Are we preaching the full gospel?
In the Great Commission, Jesus told his disciples, ‘Go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’ (Mt 28.19).
On the back of that, sometimes a pastor might face an accusation which goes something like this: ‘In Matthew 10, Jesus told the twelve to heal the sick, raise the dead, cleanse those who have leprosy and drive out demons. If Jesus taught his disciples to do that, why aren’t we doing those things and teaching Christians to do the same? You are not preaching the full gospel. You are being disobedient to Jesus’ command.’
That’s quite a charge against a servant of God. It can be very hurtful and damaging. And often it is presented as an open and shut case. ‘This is what Jesus says and you are not doing it – end of discussion.’ How are Reformed churches and pastors who do not see ‘deliverance’ as part of the gospel message to respond to this?
Let me suggest something of a Biblical framework to bring to bear on this question.
In his Studies in Theology, B. B. Warfield has a fine essay on ‘Christian Supernaturalism’ in which he explains that belief in the reality of the spiritual and invisible world ‘constitutes the core of Christian profession.’
We believe in a supernatural God, who has revealed himself in Scripture which has come about via supernatural means under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. We believe in the supernatural incarnation of the Son of God as a human being. We believe his person and purpose were accredited by supernatural works of power. We believe in his resurrection, brought about not naturally but supernaturally. We believe that the new birth is a birth ‘from above’ – something supernatural has happened to us if we are Christians. We believe in the reality of angels, the devil and his demons. We believe in a future supernatural intervention in this world when Christ returns in judgment and to usher in a new heavens and earth.
In other words, we can’t be Christians without believing in the supernatural. So it is not at this level that we have any quarrel with those who would insist on the necessity of deliverance ministries today. So, where do we demur? A number of points need to be considered.
The symptoms of demon possession in Scripture
It is usually particularly in connection with demon possession that people think of ‘deliverance ministry’. The first question must therefore be how to diagnose such a thing. What are the marks or symptoms of someone being possessed by a demon?
If we are not clear about this, then we place ourselves in the hands of those who see demons in everything and around every corner and because they operate using their own discernment, they are effectively not accountable to anyone. This is extremely dangerous. It is an open door for spiritual abuse. In Warfield’s essay on supernaturalism, he argues that both the denial of the supernatural and an over-emphasis on the supernatural lead to people being misused and abused. Atheistic regimes have their concentration camps, while the extremes of pagan worship end up sacrificing children to placate their deities. Hence, we need to be very sure of what we are about here. We must be guided by Scripture.
In the Gospels, as Jesus meets those who are demon possessed the marks are very obvious. These include the following: a violent reaction to the presence, name and teaching of Jesus (Mk 1:21-28); preternatural strength which is difficult or impossible to control (Mk 5:4); a change of voice as the demon speaks (Mk 5:9); violence against themselves of other people (Mk 5:5; Mk 9:17, 20). It is interesting that when the Syro-Phoenician woman comes to Jesus to ask him to deal with the evil spirit that is afflicting her daughter, the daughter is not with her. This may well have been because the daughter was usually kept at home for her own safety and the safety of other people (Mk 7:30). A return to ‘his right mind’ was the sign that the demons had been expelled from the man who lived among the tombs (Mk 5:15).
We must be clear that although the devil is involved in all sin, demon possession is a distinct category. Peter fell into sin in denying Jesus, but there is no indication that he was demon possessed. But Satan had entered Judas (John 13:27) which turns him determinedly against Christ and leads to his self-destruction (Mt 27:5). However, suicidal thoughts, on their own, are no indication of demon possession. Moses, Elijah and Jeremiah all went through phases in which they wished they could die. Again, having an addiction or besetting sin does not seem to be a mark of demon possession in Scripture. Jesus speaks of the possibility of someone who keeps repenting sinning against you seven times in a day (Lk 17:4), but there is no indication that demon possession is the problem.
So, let’s be very clear about what demon possession looks like according to the Bible and not be taken in by those who are too keen to see the dramatic in church. The Scriptures have painted the symptoms for us in vivid colours.
The frequency of demon possession in Scripture
The assumption of those who think that the church ought to be regularly involved in a ministry of casting out demons today seems to be that the occurrence of demonic possession is the same now as in the days when Jesus was here on earth. But the witness of Scripture should cause us to rethink that assumption. Even within Bible history the amount of demonic activity shows large variations.
Once we leave behind the sad story of the Fall in the garden of Eden, although there is evidence of demonic activity of various kinds (e.g., Dt 32:17; Job 1-2), it is hard to find any direct reference to demon possession in the Old Testament. King Saul’s bouts of depression are seen as being ‘tormented by an evil spirit’ (1 Sam 16:14, 15), but it is not certain that was a case of demon possession. Again, perhaps it could be argued that the witch of Endor who was sinfully consulted by Saul was demon possessed, but that is in no way made clear.
What is made very clear throughout the OT is that demons and even Satan himself are under the control of the Lord (1 Ki 22:21-23); Job 1:12; 2:6). This is very reassuring for all believers.
