Growing in Christ
By His death on the cross Jesus triumphed over the forces of evil. He who subjugated the demonic spirits during His earthly ministry has broken their power and made certain their ultimate doom. Jesus’ victory gives us victory over the evil forces that still seek to control us, as we walk with Him in peace, joy and assurance of His love. Now the Holy Spirit dwells within us and empowers us. Continually committed to Jesus as our Saviour and Lord, we are set free from the burden of our past deeds. No longer do we live in the darkness, fear of evil powers, ignorance and meaninglessness of our former way of life. In this new freedom in Jesus, we are called to grow into the likeness of His character, communing with Him daily in prayer, feeding on His Word, meditating on it and on His providence, singing His praises, gathering together for worship and participating in the mission of the Church. We are also called to follow Christ’s example by compassionately ministering to the physical, mental, social, emotional and spiritual needs of humanity. As we give ourselves in loving service to those around us and in witnessing to His salvation, His constant presence with us through the Spirit transforms every moment and every task into a spiritual experience. (1 Chronicles 29:11; Psalms 1:1, 2; 23:4; 77:11, 12; Matthew 20:25-28; 25:31-46; Luke 10:17-20; John 20:21; Romans 8:38, 39; 2 Corinthians 3:17, 18; Galatians 5:22-25; Ephesians 5:19, 20; 6:12-18; Philippians 3:7-14; Colossians 1:13, 14; 2:6, 14, 15; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18, 23; Hebrews 10:25; James 1:27; 2 Peter 2:9; 3:18; 1 John 4:4.)
Can you imagine being invited by an Adventist friend to a weekend workshop on prayer and discovering it was actually an exorcism? And then becoming aware demons were being exorcised from everyone—and you were next! This was my experience in Perth a few years ago.
During the theory component of the presentation, it was asserted that most of our physical, relational, financial and health problems were caused by lingering demonic influences. It was an unusual introduction to the topic of prayer, but I stuck with it. Satan is indeed god of this world (2 Corinthians 4:4) and he does indeed have his evil angels out to trip up God’s servants (1 Peter 5:8).
However, the presenter also made some further outlandish claims. This included a suggestion that by utilising highly ritualised blessings we too can obtain material prosperity. He said this was why Jews were so rich compared with most Christians; God blessed Jews for their rituals, even though they didn’t believe in Jesus as Messiah.
Nonetheless, it was the second, practical part of the workshop—group prayer sessions—that shocked me most. There were a number of aspects I had never witnessed in any Adventist prayer meeting.
First, the praying was long to the point of exhaustive.
Second, our group’s facilitator seemed to have powers of a seer or medium. The participant would mention some traumatic incident and the facilitator would reply with, “The Spirit is telling me yes . . . or no.”
The “problem” always related back to demons, with sensational claims being made: a bad back was caused by a demon associated with a grandfather’s involvement with Freemasons; a child was acting out at school because his conception occurred from an extra-marital affair and he had become possessed as a foetus in the womb; a smoker was trapped by a generational curse; a son was estranged because the participant was raped by her own father, causing the grandfather’s personal demon to somehow transmit to the grandson.
Third, the facilitator would name, bind and cast out the demon associated with that “problem”. The facilitator would utilise highly ritualised words, which curiously the participant had to repeat exactly, although the words seemed essentially made-up to me. Meanwhile, others in the group prayed in “glossolalia” (“in tongues”). I might be especially dull-witted because it was only at this point that it suddenly dawned on me—I was in an exorcism!
Fourth and finally, with the demon cast out, the “demonised” person was declared “clean”. The participant was then told they should now be pain-free; their child would be better behaved in school; they wouldn’t feel like another cigarette; or they could expect their son to call the next day.
By the last session of the workshop, only one other participant and myself in the group had not undergone this “cleansing” ritual. Both of us made it politely clear we would not be participating.1
It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in demon possession. As a Seventh-day Adventist I do strongly believe in the great controversy, with its emphasis on fighting forces not merely of flesh and blood (Ephesians 6:12). I wasn’t so concerned with them taking a demon out, as much as them putting a new one in (Luke 11:25)!2
Fundamental Belief #11 was introduced in 2005 in response to concerns from Adventists in developing nations within the “10/40 window” who requested a statement on spiritual warfare.3 Yet, given my experience outlined above, I wonder if it is we in the West who are most in need of this guidance?
