Four Warnings For Christians Engaged In Spiritual Battle

Four Warnings For Christians Engaged In Spiritual Battle March 14, 2024

In my last post on Deuteronomy Chapter 7, I discussed the three reasons the Bible gives for why God ordered the destruction of the Canaanites. Those reasons were: 1) to prevent the Israelites from intermarrying with pagan women, which 2) would lead to false beliefs about God, i.e., to idolatry, which 3) would, in turn, lead them to participate in abominable practices and behaviors. In this post, we will look at four warnings God gives to His people prior to the battle over Canaan. These warnings come in light of Israel’s pending victory over the Canaanites. However, they are warnings for all of God’s people, to include Christians today, for they are universal in nature and scope. As such, any time we experience some form of victory in our lives, or are called to spiritual battle, we must remind ourselves of these four things. To fail in any one of them, is to fall away from God and languish in faithless disobedience. With every spiritual victory, there is always the opportunity for loss.

The Four Warnings of Deuteronomy 7-10

In his commentary on Deuteronomy, Jeffrey Tigay lays out the main content of chapters 7-10. In this section, Moses is preparing the Israelites for war. He does this first by referring back to the Law given at Mt. Sinai (Horeb):

Moses now turns to specific laws, beginning with the first issue that Israel will face when it enters the promised land: what to do with the Canaanites….They [the laws] prompt four chapters of exhortation based on them. This is a characteristic feature of Deuteronomy: laws are accompanied by explanation, reflection, and exhortation; the proper attitude in observing the laws is as important as the laws themselves.

Tigay, Deuteronomy, 83

God has given the Israelites an extensive set of laws and regulations so that they might carry out His will in the right way. God has not been vague or ambiguous as other immaterial but non-divine gods (i.e., fallen angels) are toward their people. However, in spite of God’s clarity and transparency with the Israelites Moses must remind the “stiff-necked” people that they are susceptible, like any other people group, to disobedience and depravity. This disobedience can be to the letter of the law or to the spirit of it. The “proper attitude in observing the law” being “as important as the laws themselves.” As such, Moses must exhort the Israelites:

The exhortations prompted by the opening laws deal with dangers to faith and obedience that might arise during or after the conquest of the land: fear of a numerically superior enemy; the lure of the Canaanites’ idolatry…the sense of self-sufficiency that might result from prosperity and might lead Israel to forget its dependence on God…and the mistaken feeling that the conquest is a proof of righteousness.

Tigay, 83-84

It is these four dangers: the fear of great odds, the lure of idolatry, the sense of self-sufficency in light of victory, and the feeling of self-righteousness that are real and present dangers for God’s people throughout history, regardless of time, place or culture.

Warning Number 1: The Fear of Great Odds

The first warning Moses gives to the Israelites is not to give into fear of the strength of the enemy:

It was not because you were more numerous than any other people that the Lord set his heart on you and chose you—for you were the fewest of all peoples. It was because the Lord loved you and kept the oath that he swore to your ancestors, that the Lord has brought you out with a mighty hand, and redeemed you from the house of slavery, from the hand of Pharaoh king of Egypt.

Deut 7:7-9

One thing to note about this passage is the concern of both higher and lower criticism, namely, how can Israel be considered “the fewest of all peoples” when in other sections of the Torah the numbers given in relation to the Israelite population are, to say the least, extravagant (see Exod 12:37; Num 1:46, 2:32)? It is not my concern in this article to engage with this apologetical issue. For a short, fair treatment of the varying interpretive options see here.

What matters instead is the divine warning about fear in light of daunting circumstances. As I have written elsewhere, fear is the worst basis for any decision making in life. While the Israelites, given their smaller numbers, may have experienced fear at the prospect of attacking nations superior in numbers, and well fortified and supplied; that fear should have been mitigated by the number and type of miraculous wonders God had already performed on their behalf.

For Christians today, this same principle holds. Even though we no longer carry out physical warfare, at least not in any religiously relevant sense (the conquest of Canaan being a unique event in salvation history), we do carry out spiritual battles. Our warfare is, as Paul states in his letter to the Ephesians, of a spiritual nature (cf. Eph 6:10ff). And, being spiritual, our weapons are spiritual.  In Romans, Paul refers back to the Exodus from Egypt, from physical slavery to physical liberation, to explain the spiritual life in Christ:

12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.

