simple fact is that for several centuries the Christian Church was literally fighting for her very life. With the conversion, and the coming in, of those who were trained in Greek philosophy and teaching, all kinds of dangers immediately arose, and the danger became so great as to threaten the whole life of the Church. People who called themselves Christians, and moved in the realm of the Church, began to propagate teachings that were denials of Christian truth. The threat became so great that the leaders of the Churches held certain great Councils in order to define the Christian faith. Their object was to pinpoint heresies, and to protect the people from believing them. Such confusion had come in that people did not know what was right and what was wrong. So the leaders met together in these great Councils, and promulgated their famous Creeds, such as The Athanasian Creed, The Nicene Creed, and The Apostles’ Creed.
These Creeds were attempts on the part of the Church to define, and to lay down, what is true and what is not true. And in this way they were able to brand certain teachers as heretics, and to exclude them from the life of the Christian Church. The confusion that led to the drawing up of the Creeds was a great manifestation of the wiles of the devil. And today there are many people who recite these Creeds in their churches every Sunday, and then in conversation tell you that what you believe does not matter at all — ‘believe anything you like!’ But the Creeds are a permanent reminder to us of the wiles of the devil in this respect.
During the great period of the Protestant Reformation likewise the different sections of the Reformed Church drew up their Confessions of Faith, such as the Belgic Confession, the Augsburg Confession, the Heidelberg Catechism, and in this country the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. In the next century Protestant theologians meeting in Westminster Abbey in London in and after 1643, eventually produced ‘The Westminster Confession of Faith’. What was their purpose? I ask the question because we are living in an age when many say, ‘Of course, these things do not matter at all, they have no relevance to us’. I am trying to show their vast importance, their extreme relevance at this present time. Confessions were drawn up for the same reason as held good during the earlier centuries. Church leaders, led by the Holy Spirit, and enlightened by Him, saw very clearly that they must, as their first duty, lay down clearly and on paper what is true and what is not true. In part they had to define their faith over against Roman Catholicism. And not only so, but also over against certain heresies that were tending to rise even amongst themselves. So they drew up their great ‘Confessions’ — which in a sense are nothing but the Creeds once more — in order to give the people light and guidance and instruction with respect to what they should believe.
Is there someone who feels at this point, ‘Well, really, what has all this to do with me? I am an ordinary person, I am a member of the Church and life is very difficult. What has all this to say to me?’ Or there may be someone who is recovering after illness and who says ‘Well, I was hoping to have a word of comfort, something to strengthen me along the way, something to make me feel a little happier; what has all this about Creeds and Confessions and the wiles of the devil to do with me?’ If you feel like that, the truth is that the devil has defeated you. The Apostle Paul says, ‘Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners’ (I Corinthians 15:33). He means that wrong teaching is desperately dangerous. He is there dealing with the great question of the resurrection, he is concerned with that one doctrine, and he says, Make no mistake about this; it is not a matter of indifference as to whether you believe in the literal physical resurrection or not. ‘Ah but,’ you say, ‘I am a practical man of affairs, I am not interested in doctrine, I am not a theologian, I have no time for these things. All I want is something to help me to live my daily life.’ But according to the Apostle you cannot divorce these things, ‘Evil communications’ —wrong teaching, wrong thinking, wrong belief — ‘corrupt good manners’. It will affect the whole of your life.
One of the first things you are to learn in this Christian life and warfare is that, if you go wrong in your doctrine, you will go wrong in all aspects of your life. You will probably go wrong in your practice and behaviour; and you will certainly go wrong in your experience. Why is it that people are defeated by the things that happen to them? Why is it that some people are completely cast down if they are taken ill, or if someone who is dear to them is taken ill? They were wonderful Christians when all was going well; the sun was shining, the family was well, everything was perfect, and you would have thought that they were the best Christians in the country. But suddenly there is an illness and they seem to be shattered, they do not know what to do or where to turn, and they begin to doubt God. They say, ‘We were living the Christian life, and we were praying to God, and our lives had been committed to God; but look at what is happening. Why should this happen to us?’ They begin to doubt God and all His gracious dealings with them. Do such people need ‘a bit of comfort’? Do they need the church simply as a kind of soporific or tranquillizer? Do they only need something which will make them feel a little happier, and lift the burden a little while they are in the church?