It seems Western Christians are caught between two extremes, which CS Lewis long warned about: those scientific-sceptics who deny the existence of Satan and his fallen angels; and conversely, those who imagine a demon behind every tree.4 Of that latter group, it seems we Westerners now lack the practical discernment of our non-Western friends5 when it comes to different models of so-called “deliverance ministries”.6
The key lesson for me from the workshop was potential Christian naivety (Matthew 10:16). There were a surprising number of long-standing Adventists in attendance, as well as a number of newish converts. It wasn’t that those involved were completely wrong. It was more a sense of deep foreboding, as in watching well-meaning amateurs getting in over their heads. It reminded me of the sons of Sceva, who used Christ’s name as a magical talisman against demons—but failed (Acts 19:13-16). “Our only surety is in giving no place to the devil . . . . It is unsafe to enter into controversy or to parley with him.”7
Far from shying away from all forms of deliverance ministries, this workshop highlighted to me the need for our Church to become more involved, lest our people seek out Pentecostal-run programs, like the one I experienced. Other Adventist theologians agree.8 Our own well-trained leaders are best placed to embrace a more biblical model of spiritual warfare that addresses the sorts of concerns I witnessed, other scholars have highlighted9 and our own General Conference has long recognised.10
For example, an emphasis on generational sins highlights God’s curse to the third and fourth generation (Numbers 14:18). Yet, what I witnessed in the program was the opposite of freedom as Adventists would biblically understand it. As reflected in new Fundamental Belief 11, we hold that in Christ we have “freedom from karma” and supposed multi-generational impacts (Ezekiel 18:3, 4, 20).11 [pullquote]
Similarly, we certainly can be moved by the Holy Spirit in our dealings with others (Acts 11:12). Yet what I witnessed in the actions of these medium-facilitators seemed the opposite of Adventist understandings as reflected in our newest fundamental belief: “The indwelling of the Holy Spirit excludes the need for the role of the internal voice of spiritual guides in human experience, as taught for instance in the New Age Movement” (Leviticus 19:31).12
We know baptised Christians can continue to be harassed by demonic forces: Christ addressed Peter as Satan (Matthew 16:23); and even Jesus Himself was harassed by the devil (Matthew 4:1-11). Yet harassment need not equate to possession and the solution for a practising Christian need not be some elaborate exorcism. Our new fundamental affirms the principle that “Jesus simply kicked them [demons] out by the power of His word, without the performance of rituals or the use of traditional formulas” (Matthew 8:16).13
Similarly, persistent, petitioning prayers are encouraged (Luke 18:1-8). Yet, made-up rituals that are arduously long, highly repetitive and use wholly manufactured liturgies, are quite contrary to Adventist understandings as affirmed in our newest fundamental, as a claim to freedom from “superstitious beliefs” (Matthew 6:7).14
The Bible does ascribe various ailments to demons (Matthew 17:14-18). Yet, coming from a denomination that emphasises medical evangelism, I wondered how many of the workshop participants also needed a more mundane solution to their problems (James 2:15-17), quite possibly from a trained medical professional?
Finally, the workshop illustrated to me the very real danger of almost flippant overconfidence in seeking template-ascribed quick-fixes to complex human problems. Justification, in being saved in our sins, can be attained in an instant and is meant to be easy: “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (Romans 10:13).
By contrast, it is in sanctification, in being saved from our sins, that you must “work out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). This is not legalism, as it is God who works in us—not simply our own efforts (Philippians 2:13).
But we do ourselves and others a disservice when we make the Christian journey sound easy. Sometimes it isn’t. Satan often makes life harder, not easier, once we accept Jesus
(2 Timothy 3:12).15
Christ in fact promised His closest followers death (Mark 10:39; John 21:20-22)! That sounds very depressing until one realises struggling in your faith doesn’t mean you’re a failure—it means you’re normal.
I cannot say I’ve ever been tested to that level and, to be honest, I hope I never am. However, I do struggle, I do have doubts, I do get depressed and I do have fears of not reaching some imagined standard of Christian excellence. I can have assurance of my salvation through justification today, but that’s not to say my Christian experience through sanctification tomorrow will be all happy smiles. Certainly not while living in a world Satan still controls.
In my own life, I find it important to be realistic, noting that growing in Christ is like a race. The race, of course, can be won in Jesus, but it isn’t a sprint—it’s a marathon (1 Corinthians 9:25; 2 Timothy 4:7). “Sanctification is the work of a lifetime.”16 And it’s definitely not a weekend workshop.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer who attends Livingstone church in Perth, WA.