If you grew up going to Sunday School in the nineties, when you think of “the armor of God” you might picture the little gray, plastic suit of armor that was stashed in the back of your closet. I had that suit of armor, and I’m guessing many of you did, too. It was a quintessential teaching tool to help kids understand and apply Ephesians 6:10-17.
When you think about it, the passage itself is dark — it speaks of cosmically evil forces, answering the question, “How does a Christian wage war with sin and even Satan himself?” Two decades after retiring my plastic suit of armor, the question remains as important as ever.
As followers of Jesus, we find ourselves in the strange world of “already, not yet.” We are already redeemed by the blood of Jesus, an act theologians call justification. But we are not yet perfect. We’re still growing in His likeness, which is a lifelong journey called sanctification. One day, we’ll experience glorification – an eternity of wholeness and perfection. But for now, we live in the in-between. We’ve been set free from sin, yet we still feel its effects. In other words, the war still rages, and we stand on the battlefield whether we realize it or not.
In calling Christians to actively fight sin, Puritan author John Owen famously wrote, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.” Those words, penned more than three hundred years ago, are as true today as they were in the 1600s. The problem is, too often we strive to kill the wrong thing. We direct our fight against that which seems to be killing us – stress, work, relational angst, politics. It’s estimated that revenue from the self-help industry will average $13 billion by 2022. That’s a lot of self-help! And it reveals the sad reality that humanity recognizes its brokenness, but doesn’t know how to fix it.
The truth is we cannot help ourselves, no matter how much society suggests otherwise. For in the words of Ephesians 6:12, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” Our struggle is not against spouses or low self-esteem, stressful schedules, or unfair bosses. These difficult aspects of our lives are merely symptoms of the true problem: we live in a broken world, ruled by spiritual powers of darkness. We could no sooner solve this problem by treating the symptoms, than we could cure cancer with a warm blanket and a bowl of soup.
Rather, our greatest fight against spiritual darkness is to fight for good. This is why Paul urges us to fight for truth. For love. For mercy. For justice. We wage war against evil by vehemently pursuing good.
A couple months ago, I noticed one of my friends wasn’t on Instagram. When I asked him why, he casually said, “Oh, it wouldn’t be good for me.” He told me he would only be interested in following gym profiles, since he loves working out. But he knew that endless photos of fit girls wouldn’t be helpful for his walk with Jesus. So he never set up an account.
That’s what it looks like to kill sin before it kills you. But hang on — don’t give my friend too much credit, because he’d be the first to tell you that the power to kill sin doesn’t come from him. Look closely at Ephesians 6:10-20, and you’ll notice Paul sandwiches the Christian’s fight against sin with an exhortation to depend on God. He opens by writing, “Be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power” (Ephesians 6:10). Paul closes in the same vein, turning our attention to prayer: “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me.”
Rely on God. Rely on His power. This is Paul’s plea for any Christian waging war with spiritual darkness, including himself. Cover everything in prayer, Paul urges — pray for yourself, pray for me, pray for all God’s people.
It’s interesting to note that this text was originally written to a church body. In this sense, the Christian’s fight against sin is both individual and collective. Analogously it works, for a soldier alone on the battlefield is a soldier destined to die. We need one another for accountability, encouragement, prayer, and exhortation. We need the church to point us to Jesus again and again. Martin Luther tells the story of his church members coming to him and saying, “Why do you continue to preach the basic tenets of our faith each week?” to which Luther famously replied, “Because week after week you forget it.”
So do we.
Oh, that we would be wise to recognize our constant need of the gospel. Of the church. Of prayer and desperate dependence on God so that we may be able to “withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm” (Ephesians 6:13).