But once we come into the New Testament with the incarnation of the Lord Jesus Christ, we are suddenly confronted with what seems to be a vast epidemic of demon possession (Mk 1:27, 34 etc). Such were its proportions that the Lord Jesus, of necessity, had such a frequent ministry of exorcism that his enemies accused him of being demon possessed himself and that he cast out demons through the prince of demons (Mk 3:22). If Jesus came to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn 3:8) and his arrival on earth was the signal for the final battle to begin, then it is not surprising that a great deal of Satanic activity would follow, including such things as demon possession.
With our original question in mind, it is worth noting that the disciples were sent on their mission, including being given authority to cast out demons (Mt 10:8), during the time of this particular upsurge, when the powers of darkness were stirred up and in turmoil because of the presence of the Saviour (Mk 1:24 etc).
It is also worth noting that though the Lord Jesus did cast out demons (and indeed heal the sick) his primary calling was always to preach the good news of the kingdom (Mk 1:37-39). Preaching was his priority, and exorcism occurred only as a consequence. There are no public meetings in Scripture held specifically with an agenda of healing or exorcism. Such things only occur incidentally.
Once we leave the Gospels behind, after Jesus has died, risen and ascended, we find a curtailing in the occurrence of demon possession. The Gospels cover a period of around three years and have many references to demon possession (especially in the Synoptic Gospels). But the book of Acts covers a period of some thirty years and has relatively few references to demon possession. Furthermore, as we read through the NT epistles, we find that the apostles give no instructions to the churches concerning how to carry out exorcisms. They did not expect it to be a central part of the programme of the churches. So, the assumption that demons, under God’s sovereignty, are just as active today as they were in Gospel times must have a very large question mark against it.
Christ’s victory over Satan and his demons
In the Gospels the devil and his demons are seen as the great enemies of Jesus and of the kingdom of God.
Jesus has come to destroy the works of the devil, and his exorcisms are the first step in his defeat of Satan. Devils being cast out is a sign that the kingdom of God is present, Luke 11.20. Further, the Lord Jesus, in these exorcisms, is binding Satan (the strong man) in order that he might plunder his possessions (Lk 11:21, 22). He demonstrates that he is stronger than Satan.
Satan’s key concern in the wilderness temptations is to deflect Jesus from his mission of establishing God’s kingdom. Peter’s misguided rebuke of Jesus concerning going to the cross is seen as a strategy of Satan (Mk 8:33). The cross is the climax of the devil’s downfall. At Calvary, in procuring atonement, Jesus will strike a such mighty blow against Satan that it will be impossible for him to recover.
Colossians 2:15 states concerning Christ, ‘And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ Keith Ferdinando comments:
The presupposition behind the text is…that the ‘principalities and powers’ are able to afflict humanity as a consequence of human rebellion: they are essentially parasitic upon sin, which would explain the underlying purpose in temptation. When Christ makes atonement for sin their power is also broken as a logical but secondary consequence, and those enslaved by them receive not only forgiveness but also, by the very same act, redemption from that power.
Interestingly, John’s Gospel (written later than the Synoptics) contains no example of Jesus exorcising demons. However, it is John’s Gospel which makes explicit the defeat of the devil at the cross. As he speaks of his impending passion, Jesus says, ‘Now is the time for the judgment of this world; now the prince of this world will be driven out’ (Jn 12:31; cf. 14:30; 16:11).
The last step in Satan’s destruction will occur when Christ returns in judgment and the devil is thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:10).
Once we see this pathway to Jesus’ final victory over the devil, we can understand why we are not to expect the same volume of demonic possession as was current during the earthly ministry of Jesus.
The Son of God is in heaven, not on earth, until he returns. That trigger that particularly stirred up the powers of darkness has been removed. The kingdom of God has arrived, not in its fullness but nevertheless in reality. The vital bridgehead against Satan’s realm has been established. The cross has ensured victory over Satan. He is bound as never before.
Many interpreters understand Revelation 20 as speaking of the gospel-age during which Satan is imprisoned until just before the end. His is activity is truncated. And even though he is to be released for a short period before the end, that is seen not so much in terms of demon possession but as bringing deception on the world and persecution of the church (Rev 20:7-9).
Jesus did tell his disciples to teach God’s people everything that Jesus had taught them. But that needs to be understood in the light of the cross, which has changed everything.
We would be overstepping the mark to conclude that there are never to be any examples of demon possession today. No doubt such things still happen among those brought up in cultures and cults in which spirits are invoked. But to expect the church to be involved in a ministry of exorcism parallel in size and scope to that of the Lord Jesus would be to deny what Scripture teaches concerning Christ’s defeat of Satan and his demons.
In particular, in the light of the Saviour’s victory, Scripture furnishes us with not a single example of a Christian being demon possessed, nor should we ever expect such a thing.
 Keith Ferdinando, ‘Screwtape Revisited: Demonology Western, African and Biblical’, in The Unseen World: Christian Reflections on Angels, Demons and the Heavenly Realm, ed. Anthony N. S. Lane (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1996), 128.