For the Christian, it is our liberation from sin, eternal death, and the Satan that Christ has already won on our behalf that prevents us from falling back into a spirit of slavery and of fear. Thus, no matter how great the odds may seem at overcoming evil in our lives, or how difficult it may appear to conquer a particular pattern of sin, or even how hopeless our witness to God’s salvation in Christ may look in lieu of a real, pervasive and aggressive rejection by the culture, still we need not be afraid. For we know that God has already given us victory in the spiritual realm, and that no weapon forged against us, human or inhuman, can prevail.

Warning #2: The Lure of Idolatry

As discussed in the last post, the main reason for God’s harsh command to annihilate the Canaanites was the lure of idolatry. Idolatry relegated strictly to the realm of false belief is not itself a sufficient condition for destruction. However, false beliefs, especially about God, rarely remain in the realm of the abstract. They manifest themselves in concrete behaviors and actions. It is evil acts that ultimately warrant divine destruction, or, at least, the desire to do them even if one is incapable of carrying them out physically.

In Deuteronomy 7:16, God makes it abundantly clear that the Israelites are no different than the Canaanites in their susceptibility to idolatry:

You shall devour all the peoples that the Lord your God is giving over to you, showing them no pity; you shall not serve their gods, for that would be a snare to you.

The fundamental problem with idolatry, either in worshipping other beings as if they were God, or in the making of false images of the one and only God, is that they both lie about ultimate reality. In lying about what is ultimately real, they keep us from that which is ultimately Good. In keeping us from that which is ultimately Good, namely God, they keep us in bondage to that which is less than Good and, ultimately, destructive to us.

The first form of idolatry does this by literally luring human beings away from their Creator to some other created being. The second does so by subtly introducing representations of God that are not accurate and, in not being accurate, also lead us astray from truth. We start to make mistakes about who God is, and, as is the universal norm, perpetually turn God into something or someone more like ourselves (e.g., the “Old Man in the Sky” or “The Big Guy upstairs”). Calvin speaks about this universal problem with mankind, a problem stemming from our common fall from grace:

And daily experience shows, that the flesh is always restless until it has obtained some figment like itself, with which it may vainly solace itself as a representation of God. In consequence of this blind passion men have, almost in all ages since the world began, set up signs on which they imagined that God was visibly depicted to their eyes.

Calvin, The Institutes of Christian Religion, 1:11.8

Elsewhere, Calvin calls the human mind a “perpetual forge of idols.” A former professor of mine talked about the soul as being like glue, any object we look out upon sticks to it and it immediately starts to fashion that thing into an idol. For Christians, the lure of idolatry is the lure away from Christ. For it is Jesus Christ alone who is the perfect, physical image of God (cf. Jn 12:45; Col 1:15-20; 1 Jn 1:1-3).

Warning #3 The Sense of Self-Sufficiency

The last two warnings are about temptations more subtle than the fear of great odds or falling into idolatry. These are deeply internal and psychological temptations. The first is the sense of self-sufficiency that can emerge in the mind of a man who has overcome a great obstacle, especially a spiritual one. In Deuteronomy 8 God warns Israel that once victory is attained and the promised land, the land “flowing with milk and honey,” won, the Israelite will quickly forget the means by which the victory occurred:

For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with flowing streams, with springs and underground waters welling up in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley, of vines and fig trees and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey, a land where you may eat bread without scarcity, where you will lack nothing, a land whose stones are iron and from whose hills you may mine copper. 10 You shall eat your fill and bless the Lord your God for the good land that he has given you.

11 Take care that you do not forget the Lord your God, by failing to keep his commandments, his ordinances, and his statutes, which I am commanding you today. 12 When you have eaten your fill and have built fine houses and live in them, 13 and when your herds and flocks have multiplied, and your silver and gold is multiplied, and all that you have is multiplied, 14 then do not exalt yourself, forgetting the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery, 15 who led you through the great and terrible wilderness, an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions. He made water flow for you from flint rock, 16 and fed you in the wilderness with manna that your ancestors did not know, to humble you and to test you, and in the end to do you good. 17 Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gained me this wealth.’ 18 But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth, so that he may confirm his covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

Tigay comments:

The lessons taught in the wilderness will not be apparent in the promised land, where Israel will lack nothing. In prosperity Israel’s dependence on God will be less obvious, and once its own efforts begin to succeed Israel might imagine that all its new wealth is due to those efforts. It must therefore keep in mind what it learned in the wilderness, always remembering that prosperity depends on God.