Their real trouble is that they lack an understanding of the Christian faith. They have an utterly inadequate notion of what Christianity means. Their idea of Christianity was: ‘Believe in Christ and you will never have another trouble or problem; God will bless you, nothing will ever go wrong with you’; whereas the Scripture itself teaches that ‘through much tribulation we must enter into the kingdom of God’ (Acts 14:22), or as the Apostle expresses it elsewhere, ‘In nothing be terrified by your adversaries: which is to them an evident token of perdition, but to you of salvation, and that of God. For unto you it is given in the behalf of Christ, not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for his sake’ (Philippians 1:28-29). Our Lord says, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (John 16:33). There is nothing which is so wrong, and so utterly false, as to fail to see the primary importance of true doctrine. Looking back over my experience as a pastor for some thirty-four years, I can testify without the slightest hesitation that the people I have found most frequently in trouble in their spiritual experience have been those who have lacked understanding. You cannot divorce these things. You will go wrong in the realms of practical living and experience if you have not a true understanding. If you drop off into some heresy, if you go wrong at some point, if you believe, for instance — I give one example in passing — ‘that healing is in the atonement’, that it is never God’s will that any of His children should be ill, that it is always God’s will that all His children should be healthy, and that no Christian should ever die from a disease . . .; if you believe that, and then find yourself, or someone who is dear to you, dying of some incurable disease, you will be miserable and unhappy. Probably you will be told by certain people, ‘There is something wrong with your faith, you are failing somewhere, you are not really trusting as you should be’, and you will be cast into the depth of despair and misery and unhappiness. You will be depressed in your spiritual life, and you will be looking here and there for comfort. Such a person’s condition is due to error or heresy concerning a primary central doctrine. He or she has insinuated something into the Christian faith that does not truly belong to it.
Nothing is more urgently relevant, whether we think of ourselves in particular or the Church in general, than that we should be aware of heresy. Take the New Testament, take the history of the Christian Church, or take individual Christian experience, and you will see that true doctrine is always urgently relevant. It is of supreme importance for the whole life of the Church. The Holy Spirit is the power in the Church, and the Holy Spirit will never honour anything except His own Word. It is the Holy Spirit who has given this Word. He is its Author. It is not of men! Nor is the Bible the product of ‘flesh and blood’. The Apostle Paul was not simply giving expression to contemporary teaching or his own thoughts. He says, ‘I received it by revelation’. It was given to him, given to him by the Lord, the risen Lord, through the Holy Spirit. So I am arguing that the Holy Spirit will honour nothing but His own Word. Therefore if we do not believe and accept His Word, or if in any way we deviate from it, we have no right to expect the blessing of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will honour truth, and will honour nothing else. Whatever else we may do, if we do not honour this truth He will not honour us.
This is surely one of the major problems in the Church at the present moment. Everyone is aware of the fact that the Church is lacking in power. The leaders are trying to seek the cause of this in order that they may discover how to remedy it; and apparently, they are all jumping to one conclusion, namely, that the cause of our lack of power is found in our divisions. So we must all come together. That is the argument. The divided Church is the cause of the trouble, and so the argument follows that if only we all come together we shall be blessed, we shall obtain the missing power, and tremendous things will happen. But how are we to come together? One believes this, another believes that. The main trouble, we are told, is that some put far too much emphasis on what one believes. Surely, they say, we ought to recognize that the one thing that matters is that there are great common enemies against us, for example, Communism, so we must all come together, all who call themselves Christian in any shape or form. We are all one; why divide about these things? We must all come and stand together as Christians, and then we shall have power.
