At first, I didn’t believe there would be much appeal to a book of this sort. As Christians navigate the churning waters of our culture, it is all too easy to drift toward a cold rationalism on the one side or the bland mysticism on the other. What space is there for a book on spiritual warfare in an age such as this?
I was wrong. I brought Spiritual Warfare in the Storyline of Scripture: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach by William F. Cook III and Chuck Lawless to a training session with fellow chaplains and was met with countless comments and inquiries. “Where did you get that book? I thought I had read every book on the topic!” “You know, I’ve been thinking about spiritual warfare a lot recently.” “Every day feels like a pitched battle!”
Why the widespread interest? I get the impression that as the comforts of Christian culture are being steadily supplanted by the crucible of Christian living, we are becoming more aware that our battle is “not against flesh and blood” (Eph. 6:10-20). And there might not be a better book to start exploring this matter than the book at hand.
The structure of Spiritual Warfare is simple and accessible—most of the book is a survey of the theme as it appears throughout Scripture. The approach of Cook and Lawless to spiritual warfare is more organic to the text and less systematic. This approach allows the Old Testament to stand on its own, despite the paucity of direct references to Satan and demons, instead of being relegated to a systematic footnote. It also heightens the drama as the reader transitions to the New Testament and the unseen world of demonic forces is suddenly flooded with light. Simply by following the storyline, the authors allow the natural crescendo of God’s redemptive purposes to come to the fore.
The authors most fully hit their sermonic stride in the Pastoral Epistles and Revelation. Their exposition of the close of Second Corinthians and the classic text of Ephesians 6 are riveting. These portions alone are worth the price of the book. They also manage to continually edify the reader through the book of Revelation without stepping on any doctrinal landmines.
What truly rounds out this volume and ends it on a satisfying note is the pastoral wisdom found in the last several chapters. Dealing with subjects like the local church, evangelism, missions, family, and leaders, the authors move this book firmly out of the academy and into the pews of the church. Gems appear like “the primary task of the spiritual warrior is not to know Satan well—it is to know God so intimately that Satan’s counterfeit becomes more obvious by contrast” (204-205). As a whole, this book does just that by drawing the reader to Jesus even as it speaks of Satan and demons.
If a critique may be offered of this helpful work, the organic passage-by-passage survey makes it easy to miss the forest for the trees. The reader is carried through so many Scripture passages in straight succession that it is easy to forget key themes or see how some of these passages connect. Attempts are made after large swaths of Scripture to summarize key points, but repetition throughout the chapters would probably more effectively keep the reader focused on key themes.
While this book was not meant to be a systematic discourse, perhaps there could be a middle way between the organic and systematic approaches. Why not take a given phase of redemptive history—say, the earthly ministry of Jesus—and treat it thematically with sections on Satan’s attributes, demonic activity, etc? The reader is still led through the contours of redemptive history, but with a little more literary hand-holding.
I also wonder if it would be more useful to disperse all of the pastoral wisdom at the back end of the book through the survey of Scripture. What if many of those were presented as sidebars alongside relevant sets of passages? They might provide a slightly jarring moment of reflection that gives the reader a breath before diving back into the text.
Spiritual Warfare is not only a valuable resource in general, but it is especially timely for this cultural moment. As much as we play up the increasingly “spiritual” nature of contemporary culture, we must admit that it is a neutered spirituality, offering platitudes rather than power. We no longer use reason to deny the spiritual realm, but psychology. For the young man struggling with pornography, a concept like “sex addiction” is used to describe his problem rather than talking about spiritual warfare.
Yet there is something about the topic of spiritual warfare that adds a greater gravity to the struggle against sin. The person who finds that her mundane struggle is drawn up into the greater apocalyptic battle between Satan and the King of Kings will find herself more willing to fight. This book calls believers to set their eyes upon Jesus and take up arms.
This book is not ideally suited for the seminary classroom. It does not belong as much in the hands of our ministers as the hands of our people. It should be at the top of the list for Sunday School classrooms and small groups. It would also be a helpful tool for older believers as they disciple younger believers. This is church-oriented theology at its finest.
Several fellow chaplains have purchased this book since I brought it to our training. They need a book like this. I need a book like this. Chaplains work to spiritually prepare soldiers to give life and take life without losing their soul. This book will further equip Christians as a whole to fight against far more than flesh and blood, grounded in the shed blood of Christ and for the greater glory of our God.
Stephen Roberts is a US Army chaplain and has written for The Washington Times and The Federalist.