Tigay, Deuteronomy, 93

There is hardly a more real temptation than this one: for Christians to think that once a task is complete, an obstacle overcome or a challenge faced, that is was in virtue of some power or capacity of their own that the thing was done. Jesus taught of the daily need to remind ourselves that God is the source of all blessing when He taught his disciples how to pray: “give us this day our daily bread” (Matt 6:9-13). Throughout the Church’s ecumenical history there have always been ascetic practices: fasting, prayer, the forgoing of sensate pleasures, for the sake of avoiding this very temptation, to think of our achievements, our goods and our successes as independent of God and His good will. The end of this temptation is always pride, and every instance of pride inevitably leads to defeat. Whatever victories were won in Christ are easily lost in our denial of His providence and grace.

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Final Warning: The Feeling of Superiority

Finally, Moses reminds the Israelites that they will be tempted to see in themselves something special, especially in relation to their foes, when they occupy the land:

When the Lord your God thrusts them out before you, do not say to yourself, ‘It is because of my righteousness that the Lord has brought me in to occupy this land’; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you. It is not because of your righteousness or the uprightness of your heart that you are going in to occupy their land; but because of the wickedness of those nations that the Lord your God is dispossessing them before you, in order to fulfill the promise that the Lord made on oath to your ancestors, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob.

Know, then, that the Lord your God is not giving you this good land to occupy because of your righteousness; for you are a stubborn people.

Deuteronomy 9:4-6

Tigay comments:

The Israelites realize that God would not drive out the Canaanites undeservedly. But they must not draw the conclusion that being chosen to replace the Canaanites proves they, in contrast, are virtuous…As far as the Canaanites’ defeat is concerned, the Israelites would be correct to attribute it to the Canaanites’ wickedness. God’s justice is a cardinal tenet in the Bible, and the point is made several times that God did not deprive the Canaanites of their land arbitrarily but because of their morally outrageous practices…But…Israel has not earned the right to succeed them.

Tigay, 97-98

This final temptation in spiritual warfare is a tremendous one: to think of oneself as somehow inherently superior to others because they are wicked sinners and I, or we, are saved. Believing one is saved by anything other than God’s grace is not only a surefire sign that one is not actually saved, but it is often a means to very depraved ends. This Manichean tendency, to see some as elect by nature while others are damned by nature, has plagued the Church throughout its history. Jesus, however, was clear about what kinds of creatures we are prior to grace, as well as after our reception of saving grace:

‘Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, “Come here at once and take your place at the table”? Would you not rather say to him, “Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink”? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? 10 So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”’

Luke 17:7-10

When all is said and done, there is nothing that any sinner saved by grace can point to other than the one who did the saving. Moreover, whatever the Christian does in service of Christ, regardless of how intense the spiritual battle he or she is involved in, she is merely performing what she is obliged to do. As James R. Edwards points out in his commentary on this parable:

Conformity to God’s will does not lead to thoughts of ‘extra credit,’ self-merit, or entitlement, but to humility; not pride, but to joy!

Edwards, Gospel of Luke, 481

In sum, any spiritual battle that the Christian engages in will be met with one or all of these challenges: the temptation to be afraid, to be lured into idolatry, to believe in one’s own power and strength, and to see oneself as superior to other sinners. But these are all attacks by the enemy, and, as such we need to constantly be aware of them, so as to not fall into his trap.

About Anthony Costello
Anthony Costello is an author and a theologian. He has a BA in German from the University of Notre Dame (1997), an MA in Apologetics (2016) and MA in Theology (2018) from Talbot School of Theology, Biola University. He has published articles in academic journals such as Luther Rice Journal of Christian Studies and the Journal of Christian Legal Thought. In addition, Anthony has made chapter contributions to Evidence that Demands a Verdict, edited by Josh and Sean McDowell and has published several articles for magazines such as Touchstone and made online contributions to The Christian Post and Patheos. Anthony is a US Army Veteran, former 82D Airborne paratrooper and OEF veteran. You can read more about the author here.
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