We read about these things constantly in the newspapers. Some are rejoicing because Protestantism and Roman Catholicism are drawing nearer together. ‘What does the past matter?’ they say, ‘Let us have the right spirit, let us come together, all of us, and not be concerned about these particularities.’ I have but one comment to make about this matter, and I regret to have to make it. To me, all such talk is just a denial of the plain teaching of the New Testament, a denial of the Creeds and the Confessions and the Protestant Reformation! It is carnal thinking, in addition to being a denial of the truth. According to the teaching of the Bible, one thing only matters, and that is the truth. The Holy Spirit will honour nothing but the truth, His own truth. But that, He will honour.
To me the most marvellous thing of all is that, the moment you come to such a conclusion, you realize that in a sense nothing else matters. Numbers certainly do not matter. But today the prevailing argument is the one that exalts numbers. If only we all got together and formed a mammoth World Church! Some would even extend that idea further and bring in everyone who believes anyhow in God. They talk about the ‘insights’ of Mohammedanism and Hinduism and Confucianism, and dream of all who believe in God uniting against a godless, atheistic Communism. The present, they say, is no time to be dividing on these small, irrelevant differences of belief, the result of which is that we are dividing our forces and become ineffective. I can only comment: What a tragic fallacy! What a tragic failure to understand the basic elementary teaching we are given here in Ephesians about the wiles of the devil!
To explain this matter further I use an analogy which seems to me to be an apposite one at the present time. I am not concerned about its political aspect; but look at the condition of the Labour Party in this country at the present time. People say, ‘There is no Opposition today, there is no “Her Majesty’s Opposition”.’ This is due, they say, to the fact that the Party’s members are all divided into groups and factions. They argue with one another, and they will carry no weight until they settle their internal differences and all speak with one voice. Now, when you are talking about a political party, that is absolutely right. Political parties can do nothing unless they have a majority. Political parties function in terms of majority rule. However right what they believe may be, if they cannot command the votes they will not be able to form the Government; in fact, governmentally they will be paralysed. Obviously they must get together and try to achieve unity so that they will command votes and increase the possibility of forming a government.
But this argument is not only wrong, it is dangerously wrong, if you relate it to the realm of the Christian faith. The whole Bible testifies against it. The glories of Church history protest loudly against it. The Christian position is entirely different. Here, you do not begin by counting heads, you are not concerned primarily about numbers and masses. You do not think in that way. You are in an entirely different realm. Here, the one thing you think of primarily is your relationship to God! Over against the modern faith in numbers we must say with an American of the last century, William Lloyd Garrison, ‘One with God is a majority’. God has come in, the everlasting, the almighty, the eternal God! It is the power of God that matters. And the moment you realize that, the question of numbers, as regards men, is comparatively irrelevant and unimportant.
Nothing matters in the spiritual realm except truth, the truth given by the Holy Spirit, the truth that can be honoured by the Holy Spirit. Is there anything more glorious in the whole of the Old Testament than the way in which this great principle stands out? God often used individual men, or but two or three, against hordes and masses. Is there anything more exhilarating than the doctrine of the remnant? While the majority had gone wrong, the ones and the twos saw the truth. Take a man like Jeremiah. All the false prophets were against him. There is a man who had to stand alone. Poor Jeremiah — how he hated it and disliked it! He did not like being unpopular, he did not like standing on his own, and being ridiculed and laughed at, and spat upon, as it were; but he had the truth of God, and so he endured it all. He decided at times to say nothing, but the word was like fire in his bones, and he had to go on speaking it. Obloquy and abuse were heaped upon him, but it did not matter; he was God’s spokesman and God’s representative. Similarly Moses had to stand alone when he came down from the Mount where he had met God. To stand in isolation from one’s fellows, but with God, is the great doctrine of the Old Testament in many ways. And it is emphasized in the New Testament also.
Is it not amazing that people should forget the Scriptures and past history? Look at the Early Christian Church. From the standpoint of the modern argument the position was ridiculous. The Son of God goes back to heaven and leaves His cause in the hands of twelve men! Who are they? No one had ever heard of them. We are told about the authorities of Jerusalem that they noticed that they were ‘ignorant and unlettered men’. Incidentally, they added that they had been ‘with Jesus’. They did not see the significance of that fellowship. What they saw was ignorant and unlettered men, and only a handful of them at that! A mere handful of men in a great pagan world with all the Jews against them, and all the authorities! Everything on earth was against them.
I do not understand that mentality in the Christian Church today which says that we must all come together and sink our differences; and that what we believe does not matter. It is a denial of the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, and of the story of the twelve ignorant, untutored and unlettered men who knew whom and what they believed, and who had the power of the Spirit upon them, and who ‘turned the world upside-down’. This is surely one of the central messages of the Bible. The great concern of the New Testament Epistles is not about the size of the Church, it is about the purity of the Church. The Apostles never said to the first Christians, ‘You are antagonizing people by emphasizing doctrine. Say more about the love of God and less about the wrath of God. They do not even like the Cross, and they cannot abide the story of the resurrection! Drop that talk about the wrath of God and Christ’s ethical teaching!’ Not so do the Apostles speak!
There is an exclusiveness in the New Testament that is quite amazing. The Apostle Paul writing to the Galatians says, ‘Though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached, let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:8). ‘My Gospel!’, says Paul writing to Timothy. He denounces other teachers. So many of these modern preachers are much nicer people than the Apostle Paul! They never say a word against anyone at all, they praise everybody, and they are praised by everybody. They are never ‘negative’! They never define what they believe and what they do not believe. They are said to be ‘full of love’. I am not misjudging them when I say that that is not the explanation. The explanation is that they do not ‘contend for the truth’, they are innocent concerning the ‘wiles of the devil’. It is not for us to decide what to leave out and what to drop for the sake of unity. My business is to expound this truth, to declare it — come what may! We must not be interested primarily in numbers, we must be interested in the truth of God. Why are many today denying the glory of the Protestant Reformation? Martin Luther — one man, standing against the whole Church — would be dismissed today as ‘just an individualist who never cooperates’. But he stood up and said in effect, ‘I am right, you are all wrong!’
Without realizing it the moderns are dismissing Luther as a fool, and as an arrogant fool, because he stood alone. But why did he stand alone? There is only one answer. He stood alone because he had, seen the truth of God, and had known and experienced the blessed liberation it brings. He had seen the light and had also been awakened to ‘the wiles of the devil’. When a man sees this truth he has no choice. He does not force himself to stand alone. He does not even want to do so; but he can do no other. As Luther said, ‘Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God!’ And God did help him. Of course He did! God will always honour His truth and the man who stands for it. Of course such a man will meet criticism and sarcasm and derision; much mud will be thrown upon him. But that does not matter. The man who continues to stand, and who is ready to die for the truth of God, will have ‘the peace of God that passeth all understanding’ in his heart and mind. He will say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me’. He will ‘know both how to be abased, and how to abound; how to be full, and how to be empty’. He will be able to hold on his way quietly, steadily, knowing that God will vindicate His own truth sooner or later. As an individual he may be spat upon and trampled upon, or even be put to a cruel death. But God’s truth ‘goes marching on!’ It will be vindicated, it will be honoured by the Spirit; and he knows that ultimately, beyond this temporary, passing world, he will hear the most glorious words a man can ever hear, ‘Well done, thou good and faithful servant’. There is nothing beyond that — to have the Almighty God and our blessed Lord looking down upon us and in effect saying, ‘While you were in the midst of all the confusion, you preached the truth; you stood for it in spite of everything — Well done!’
Heresies always result from the wiles of the devil, the efforts of the principalities and powers. Are your eyes open to it? Do you realize the relevance of all this to you as a member of the Christian Church? Are you being carried away by this loose, general, sentimental talk? God forbid that any of us should ever say that it matters not what you believe as long as you are a Christian. May God open our eyes, and having given us to see the truth, then enable us ‘to be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might’. ‘Take unto you the whole armour of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil.’